Reading Journals

During the month of December, I saw a great many social media posts about the number of books people read during 2021, as well as posts about how many books people planned to read in 2022. Last week, as 2021 wound to a close, I watched a video of a woman setting up a beautiful reading journal. It was gorgeous, really—she got creative and decorated the pages and different “spreads,” a scrapbooking or bullet journaling term for sets of pages intended for specific purposes. I was enthralled. She started with decorating the inside cover—it was lovely, and I considered whether I might do something like that myself for 2022. She then created a cover page and a quote page–okay, very nice. Next, she created spreads for an index, a 2022 reading tracker with a goal of reading 115 books, a spread of books she especially wants to read in 2022 with space to rate them–I found anxiety begin to creep in. Finally, she created a “book bracket” to help her pick her favorite book of the year–whew!

“Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.” —David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time

At this point, I was on the verge of a panic attack. First, I have to admit, part of my reaction was due to the fact that, outside of writing, I am in no way artistic or crafty. But the biggest part of my reaction was due to where I am at in my life right now. To be fair to this woman and her absolutely delightful reading journal, I just came out of five straight years of college filled with reading lists where much of my reading material was decided for me. Even the books I chose for myself the past five years were selected with a purpose in mind–to help me learn to write a closer point-of-view or how to begin a story or how to add subtext. I kept reading journals the whole five years—as I read, I filled the journals with my thoughts, favorite quotes, notes on the way an author did a particular thing, or passages that would support what I intended to write about for the critical papers I was required to write. I read so many great books for school, and I was thrilled to read them, but still, it wasn’t quite the same as grabbing a promising-looking book from a shelf and diving into the unknown.

Reading has always been a big part of my life, but it was a major part of my life while I finished college, and it’s nice having a record of my reading experiences. But right now, racing through books to try to reach a number goal doesn’t feel the least bit enjoyable. I have a lot going on, and I tend to make everything in my life a big project with detailed lists and goals. So, for me, the thought of tracking my reading in this particular way at this particular time in my life feels overwhelming. For the record, I actually love the reading-journal-making video, and when I step back and look at it from the point of view of not having to do it myself, it is not overwhelming at all.

My 2022 reading journal: isn’t she lovely?

During school, I kept my reading journals in plain notebooks. This year, I did treat myself to a fancy reading journal in which I likely will not create any spreads. I’m just planning to note the titles and authors of the books I read throughout the year. I just want a space to note anything that comes to mind while I’m reading the book. I especially love writing down favorite passages. So it will be similar to the journals I’ve been keeping, but only with a fancy cover to celebrate beginning a new journey–reading not as a student, but as a working writer who will always be a student of the work I am reading.

But I will not be setting a number goal of books to be read by the end of the year. Instead, my reading goals this year are both more abstract and more focused. I plan to make space in my life for reading in a way that adds more to my life as a human being and as a writer, for example, reading before bed rather than watching television. (Too much screen time for work and social media has been a killer lately.) I also plan to read more books by Latinx writers and other BIPOC writers. I plan to buy my books from brick-and-mortar stores this year, but I also plan to make use of our local lending library and to read books that are already waiting for me on my shelves or in my TBR stacks. Finally, I plan to be especially choosy about the books I write reviews for this year and to give those books my best–I want my book reviews to matter.

I started the year off with a palate cleanser, a book designed to clear my head and reaffirm my intentions for reading books. It’s a book that’s helping me find my way back into reading for myself and myself alone: The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time by David L. Ulin. As I write this, I’m finding that the book is already helping me re-decide for myself what reading means to me, what it gives me, and how it makes me better in ways that count. If you’re interested, you can get a taste by reading “The Lost Art of Reading,” Ulin’s Los Angeles Times essay that inspired the book.

The next book I’m going to read this year is …. Actually, I have no clue which book I’m going to read next, and that’s part of the fun. I’ll make that decision when the time comes. Whether I read a dozen books or fifty books or one hundred books this year, my biggest goal is to enjoy reading.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not averse to more complex and goal-oriented reading journals. They’re just not for me right now, coming off several years of goal-oriented reading. It’s something I may try in the future, when my life is a little less complex.

If you’re into creating a reading journal, here are a few articles with creative and beautiful ideas for spreads:

My Bullet Journal Makes Me a Better Reader

8 Creative Ways to Track Books in Your Bullet Journal

Bullet Journal Spreads and Ideas for Book Readers and Bloggers

You can also find lots of ideas on Pinterest, as well as reading journal tutorials on YouTube. Here’s the lovely video I watched last month and again, in a less-panicked mode, this morning, before I wrote this post:

What are your reading goals for 2022? I’d love to hear about them–please chime in on Twitter or Instagram.

READER TIP: Whether it’s simple or complex, I really do recommend that all writers keep a reading journal. I started doing so five years ago, and it’s been life-changing. Overall, it’s added to my love of reading, and it’s nice to be able to go back and find things like a particular quote you loved, a thought the reading inspired, or an idea that informs your work-in-progress.
2022 goals, New year resolution. Woman in white sweater writing Text 2022 goals in open notepad on the table. Start new year, planning and setting goals for the next year.

The Power of Persistence

Over the past month, I’ve been setting out the steps for turning your writing dreams into attainable goals:

1.  Set your dreams down in writing (The Power of Words);

2.  Create specific goals (The Power of Goals);

3.  Create a plan to reach your goals (The Power of a Plan);

4.  Focus on one goal at a time (The Power of Focus).

And now:

5.  Reaffirm your goals on a daily basis and never give up. This is the power of persistence, and it’s the final and best step in any successful plan to reach a goal.

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff. And then gradually, you get better at it. That’s why I say the most valuable trait is persistence.” –Octavia E. Butler

Once you’ve set a goal for yourself and designed a plan for reaching it, the secret to getting there is to keep going and never give up. Take steps toward that goal each and every day. In football terms, keep moving the ball forward. You might periodically re-evaluate your goals and re-work them or revise them, but never forsake them. As long as you keep moving toward your goals at a steady pace, you will eventually reach them.

