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Dreams vs. Goals: Setting Goals to Achieve Our Writing Dreams

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Yesterday, we looked at the idea that to achieve our dreams, we must give them marching orders—we must set goals. So let’s look at how to go about setting those goals to give us the best chances of success.

Don’t Be Vague
Dreams vs. Goals: Setting Goals to Achieve Our Writing Dreams |

The first, very vague, statement was my “goal” that I set for myself at the age of 30, shortly after I’d returned to finish my undergrad degree and right after attending my first writing conference in 2001. Then, after I’d been a member of a national writing organization for a few months, I sat down and wrote down the second set of goals—the specific, actionable ones—so that I knew what I needed to do in order to achieve that vague goal (dream).

In 2002, I attended my first national writers’ conference and I entered a writing contest. In 2003, I not only finished my bachelor’s degree, I found and started working with my first critique partners—and entered two more manuscripts into contests. In 2004, I started grad school. I became an officer with the national writing organization, serving in two successive positions in which I got to know many publishing industry professionals who would, years later, become vital cobblestones in my path to publication. I went to at least one national conference every year. I started my own local writers’ group here in Nashville.

I turned 35 in May 2006. About a month after my birthday, I walked across the stage, got “hooded,” and received my master’s degree. A few weeks after that, I learned Stand-In Groom (my master’s thesis novel) was a finalist in a national writers’ group contest. In September, I went to the conference and, while there, asked two agents if I could submit my book proposal to them. I’d already pitched the book a few years before (when it wasn’t ready); and, over the next year, I’d pitch Stand-In Groom and the Ransome Trilogy to editors from two different publishing houses.

Actionable items. Personally achievable. And completed.

In January 2007 (while I was still 35), I signed with MacGregor Literary. Then, in early December 2007, a little more than six months after I turned 36, I signed my first book contract.

The result of my setting/achieving specific goals was attaining my dream of becoming a published author.

What does “Actionable Items” mean?
Dreams vs. Goals: Setting Goals to Achieve Our Writing Dreams |

While starting out with a vague goal (still something achievable, but without “legs” to walk through all the way to the end result) is a good starting place, setting specific goals with actionable items is going to be how you measure your success.

When you set specific goals with actionable items, it gives you a built-in method to measure whether or not you’re successful and meeting/achieving your goals. And this is where being a list-maker can really come in handy. There’s nothing like starting out with a long to-do list and having the enormous pleasure of crossing out completed items. That, in a way, is almost as satisfying as actually having attained/completed the item being scratched off.

One of the best ways to break your goal down into actionable items is to set both short-term and long-term steps.

Dreams vs. Goals: Setting Goals to Achieve Our Writing Dreams |

One of the reasons I label these “short-term” and “long-term” instead of “little” and “big” or something else like that is because creating actionable items to reach your overall goal requires setting a timeline and sticking to it.

Writing down your goals makes them more real—and gives you the opportunity to review them from time to time and remember their specifics. If you don’t write your goals down, how will you know if you’ve achieved them?

As you come up with your list of actionable items, create a timeline:

  • I will write 1,000 words a day until I reach a completed manuscript length of 90,000 words, and I will have a completed first-draft of Novel A by January 31
  • I will find at least two critique partners and start working with them by March.
  • I will join Mystery Writers of America in January.
  • I will attend the Killer Nashville conference next August.
  • I will have the second draft of Novel A completed and to my critique partners in May.
  • I will begin Novel B in June.
  • I will write my proposal, create my one-sheet, and develop my pitch for Novel A in July.
  • I will have my polished draft of Novel A completed by August 15.
  • I will pitch Novel A to Editor A, Agent B, and Editor C at Killer Nashville in August.

And so on.

Then, even if it seems silly, cross each item off the list as you complete it. It may seem daunting at first all of the small steps that go into working to achieve the dream of becoming a published writer. But once you start seeing more items crossed off than remain, you’ll realize just how much you’ve accomplished and how successful you already are.

Dreams vs. Goals: Setting Goals to Achieve Our Writing Dreams |

Tomorrow: Risk, Failure, and Re-evaluation of Set Goals

Dreams vs. Goals: Give Your Writing Dreams Marching Orders

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

If you don’t know where you are going,
you will probably end up somewhere else.

