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.

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Why Am I So Bad At Goals Whyyy

So this post was originally intended to be a halfway-into-the-year check in on my writing goals. Due to some scheduling issues, we’re a bit past the midpoint, but I’m doing it anyway. Because deadlines are for mortals, which is a response that probably will give you a lot of insight into the way my goals are going so far this year.

The short answer is that I’m doing awfully. At everything.

My reading goals were progressing beautifully until summer struck and then all bets were off. I didn’t read a single book over the entire summer that wasn’t for work, and it was difficult to squeeze even that much in. *claws at own face* I can’t live like this.

Giving myself more leeway on short story writing maaaay have been a mistake because I took that leeway as an excuse to do next to nothing. I have written two short stories so far this year. Two.

Editing is likewise a giant sinkhole so far this year. I just started editing Blood and Ebony about a week ago and have made it about halfway through the first chapter. And… that is all. Yikes. Zero down and three to go.

And I guess I started my one new draft of a novel, but realized about halfway in that it’s terrible and has some plot holes you could fly an Airbus A380 through and I have no interest in finishing it before the year is out. So… back to square one on that, I suppose.

My rejections goal for the year is currently sitting at fifteen of my forty-eight rejections, which is terrible in and of itself, but made exponentially more terrible by the fact that that is all. I have nothing more currently on submission right now that counts toward this goal. So unless I get my rear into gear, that number is going to stay at fifteen. At the beginning of the year, I had intended to have all the subs out that I needed for the entire year (plus a little extra under the assumption that some will be accepted) by the end of September, giving those rejections time to trickle in over the rest of the year. Yeah. Not happening. This goal is so far sitting at flaming-airplane-wreck-two-minutes-before-takeoff level of fail.

Soooo… yeah. That’s where I’m at.

But I have excuses. Do you wanna hear my excuses? Please?

My biggest excuse is that a few of those probable rejections turned out to be acceptances—and on pretty big projects, too. On top of my having normal day jobs, I’ve been working on these projects, steadily, daily, for about three months now and it’ll be at least another month before they’re all completed. It’s taking up nearly all of my free time.

Other excuses have been of the much less fun family emergency variety. Just this summer we had a string of chicken tragedies and three unique medical emergencies. (Unless we want to count each of my son’s complications as their own thing. Ah, dog bites. The emergency that keeps on emerging.) These things take time, and they also take brain power. I can’t work very effectively if I’m worried that my husband might need surgery (still a possibility) or that my son might lose an eye (off the table—whew!).

So, yeah. I’m still going to get myself as close to those goals as possible before the end of the year. I think I can catch up on the reading goal without too much fuss. Just two more short stories would put me above what I managed for last year, so that will have to be good enough. Editing might get trimmed back to just one book; if I really turn this thing around, maybe two. I’ll get about half of a first draft in November and try to finish the rest of it in December, so that one is still in the realm of possibility. But the rejections goal will definitely have to come down; I just won’t know exactly how much until I finish up these other projects. We’ll see.

All in all, I’m trying not to beat myself up too badly. I’m doing my best and I’m not just being lazy, so that’s a definite win in this game.

How about you fine readers? How are your literary endeavors going so far this year? Any wins to report? Any fails that could use some cheerleading? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Reading with a Goal

GoalMy family doesn’t really need excuses to make fun of each other. But I left myself wide open for it when I mentioned my reading goal for the year to a brother- the goal in which I’m trying to read twenty-four books, at least half of which are nonfiction. He thought it was a little ridiculous to even keep track of my reading like that, let alone to have goals for what I’m reading and how much. Didn’t I graduate like a zillion years ago?

Of course, I didn’t respond with my reasons for such a goal. I insulted him instead. This is family secret code for: “You are wrong, but I love you anyway.” As the conversation progressed, he conceded that probably anything that involved reading was a good idea and we chatted about good books we’d read lately. Mockery is just our knee-jerk reaction to everything, even when we agree.

But I don’t think he was alone in his initial reaction- seriously, why would someone want to keep track of their reading? Especially someone who does a lot of reading anyway? (Which, in America, apparently means like more than four books a year. *weeps for my people*) Well, hypothetical naysayer, let me tell you!

