2010 Goals

READER BEWARE! Long post ahead. LOL :P

So, I've come up with my 2010 writing goals, and, due to some reading I've done of late, I've reconsidered how I've done this in the past. The way I've gone about my goals thus far has been, to say the least, ineffective. Why ineffective? Well, have I had any stories published? No. You can't get much more ineffective than that. Now, while I recognize that the decision to publish a story of mine is out of my control, there are things I can do to increase the likelihood that my stories will get published.

Robert A. Heinlein's Rules for Writing are clear, and they've been posted on my blog for months and months. Yet, I've consistently failed to follow every step. Lying to myself about this won't help me. It's been said that each of Heinlein's rules eliminates half of those who want to be published. An example: Let's say we start off with 50 people who want to be published.

Heinlein's Rule #1: "You must write." As modified by James A. Ritchie, it reads, "You must write frequently." Ritchie's point is that most do not write often enough to enjoy any possibility of success.

Immediately, even before we have started, 25 of the 50 have turned away.

Why? They want to be published, but they don't want to write. It may seem a silly distinction, but it's very real. I've met lots of people who want to be published, but I never hear them talk about their writing. I don't mean that they tell me the content of the stories they're writing. Rather, I mean they never say things like, "Yeah, I'm now working on a new short story," or "a new novel." So far as I know, they're not writing anything. It's quite a common malady.

You've no doubt heard the old saying, "Practice makes perfect." Nevertheless, many think that writing professionally doesn't require the same sort of discipline needed to become a professional tennis player (which requires years and years of practice and drills), or, say, a physician (which requires years and years of education and training). If writing were easy, we'd all be novelists. Everyone has an apprenticeship to serve, no matter what their profession.

Heinlein's Rule #2: "You must finish what you write." Again, as modified by James A. Ritchie, it reads, "You must finish what you write in a reasonable amount of time." Ritchie's point here is that of those who keep rule #1, too many never finish their stories/novels.

Of the 25 wannabes remaining, half again have turned away, because they'll never finish anything they start. We are now left with 13 — we'll round up, for generosity's sake.

This rule, to finish what you write, goes without saying. Only in extremely rare cases does an unfinished work get published; you either have to be someone of historical significance — Vergil thought his Aeneid to be incomplete (and when he knew he was dying, he asked that it be burned), yet it gets published and republished again and again — or you have to be someone well-known — J. R. R. Tolkien, with his Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth is a good example

Heinlein's Rule #3: "You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order."

Of the 13 left after Rule #2, only 7 now remain because the other 6 are too busy rewriting to submit their manuscripts for publication.

Many of Charles Dickens's works were written in weekly installments, and typically the upcoming episode was determined by the reaction of his readers to the previous installment. I've not read anything that indicates that Dickens did much editing or rewriting of his work. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, we are told, came to Robert Louis Stephenson, nearly fully formed, while he was in an opium-induced nightmare. His wife, on hearing his screams, woke him, whereupon he demanded, "Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale!" Despite having been wakened, Stephenson went on to write the story within 72 hours, a rate of 10,000+ words per day! These are not rare examples. Stories of what we now call classics being created quickly and with little or no editing are, in fact, quite common. Robert Heinlein himself, the author of these rules, is reputed to have written, mailed, and sold his first short story, with little editing having been done at all.

Rewriting, some professionals say, usually turns a story into unpublishable slush. If, however, an editor suggests an edit, then the acolyte is best advised to follow the editor's instruction, unless she has good reason to disagree with it. The important thing to keep in mind here, I've learned, is that a writer is more often than not the worst judge of her own work. If the writer is unpublished, she can be 99.999% certain that an editor will know better than she does what will or will not make her work publishable.

Does Rule #3 mean no rewriting should ever be done? Some argue that at the beginning of her career, the writer would, indeed, need to rewrite a story, to make it the best she can possibly make it. Others argue that she should just spell check the manuscript, have 1-3 trusted beta readers read the story and offer their suggestions as to what works, what does not, and point out missed typos. Then the writer should incorporate the suggestions she agrees with, and mail it out.

Heinlein's Rule #4: "You must put the work on the market."

Right away we are left with 4 writers, because the other 3 have either left their manuscripts in their desk drawers, or, if they mailed them, they've mailed them to agents.

If you want to be published, this is obvious, and yet too many (myself included) don't follow it. John W. Campbell, the legendary editor of Astounding Science Fiction (now known as Analog Science Fiction and Fact) from late 1937 until his death in 1971, once said in an essay,

The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home.