I firmly believe persistence is the most powerful element in turning a vague dream for the future into a tangible goal. Some people in my family might call it stubbornness, but when I have a setback, I generally (after the appropriate amount of whining) try and try again.

To be persistent, you have to be ready to weather periods of discouragement. I assure you there will be days when you return to your previous, negative patterns of thinking and convince yourself you will never achieve your dreams. The key is to be tenacious, to ride out those bad days, and to wake up the next morning with renewed resolve.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” –Calvin Coolidge

Let’s take quitting smoking as an example. Some smokers joke, “I can quit smoking whenever I want. I’ve quit 236 times!” It’s kinda funny and sorta sad because it plays on how addictive tobacco is. But actually, quitting smoking over and over again is the key to eventually kicking the cigarette habit for good. Quitting smoking is an area where persistence really pays off. Studies show that the more times a smoker tries to quit smoking, the more likely it is they will eventually quit for good.

So, if quitting smoking is your goal, it’s possible you may quit smoking for a couple of weeks and then relapse and smoke a cigarette, or two cigarettes, or even binge on a full pack of cigarettes. The key to eventually kicking the habit for good is persistence. This means not using relapse as an excuse—give it your best effort without keeping relapse in mind as a possibility. But if you do relapse and smoke again, don’t give up. Wake up the next morning resolved to quit again. And again. And again. Until you get it right. You resolve to quit smoking every single day, however many times it takes, until it sticks.

It’s the same with any goal. For example, if you dream of becoming debt free, your first goal might be to freeze your level of debt by developing the habit of not incurring new debt. Your second goal might be to reduce spending to free up more cash to repay your debts. Your third goal might be to start an emergency savings account so that you aren’t forced to borrow when life’s emergencies come along. A fourth goal might be to earn a little extra income so you can pay off your debts more quickly.

You will likely face some setbacks, especially in the beginning. You might have to charge a necessary auto repair to a credit card because you don’t yet have enough in savings to cover it. You may spend unbudgeted money on dinner out because you haven’t yet developed a strong habit of planning ahead for meals at home. You might skip a deposit to your new savings account in favor of buying those fabulous new shoes with the kitten heels you saw in the Avanti store window. The key is not to be perfect. The key is to keep trying in the face of obstacles and to forgive yourself for mistakes. The fastest path to giving up is to dwell on past mistakes until you are too discouraged to keep trying.

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” –Octavia E. Butler

Persistence is a secret weapon. Persistence will turn any dream into reality. This is especially true of writing dreams, because writing can be one hell of a rollercoaster and often consists of a whole lot of rejection. Artists often suffer from imposter syndrome–when you convince yourself you aren’t good enough or you don’t belong, it’s easy to convince yourself to abandon your dreams.

If you’re going to succeed as a writer, you have to develop a thick skin and learn to slough it off when you’re rebuffed. In the writing business, rejection is not personal. It’s just that—business. And it means nothing more than this: you haven’t yet found your perfect fit in terms of a market, agent, or publisher. Remember that your very best writing is perfect, just as it is, for someone.

Don’t listen to negative self-talk. Even more importantly, don’t listen to negative talk from others–it’s amazing to me that the most supportive friends and family members in a writer’s life often have no problem discouraging that writer’s dreams. Be determined, keep at it, never give up. If you do, you will eventually reach your goals. That’s a promise.

I return to this video time and again when I’m feeling discouraged. If nothing else, it puts a smile on my face:

WRITER TIP: Keep trying. Persistence is nothing more than trying over and over and over again. How do you become persistent? You get up every morning and do it again. The more days you do that, the more proud of yourself you’ll be, and the easier it will be to do it again the next day. Another good idea which I’ll blog about soon is to develop a plan for those days when you’re not feeling very tenacious or motivated. What can you do today toward your goal, even if you don’t feel like doing anything?

The Power of Focus

I’m a big fan of dreaming without limits. But something I’ve learned the hard way is that, if you ever want to reach your dream life, it’s important to focus your efforts.

Focus, visualization, and determination are powerful tools that will help you to reach even the most seemingly impossible goals. Rather than spreading yourself too thin and going after many goals at once, prioritize; focus on one or two of your most important goals, and put your time, energy, and effort into achieving those goals.

The power of focus is that, once you set your mind on a particular goal and keep that goal in your sights each and every day, you will suddenly find yourself moving toward that goal in leaps and bounds. It’s amazing! You will achieve your goal much more rapidly than you ever will if you go after your goals in a scattered way or give them only a fraction of your time and attention. I know it sounds simplistic, but all things being equal, it’s true.

Also, once you achieve the first goal, you’ll have a powerful affirmation of your abilities … and of future possibilities. Achieving one goal will set into motion a cycle of success after success, and you will soon be checking goals off your list right and left.

Here’s an example: I once dreamed of living near the beach in a place with an ocean view. At the time, I was living in a home I had purchased some years earlier in a hot, dry, mountainous area of the county, about thirty miles inland from the beach. I was unhappy for many reasons, but location and weather was one of them. I have always been happier when I can walk on the beach and am in a cooler climate. It improves my health, relieves stress, and puts me in a better frame of mind.

The house was badly in need of repairs before it could be put on the market, and there were lots of other obstacles standing in my way as well. I didn’t have the money or the necessary skills to make repairs. I was depressed and unmotivated. There was so much to do before I would ever be able to live my dream life. It seemed impossible and overwhelming at the time. I felt stuck.

But to be honest, the biggest obstacle was that I was doing nothing to move toward my goal, other than vaguely wishing each and every day of my life that things were different. I finally realized I had to start moving toward my goal in some small way or I would be stuck forever. My dream wasn’t going to happen all on its own—I had to do something to make it happen.

I made a list and decided that selling my house in the mountains was the first thing I needed to do in order to begin moving toward my bigger goal of living closer to the beach. So, I decided to focus on that goal, and that goal only, and to forget the rest for the time being. As the old saying goes, “How do you move a mountain? One rock at a time.”

