Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Writers: Start the Year with a Clean Slate

By Sherry Howard, @SherLHoward

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: I've always found starting over easier than catching up, and I'm sure I'm not alone. Sherry Howard is our first guest lecturer of the year, and she's here to share some tips on the benefits of
tabula rasa.

Sherry Howard lives with her children and crazy dogs in Middletown, Kentucky, a stone's throw from the beautiful horse farms her state is always bragging about. She was an award-winning educator, serving as teacher, consultant, and principal in one of the largest urban-suburban school districts in the US. Sherry loves to read, write, cook, and sit in the sand watching the waves when she can. Her poems and stories have appeared in multiple journals and anthologies. Her picture book, Rock and Roll Woods, released in 2018 to a starred Kirkus review.

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Take it away Sherry...

Tabula rasa! This is one of the many Latin phrases I learned in high school that stuck with me: clean slate. After the fireworks explode and the ball drops, we feel like we’re getting a fresh start with a clean slate, shiny and ready for new accomplishments. We’re able to leave some of our baggage behind, hoping for a brighter future.

I’ve never been a resolution person. But I’m a big planner. What’s the difference, you say?

Resolutions are promises, often outlandish, that we aren’t likely to keep consistently for a year. Cue up gym memberships, diet plans, and rigid writing schedules. But, planning, getting goals down in writing, that’s doable. And goals can be flexible, not so all-or-none in nature. So, writers, listen up. Let’s really think about our creative goals for this bright glorious new year.

Where are you now? Where is a reasonable spot for you to be twelve months from now? Key word there is reasonable. Don’t set goals that aren’t within your control to reach. Use this winter month to reflect on the past year. Think about what you did that worked for your benefit, and where you spun your wheels for the sake of spinning them, just because you thought you should.

(Here's more on challenging yourself versus setting yourself up to fail)

Let’s consider what kind of writer you are in conjunction with how much time you have to write, and how fast you write. My reasonable goal is not your reasonable goal. Measure yourself against yourself, not your best friend, favorite author, or competitor. And, for heaven’s sake, beware of goals that lock you into a schedule that will blast failure into your face over and over when you fail to keep up.

My personal goal for writing in 2019, which I know I can achieve if I choose to: revise the middle grade novel drafted during NaNo, write at least twelve new picture books, complete a draft of an adult or young adult novel, and keep up with already contracted projects including work-for-hire. I’m hoping to add some work-for-hire projects, and those goals allow for that. For me, based on my history, I can do this if I manage my time well. Three years ago, these goals would have been outlandish for me—I was still in learning mode.

Chances are I won’t get all of this done cause life will happen. I might take on a work-for-hire job that detours me, or I might get sick. Those are the goals I’ll schedule on my nice, blank 2019 calendar though.

For someone at a different stage, completing a first draft of a middle grade novel alone may seem overwhelming in a year. Some years, my goals were focused on learning—like the year I reviewed every single post on Janice’s blog, bought her books, and STUDIED. If that’s where you are in the journey, those are the goals you set.

People with blogs have different types of goals, and a ticking clock with a different kind of pressure. Their goals will reflect that.

(Here's more on staying motivated with writing goals)

Writers who are learning their “speed” often set goals that are way beyond reaching, or lower than they could reach. I promise that if you record your efforts for a few years you’ll get a feel for how much you can achieve in a year.

Writers searching for agents face a problem with goal-setting. You can’t control whether an agent selects to represent you! Quit believing you can. What you can control is a goal about having polished work to submit, a great query letter, a researched list of agents, and the number of submissions you make. Those are all quantifiable and within your control.

Published writers have a complex do-si-do of writing, revising, and marketing that never ends. As soon as one job is finished, another begins, and usually there are many balls balanced at the same time.

(Here's more on balancing life and writing)

I’m old and wise. I’ve completed a successful career in one field. Now I write full time, but my wisdom dictates that I handle this full-time dedication to writing in a way that fits me. So, my goals need to be loose, like my comfortable leggings, allowing me to move within my life without writing becoming a stressor. My goals need to be planted in firmly packed dirt, not cement. I hope you can find a way to set writing goals unique to you, your life obligations, your place in the journey, and with your end goals in mind.

Happy writing in the new year!! What are some of your goals?

About Rock and Roll Woods

Kuda is a bit of a grump who doesn't like change. So when he wakes up to find new neighbors and loud, strange noises in his woods, he is not happy. Will his desire to be with his friends overcome his objections to loud sounds? And might Kuda's courage help him discover that new things and rock and roll music can be pretty great? Featuring helpful backmatter about Sensory Integration and insider jokes for parents with autistic kids.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound |


  1. I'm inspired by your suggestions. I'm one of those who can't seem to figure out my speed. A goal I can work on this year.

    1. Thanks, G. J. It helps me set my goals to look at all those factors I mentioned: where I am in my path is especially important. The first few years that I worked toward publication, I had the very modest goal of getting ANYTHING published in a reputable on-line venue. I sent out poems and short stories, and had some success. Then I built bigger goals, once I had a few modest successes.

      Your speed may be variable—like any journey could be. Maybe your speed combines highways and country roads, depending on the factors in your own life! So, think in either very broad terms or very small measurable terms-only you know-until you have a better idea.

      Good luck! Happy writing!

  2. I haven't written anyting since 2015 or so. I have multiple works in progress, and a full time (and then some) job. My plan is to take a couple of hours a weekend to go back to one of the more completed WIPs, re-read what I've got and get back to the planning stage. I've got the beginning and the end, more or less. It's that pesky middle!

    1. Sounds like a great plan. If your time is limited, build on a foundation you’ve started!

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  4. Thanks, Sherry, for this inspiring post. I'm old, not so wise, but love to write. I will read this again and sign up for Janice's blog for sure. Happy New Year!

    1. Hapoy New Year, Mona! This blog is a gold mine!!

  5. Sherry as usual you advice is rock solid! I woudl add plan for the unexpected- whch sounds mad but dont be so committed that you cant pursue an opportunity. I had an unxpected acceptance of a book, in October and had to work flat out with adding chapters and edits for it to release in February 2019

    1. That’s a great point, Sonia! The more you do, the more opportunities fall in your lap! And, yay!!!! for that February release! Can’t wait!