Submission is imperative if one wishes to be published. Short stories are sent to one editor at a time. Novels are sent to 5-10 editors at a time. Some writers choose to send their manuscripts to agents. Agents, however, haven't the power to purchase a story. Only editors have this power.

Heinlein's Rule #5: "You must keep the work on the market until it is sold."

And then there were 2, because the other 2 gave up after only a few rejections (including me).

I've submitted my short story "Moon-Shadow," but this is where I've failed, as I've not kept it on the market until sold. Rules #4 and #5 are where I tend to fail. Too many people put far too much store in the idea that their short story or novel should sell to the first market they've mailed it to. Or, equally ludicrous, they mail their story/novel to three editors, all of whom reject it, and then the writer doesn't send it out to anyone else, thinking that if three thought it bad, then it mustn't be publishable.

Here's a clue (and I'm speaking as much to myself, if not more so, than I am to anyone else): Novelist Taylor Caldwell wrote for 17 years, received rejections for 17 years, before her first novel was published. Here's another clue: Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind was rejected 38 times before an editor bought it and it was published. Yet this novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and was included in Time Magazine's "100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923-2005." (As a footnote to Rule #3, it should be noted that it took Mitchell seven years to write the novel, and another eight months to verify the thousands of historical and social references.)

Heinlein's Rule #6: "You must start work on something else immediately." This is not one of Robert Heinlein's original set of rules; he wrote only five. Rule #6 is, in fact, an addition made by the award-winning Canadian science fiction novelist, Robert J. Sawyer. (For the sake of illustration, we'll assume that the two remaining writers both submitted novels, and both were published.)

Just as many writers quit after they've received only a few rejections, there are also those who have the mindset that writing is a get-rich-quick scheme. Write a bestselling novel, they think, and they're set for life, right? Heh. Wrong. Just as I showed with my post about Lynn Veihl, her New York Times bestselling novel made the top 20 on the list, and yet a year later it still hadn't earned back the $50,000 advance she had received, and her publisher won't pay her another red cent until it does.

Anyone who learns the hard way that writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme — publishing is a notoriously slow business, in fact — and who refuses to understand that reality will most likely be the one person who quits and doesn't write another damned thing. They "know" that $50,000 (assuming they even received that much of an advance) isn't "making it," and now they think it's all a sham.

This leaves us with 1 writer out of 100 who has had the wherewithal to adhere to all six of Heinlein's deceptively simple rules. Unfortunately, I am not that one. Not yet. But I intend to be. Therefore, the basis for my goals for 2010 will be to draw up goals to help me adhere to these rules. That said, here are my goals for 2010:

  1. Day after day.
    Rule #1, "you must write frequently." I intend to meet my daily writing quota. I won't reveal my daily quota here, but I won't lie about whether or not I've achieved this goal or not a year from today. (As you read through these goals, you will see that they build on one another, up to a point, and they are designed to help me to stay faithful to Heinlein's Rules.)

  2. Winners never quit.
    And writers finish what they write (Rule #2). This has never been a real problem for me, except in rare cases. When I start a story, I keep at it until it is done.

  3. Never second guess yourself.
    All good things in moderation, including rewriting (Rule #3). I need to find myself 1-3 beta readers, people whose judgment I trust.

  4. Over the transom, baby.
    Every story that I finish, I will put in the mail (Rule #4). This is where my major problem lies, so this will likely be my biggest challenge for 2010. (What does "over the transom" mean, you ask? Think back. Think way back. The 1950s, or even the 1940s. Think the cinema. Think, perhaps, of old detective movies. Think of the doors to their office. Think of that little "window" over the door that could be swung open and shut. That's called a transom, baby, and years ago manuscripts were delivered to a closed office "over the transom." When editors arrived at work the next morning, that pile of manuscripts — white pages covered in black type — looked like dirty snow, or "slush." Consequently, unsolicited manuscripts have come to be called the "slushpile.")

  5. It ain't over until the fat lady sings.
    I intend to keep every story I finish in the mail until it sells (Rule #5). Just as operas ain't over until that fat lady sings, story submission isn't over until someone buys it. When I receive a rejection, the story goes right back in the mail.