One obstacle was the fact that I was a working single mom, with limited time to focus on much more than getting through each day. Also, it’s hard to get yourself moving when you’re depressed. I had to put some serious time management skills to work in order to reach my goals. Once I’d organized my time a little better, I reminded myself each morning on my drive to work that my only current goal was to get that home sold. I stopped thinking about all the rest and focused on that one goal. Every evening on my drive home from work, I thought about what I could do that evening to move toward my goal.

For the time being, I didn’t allow myself to get overwhelmed by thinking beyond selling that house. I reminded myself that I was wholeheartedly committed to reaching that goal and made a list of the things I needed to do to get there. During evenings and weekends, I began doing something, anything, no matter how small, toward the goal of selling my house. I began painting, doing yard work, and making whatever small repairs I could do on my own. I began investigating what was needed for the larger repairs and researching costs. I began familiarizing myself with the housing market in my area and making phone calls to realtors about putting the house up for sale. I started getting the word out.

The power of focus is amazing. Within one month after I began putting all of my time, energy, and effort into the single-minded goal of selling the house, my next-door neighbor called me. He told me he’d heard through the grapevine I was interested in selling. He offered to buy the house in its current condition. Escrow closed within a month after he first called. During escrow, I started looking for a new place to live.

Less than two months from the day I made my decision to focus on selling the house, I was living in a townhouse less than a block from the beach with views looking out over the ocean. Some people may think that this was mere luck, and they may be partly right. But, I strongly believe we have to help luck along with our own efforts. Had I not started moving toward the goal of repairing and selling the house, I have no doubt I’d still be sitting in that house feeling sorry for myself.

Once the original goal of selling the house was met, my other goals began to fall into place. Had I continued to look only at the big picture, had I continued to be overwhelmed and paralyzed by the enormity of everything I wanted to accomplish, I would never have been able to accomplish anything. By focusing totally and completely on one goal at a time, I was able to achieve a number of big goals in a matter of a couple of months. This is the power of focus.

What does this have to do with writing? you may ask. Everything. I didn’t start making progress as a writer until I started pursuing my writing goals with the same focus I used to sell my house. Two and a half years ago, I hadn’t published a thing. I saw other writers I knew posting on social media about their publications, and I couldn’t imagine myself ever getting there. My dream of being a published writer was a hazy one. But when I started focusing on one goal at a time and taking small actions toward my writing goals each and every day, things started to happen. Before I knew it, one writing dream after another became a reality.

WRITER TIP: From your list of goals for 2022, pick one writing goal to focus on. Make it a habit to think about your goal for a few seconds every morning when you wake up and again every night before you go to sleep–remind yourself that this is your focus for now. Try to do something small each day to move toward your goal. Your dream life may seem far away, but you can change your entire life one goal at a time.

The Power of a Plan

Last week, I wrote about setting goals for your writing and mentioned a famous quote from Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”

A man, a plan, a canal—Panama. This is much more than my daughter’s favorite palindrome. It’s a blueprint for success.

When Theodore Roosevelt dreamed of building a canal through Panama, he didn’t just pick up a shovel and start digging a ditch. He seized an opportunity and made a plan. French efforts to build the canal had failed miserably. After years of digging, the French had spent nearly $300 billion on the canal. 20,000 French lives had been lost in the work. After all of this, the French had only 11 miles of canal to show for their effort. When the French abandoned the canal effort in 1888, Theodore Roosevelt saw an opportunity to fulfill his dream of building a canal across Panama.

In 1902, after becoming President of the United States, Roosevelt negotiated the purchase of the canal property from France. He then came up with a plan. Roosevelt first studied the reasons the French effort to build a canal had failed. He then used what he had learned to create a workable plan which included addressing the previous obstacles to building a canal across Panama. He negotiated a treaty with the country of Panama and obtained their permission to build the canal, as well as their cooperation. He enlisted the financial backing of some of America’s richest and most powerful citizens, including J.P. Morgan. Roosevelt then organized a building effort and hired qualified people to oversee various aspects of the construction. He hired Chief Engineer John Stevens, who designed a plan to clean up the canal zone. He hired Dr. William Gorgas to oversee sanitation, including the eradication of disease-carrying mosquitos. He provided workers with comfortable housing and good food. He later hired Stevens’s successor, Thomas Goethals, who carried on an organized and persistent building effort.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” –Yogi Berra

In 1914, the Panama Canal was completed, forever revolutionizing international travel and trade. But Roosevelt laid a lot of groundwork before he started work on the canal. He visualized where he wanted to be, then he figured out how to get there.

Coming up with a plan is the first step to building your dream writing life. Where do you want to end up? Visualize your desired end result and work backward, writing down a list of steps to help you reach your goal. Then, pick something from your list you can do right now. Today. Do you want to write your first novel? Write down what they call in the movie industry a logline or tagline: In one or two sentences, what is your novel going to be about? Or start an outline–a map within a map! Are you writing a historical novel or a novel that will require some research? Spend an hour doing some preliminary research that will make beginning the writing of your novel easier. Do you want to get a short story published? Research ten “markets” (literary journals or magazines) where your story would be a good fit. Are you struggling with writing consistently? Set up a dedicated writing space and a writing schedule—will you write three pages each morning? or write for an hour each evening? Whatever it is, start building the habit of consistency.

Do your homework, decide what it will take to achieve your dream, and then map out a plan that will lead you to your ultimate destination. If you follow your map, you can’t help but reach your destination.

WRITER TIP: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Goals can seem overwhelming when you only look at the big picture. “I want to publish a bestselling novel” is a daunting goal. But when you break it down into its tiny parts, you can get there, one step at a time. As novelist E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Glowing lightbulb above the word "goals" spelled out in wooden blocks against a light blue background.

The Power of Goals

This is a case history. I’m sharing my long, arduous, and disjointed writing journey with you in the hopes you can skip to the good part.

I started writing short stories in elementary school.

In my teens, I shifted to writing very bad, very schmaltzy, very angsty poetry.

In my twenties: As an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I applied to the creative writing program. Before I got a response, my life shifted drastically, and I dropped out of college. I’ll never know if I would have been accepted.