~Lawrence J. Peter

Yesterday, we looked at what it means to be a dreamer—to dream about being a writer. As a reminder, here’s how dictionaries define dream:

  • a visionary creation of the imagination
  • a state of mind marked by abstraction or release from reality
  • a cherished hope; ambition; aspiration
  • a vain hope

And I know we all agree that dreams can be good things. But if we want to accomplish something, we’re going to have to do something more than dream about it. That’s where goals come into play.

What Is a Goal?
If we once again turn toward the dictionary for a technical definition, a goal is:

  • the result or achievement toward which effort is directed; aim; end
  • target; purpose, object, objective, intent, intention
  • the aim or object toward which an endeavor is directed
  • the terminal point of a journey or race

Do you notice a difference in the words that define these two terms? The definitions for “dream” are largely passive while the definitions for “goal” are active. You have dreams; you set goals.

In other words . . .
Dreams vs. Goals: Give Your Writing Dreams Marching Orders |

Dreams are hopes. Dreams are wishes. Dreams are visions of an outcome . . . without a visualization of the steps needed to reach that outcome.

Goals are what we need in order to figure out how to reach the end we’re dreaming of.

I dream of being a traditionally published author.

Great. Now, what part of that dream can you actually control or influence? What can you realistically do in order to move toward the fulfillment of that dream? In other words, what part of your dream is personally achievable?

Dreams vs. Goals: Give Your Writing Dreams Marching Orders |

It’s fine—wonderful—to dream of becoming a traditionally published author (i.e., being paid an advance/royalty by a traditional publishing house so they can have the privilege of making money by selling your book). It gives you an end toward which to set goals. However, aside from setting goals for daily/weekly/monthly word counts, learning everything you can about craft, finding and working with critique partners, attending conferences, pitching your work to agents and editors, and polishing your manuscript to a fine sheen, there is one major part of the equation you cannot control. You cannot control the decisions made by publishers to reject or accept you. You have now taken away your own ability to control whether or not you achieve your goal. This is what I mean by realistic and personally achievable—you must be able to affect and control the outcome in order for it to be a viable goal, not just a dream.

You dream of being a traditionally published author.
Your goal is to do everything within your ability to create a publish-ready manuscript and pitch it to editors.

So, dream away! But then step back into reality and look at your dream to see what parts of it you, personally, can achieve.

Tomorrow: Let’s Start Setting Some Goals!

Dreams vs. Goals: Do You Dream of Being a Writer?

Monday, October 13, 2014

We all have dreams. Things we want. Things we hope for.

But will the dream of “being a writer” actually get you there? Is it something that’s as nebulous, as insubstantial, as the stories that run through our heads when we’re asleep? Or is the dream attainable?

Well, it just so happens that I have a workshop that I teach on this very subject, and, as it’s been a few years since I’ve had the opportunity to teach it at a conference or writers’ group meeting, I thought we’d delve into it here. So let’s get started.

“A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes…”

Dreams vs. Goals: Do You Dream of Being a Writer? |

Beyond the sometimes-bizarre movies that play out in our heads when we’re sleeping, beyond the fleeting fantasies that flitter through our minds when they’re wandering, what are dreams?

Well, as the slide above says, they’re more than just thoughts or night visions. Dreams are those “cherished hopes; ambitions; aspirations” that can both enrich and enrage us—enrich us by giving us hope that there’s something beyond what we currently have/are, and enrage us by being (seemingly) out of reach.

But what about dreams when it comes to writing?

Dreams vs. Goals: Do You Dream of Being a Writer? |

Do you dream of being a writer, or do you actually write?

One of the most common things heard by professional writers (and those working to become professional writers) is, “I have this story I’ve always dreamed of writing…” This is usually quickly followed by “but” and an excuse for never doing it, or “so why don’t you write it for me.”

You can dream all you want to about writing. You can stare at a wall and make up all the stories you desire. You can picture yourself standing up in front of a room of hundreds of writers and publishing professionals accepting the Nobel prize for literature or the Pulitzer or the Christy or the Bram Stoker or the Nebula . . . or whatever award it is. Don’t stop dreaming, even if those dreams seem impossible! (You’re welcome for the earworm.)

Dreams vs. Goals: Do You Dream of Being a Writer? |

But, see, here’s the thing—if you never actually write anything, you’ll always just be a dreamer and not a writer. Writers are people who put words down on paper. (Lots of words…MILLIONS of words!)

