Obey or Be Destroyed: A Guide to Bending Yourself to Your Will

Last week, I was chatting with some friends and lamenting my lack of progress on my latest edits for Blood and Ebony, my Snow White retelling. I had a self-imposed deadline for it that was coming up fast, but I wasn’t getting much closer to being done. I was frustrated with myself because I’m normally pretty good about making myself keep my own deadlines.

And then it hit me: the reason I wasn’t feeling any motivation on this project. I’d given myself a deadline, but I hadn’t affixed a punishment to it. I hadn’t assigned myself a consequence.

It can be hard sometimes to feel like a professional in this trade, especially if you’re not making a working wage and claiming tax exemptions and putting out a new book every two months. Any given project is less likely to make me a dollar than it is to make me yell at my kids because, oh my giddy aunt, how can they always tell when I’m trying to work and know the perfect way to ruin it? *clears throat* Anyway, if the rest of the world isn’t treating you like a professional, it can be hard to think of yourself that way as well. But that kind of thinking can easily nudge writing a little lower on the pecking order of what gets our time and attention and before you know it, you’ve blown half of your project time and aren’t any closer to your goal.

There are lots of ways to combat this struggle. For me, I respond unfortunately well to looming punishment. I assign myself terrible consequences and—here’s the important part—I follow through on them. I once confidently told my friends that I would have a story to them by a certain date and declared that I would run a mile for each day I was late. Yeah. I was eleven days late. I hauled my non-runner-rear down to the track and ran eleven miles in one go, fueled entirely by determination and high fructose corn syrup. It hurt so badly I worried I’d damaged something, and I was wincing and limping for days. But I haven’t missed a deadline since.

Now I’m not suggesting you immolate yourself in retribution for dropping the ball once in a while. (Seriously. Please don’t damage yourself.) But I am suggesting you find the things that motivate you. By leaning into the things that you love/hate, you can amp up the motivation to do a thing that maybe isn’t quiiiite as high on the to-do list as it should be all by itself.

So if this sounds like something that might help you hit those goals a little harder, here are a few ideas for coming up with your own system of rewards and/or punishments.

What is your goal?We’ve talked about making smart goals here before, but just for a very brief recap, make sure your goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound (aka- has a deadline). Maybe you want to finish an editing pass, or write a single chapter, or enter a short story in a contest. Knowing exactly what you want to do and how you’re going to do it is the first step. Always have a goal. (And when you attain it, make another one! Onward and upward!)

What do you love? These things make excellent rewards. Pick a thing that you really want, or that you really want to happen, that you won’t just go out and get/do for yourself regardless of whether you hit the goal. Just make sure that it fits the size of your goal. Promising yourself a vacation to the Caribbean every time you draft a new scene isn’t very sustainable.

What do you hate? These things make excellent punishments. Pick a thing you don’t want to happen, and that is an appropriate punishment for the crime, but is still mild enough that you’ll actually go through with it. Maybe do a hard workout, or pledge a small donation to a political party you despise, or go sing on karaoke night, or whatever you wouldn’t normally do. But if you won’t hold yourself to it, don’t assign it. Make yourself miserable, but not so miserable that you flake out.

What is a reasonable deadline? As Goldilocks would surely tell us, you don’t want a deadline that’s so ambitious that you have to stop feeding your dependents to achieve it, or so lame-sauce that you won’t have to worry about actually working on it until it’s time to retire. Instead, pick a deadline that’s juuuust right: challenging, but possible if you put in a balanced amount of work.

Who can help you stick to it? Not everyone needs this part. Some people have all the grit ‘n’ gumption they need to make it happen no matter who is or isn’t watching. But then again, not everybody can just will themselves to follow through with their rewards or punishments. If you’re one of those people, grab a buddy! Writing pals, parents, partners, whoever—let them know of your task, your deadline, and what they’re to pressure you into doing at the end of it all.

Once you answer these questions, bring all the elements together into A Plan. Your plan, and those looming consequences shadowing it, will give you that extra burst of motivation to hit that goal out of the park. I know it works for me every time.

After pinpointing my lack of consequences, and therefore lack of motivation, my friends stepped in to help. In short order, they had assigned me a nightmarish punishment (they will deprive me of my ancestral right to piri piri sauce and high quality olive oil and instead make me watch a musical—a musical, people *shudders*) and then—poof!—just like magic, I suddenly had all the motivation in the world.