I kept writing.

In my thirties: I submitted a short story to Redbook magazine. I got back a tiny, form rejection slip printed in red ink. When I read the “story” now, I realize it’s not even a story. It’s 5,000 words of me grieving the end of my marriage. But I cherished that rejection slip. I still have it. It’s proof of me putting myself out there.

I kept writing.

In my forties: I had an opportunity through a local writers’ conference to have a published author critique one of my stories. Catherine Ryan Hyde, the author of Pay it Forward, told me she liked my story. She said I had a natural understanding of story arc and that she was sure she would see one of my stories in print someday. Much better feedback than I’d gotten from Redbook. I was elated.

I kept writing.

image of a young woman writer at the table with typewriter, wearing glasses, suspenders and a bow tie, and a straw hat, and imaging words coming out of her typewriter.

In my fifties: I went back to college to finish my bachelor’s degree in English. I chose an emphasis in creative writing.

I kept writing.

And writing.

And writing.

But I didn’t submit anything for publication. Nothing. NOT. A. THING.

In my sixties: I graduated from the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. I know there’s a lot of debate about “to MFA or not to MFA,” but I think it depends a great deal on the program. At UCR Palm Desert, I not only learned to be a better writer, I learned how to focus my efforts. I began to approach my writing dreams the way I approached other things in my life. I set financial goals, health goals, career goals. Why wouldn’t I set writing goals, too?

In 2019, I submitted three pieces to various markets. One (a poem) was accepted and published in a fundraising anthology. One (an essay) was rejected. One (another essay) languished for a year—I withdrew it when it was accepted for publication elsewhere in 2020.

In 2020, I submitted to various literary journals and magazines eight times. Three times my pieces were rejected, three times my pieces were accepted, and twice my pieces were withdrawn when they were eventually accepted elsewhere. I fell far short of my goal, though. I’d gone into the year with a goal of racking up 100 rejections—a game strategy recommended by a peer who told me that, if I tried to rack up 100 rejections, I’d surely end up with at least a couple of acceptances. This made sense to me and appealed to my goal-oriented personality.

New Years Resolutions Goals motivational phrase in open notebook on the table. Outdoor still life with My Goals motivational text. Self-development and motivation.

In 2021, I decided to do things differently. Focusing on rejections wasn’t the right mindset for me, I realized. For one thing, it focused on the negative versus the positive. But for another, it was a goal I had little control over. I like being in control. Publishers take a long time to respond to submissions—I can’t control how many rejections come back to me in a year, so that goal isn’t giving me the kind of motivation I need. What I can control is how many things I send out into the world. So for 2021, I set a goal to reach 100 submissions. So far, I’m at 106 submissions for the year. Of those, I’ve had 49 rejections, two acceptances, and I withdrew one piece when it was accepted elsewhere. That leaves 54 submissions still out there as I head into the new year. This is what Catherine Ryan Hyde calls “keeping hope in the mail.”

If you’ve read this far, you’ll notice two things: (1) It’s never too late to pursue your writing dreams in earnest; and (2) things finally started to happen for me when I began setting specific, measured goals for my writing. In the years before now, I squeezed in writing when and where I could, but I wasn’t consistent about it, and I didn’t have any direction. I wasn’t disciplined. I read books, but I didn’t apply any of the things I was learning about writing from successful writers to my own writing. These things used to cause me a lot of remorse—I felt like I’d wasted so much time. But to be honest, nothing I wrote in my early years was anywhere close to ready. I needed all those years of practice. And I needed to learn to write.

But I also needed a sense of direction and to set goals. I never once considered where I was going with my writing—I just wrote and had vague dreams of publishing a book someday. I never stopped to think about how that was supposed to happen. I guess I figured a writing fairy godmother was going to drop in unannounced, find me scribbling away diligently, and reward me with a book deal. That’s not how it works.

My stats over the past three years don’t sound all that great. Out of 117 submissions, I’ve had six acceptances. Something like a five percent success rate. But let’s look at it this way: Out of the nineteen stories and essays I’ve been submitting, I’ve found homes for six of them. That’s the result of persistence, and that’s a thirty-two percent success rate. Plus I still have a whole lot of hope in the mail. And a whole new year ahead of me.

WRITER TIP: An exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is famously paraphrased as: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Major League Baseball catcher and manager Yogi Berra said it better, I think: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” While the writing itself is the most important thing, be sure to give some thought to where you want to go with your writing, and then set some goals to help you get there.
Table to with a notebook that says 2022 goals surrounded by an envelope on the left, a small holiday gift and sparkly ornament at the top, and a pen on the right.

The Power of Words

I gave up making New Year’s Resolutions a long time ago, but every December since the year 2000, I’ve made a list of goals for the coming year. I used to type them, but beginning in 2009, I started writing the lists down by hand in my “dream journal,” a separate journal that houses my dreams. In addition to my annual lists of goals, I keep other lists in my dream journal, like a list of places I want to visit and an extensive list of all the places I’ve lived since I was three years old. I also jot down little notes in my dream journal: observations, quotes, and things that move me, inspire me, or motivate me.

I’ve written down a list of anywhere from 10 to 25 goals each year for the past 20+ years. I’ve never once accomplished every goal on the list, but I’m okay with that. If I accomplish even half of them, I’ve still gotten somewhere. And over time, I’ve accomplished quite a lot. Some goals make the list for several years before I actually accomplish them. I first wrote “Earn Bachelor’s Degree” on my 2012 list. I didn’t go back to college until 2016, and I didn’t earn my bachelor’s degree until 2018. But I set that intention, and I kept writing it down and putting it into words until it came true. In 2016, I set a goal of submitting 12 short stories to literary journals. I didn’t accomplish that goal until this year. I’m still working on my goals to beat my best 5K time and to watch all of the Academy Award winners for Best Picture. I’ll get there someday. But the thing is, I’ve steadily made progress, and my life is considerably better than it was before I started writing my goals down.

