Did you hear that? The sound of a hundred thousand authors — practicing, as well as aspiring — all making their New Years resolutions together? For the countless books and stories which are planned to be written? And the billions of words?
If you’re like me, you’re old enough to know that resolutions seldom, if ever, work. In fact, there is clinical psych data indicating that resolutions actually tend to backfire, more than they help. Mostly because people confuse what can be achieved, with what they dream, and they also don’t account for the fact that a successful, long-term plan must contain enough elasticity and down time to make up for the inevitable dry spells, bad days, derailed schedules, and life drama that interrupts diets, fitness regimens, writing routines, and any number of other well-intended projects that need regular attending-to.
First, let’s talk about the chief derailer: confusing what is possible, with what is ultimately desirable. This sounds easy on the surface, but we’ve all screwed this one up. It involves not thinking carefully about what each of us can actually control, versus what we cannot control. What Stephen R. Covey called our sphere, or circle of influence.
For instance, a writer might say, “In 2016, I am going to publish ten stories and two books, and make the bestseller list!” That sounds like a very worthwhile and ambitious list of goals. On the surface. But let’s consider the components.
If you’re thinking trad pub, can you really set out to publish two books and ten stories? Your editor hasn’t said “yes” to them yet. What if you don’t even have an editor? What if you’re going in through the slush like most of us did in the old days? You can’t force your way to a contract. So, it’s better to tweak that wording a bit. “I will write and finish two books, and ten stories.” You might even say, “I will write and finish and submit two books, and ten stories.” All of which are achievable, because these are things under your control.
“Ah,” I can hear you thinking, “but what about indie published authors?”
In the era of self-publishing, deploying a book or story into the marketplace is easy. Nobody has to wait for an editor to say yes. But even if you’re indie publishing, you have to dig deeper still, and ask, “Does my daily, weekly, and monthly routine actually give me the time and the head space in which to accomplish this ambitious plan?” A question that applies regardless of whether or not you’re indie, versus traditional.
Lastly, the part about making the bestseller list . . . it’s entirely beyond your control. You can control how much time you put into writing each day, or each week, or each month. But making a bestseller list, no matter if you’re trad pub or indie pub, is not something you have any ability to decide. You can want it. You can wish for it. But it’s not something you can cause to happen. Therefore, it’s not a goal.
Because you should only set goals which are in your circle of influence — within your reasonable ability to effect.
It’s a bit like watching a pro bodybuilder on TV, then vowing, “I will look like that at the end of the year!” Terrific. But do you have the time to spend 3 hours in the gym every day? Do you have the money to be able to afford the massive amounts of specialized protein and supplements? Are you actually disciplined enough to change your exercise and your diet enough to achieve the end results? Is your body healthy enough to withstand the punishment? What if you’re compensating for an existing injury or health issue?
So, whatever your ultimate stated goals are, it’s important to consider the practicalities of your specific situation, and shape your objectives so that they aren’t immediately beyond your grasp, simply because your circumstances prevent it. Some facts of life are flexible, and where things can be flexed for the better, they should be. But some facts are not. Knowing what can be flexed, and what cannot, and constructing your goals to account for both, is a huge part of ensuring your year-end review (on December 31) is a happy one — that you’ve achieved everything you wanted, and perhaps a whole lot more.
To that end, large objectives must be broken down into small objectives. Books aren’t (usually) written overnight. Just as nobody gets a beach body in one day, much less one week. Completing a book — or having a beach body — means looking at where you are now, then looking at where you want to go, and developing a set of incremental goals to help get you there. Like breaking your book up into word-count blocks, or taking it on in chapters, or phases of chapters; just like someone trying to lose weight ought to focus on only doing one pound a week, or maybe three pounds a month. You can’t lose it all at once. So you lose it a little bit at a time.
But be clear: your incremental objectives must be measurable. Whatever it is that you’re trying to do, you have to have some kind of metric. For fitness people, it’s often inches, or pounds, or kilos, or calories. For writers, it can be x-number of words per day, or per week, or x-number of chapters per week, or per month, etc. Know what you’ve generally been capable of in the past, and make your incremental goals sensible. Ambition is good. Ambition is the mother of excellence. But over-ambition is folly, and can crash and burn you quickly if you try to do too much, too soon. So be reasonable with your self-expectations. And don’t be shocked when you struggle.