Keeping My Writing Shop Organized

We writers have a lot to keep track of. Just pretending for a moment that we don’t have jobs, homes, and humans who like to see us more than once a year, we still have to keep on top of our own goals, deadlines, submissions- oh yeah, and writing. How’s a person given to flights of fancy supposed to keep up with it all?

With endless lists and calendars, that’s how! This week, I’ll give you a quick tour of how I keep myself organized- I, who am in all other aspects of my life incredibly disorganized. What follows is a list of… well, my lists. You’ve probably seen some of them over the years already in other lists about fostering story ideas, keeping track of writing goals, and making sure I don’t submit to the same story to the same agent three times. But here they all are together for the first time, sisters in arms! Huzzah!

 

Goal Tracking

Rejections Goal Checklist– Posted on a little white paper directly over my laptop on my desk, this thing is perpetually in my face. I have tiny checkboxes for all the rejections I want to garner over the year, divided out by the months of the year so I can keep track of how I’m doing for time. As I get rejections back, I check the box, write in what’s being rejected by who, and then note it in my submissions master lists (see below).

Annual Resolutions Checklist– This lives on a white board posted over my desk. I list out all my longer-term writing goals, including how many rejections I want, how many edits, how many first drafts and how far out the blog posts need to be scheduled. This is always right in front of my face when I’m at my desk, which is often.

Daily Checklist– This one is full of all the other things I do throughout my day (chores, work, errands, etc), but I also keep short term writing goals on there too. The ones currently most pertinent to my writing current are daily writing goals, daily backshop time, and agents/ short story publishers I want to submit to in the near future. This list is synced between my phone and my computer, and I see it several times every day.

 

Submissions Tracking

Short Stories Submissions Master List– This is a word doc with a table for every short story I have ever finished. It notes where I’m subbing, the editor, the date, when I can expect a response, and what that response was; I also list any new places I want to sub the story to in the future. Other tables list which stories have which rights available, and which stories have been published when and where.

Agent Submissions Master List– This is a word doc with a giant table for each story I’ve queried to agents. The table lists the agent, agency, website, MSWL, query packet contents, query date, expected response time, and finally, what that response was. As I find new agents that I think would be a good fit, I put them in the table, assembling batches of between five and ten before sending them out en masse.

 

Date Tracking

Rolling Monthly Calendar– I have a whiteboard calendar that lives on the wall above my desk. I keep track of everything on this calendar, making note of meetings, work, church activities, blood donations, you name it. A good chunk of the things on this calendar are writing related: submission deadlines, books to betas dates, when I want to send out another batch of queries, stuff like that.

Important Dates List– If I have an important date that I know about, but it’s too far out in the future to make it on the rolling calendar, I put it on the whiteboard next to the calendar (the same board with my annual goals checklist). Whenever I’m rolling my calendar forward, I always check to see if I’m getting close to any important dates.

Blog Post Schedule– I know I’ve talked about the blog posts before, but I’ll mention it again. At the head of the document is a table where I keep my posting schedule. It lists all the dates for usually three months, the title of that week’s post, and a checkbox for when it goes live. Additional notes and the drafts themselves follow this table.

 

Idea Tracking

Story Ideas Master List– I have a brain like a sieve in a sink. Ideas are constantly gushing into it, and then flowing right back out again. If I don’t write an idea down immediately, odds are good it’s going to be gone forever. So I always keep pens and paper with me for jotting things down on the go, and then as soon as I get in front of my computer, it goes up on this google doc.

Book Blurb Master List– This is the newest of my lists. I historically kept blurbs floating around in several places (and in several different forms) and I had to really hunt to figure out where they were. But I recently got them all pulled together in one place, and updated all the ones in need of a little polish. I have blurbs for everything I’ve written at least a full draft for, and have notes on which draft the story is in and an estimate of how close it is to a queryable state.

 

And there you have it! This is how I keep my backshop organized. I probably have more lists floating around that I’ve just forgotten about. Love me some lists. I’ll probably need an intervention soon. The only problem with all this organization is that I know precisely when I’ve blown a deadline and how badly. (Sorry, betas. I swear, it’s coming soon.)

Happy writing!