As I begin to consider my goals for 2022, I find myself thinking about the power words have had in my life. The power of writing my goals down and setting my intentions for the future, yes. But also the power of the words others use to define me, and the power of the words I use to define myself. Like when I was in seventh grade, and I had to stand up in front of my English class and give an oral report on Virginia Dare. I was terrified. I wore a chocolate brown dress my mother made for me. My teacher wrote each of us a handwritten letter giving her feedback on our reports. At the end of mine, she wrote, “Brown is definitely your color!” As I write this nearly 50 years later, I still have that piece of paper tucked away somewhere, and I just realized I’m wearing my favorite chocolate brown sweater. The power of words.

Close up of notebook or journal with heading 2022 goals. A woman in a bulky oatmeal colored sweater and jeans is writing in the notebook.

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher sent me to the library to help with a kindergarten class. I sat cross-legged on the carpet with some of the children and read to them, then I helped them pick out library books. It wasn’t anything super memorable. In fact, I probably wouldn’t remember that afternoon at all except for two things: (1) It was the day I checked Island of the Blue Dolphins out of the library–I can still picture it displayed on a book easel on top of a shelf; and (2) when I left, the kindergarten teacher thanked me for my help and told me I showed a lot of “initiative.” I didn’t know what the word “initiative” meant. I had to go look it up in the dictionary. When I did, I felt a sense of pride. The kindergarten teacher had seen this awesome personality trait in me that I didn’t even know existed, let alone that I possessed.

To be honest, I’m not sure I really showed any initiative in the library that day. I was quiet and introverted as a child, and I don’t remember doing anything other than what I was sent there to do. But between my own teacher choosing me for the job and the kindergarten teacher complimenting me, that day was a boost to my self-esteem and helped to develop my character. If I didn’t have initiative when I left the library that day, I sure do have it now, many years later. I believed I had initiative, and so I displayed it at every opportunity. Today, this is a quality I really do have. That kindergarten teacher gave me a word that changed my life.

As an adult, I worked as a music promoter for a few years. One night, after I insisted a sleazy venue manager give my band the slot he’d promised, a famous rock musician told me I was tenacious. To be honest, up until that night, I hadn’t seen my unwillingness to give up or give in as a positive trait. I often saw it as obstinacy, a dogged and sometimes reckless refusal to get it through my thick skull that something wasn’t meant to be. But that night, when the musician told me I was tenacious and said it in an admiring way, I began to see myself differently. Sure, that kind of stubbornness meant I eventually failed at a lot of things. But it sometimes meant I persisted long enough to succeed, too.

Persistence and thick skins are things writers need. To keep writing and rewriting, trying to spill the things in your head out onto paper in such a way that others can see you, in such a way that other human beings know that you see them, is hard on the soul. To continue submitting your stories, little pieces of you, to literary journals day after day, and to be told they’re not wanted the overwhelming majority of the time, is hard on the heart. Out of the 49 submissions I’ve received responses to so far this year, 47 of those responses were rejections. It would be so easy to get discouraged and give up. I’ll admit it—sometimes I think it would be a relief to give up and do something else. Just about anything else.

But in those moments, I remember that scene in The Notebook when Noah tells Allie she’s a pain in the ass, and I know I’m made of stronger stuff than that. “I’m not afraid to hurt your feelings,” he says. “You have like a two-second rebound rate and you’re back doing the next pain in the ass thing.” This is me. I am tenacious. Or stubborn. Either way, literary journals aren’t afraid to hurt my feelings, and sure, it hurts to be rejected—for like two seconds. Then I get over it. I roll up the sleeves of my chocolate brown sweater, and I send them another story. Surely they’ll love this one.

As I put my goals into words this month and set my intentions for 2022, I’m going to keep in mind the power that words have, not only to help me set my course for the coming year, but to encourage me and keep me pushing forward. When it comes to pursuing a writing career, being stubborn is a good thing.

WRITER TIP: Start a dream journal. There is power in setting your intentions for the future, putting your goals into words, and writing your dreams for yourself down in ink. Each year, write your goals for that year in your dream journal. Write down specific, measurable goals, and cross them off as you achieve them. If you don’t reach a goal one year, move it to the next year, and keep setting that intention until you reach the goal. As the years go by and you look back at your lists, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ve accomplished.

NaNoWriMo: Preparing for 50,000 Words

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) kicks off at midnight, Monday, November 1st.

What Is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is a month-long challenge for writers. The goal is to write a novel in one month, or more specifically, to write 50,000 words. 50,000 words isn’t generally enough for a novel. Depending on the genre, most novels are closer to the 90,000-word range, give or take. But 50,000 words is one heck of a great start.

In the past, NaNoWriMo was much more strict—in order to “win,” participants were required to write the first 50,000 words of a brand new novel. They’ve lightened up on that. Writers now have the option to be “traditional WriMos” or to be “rebels”—rebels are participants who are writing anything but the first 50,000 words of a brand new novel. I’ve twice done NaNoWriMo the traditional way, but one year, I wrote the second half of a novel I’d already started, and last year I wrote a bunch of new short stories. A friend worked on her memoir one year and an essay project another year. I like this change—it feels more inclusive and allows us to meet NaNoWriMo where we are at in our writing lives.

Things I Love About NaNoWriMo

There are several things I love about NaNoWriMo:

It helps writers build a writing habit. If a writer isn’t already into the habit of writing daily or regularly, NaNoWriMo is a great way to kickstart that habit.

It’s empowering. By the end of November, so many writers are going to learn that they can do something they never thought they could do before.

It offers writers community, support, and encouragement. Writing is a solitary life for the most part, and I love the community spirit of support and encouragement that NaNoWriMo creates.

It applies game theory to writing. NaNoWriMo brings out my competitive spirit—it “gamifies” writing in a way that is fun and encouraging. The rest of the year, when I finish a morning of writing, there is no one here to give me a colorful badge or a shout out. But during the month of November, I’m a superhero.