For any of this to make sense, I’m going to have to delve into specifics. In the New Year post, I stated that I wanted to read twenty-four books, at least half of which were nonfiction. But there’s a bit more to it than that. (Nobody likes dweebs, but bear with me here.)

For nonfiction, I give myself a pretty free hand to read whatever I want, which usually ends up being a lot of history, foreign culture, and science, although I do like to lob some linguistics and anything to do with corpses in there for fun. All well and good.

My fiction goals get a little more finicky. Of course, I let myself read a book if I really really want to. I mean, I work in a library. I would go bonkers if I didn’t grant myself some leeway. But of the twelve fiction books I hope to read this year, at least eight of them will be in genres I am actively writing in. Of those eight, four will be classics- the books everyone has heard of and loves, the sort of books that show up in college courses about this genre- and four will be published within the last five years. At least three of the twelve books will be Own Voices (but ideally it would be more like six or up), and at least six of those twelve books will highlight a group or culture beyond my own (Christian, non-disabled, white, female, etc); ideally the Own Voices three-or-more and the not-about-me six line up, but I’m giving myself a little leeway and here is why:

While I definitely support Own Voices and better representation in stories, it gets a little blurrier when it comes to a person’s gender, sexuality, beliefs, and maybe some other categories too. I don’t feel like it’s any of my business to try to figure out whether the author is or is not a part of whatever marginalized group they’re writing about to see if a story is Own Voices or not because, while I absolutely want to get in a character’s head, that’s pretty private business when it comes to the author. If I’m not comfortable asking a person these questions face to face, and wouldn’t be comfortable with someone asking me, I don’t really feel right internet stalking someone to try and find out. If it’s super out in the open, I’ll probably come across it and chalk it up as Own Voices, but I’m generally not going to go digging for that information. That said, I’m still figuring these waters out and would love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments!

Okay, so: twelve nonfiction; eight fiction in my genre (four classics, four newbs); six diverse fiction (minimum three Own Voices); and a little wiggle room because I have low impulse control. I chose these proportions carefully. I would be super duper happy to just read any old thing, but I’ve ordered my reading this way in the hopes of fostering my own writing and broadening my understanding of the human family and the world in which we live.

The reading within genre obviously has benefits for my writing. But so does the nonfiction. I get tons of writing ideas from reading nonfiction. Plus they’re just fun! And sparking my curiosity in one aspect of my life always feeds it in other aspects; any creative act- playing music, building, crafting, cooking- has been shown to foster creativity in other aspects of life as well. And reading outside of my socioeconomic group not only fuels my creativity and human empathy, but also helps me to write those characters more realistically as well.

Really, I could probably do any reading at all and it would be good for my own writing (as well as my soul) in some way. But by choosing what I read more thoughtfully, I can not just have fun, but improve myself and my writing too. Fun!

And if my doofus brother can’t see that, then too bad for him. 😛

Happy 2019!

resolutions*flings confetti* Wahoo!

Another year down and I haven’t managed to overdose on lemon sandwich cookies and kimchi brine yet! *fist pumps* Man, 2018 had a lot of madness and utter rubbish, but here we are with another shiny new year. Let’s not screw this one up, guys!

All things considered, last year wasn’t too embarrassing as far as resolutions go. I got pretty lazy on my health goals, but that’s somewhat to be expected, given how lowly I prioritize my own well being. (Stop that, Jill.) But other than that, things weren’t too shabby.

Numbers-wise, I hit my reading goal, and with a couple extra books besides; I even hit the stipulation that half of them be nonfiction! I did write up two new first drafts (Copper and Box of Bones) but only managed to edit one first draft into a second (Sacrifice); but I knew from about October onward that this would be the case, so I’m trying not to beat myself up about it too much. (Because man have I got excuses for the tail end of this year.) Sadly, I totally faceflopped on my goal to write twelve short stories by writing a grand total of three. *sad trombone* But in a shocking turn of events on the last day of the year, I actually hit the rejections goal! *soccer stadium cheer* I even managed one extra rejection (yay?) for a total of forty-nine.

Honestly, for my writing stuff, I think I’ve about maxed out my productivity in my current stage of life. So I’m pretty much just setting a repeat on last year’s reading, writing, and publishing goals, with just a few minor adjustments.