Which brings up the second factor: elasticity. Nobody eats like a fitness pro 365 days every year. Not even the fitness pros, with their 6% body fat, sculpted abs, glorious biceps, and tight butts. Also, nobody exercises 7 days a week, either. Trying to go 7 days a week, every week, whether it’s writing, or exercise, isn’t really necessary. Anticipate down time. Build in days where you rest. Give yourself buffer space for inactivity. Because even if you think you don’t need the breaks, life always has a way of forcing you to take breaks regardless. Could be a health issue. Could be the kids, or their issues. Could be a marital thing, or a job thing, or any sort of life drama that interrupts your plan. You’re gonna need to press the pause button. Make sure your scheme of incremental goals has space for this.
SIDEBAR: some kinds of life drama will overwhelm you so much, you literally can’t plan for them. Nobody plans to have a serious car accident, or a heart attack. But everybody has a certain amount of drama each year. Your past experience can guide you, as to what you can expect, so use that experience to shape your calendar.
And yes, I highly advise developing and keeping a calendar for yourself. Either paper, or digital. You need to be able to track how you’re doing — with a visual recording system that tells you where you’ve been, where you are now, and how much you’ve still got to go. You may even want a scalable calendar system, that allows you to zoom in or zoom out. Because staring at a giant wall calendar, with the whole year in front of you all the time, might be overwhelming. So keep it rolled up, for quarterly assessments. Focus instead on a single month at a time. Heck, focus on a single week at a time, if that’s what works for you. You’re not eating the side of beef in one meal. You’re doing it a sirloin steak at a time. Again, the key is to track progress, and record activity. Days on, days off, and so forth. If you catch yourself taking too many days off, your calendar will tell you, and you can correct for it. Likewise, keeping record allows you to feel the satisfaction of attaining (or surpassing) those incremental goals — which is key to achieving the big goals, like finishing books, or losing a substantial amount of weight.
Going hand-in-hand with tracking, you should also build a rewards system into your regimen. For fitness folk, this often takes the form of a “free day” wherein the ordinary dietary rules don’t apply — that triple-Whopper with cheese can be a good motivator, if all you’ve been subsisting on for two weeks is celery, carrots, grilled chicken, and protein shakes. Writers, too, can create “free days” for themselves. Whether it’s taking a deliberate break upon completion of the first 30,000 words of a 120,000 word novel. Or having a material reward for completing x-amount of chapters; like a romantic night out with the spouse, or splurging on some new music, or maybe new clothes, or a new video game? Only you will know what kinds of things cause anticipation. It can be almost anything you want.
But . . . you have to have the discipline to deny yourself, up to the point you actually make your incremental goal.
Otherwise, rewards are worthless — just as trophies-for-all are worthless. It’s not a prize, if you get the prize even for failing.
Speaking of failure, you have to go into your new year realizing that you will fail. You will miss incremental goals. You will miss days. Not always because life got in the way, but often because you just flat-out didn’t feel like it. Failure is part of this whole process. Failure should not be feared. Failure should not trigger panic attacks. Because the only real way to fail, is if after you’ve let yourself slide, you allow that failure to sabotage your enthusiasm for getting your ass back into gear.
POINT OF EMPHASIS: This is the climb of a thousand mountain steps, not a flat sprint. If you stumble — and you will — halt your skid, catch your breath, put your hands back on the railing, and start back up again. This will happen over, and over, throughout your year. Skid, halt, return to the climb. Skid, halt, return to the climb. The last part is the most important. Because successful people — in any arena — are the ones for whom no amount of skidding is ever sufficient to defeat their internal resolve to go one step higher than the last time they fell down.
Print that and tape it up somewhere: Successful people — in any arena — are the ones for whom no amount of skidding is ever sufficient to defeat their internal resolve to go one step higher than the last time they fell down.
And yes, inertia sucks when you’ve fallen down. Your mind and your body and your spirit will look up through the mists of the mountain — seeing the endless steps — and they will each say in unison, “Nope!” That’s when you, as the captain of your soul, have to quietly brush yourself off, re-tie your shoes, take a few chugs off that water bottle, maybe eat half a trail bar, and get back to work. Don’t even think about how much ground you may have lost. That doesn’t matter. All that matters is going one rung higher, than the highest rung you’ve achieved so far. And then, going to the next rung. And the next. And the next.
It helps if you can surround yourself with like-minded people, generally going in the same direction. It also helps if you can have friends and family who will happily cheer you on, and make accommodations in their lives so that you can have the room to maneuver, so as to meet your goals. Many a regimen has been derailed by paying too much attention to cynical voices — especially those that come from the inside. Many a program has also been derailed by saboteurs: people who matter to us, but who — for whatever reason — also say and do things that undercut the positive inertia we’re trying to foster in our lives.