  6. A Tale of Two Novels (and Five Short Stories).
    Writing two novels and five short stories in 2010 is a goal over which I have exclusive control — barring the unforeseen. It is also, I think, a goal I'm very capable of achieving, based on my performance since last August. This involves a word-count, obviously, but my actual word-count goal I'm reserving for the next goal, and I will delineate there how two novels and five short stories fit into that scheme. Obviously, if my intent is to write two novels and five short stories, then that is in keeping with rule #6, to start on something new after finishing a story.

  7. I ain't verbose; I's prolific.
    Okay. Here's my 2010 word-count goal — 250,000 words — and this is how it breaks down: For a first time fantasy novelist, 90,000-120,000 words is the length publishers look for. I'm thinking 90,000 is a good place to start. The average length for published short stories is in the range of 4,000-6,000 words, so I'll go with an average of 5,000 words. Using those as guidelines, two novels gives me 180,000 words, and five short stories gives me 25,000 words, for a total of 205,000 words. That leaves 45,000 to account for. My current novel, Humblebee, is at 50,000 words. So, that gives me 40,000 left to write, which brings us to 245,000 words. I'm not going to quibble over a 5,000 word shortage as I'm confident that I'll exceed 250,000 words, anyway.

    Does two novels and five short stories for 2010 sound overly ambitious? Well, consider that Nora Roberts has written 165 romance novels, and 35 novels in her In Death series (and has 2 more under contract) under the pseudonym J. D. Robb. She started writing in 1981. That's 29 years of writing, and 200 novels (almost 202), at an average of 6.89 books per year. (Here's the Wikipedia article on Roberts.) Or consider that Isaac Asimov, scientist, science writer, and science fiction novelist, wrote or edited over 500 books before he died. Per Wikipedia, "His works have been published in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System (the sole exception being the 100s: philosophy and psychology)." Author Dean Koontz has written 57 novels since 1973, with the latest to be released in 2010 (1.58 per year). Stephen King has written 60+ novels and anthologies since 1974, which includes the novels he wrote under the name Richard Bachman (1.71+ per year). And these writers are not alone. How do you think they accomplish their feats of prolificacy? By writing one novel per year? Hah!

    This is why my goal for 2010 is more ambitious: I want to be a novelist, not some telecom boob (as I am at the moment). I'm convinced that I can accomplish my goal, even exceed it. To write 250,000 words per day, six days per week, requires that I write a minimum of 799 words per day (assuming that I miss no days). But let's assume that I write 1000 words per day, an additional 201 words. Writing six days per week means 313 working days per year (365 - 52 = 313). At 1000 words per day, I could write 313,000 words per year. But my goal is 250,000 (which, obviously, at 1000 words per day, means 250 days of writing). Therefore, if I write 1000 words per day, I could miss, or take off, 63 days this year (313 - 250 = 63), and still achieve my goal. As I said, I won't reveal my daily quota. I will say, however, that it is sufficient to exceed 250,000 words per day, and that it will allow me to miss quite a lot of days next year, whether due to illness or family emergency or whatever. Basically, I'm factoring in that I'm human and that I don't have control over everything.

  8. Get your streak on.
    No, I'm not going to run around nude. I wouldn't even want to see that, let alone allow you to see it. (You can thank me later.) Rather, this has to do with the idea of establishing a "writing streak," an unbroken number of consecutive days during which I've written and have met my daily quota; both must be true. This streak does not include my one day off per week. As an example, if I meet my daily quota for three weeks and four days, and then I fail to write or to meet my quota on the fifth day of the fourth week, then I'll have had a streak of 22 days (3 weeks @ 6 days per week = 18 days + 4 days = 22 days). The point of this is to see how long a streak I can maintain. It will provide me with both a positive and negative feedback loop. Maintaining the streak is positive feedback as it gives me incentive to keep writing every day, and breaking the streak is negative feedback as it means having to start over again on a new streak. I know that this will work for me. A few days ago, I wanted to skip a day, but when I looked at where I was and where I wanted to be on December 31, 2009, I realized that I had four choices: 1) not write and risk not hitting my goal, 2) not write and risk having to write more on another day(s) to make up for the loss, 3) not write and risk having to write on my day off to make up for the missed day, or 4) put my butt in my chair and write and avoid the foregoing risks. I chose option 4 because I had a streak going and because I didn't want to miss my goal.