Once more, I’d like to read twenty-four books, with half of them being nonfiction. This year, I’m planning on leaning a little more heavily toward the editing side of things since I have about a million first drafts lurking around my hard drive; I hope to edit three ugly early drafts (probably Blood and Ebony, Quicksilver Queen, and A Cinder’s Tale, but I’m flexible) and to write one first draft of something new over the course of the three NaNo sessions. I’m also reining back on the short story drafting, just letting those evolve on an as-needed basis without a specific goal in mind. And I’m sticking with my forty-eight rejections for the year goal because, augh it hurts, but it seems to be working for me.

So that’s it! I’ve broken each of these goals down into quarterly, monthly, and daily goals to help keep me ticking along a little more smoothly (and maybe eliminate the need for New Year’s Eve miracles, haha). So I have a plan. Let’s see how badly I wreck it!

How about you guys? Any big writing resolutions? Or little ones? Let me know- I’d love to chat! Happy New Year and happy writing!

Making SMART Goals

1002400711 Fort Fourth_22I love me a shiny New Year. And I love making a new set of goals. But here I sit, New Year’s Eve, and I haven’t quite come up with my goals yet. This is a bit of a role reversal for me, since me husband already has all his goals stated and written down, with a plan for how to chase them down.

Me? I’m still wandering around in the weeds. I usually make one overarching goal each for several aspects of my life, and then break them down into monthly or weekly goals, so I’ll probably do something like that.

In my endless quest to consume the entire internet (spoiler alert: it’s not going well, they keep making new stuff), I came across an article recently about making SMART goals. Maybe you’ve heard of this already, but just in case you haven’t, here’s the breakdown:

Specific Goals shouldn’t be a fuzzy, be-a-better-person sort of aspiration. Give yourself a clear direction with a well-defined endgame. Making the goal to “get good” at the tuba isn’t going to cut it. Be specific.

Measurable Part of that specificity is in the numbers. Dates. Pounds. Hours per week. Dollars. Make your goals such that you know when you have hit them, and then celebrate those victories.

Attainable I am the queen of crazy pie-in-the-sky goals, so this one is one I need to especially keep in mind. Yes, of course I would love to be empress of the universe by 2020, but let’s be real, it’s going to take me way longer than that to assemble the necessary imperial fleet.

Relevant Sure, I could make a goal to run a mile a week, but honestly? That’s just not something that I care about and not a thing that fits into my idea of who I want to be. A goal like that would flop because it isn’t relevant to where I want to take myself.

Time Bound This is true in every aspect of my life. No deadline, no achievement. If I don’t have a do-or-die date, it ain’t happening.

I already knew most of this stuff, but it’s nice to have a cute little acronym. Makes it more memorable.

Another thing that makes goals more memorable? Writing them down. I asked my husband what his goals were for last year and he had no idea. He hadn’t written them down. So probably some time around January 20th or so, they were gone, with no hope of being completed.

I got my hot little hands on an advance copy of a book called The Art of Finishing by Annah Searle.  (You’ll recall that she was kind enough to write a guest post for me on this very topic back in October. You should go check out her blog, The Art of Pure Living.) I’ve just started reading through it in the ongoing struggle to force myself to be a better person and I’m planning on integrating the tips in the book into my goal making this year, particularly in the workbook.

Whatever I end up going with for my goals- which I’ll definitely have ready to share next week, along with how I did on last year’s goals- I’ll keep you lovely folks posted on all my pratfalls and faceplants.

See you next year! 😀

Calendaring for the Win

CalendarThis has been an off summer for me. Some of that was beyond my control, but enough of it is my own fault that I’ve become too disgusted with myself to continue like this.

As long time readers know, I do best when I’m organized. Check boxes are my friend. To do lists are my friend. Calendars are my friend. And yet, I realized just a few days ago that I’d let all those things slide. I wasn’t making a morning list. I hadn’t drawn an empty box in months. My desktop calendar was still on May.

With growing horror, I looked up at my submissions goal list, taped like an accusation on the wall over my desk. I was behind. Crazy behind. Where-I-should-have-been-in-March behind.

