In the writing world, November (and much of October) tends to be filled with advice on NaNoWriMo, but the lessons learned are ones we can all put to good use. NaNo is about hitting a target word count and training yourself to write when you have to, and these are skills that every writer can benefit from. Goals keep us motivated, give us clear and defined milestones to gauge our progress by, and give us targets to shoot for.
While word count is by far the easiest milestone to set for ourselves, it's not the only one. Some people are daunted by vast numbers of words or find it too constricting, putting the focus on quantity, not quality. For these writers, a different measurement might be more useful for gauging progress. Maybe it's chapters, or acts, or specific points in the story. Maybe a set amount of time per day is a better motivator. It all comes down to what tactics works best to help motivate you to achieve the goals you've set.
Just like in our novels, I've found a layered technique works well to keep the writing momentum going. The NaNo goal of 50,000 words in 30 days can seem overwhelming when you look at the big picture, but that's just 1667 words per day. The smaller chunk feels much more manageable.
You can do the same thing with your own goals--better still, you can do this year- round, not just once a year.
What Are Your Long-Term Goals?
The most likely answer here is "finish a novel" (or whatever project you're working on), but someone writing to improve their skills might not be interested in completing a novel at first. They might just want to get a handle on POV or figure out how to get ideas down on paper. It's good to know what you want and what your goal is so you'll know if you're making progress.
Long-term goals give us targets for the bigger picture, and help us craft the steps we'll work toward over a period of time we determine for ourselves. Maybe the long-term goal is to finish a novel in a year, or have a solid first draft in six months, or even a working rough draft ready for revisions in three months. Think of it as determining the scope of the project.
(Here's more on ways to be a more productive writer)
What Are Your Medium-Term Goals?
Since long-term goals are big picture, they don't give us much direction. Sure, we know we want to write an entire novel this year, but what exactly does that entail? What are the steps we need to take to hit that goal?
Medium-term goals are the checkpoints to test if we're still on target for the project. If we have a sixth-month goal to finish a first draft, then we might have monthly goals that break that into smaller chunks. For example, if the target word count is 60,000 words, you might aim for 10,000 words every month to get there. Or maybe it's three chapters a week, or ten scenes. It could even be to reach specific plot moments in the story, such as getting the protagonist to make an all-important plot decision by the end of the first writing month.
(Here are more tips on setting goals and staying motivated)
What Are Your Short-Term Goals?
Steps and milestones are fantastic and will help keep us moving toward our goal, but they don't always help with the daily grind of getting the writing done. If we know we have a month to get five chapters done, we might be tempted to procrastinate, and then find ourselves near the end with way too much work to do to hit our goal.
Short-term goals are the tasks we want to do on a daily or weekly basis to meet our deadline. If we need to hit 10,000 words in a month, then we might set a daily word count goal of 333 words a day, or even 2,500 per week. If it's chapters or scenes, we'll have that broken down into manageable chunks that allow us to feel productive without feeling like we never have time to get our writing done. Even if we just promise ourselves to write for two hours a day, we've made progress and don't have to feel guilty about not writing or not being farther along in our projects.
(Here's more on using ten minute slices of time to get things done)
The Key to Setting Goals
We all have different ways to motivate ourselves, but the key is to choose goals we can reliably hit. While you don't want to create goals that are too low (like 500 words per day if you regularly write 1,500), be wary of setting them too high. If you've never written 5,000 words in a day in your life, setting a 5,000-word-a-day goal is setting yourself up for failure. If it takes you a year to write a first draft, trying to write one in thirty days will also probably end in failure. There's nothing wrong with lofty goals if the point is to push yourself, but understand that going in so if you don't make it, you don't feel like you failed. Look instead at the progress you made toward that lofty goal.
Aim for goals that will motivate you, give you a sense of progress and accomplishment when you hit them, but still help you reach your long-term goals.
Realistic Goals vs. Challenge Goals
For those who like a little extra motivation or who want to push themselves, try setting a high bar as well as a low one. For example, for last year's NaNo, I had two goals, neither of which were to actually hit that 50K mark. One goal I felt comfortable I'd be able to reach, the other was a pie-in-the-sky goal I'd love to have been able to reach.
The realistic goal: to write the first half of my novel, which for me meant 40,000 words and twelve chapters of a solid first draft. I was aiming for three chapters and 10,000 words a week. (The 40K words was my medium-term goal, and the long-term goal was do it again in December and finish the first draft of the novel).
The challenge goal: to write a solid first draft in November (80,000 words and 24 chapters). So that was a very ambitious six chapters a week (which was one per day on my writing schedule) or close to 20,000 words a week. I needed to write 3,000 words every writing session to hit this goal, and there were days when I needed more like 4,000 or 5,000 to balance out the 1,000-word days that also happened (cause they always do).
My plan in having two separate goals was to have one set motivate me to get to work done and focus on the writing, while the other was to keep me working even after I hit my regular goal and was feeling good about my progress. It was a challenge to see what I could do if I really put my mind to it, and I hoped it would train me to be more productive overall.
Nine days in, I managed 17,000 words and six chapters with only six days of actual writing. A little short of my goal (two of those chapters needed some fleshing out still), but close enough that I was encouraged that it was possible to make my challenge goal. I had slow days and good days, and by November 30th, I had written 63,000 words. Not quite the first draft of my challenge goal, but well ahead of my realistic goal.
(Here's more on that process for those looking for a few more tips to boost productivity)
Writing goals can be a valuable tool for any writer, and something we can vary and change when we need to. For example, for busy writer parents, summers might be hard and the goals might need to come down a little in order for you to live your life. But once fall starts and the kids go back to school? You might kick your goals up a notch.
Try setting a few goals and see how they work for you.
Do you set writing goals? How do you manage them? What works for you?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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