If you’re in that place — dealing with a saboteur — you might be looking at making changes well above and beyond mere regimen. You might simply have to take yourself away from that individual, or those individuals. Change your social group. Get rid of the people who are thieving your power. And I am not talking overturning the apple cart for the sake of trivial pique. No. If you’re genuinely looking across the table every day, at somebody who constantly undermines you, you’ve got a serious decision to make. Maybe it’s time to have a heart-to-heart? Where you emphatically explain the how and the what of this person’s sabotage — with an expectation that the sabotage stop. And if a heart-to-heart isn’t sufficient . . . maybe it’s time to reconsider whether that person — those people, no matter how important to you — are worth your effort?
Hard choices, no question about it. But we all get just this one life to live. Some of us emerge into adulthood crippled by damage: from families that didn’t know how to nurture, nor ever figured out how to properly love us. We may replicate those damaged (and damaging) relationships in our adult friendships, marriages, etc. If this is where you are — if you feel hung up at this level — then your first order of business is to seriously and deeply assess just what it is you need and want from those relationships, and whether or not the people involved can be realistically expected to change for the better; assuming you disclose what needs to be disclosed, and get everything out in the open, for a proper reckoning.
Having said all this . . . don’t be a selfish prick. Because artists are famous for being selfish pricks. Don’t do that. Don’t be that jerk. Other people have needs too, just as they have lives. Your objective is sustainable symbiosis. Not demanding that everyone else in your world change, so that you can swan about, lamenting the fact you’re still not free enough to create the way you were meant to create. That’s myopic, as well as pretentious. Taking care of yourself also means taking care of the people you love — especially the ones who depend on you. Or, as Stephen Barnes said, forcing your family to starve for your art doesn’t make you a great artist, it just makes you an asshole. Don’t be an asshole. Flex, as you hope to be flexed for. Give, as you hope to be given to. Balance things out. Look for the good, even in difficult situations. Be generous. The (good) karma bank is a thing. I promise. It will repay you, sometimes in dramatic and delightful ways.
And for God’s sake, please, have a sense of humor!
Almost nothing will help you more, than being able to laugh at the whole thing. Especially when the going gets particularly tough, and you might be looking at yourself in the mirror each morning with scorn carved into your expression. It’s not the end of the world. Really, it’s not. Shit happens. It happens for everybody. The difference between you, and that successful person you dream of one day being just like, is that you never see even a tenth of that person’s shit. You see all of your own shit. You live with it every day. You never see that other person’s shit. But it’s there.
Laugh at the shit. Laugh with the shit. Laugh through the shit.
Just don’t let the shit stop you from putting your ass back in gear, and moving forward again. Always, forward. Every step you take forward — even if you’re dragging yourself — is a step in the right direction. It’s a step toward accomplishment. It’s a step toward being who you want to be, and where you want to go. It’s putting one more yard between yourself, and that train wreck you just had. Take ten steps, and you’re a hundred yards from the train wreck. Take a hundred steps, and the train wreck is fading well into the distance. Don’t sit down in the train wreck and hide your face in your hands. Don’t let the train wreck make a liar out of you, where your stated purpose and objectives are concerned.
Get up again. Get going. Get through it. Move ahead. It’s not too late. To whip it. Whip it good. 😉
So, to recap:
1) Distinguish between goals, and dreams. A goal is within your circle of influence, and can be objectively measured in some way.
3) Break up big goals into small, incremental goals.
4) Plan for down time, and build elasticity into your regimen.
5) Make and keep a calendar system, so that you can record and monitor progress.
6) Use rewards, and be disciplined enough to not cheat.
7) Shit happens; plan for setbacks, and prepare to move forward despite them.
8) Get the people in your life on the same page with you, or get yourself on the same page with the right people.
9) Don’t be a selfish prick; pay good coin into the karma bank.
10) Have and use your sense of humor.
Finally, many authors — just like everybody who ever wanted to be fit and healthy — are acquainted with the taste of ashes. This past year, whenever anyone has asked me how I became a working, publishing author, I’ve told them that it was many years of frustration, rejection, feeling like a failure, being wholly unsure of myself, and always wondering whether or not I was even capable of doing what it was I said I wanted to do. Until, one day, I got my first acceptance. And then not long after that, I sold my second piece. And life began to quickly get better. The “popcorn” began to pop. But before that? Lord, it was bleak. There were long stretches where I seriously felt like I was wasting my time. I don’t feel that way anymore. But I still get frustrated, get down on myself, and have doubts.
For those times when it all seems like too much, I have a specific story that I like to listen to. It’s called “The Wall” by actor Geoffrey Lewis. I’ve posted the link to that story below. It’s well worth listening to, if you’ve never heard it before. Turn the lights low. Put on your headphones. Make sure nobody will bother you for about 15 minutes. Listen to the story. Understand what it’s trying to tell you. I think you’ll find it makes a difference.