I have attention problems. If I don’t follow a routine, I’m led about by whatever shiny fun-o-matic catches my eye. And I haven’t been following my own tried-and-true writing routines for months. This is why coming up with blog posts has been such a slog. This is why last month’s NaNo was such a painful agony. This is why I have been spending well less than half my daily writing time actually writing. This is why I haven’t edited a single short story, let alone a novel, since last spring. I know what I have to do to keep on my writing goals. But I haven’t been doing those things.

Clearly, it’s time for some better housekeeping. I need quantifiable goals, and I need a finite deadline, and I need a plan for how those two meet. So this week, I sat down and carved out what needs to happen in the following months.

Reassess Goals I still have the goal of forty-eight rejections for the year; I now have less than half the time in which to do it, because if I want the rejections back by the end of the year, I should send them out a good twelve weeks before the end. So instead of a steady rate of six-ish submissions a month, I need to get out the remaining thirty-five submissions for the rest of the year by the end of September, assuming every single one of them is a rejection. I honestly don’t think that’s attainable, but if I can get out twenty-five submissions by the end of September, I’ll be pretty pleased with myself and hustle the last few out (maybe) before NaNoWriMo.

I also have the goals of two new first drafts and two second drafts. I did manage a first draft of Copper, and I started editing Seasong/Sacrifice/Whatever the Heck I’m Calling This Mermaid Thing, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I think sticking with the original goal is a little untenable at this point, especially given how much work I’ll have to put into submissions, so I’ll drop one of the editing goals and shoot for finishing a second draft of the mermaid story and drafting one more new story during NaNo. Maybe I’ll surprise myself and squeeze in that second second draft, but I’ll owe myself a box of cookies or something if I pull that off.

Set Exciting New Goals I have my annual AWG writing conference coming up in mid-September. Even though I’m preeeetty sure I’m not going to find an agent who wants to sit down with me for an hour and go over a five-page document, I would like to prepare a list of blurbs for all my novels with at least a complete first draft- bonus points for the nearly-done partial first drafts as well. I’ll need to finish by the time I leave for the conference, giving me not quite four weeks to come up with five more blurbs and to clean up the eight I already have. Totally do-able.

I also want to work up a blog schedule for the remainder of the year within the next two weeks, with titles and themes for each post- extra points for notes or first/partial drafts. The blog just feels less crazy and stressful (and stupid) when I’m prepared well in advance. Future Jill will thank me.

Streamline Writing Time I have gotten incredibly lazy about this, and this is probably the root of all my writing evils. Writing time is not the time to be playing games, and trawling the bowels of Twitter, and catching up on blogs and articles, and conducting ‘research’ because, gosh, a story with singularity bombs and human augmentation and ticklish lab rats would be really cool. Reading about writing is not writing. Writing is writing. So starting now, writing time is nine to ten-thirty. From nine to ten-thirty, I will only write, even if it means spewing stream of consciousness into the void for an hour and a half. If I have made good progress for the first hour, I can choose to spend the last half hour working on submissions or blog stuff, but for no more than two hours total in a single week. Any more than that will have to happen outside of writing time. In three weeks, I will reassess the situation.

Summon the Kraken Accountabuddies Along with calendaring and, oh I don’t know, goals, another thing I’ve let slide is frequent check ins with my accountability buddies. Summer is a busy time and it’s become hard for all of us to get together for our weekly internet write-ins. (And one of them decided to go and get married this weekend. Geez, so selfish.) But that doesn’t mean I can’t check in with them every now and then on my progress. I mean, we’re friends. It’s not like they’d see my name on their phone screens and roll their eyes to Heaven. (Right, guys? Right?) So I will drop a line or two in Google Chat or text or whatever at least once a week about writing. That is all. It’s easy so, like cleaning my writing time, I shall start this immediately.

*dusts hands together* Voila! A plan! I don’t know how achievable it is. I think the submissions thing is going to kick my butt, if nothing else. But this at least makes it possible, instead of just a looming nightmare cloud hanging over my head. And whether I hit my goals or not, I’m going to keep up with my calendaring, my listing, my check-boxing. They’re my best shot for getting anywhere in all this so I’m only cheating myself if I give them up. (Sorry, Future Jill. [Past Jill, you suck.])