Things That Aren’t My Favorite

There are some things about NaNoWriMo that aren’t my favorite. Or rather, things that are outside my comfort zone. For one thing, it’s a lot more social than an introverted writer might be comfortable with. Writers can socialize, share progress and tips, and motivate one another on the website’s forums, both local and worldwide. Social media offers opportunities for “word sprints”—timed segments of speed writing, maybe 15 minutes at a time, sometimes with writing prompts, to help writers reach their daily word counts. F

Pre-pandemic, I participated in a couple of in-person “write-ins”—local groups usually meet at midnight the first night for a kick-off event, then meet on other occasions throughout the month, at a coffee shop or some other community space, to write together. I’m more of a solitary writer, get distracted easily, and don’t find group writing conducive to my best work, but I did enjoy meeting local writers in person. I’m still friends with someone I met at my very first write-in back in 2013.

I’m easily distracted. Writing is hard work, and it’s sometimes more fun to talk about writing with my peers than it is to keep my ass in the seat. So for me, these social tools can easily become ways to avoid writing–I already have enough of those. But write-ins, forums, and other social outlets may be great motivators for others. Peer pressure works. I mean, you can’t show up to a write-in and then goof off on social media, or wander into the kitchen to make a bowl of cereal, or cozy up on the couch to watch Ted Lasso. You’re kinda forced to write, right? And of course, the social aspects are all optional.

To Plan or Not to Plan?

Something I’ve learned about myself over the past nine years is that, unless I want to come out of NaNoWriMo with a sloppy mess that is in such bad shape that I may as well start over, it’s a good idea to do at least some preparation ahead of time. Some WriMos are “pantsers”—they belly up to their keyboards on November 1st with nothing more than a vague idea floating around in their heads. Others are “planners”—they come into NaNoWriMo armed with a detailed outline of their novel, and when it comes time to write, all they have to do is flesh it out. A hybrid has evolved called a “plantser”—this is a WriMo who starts with a loose structure for their novel, but not a detailed outline. A comfortable mix of planning and spontaneity. I’m more of a plantser. By November 1st, I’ll have a loose and flexible outline. Pantsing feels like chaos to me, while over-planning doesn’t leave me with the room I like for my story to evolve and change course. The Goldilocks in me has found plantsing to be just right.

How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo

Sign up and check out the website’s tools and resources. The first thing to do is head over to the NaNoWriMo website, register, and set up your profile and this year’s project. You can find and join your local forum and browse some of the other forums. The NaNoWriMo website has a planning handbook to help you get ready: NaNo Prep 101. You can also read some of the encouraging “pep talks” by successful writers: NaNo Pep Talks. These are super motivating and encouraging.

Get yourself a calendar to track your progress. The Official NaNoWriMo Calendar lists important dates and events, but I also love this free downloadable and printable calendar that David Seah created to help writers track their word counts and stay motivated: NaNoWriMo Word Calendar. I love adding up my word count on the NaNoWriMo website every day and earning those badges, but I also love having something on the wall near my computer where I can visually see the progress I’m making.

Clear the decks. Writing an average of 1,667 words a day for 30 days straight can be challenging. It’s helpful to go into it prepared. On top of creating a loose outline, I try to clear the decks a little before November 1st rolls around. I’ve deep-cleaned my house, caught up on laundry, stocked up on some groceries, and written ahead so I have the blog posts and book reviews I need for the month of November.

Give yourself some downtime to do the thinking part of writing. Once I start writing in November, at the end of each day, I’ll try to plan ahead a little bit for the next day. For me, this will probably mean going for a walk and thinking about where I left off and where I want to pick up when I’m back at my keyboard the next morning. When I get too busy to take breaks, daydream, and let my mind wander for a little while every day, my writing suffers.

Use that extra hour. Keep in mind we’ll set our clocks back an hour on November 7th. You can take advantage of that to get up at the same time of the morning you usually would, which will be an hour early, and use that extra hour to write.

In Closing

I’m about to participate in NaNoWriMo for the fifth time. I’ve participated four of the last eight years, and I’ve skipped four of the last eight years. Each of the four years I’ve participated, I’ve tried to talk myself out of it. There are so many reasons I should not be doing NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve got a lot going on, and I’m sure you do, too. But then I think about the fact that writing is the most important thing to me, and I think about how empowering it is to prove to myself that I can do this. That enthusiasm carries over into the following months, something that’s helpful because, thanks to imposter syndrome, I have to keep proving to myself that I can do hard things over and over again. And I get excited thinking about what I’m going to have at the end of November. I’ve sometimes regretted not doing it, but I’ve never once regretted doing it.

WRITER TIP: Take the plunge! Make the commitment to participate in National Novel Writing Month in November 2021.

Game Theory and Writing

During a recent workshop, some friends were discussing “gamifying” or counting submissions—keeping track of the number of times a writer has submitted something for publication or has had a piece accepted or rejected. The consensus among my friends was that it isn’t truly being a creative person or a writer to keep track of the numbers like that. I think I understand where they are coming from, and I’ll clarify that in a moment. It certainly isn’t for everyone. But keeping track works for me, and so I wanted to write about why it works for me.

What is Gamifying?

When it comes to writing, gamifying is basically applying “game theory” to your writing or submission goals by making a game out of achieving those goals.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a perfect example of gamifying writing goals. Participants set a goal to write 50,000 words during the month of November. They receive support, encouragement, and colorful badges along the way. If they finish, they end up with a 50,000-word novel or start to a novel, are awarded a certificate, and get some cool little prizes–win, win!

Many of us gamify writing without realizing it, e.g., by setting daily wordcount, page number, or timed writing goals. I don’t gamify my writing, but I gamify my submission process. My game is a simple one: reach 100 submissions in 2021 and I win.

There are a number of different writing and submitting “games” out there, as well as Facebook groups dedicated to racking up as many submissions or rejections as one can in a year’s time. I’ll link to a few articles that address specific games at the end of the post.

For now, here’s a great TED Talk by Jane McGonigal on applying game theory to improving mental health:

 

Why Gamifying Submissions Works For Me

Gamifying submissions works for me because I have a goal-oriented (and perhaps rather obsessive) personality. Without a goal in mind, it’s easy for me to push submitting my stories—something that is just for me and something that is, frankly, a lot of hard work—to the backburner, in favor of the things I should be doing or would rather be doing.