If you want to be a writer and not just a dreamer, then it’s time to stop being the noun (“a writer”) and start doing it (“writing”).

Dreams vs. Goals: Do You Dream of Being a Writer? |

Tomorrow: Giving Your Dreams Marching Orders

What Are You Reading? (October 2014)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Happy First Monday of October, everyone.

Wait . . . what do you mean I missed
the first Monday of the month?

Well, no matter what day it is, it’s Reading Report time!

Open Book by Dave Dugdale

Open Book by Dave Dugdale

Tell us what you’ve finished over the last month, what you’re currently reading, and what’s on your To Be Read stack/list. And if you’ve reviewed the books you’ve read somewhere, please include links! (To format your text, click here for an HTML cheat-sheet. If you want to embed the links in your text (like my “click here” links) instead of just pasting the link into your comment, click here.)

  • What book(s) did you finish reading (or listening to) since the last update?

  • What are you currently reading and/or listening to?

  • What’s the next book on your To Be Read stack/list?

The ABCs of Literature — A Listlet

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I wrote my own “quiz”/listlet (yes, I just made up that word) a couple of years ago and thought it would be fun to revisit it. If you like it, feel free to re-post on your blog or Facebook page, and be sure to come back and share the link in a comment!

My ABCs of Literature

List your favorite . . .

Austen (Jane) novel: Persuasion

Brontë sister’s novel: Jane Eyre

Clancy or Crichton novel and/or movie: Jurassic Park (book & film adaptation)

Dickens novel and/or film: Bleak House (it’s the only one I’ve read through, and I love the 2006 miniseries adaptation)

English class you took: History of the English Language

Frequently read author: Currently, Courtney Milan

Grisham novel and/or movie: Novel—The Rainmaker; film—A Time to Kill

Historical novel*: The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory
*Written at a time well after that in which it’s set.

Iconic fictional character: Ichabod Crane ;-)

James Joyce or Henry James? Henry James—Turn of the Screw especially

King in literature (i.e., a character who’s a king, real or fictional): King Henry V of England (Shakespeare’s version)

Lord of the Rings character: Éomer (was there any doubt?)

Movie made from classic literature: Persuasion 1995

Newberry Medal–winning book: Sarah, Plain and Tall (1986)

Oldest book you own (not necessarily “favorite,” just oldest): The entire Harvard Classics set, © 1909

Pirate in literature: Tie: “El Salvador” and “Shaw” (Ransome’s Quest)

Quiet place to read: In bed

Robin Hood version (which film/TV series?): Disney’s animated version

Shakespeare play or poem: Much Ado about Nothing

Twain (Mark) novel/story/essay: “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (short story)

USA Today Bestseller: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Villain: Loki

Walt Whitman or William Wordsworth? Whitman (Leaves of Grass is one of my favorite works of literature)

Xanthippe (an ill-tempered woman; a shrew): Lady Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing

Yawn-inducing bedtime read: Something by Dickens

Zealously protected book you’ll never part with: Victoria by Willo Davis Roberts—I’ve had it since I was fourteen or fifteen, it was what really got me motivated to start writing, it’s taped together, and I haven’t read it in years, but I’ll never part with it.

Creating Characters–Is the Devil in the Details?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

earlytudorcostumeA somewhat controversial topic has been raised on one of my writers’ loops: the poster posed the question of whether giving specific descriptions of characters’ clothing and age is a convention of the romance genre, stating that she finds it annoying to have to read what color someone’s sweater is, and that a character’s specific age isn’t important unless it’s significant to the plot (i.e., a May–December romance). Several other people responded in agreement.

Here’s my take on it:

Because I’m a visually oriented person, I prefer to have more concrete descriptions of what people are wearing and what they look like. As an author, I have to know what my characters are wearing whenever they walk into the scene. Do I always mention it? No. But the specific details of what someone is wearing can say a lot about the character and who they are. A man who is almost never seen out of a full suit—designer, tailored for a custom fit—is different from a man who wears shapeless polos and worn-in jeans. Plus there’s the emotional (and sometimes physical) reaction we have when we see what someone’s wearing: we think he’s sexy or dignified or wealthy or poor or sloppy or clueless or nerdy or whatever. We all judge those around us not just by what they look like physically, but by the clothes they choose to wear—even if we’re not aware that we’re making those judgments—and it affects how we interact with people sometimes. That’s why I include descriptions of clothing in my writing, and why I prefer reading authors who do the same.