I hope you guys are keeping up with your writing goals for the year so far! Until next time, keep your heads in the clouds and your feet on the ground! Happy writing!

Delicious Stakes

SteakI talked a few weeks ago about building tension (link here!), and one of the elements I mentioned was emotionally significant consequences. This element is also known as ‘stakes’.

So what are stakes? Stakes are what your character stands to lose or gain, or what forces your character to do The Thing and to stick with it through to the end instead of doing anything else. Stakes are closely tied to goals and motivations, so it’s very important that your character has them and that the reader is able to understand them. Even when protagonists are technically criminals or some brand of ‘bad guys’ (like the cast of Firefly, who are smugglers, thieves, and murderers, but we love them anyway), having understandable motivations can go a long way in making the reader care about the consequences of the story, and the outcome of the story.

On the other hand, even the goodest of guys cannot force you to care about a thing that they don’t give a used fig for. If your character has nothing meaningful at stake in a story, then it doesn’t really matter what they do. Why bother to go save the world when eating pork rinds and watching the Super Bowl is so much easier?

So how can we, as the writers of these stories, raise the stakes? How can we make sure that the things at stake matter to the characters, and by extension to our readers? And how can we craft stakes that will carry tension- and a reader’s interest- throughout the entire story?

There are multiple ways to do it, and which one you use will vary from story to story, with some stories even needing more than one type of stake. (And I’m sure this little list isn’t exhaustive, so if you have any good ones I failed to think up, please give a shout out in the comments section!)

Increase the Stakes You know those superhero stories where, in the first movie or book or whatever, the hero just has to save his classmates at prom? And then by the second one, the whole city’s in peril? And then aliens show up and then the whole world needs saving? The stakes increase each time. And it doesn’t need to just happen throughout a series. This can also apply within a single story. Maybe at the start of the story, the hero is just worried that his protective mom’s going to find out and ground him forever.  And then he’s worried that the villain will find out about his family and try to hurt them. It’s only by the very end, after juggling secrets and life and generally making a mess of both, that he has to save his whole school. Increasing the stakes- especially while dangling just a liiiiittle bit of peace and happiness in front of your main character before snatching it away- can keep tension high throughout a story.

Personalize the Stakes This one kind of takes the stakes in the opposite direction of the previous one. Instead of widening the stakes out bigger and bigger, try bringing them down into smaller, more personal pieces. Maybe your character doesn’t really want to go back in time to save the world from cyborgs, but it’s the only way to save that one friend that they lost along the way. Maybe your character doesn’t really want to save all of Chicago from the madman with a bomb; maybe they’re only in it because their daughter’s preschool is across the street from the detonation and that little girl means everything to them. Making stakes that a stranger doesn’t really care about that much, but that holds up the whole world for your character, can make for intense stakes.

Clash of the Stakes Most people have more than one motivator in life. Characters are the same. They’re not automatons programed to chase after one goal and not to care about anything else ever. So maybe your character devoutly adheres to a very strict religion, but gosh, they really want to watch a live event that happens right during church. What’s a body to do? Or maybe your character really wants to reconnect with his estranged father who deploys in two days, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for his and his wife’s struggling business has arrived and must be acted upon immediately or it’s gone forever. What’s a body to do?? Make a character choose between love and honor, between loyalty and opportunity, between Goal A and Goal B, because, curse this awful universe, they just can’t have both.

A final thing to keep in mind while coming up with stakes for your character is the difference between selfish goals and selfless goals. If a character only has selfish goals, especially when those goals overshadow selfless goals, readers aren’t as likely to empathize with them, which means they won’t care as much about the events of the story. If a character has selfless goals they’re fighting for- something that’s important to a spouse, or trying to save a friend, or support a child, etc- that’s much more interesting, especially if it means having to sacrifice some of their own personal goals. (Side note: selfish goals aren’t always bad. Sometimes a character just wants to save their own marriage or prioritize their own happiness or something like that, and that’s okay. When I talk about selfish goals being hard to empathize with or disinteresting, I’m more talking about selfish goals that come at the detriment of someone else. Those are less fun to read in my opinion. I don’t really get revenge tales, y’know?)

How about you fine readers? Any other ideals for upping the stakes in a story? Let me know in the comments below! And until next week, happy writing!