  9. He who scores the most points wins!
    This is a second system designed to do essentially the same thing as goal #8 — provide me with positive and negative feedback loops — but for a different reason. Goal #8's purpose is to keep me motivated to write frequently (Heinlein's Rule #1) and to meet my daily quota. This particular goal, however, is designed to keep me on track with Heinlein's Rules #4 and #5. This one is a point system. Here's how it works:

    • 1 pt - for every different short story I have mailed to an editor
    • 3 pts - for every different chapter and outline I've mailed to an editor (only 3 pts per book, no matter how many editors it's been mailed to)
    • 8 pts - for every different full manuscript I've mailed to an editor (again, only 8 pts per book, no matter how many editors it's been mailed to — at the beginning of a writer's career, only full manuscripts can be mailed; sample chapters and outlines and/or proposals can be mailed once a writer has proven themselves)

    When a story/book is rejected, I lose the points for that story/book, unless I immediately put it back in the mail to another editor (in which case I keep the points). When I receive a check, I lose the points for that story/book (receipt of a contract does not count, as contracts can be cancelled; I must have a check in hand -- or, better yet, deposited to my account). The goal is, well, as it says, to score the most points, and to keep the score high.

    Heinlein's Rule #4, you'll recall, is "you must put the work on the market," and Rule #5, "you must keep the work on the market until it is sold." You should now see how this goal works to offer positive and negative feedback loops to encourage me to submit, submit, submit, until sold. (It should also be obvious that this goal will also work to buttress goal #8, if you think about it.)

  10. Five crazy ideas.
    Stories require ideas. If I'm to write and to continue writing, to sell and to continue selling, then I must establish some system for coming up with new ideas. After all, when I finish a novel or a short story, I want to start a new one, as Rule #6 says, "you must start work on something else immediately." One professional novelist suggests having at least three ideas available to work on once you finish your current work. Not a bad suggestion, but I can be fickle. I like having choices, so I'd like to do better than that. How many ideas do I want to have in the wings? As many as I can, but that's too vague an answer for a goal. So, I'm going to set a goal of 5-10, but it has to be a minimum of five. Finally following E. L. Doctorow's dictum (see "Writers Speak..." in my sidebar), writing is writing. Idea generation is not writing. This means that I cannot substitute writing with idea generation. I must set aside a separate block of time for this. Unless something unforeseen knocks a hole in my schedule, I'll set aside time every Monday, outside of the time that I write, to generate story ideas.

  11. What you don't know can hurt you.
    Write what you know. Every book on writing says this. How, then, does a writer write about things she doesn't know? Research! Back to Doctorow, research isn't writing, so, once again, a separate block of time must be set aside for research. This is where things really start to get interesting — or hairy, depending on your perspective — because, if you've been paying attention, you'll realize that it means that I must do research for future stories/books while I'm still in the midst of writing my current story/book. Of course, it can also mean doing some research for my current novel while I am writing it, but Doctorow's dictum must hold: research is not writing.

  12. Hello! Is this thing on?
    I haven't bought it yet, but, dammit, I'm gonna! Buy what? A digital voice recorder. When? No later than my birthday, March 27. I've put this off for too long. It's time I established a deadline for this goal. I'll grant myself one reprieve: I can go beyond my birthday if I still haven't got a job; once I have a job, however, I must by a digital voice recorder as soon as I can afford to do so. (I'm a no debt kinda guy.) With a digital voice recorder, if ideas for new stories/books or ideas for my current story/book come to me while I'm driving, I can record it so that it can be filed away later. Concomitant with this goal, I will make it a habit to carry a Moleskine notebook with me everywhere I go. I prefer to write things down, but that doesn't work when driving, thus the goal to buy a digital voice recorder.

  13. Read-A-Lot is the Writer's Camelot.
    I ain't superstitious, so I ain't afraid of no number 13. Nosirree bob! Thirteen goals is just fine by me. Stephen King wrote in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, "If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write." (This is of such importance that I've added this quote to my "Writers Speak..." sidebar.) The point is, if I want to write fantasy, I must read fantasy. If I want to write science fiction, I must read science fiction. If I want to write mysteries, I must read mysteries. So, I will read . . . as much as I can. I'm sticking with my usual goal of 30-40 books per year, but I'm adding this one restriction: two-thirds of them must be fiction. I don't care if they're short story anthologies, or if they're novels. The only requirement I'll place on myself is that they must be books of fiction. The rest can be how-to books on writing, or they can be books read for research, or they can even be more fiction books, if I like. There is no restriction on these. This gives me the following: Read 30-40 books (20-27 must be fiction).

If you're wondering where I got the ideas for some of these goals, I'll share my source with you in my next post.

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