I also want to know how old the characters are—the age of the hero/heroine and approximate ages of those people around them. Age, like clothing, is a way of giving the reader a wealth of subconscious information about the character without having to spell it out. A thirty-eight-year-old is going to have a totally different outlook on life than a twenty-eight-year-old or an eighteen-year-old. From whom would you be more likely to seek advice on which investments to make in your 401k? On where the hottest place is to meet other young professionals? On what is of interest to today’s college student? Having the POV character estimate the age of someone they don’t know—whether they appear around the same age, much older, much younger—allows the reader to make certain assumptions about the secondary character along these same lines.

Now, all that said, I will say that I DO NOT believe that every character who walks into the scene needs to have a name, full physical description, and backstory, as I suffered through in Julie Garwood’s Shadow Music. She had characters crawling out of the woodwork, and then, after a paragraph or two (hopping into their POV), never showing up again. So there is an art to learning how much description is enough.

I touched on this subject in the Showing vs. Telling series (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall and In the Eye of the Beholder) with examples from different authors who have woven the description of the character’s clothing in so that it becomes a description of the character. When used right, specific details of what the character chooses to wear can help set the scene, create a certain tone or mood surrounding the character, and give subconscious clues to who the character is.

You’re also going to find that the amount of detail that readers are expecting varies from genre to genre. Romance (especially historical), sci-fi, and fantasy tend to have a lot more physical description of the characters, and, to a lesser extent, the costuming and other personal details. Other genres, like mystery, thriller, or horror, may give only the details that are pertinent for the reader to know to draw certain conclusions or to get the feel for the peril or action the characters are experiencing.

What do you think? Do you like specific descriptions? I’m not talking about over descriptions, where each character’s outfit has to be described down to the last detail every time they walk on stage, but a few well-placed descriptions here and there.

Creating Characters—What’s in a Name?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Name Banner

The longer I’m around writers, the more I realize that there are as many ways to come up with characters and characters’ names as there are writers.

When I start developing a character, the first thing I have to do is cast him or her with a Real World Template. Most of the time, the character’s name is an integral part of “who” he or she is by this point in the process. But at times, I have trouble coming up with just the right name.

The problem with that is, I’m the type who can’t start writing until I have the names for my characters; even when I introduce a very minor character, I have to stop and work out some kind of background for that person—including a first and last name—before I can have them walk onto the “stage.”

To me, names, as much as words, have connotations. There are certain images I conjure when I hear the names Bambi, Brittany, or Courtney. There is a totally different image in my mind for the names Edna, Edith, or Gertrude. Or what about how various spellings of a name can change the connotation:

Kelley, Kelly, Kelli.
Francis, Frances, Francois.
Louis, Lewis, Luis.
Shawn, Shaun, Sean.
John, Jon, Johann, Juan.
Marsha, Marcia, Martia!

And, just as with that last example, there are cultural connotations that come with certain names. Think about some of the most recognizable names in TV or Movie lore:

Andy and Opie Taylor
James T. Kirk / Jean Luc Picard
Dana Scully & Fox Mulder
Mike, Carol, Greg, Marcia, Peter, Jan, Bobby, or Cindy Brady
Jack Bauer
James Bond

These names have reached iconic standing—most Americans would recognize any name off this list before they’d recognize Grover Cleveland or William Taft or Millard Fillmore. But with these aforementioned characters we have one major advantage: we’ve seen them in action.

When you read the names, did you picture the characters in your head? (Was it Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?) What makes these characters memorable? Their names? Or the personalities the actors bring to the roles? We remember Fox Mulder for his determined belief in UFOs and alien life; Jean Luc Picard’s bald head and British accent as he commanded, “Make it so!”; Jack Bauer hiding around a corner whispering into a cell phone while trying to save the world; or Andy and Opie walking along with their fishing rods. And of course, James Bond’s signature tuxedo and cocktail.

Names do make quite a difference to the connotation readers associate with our characters. And sociological research has proven this is true.