On the other hand, if I set a goal, I’m probably going to reach it because it will frustrate me not to. In 2020, I set a goal of reaching 100 rejections. That goal did not work for me because “rejections” has a negative versus a positive connotation. Also, I like to have some control over things, and rejections aren’t something I can control. (Nor do I want to—if I had my druthers, I’d prefer zero rejections, thank you very much.) What I can control is how many things I send out. So for 2021, I set a goal of reaching 100 submissions. That works better for me, but reaching for 100 rejections might work better for someone else.

How to Make Gamifying Submissions Work for You

If you think game theory might help you reach your submission goals, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Only submit work that is ready.

I gave this a lot of thought, and I think I get what my friends meant when they said submitting and keeping score is not writing. What I think this assumes is that a writer is cranking out work in order to try to reach those numbers. That is definitely not the way to go. Setting a submission goal only works if we submit work that is ready to submit. People are out there reading our writing (most of them volunteers), and we don’t want to get a reputation for wasting their time by sending them stuff that isn’t our best work. Most of the stories and essays I’m submitting in 2021 are stories and essays I spent one or two years or more writing and rewriting.

2. Submit with care and consideration.

Take the time to read and research the markets to which you’re submitting your work, and do your best to submit to the places you think are best suited to the particular story or essay. Don’t submit work willy nilly just to reach numbers.

I’ve submitted my work 97 times so far this year. I was able to reach 97 submissions because, after writing and not submitting work for many years, I had enough finished, ready work to send out to 97 journals. And it’s not 97 separate pieces, mind you. I’m not Stephen Graham Jones. It’s maybe a dozen pieces that I’ve submitted to a few places at a time. If they’re rejected, I submit them somewhere else.

In fact, in planning for this blog post, I thought I’d go ahead and submit three more times and get to 100 submissions so I could share with you that I’d reached my goal. But to do so, I would have had to send stories out to journals that weren’t a good fit or that I am not ready to submit to. Don’t do that to reach a number.

3. Keep your writing time separate and sacred.

Live a writing life and make writing and creating a priority, even if that sometimes means not writing and taking a walk on the beach to clear your head and think about your story. I write many hours each week. But I set aside time each week to submit work, too. I consider this a part of the business side of being a writer. I have a short list of pieces that are ready to submit, and I’m working on getting those published. Getting stories and essays published will help me reach my longer-term writing goals. But I have a much longer list of work that is not ready, and that creative work gets the lion’s share of my time. I am not rushing that work in order to reach 100 submissions.

Here are some articles you might find interesting as you set your own writing and submission goals:

Game Theory in Writing Part 1: Goals vs. Milestones (by David Steffen for DiabolicalPlots.com)

Game Theory in Writing Part 2: Gamifying Your Submission Process (by David Steffen for DiabolicalPlots.com)

Career Bingo (Christie Yant, linked to by David Steffen in his Game Theory articles)

The Race (Dean Wesley Smith)

WRITER TIP: If your writing or publishing goals keep getting pushed aside in favor of dumb things like feeding the kids or doing the dishes, consider whether setting specific, reachable goals for 2022 might help you to keep your eyes on the prize.

Plan A

About ten years ago, I asked myself, “What would you be willing to do, what would you be willing to give up, to create the life you’ve always dreamed for yourself?” The answer, in the past, appeared to have been, “Not much.”

I was a writer who never made time to write. I was a book lover who rarely found time to read. I was a vegetarian who didn’t eat many vegetables–I’d given up meat, but had devolved into much more of a carbohydrate-arian than anything else. I wasn’t happy.

Inside of me, there lurked an artist, but I didn’t create. I was too busy trying to set my life up perfectly so that I’d have the time and money to create. I worked full-time, and in my spare time, I went to school–always for things that didn’t float my boat, but that seemed practical. I started side businesses I didn’t much enjoy, but that I thought would eventually buy me the freedom to live the life of my dreams. Then I could write. I abandoned new projects as quickly as I started them, jumping from one thing to another, never taking anything all the way through to its completion.

Above all, I always had a Plan B. A plan for when I failed as a writer. I started law school three times, but not because I wanted to be an attorney. I didn’t. But I’d worked as a paralegal for many years, and the law was something I was good at. Although I suspected I would be miserable as an attorney, it seemed a good back-up career should I fail to make it as a writer. Once I was making a comfortable living as an attorney, then I could write.

I’d failed as an entrepreneur, failed as a music promoter, failed as a beerista–you name it, I’d tried it and given up on it. But in the back of my mind, there was this notion that, once I’d found and settled into a great Plan B, I’d have the freedom to proceed with Plan A and do what I really wanted to do.

The trouble is, as they say, life very easily becomes all the things that happen while you are making other plans. Everything I’d done in my life, all of my time, money, and effort, had been in support of having a back-up plan should my imagined writing career not work out. In the process, I not only lost myself, but my enthusiasm for living. Living a Plan B life is definitely not where it’s at.

And so I arrived at that place ten years ago when I asked myself, “Where would I be if I had instead put all that time and effort into writing?” And then I asked myself that next big question: “What would you be willing to do, what would you be willing to let go of, to have the life you were meant to live?”

The answer I came up with is this:  Anything and everything.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.” –J.K. Rowling

And so, ten years ago, I dropped out of law school for the third time. I deleted my Facebook account and temporarily left social media behind. I let go of a side business that wasn’t giving me joy. I canceled my daily DVR recordings of my favorite television shows.

I searched my mind and my day planner for all the things I did to waste time or to avoid living my dream life, and I ruthlessly and fearlessly ripped those things from my schedule. I was merciless and unrelenting. For this woman who felt like she never had time to write or to enjoy her life, a woman who routinely faced each weekend armed with a to-do list of 25-plus items, there was suddenly a vast amount of time stretching out in front of me. It felt freeing and frightening all at once. The truth was, I realized, I’d busied myself with everything else in order to avoid taking the chance that I would fail as a writer. Now, ten years later, that looms in front of me as a very real possibility. Because I’m writing, and I’m submitting my stories and my essays to journals, and I’m getting rejections. And the occasional acceptance. I’m polishing the manuscript on my first novel and working on a second. I’m putting myself out there.

