Back in February, in a post called “A Challenge to All — Time to Take the Plunge,” I issued a challenge to readers of Magical Words. Take that novel that you’ve been working on, the one that you know is almost done, but feel needs one final tweak, and get it ready for submission to some publisher by October 1. Remember?
Well, we’re in the dog days of summer and fall begins in less than a month. So how’s it going?
Setting goals of any sort can be a tricky business. I had goals for this year, and while I’ve met many of them, I still have several more that I’ve yet to address and, frankly, I don’t know if I’ll complete all of them before year’s end. Sometimes life gets in the way, as it has this year for me. Issues come up that we can’t possibly anticipate, family needs preempt even the best laid plans, and projects take longer to complete than we could have known they would. That’s all right. That’s part of maintaining a creative, project-driven career.
I also wrote about goals in May, around the time of the release of Shadow’s Blade, the third novel in my Case Files of Justis Fearsson series. (Which you all have been reading, right?) For me, this has been a year for thinking about goals and disappointments, achievements and unfulfilled ambitions. Such is the nature of the writing life.
So how do I deal with both the establishment of realistic work goals and the disappointment of not achieving all of them?
Let’s begin with the former. I try to set my work goals based on the time I know I’ll have available and the pace at which I’ve worked on similar projects in the past. That sounds basic, but you’d be amazed by the number of times early in my career I failed to do this well. I would plan out a project, confident that I could get X amount of work done in Y number of months. But I would treat those months as if they were all equal, and, of course, they weren’t. November was never going to be as productive as October, because I lost a week to Thanksgiving. July wasn’t as productive as April because my kids weren’t in school in July, and I had to drive them places and do things with them when they were home. (Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE my kids and always enjoy our time together, but when they were young, I couldn’t possibly be as productive with them around.)
I needed to be realistic about a) the number of days I would actually work, and b) the relative productivity or lack thereof for the days in question. Not all months are created equal. Not all days are created equal.
And not all projects are created equal. Writing the third book in an established series will go faster than writing book one in a new project, at least in the opening chapters, until I find a rhythm and tone for the new shiny. That’s just the way of things, at least it is for me. I’ve learned to plan accordingly, but it took a while. I write slower when working on short stories than I do working on novels. Once I’m into a novel, I can churn out ten pages a day. But that doesn’t mean I can write a twenty page short story in two days. Far from it; it’s more like two weeks for a short. And I have to take that into account when making my work schedule.
Yes, I have a work schedule. I use the calendar feature on my computer, and I assign myself blocks of time for each project. I find that incredibly helpful as I plot out my year.
But on occasion I still miss my own deadlines and fail to complete all the work I’d assigned myself. How do I deal with that? Well, I’ll tell you what I don’t do: I don’t beat myself up. First, I diagnose the problem. Was this bad planning? Did I underestimate the time required for one or more of my projects? Or did life intervene, tossing roadblocks in my way and making it impossible for me to meet those goals? I don’t do this as a way of assigning blame. I do it to learn from the misestimation.
After figuring out the problem, I get back to work. I finish what I can and reschedule the rest. I assume that if I made the project a priority when I first set the work schedule, it deserves to remain a priority. But I refuse to get down on myself. This profession has too many external difficulties; I don’t need to add my own self-flagellation to the mix, and neither should you.
So if you’re on course to meet the October deadline for the challenge we discussed in February, good for you. Keep at it. If you’re not, that’s okay. Keep working and get it done when you can. That doesn’t mean the challenge was useless; it just means it was humane. We do what we can in this business, and then we do more of what we can. Sometimes our goals and ambitions fit into our schedules; sometimes they don’t. That doesn’t make those goals any less legitimate.