I once read somewhere—probably in one of the many name books I have—that before a name for a child is decided upon, the parent-to-be should perform a “playground test”: go to a crowded playground and call the full name (first-middle-last) three times. If (a) you aren’t embarrassed yelling it three times in public and (b) all of the little kids around you don’t immediately start mocking it, it’s probably a good name. “Reader test” your characters’ names. Read it out loud; just because it looks good on the page doesn’t mean it’ll sound good on the audiobook or even in your reader’s head. Have a conversation with someone (preferably another writer or someone familiar with our disease) and use the name several times. Pretend you’re introducing the character to someone important in the character’s chosen profession. What will that VIP think of your character just based on that first impression of learning his or her name?

If you read the name Scarlett in a book, whom will you immediately think of—Scarlett O’Hara or Scarlett Johansson? If you’ve never seen Gone With The Wind or read the book, you’re probably either a Millennial (born between 1980 and 2000) or you didn’t have an older sister whose favorite movie was GWTW. Utilizing the name Scarlett in the 2014 carries with it unique connotations to different demographics of readers—those over the age of 40 are more likely to think about Margaret Mitchell’s fiddle-dee-dee saying southern belle—while those under 40 will picture a redhead who likes to kick ass and holds her own with demigods and superheroes.

What about the name George? What image does it bring to your mind? George Clooney? George Takei? George Strait? George Washington? George R. R. Martin? Curious George?

When I first started writing Follow the Heart, I’d named my heroine Margaret (and called her Meg) and her maid’s name was Joan. Both serviceable names. I was having a little trouble connecting with Meg, but I figured that was because I just hadn’t spent enough time developing her character. (Joan was named Joan because the Real World Template for her character is Joanne Froggatt, best known as Anna from Downton Abbey.) But then I picked up Julie Klassen’s book The Maid of Fairbourne Hall, and not only was her main character named Margaret and called Meg, but Meg’s maid was also named Joan! (Great minds . . ., right?) So, back to the drawing board for me.

When I’d found the template I ended up using for my main character, I hadn’t yet cast her (I was template shopping and had added her to my casting book). But I had made a note—Looks like a Kate. I figured since she wasn’t a well known actress nor someone I could get lots of images and/or video of, I’d probably only ever use her as a secondary character—and for a secondary character, I could use a name that was so close to my own.

But as soon as I knew I needed to rename her, Katharine, who went by Kate, was the only name that worked. And immediately, upon making the decision to rename her, I came up on the idea of “Katharine” being, in her mind, a different persona than “Kate”—and that to find a wealthy husband, she must set unconventional, gardening-loving “Kate” aside and become straight-laced, socially acceptable “Katharine” instead. (And the reason her full name is spelled differently from mine—KathArine rather than KathErine—is in honor of my favorite actress of all time, Katharine Hepburn.)

I went through a similar process in naming the heroine in Stand-In Groom, which you can read about here. In the Ransome series, Julia started life as Elizabeth. In the original idea for what became The Art of Romance, the two main characters were Jason and Angie, and Angie’s grandmother’s nickname was Manna. Thankfully, in further working with the story and their characters, they became Dylan, Caylor, and Sassy.

An Exercise in Building Characters With and Without Names
First, try building characters from the name up.

  • Choose a name generator from this website (or find another one by Googling “name generator”)—or use favorite names of yours from childhood, interesting ethnic names you’ve heard, family names, anything—and come up with a list of five to ten names. (Just try not to pick names you already associate with a specific person, like a close family member.)
  • In a notebook (or in One Note or however you want to do this), write one name on the top of each page for however many on your list. You can stick just with first names, or you can do first-middle-last . . . whatever strikes your fancy.
  • For each one, do some free-association writing with that name:
    –What color hair does this character have?
    –How old is this character?
    –What time period does this character live in?
    –What is this character’s favorite color?
    –What kind of accent does this character have?
    –And so on.

Then, turn it around. Deliberately build a character without giving him or her a name.

  • Do not label your page.
  • Start writing about a character.
    –Time Period
    –The same thing as above—but remember, do not name the character yet.
  • Only after you have about a full page of character info and you have a pretty good “picture” of him or her on the page, come up with a name.

Which was harder? Building a character from a name or naming an established character?

For Discussion: What are your favorite character names from something you’ve read or TV/movies you’ve seen? What do the names mean to you? What are your favorite names you’ve come up with for your own characters? How did you come up with them?


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