When I fear I will fail as a writer and long for the old, cold comfort of my Plan B life, I remember these words spoken by J.K. Rowling:  “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.”1 I don’t know about you, but I’m not going out like that. If I’m going to fail as a writer, it won’t be by default. It will be in a blaze of glory, in the wake of the best and most heroic effort I can make.

WRITER TIP: I spent many years living my life in the cracks–squeezing the things I loved into the tiny cracks of time and space left over after all the have-to’s and should’s. When I began living as if writing and the other things I love were just as important as anything else, my life began to change. The best advice I can give you is to give yourself the best part of your day: If you’re a morning person, give yourself the first hour of your day–get up early and write before the day gets away from you. If you’re a night person, give the best part of your night to yourself–the time when you feel most energetic and alive–and write. Whether you’re a night person or a morning person, don’t fill the best part of your day with chores or billpaying or working toward a Plan B you don’t even want. Your Plan A life is happening right now.

Time Is on My Side

People often ask me how I find time to write. The truth is, for most of my life, I didn’t. I’m a busy person who, like most writers, works a day job for a living. For most of my life, I looked at writing as dessert–a reward for finishing all the other things. It was something I tried to fit into the cracks of my life. It was the thing I most wanted to be doing, but it was my very last priority. I wrote in the little spare time I had leftover after I’d done everything else. I wrote with whatever remaining energy I had at the end of the day, assuming I had any energy left. I often didn’t. So, needless to say, I didn’t write much.

I used to spend a lot of time researching ways to squeeze writing into my life. (Time I could have spent writing, actually.) There never seemed to be enough hours in the day. During my research, I came across unhelpful adages, like reminders that I have just as many hours in the day as Beyoncé Knowles. No pressure.

In the end, some of the best advice I ever got was more about mindset than anything else: (1) give yourself the first and best hour of your day; and (2) stop making time to write–make your life a writing life, and put all the other stuff on the back burner.

I have found some helpful advice over the years, though, and I’d like to share my three favorite pieces of advice with you. These are the ones that actually worked for me.

Turn the Beat Around

The trick that has without a doubt increased my writing productivity the most came from my son, Robert, who is also a writer. After I began giving myself the first and best part of my day, my favorite time of day to write quickly became first thing in the morning. I often get up at 5 a.m. or even 4 a.m. to get some writing done before work. It used to be stressful time, though. I was mindful of the clock, and it seemed that just about the time I hit my stride, it was time to stop writing, make breakfast, and get ready for work. Sometimes I wrote beyond the time I should, and then I found myself skipping breakfast and racing out the door.

My son Robert’s tip: Get ready for work before you start writing. I can’t believe what a difference this has made. It’s been life-changing. I don’t write in the evenings–I’m an early riser, and I’m wiped out by the end of the day. If I save it for the evening, I generally won’t do it. But mindless tasks–those I can do in the evening. So I started doing a lot of my prep work for the next day at night. I shower, decide what I’ll wear the next day, pack a lunch, etc. The next morning, I still get up early, but I’ve reversed my routine. I get ready for work, make coffee, and then sit down at my keyboard without anything hanging over my head. I write until it’s time for work. I no longer feel rushed, because when I shut off my computer, all I have to do is pick up my bag and head out the front door. This advice alone has made an incredible difference.

Big, Big Plans

Believe it or not, I got this tip from a book I read in the ‘70s called The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan. It turned out to be a guide for wives on how to make your home a happy one by catering to and manipulating your husband and by suppressing your own opinions and emotions. Needless to say, if you know me, this book was not my cup of tea. (Ms. Morgan would probably point out that I’m sitting here single as I write this.) But I have long said I can find something useful in any book, and this was no exception.

In one chapter of her book, Ms. Morgan outlines a “Million-Dollar Plan” she got from some CEO of a big company–the best way to accomplish the most you can possibly accomplish in a day. Here is the basic plan: Make a list of the things you need to do that day, put them in order of priority, start working on the first task, and work your way down the list. Don’t move down the list to the second task until you’ve finished the first, and so on. Don’t allow distractions, just keep moving down the list in order. You may not finish everything on the list, but by the end of the day, you will have finished the most important tasks and will have accomplished as much as was possible in the time you had. It’s a simple idea, but it works like a charm. As a writer, this idea is helpful in a couple of ways: first, make sure writing is at the top of your list every day, and second, working this way will help free up more time in your life for writing and other pleasurable activities.

“Writer’s block is a phony, made up, BS excuse for not doing your work.” –Jerry Seinfeld

The Chain

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld uses the power of visualization to reach his goals. He hangs a big, year-at-a-glance calendar on his wall, sets a daily writing goal for himself, and marks off each day on the calendar with a big “X” when he reaches that day’s goal. The calendar becomes a chain, each “X” is a link in the chain, and his desire not to have a broken link keeps him going.1 I’ve started doing this, too. My daily goal is to write for a certain amount of time each morning. I mark the days off on my calendar with a red Sharpie, just like Jerry. What keeps me going is imagining Jerry yelling at me, “Don’t break the chain!” (You heard that in his voice, right?”)

WRITER TIP: Be like Jerry. Get yourself a big wall calendar where you can track your writing progress. Set a daily writing goal using whatever works for you. Some writers set a daily word-count goal, for example, 500-1,000 words a day. Others set a daily page-count goal, maybe two or three pages. I use a daily time goal: no matter what, I write for at least ten minutes every morning. I can always convince myself to write for ten minutes, and if I only write for ten minutes, that’s okay. But once I get going, I almost always write for much longer, usually two to four hours every morning. Whether it’s ten minutes or six hours, I mark the day off with a big “X” on my wall calendar. Seeing that unbroken chain of progress motivates me to keep going.