So, you want to write a novel. Perhaps you’ve always dreamed of holding your own thriller book in your hands. Or of seeing your name in big, block print near the title of your newest mystery novel. Whether this is a deep-seated dream from childhood or an idea you’ve been toying with after retirement, writing a novel tops many bucket lists.
Here’s the thing: writing a novel isn’t rocket science…but it doesn’t happen magically either. Whether you long to pen fiction in your pajamas, or dream of going on a book tour to show your newest novel off to the masses, writing takes a lot of commitment. It also takes some skill, lots and lots of practice and some goals.
So, whether you’re just starting the process of writing your first novel or pushing your way through to the end, there are goals which can help you along the way. Let’s look at two very different approaches to setting and reaching those writing goals.
Writing Goals: Carrot or Stick?
Picture this: you’re ten years old. It’s a drizzly Sunday afternoon and having finished your chores at home you’ve ridden your bike into town. Your shoes feel squishy and dampness clings to the windbreaker your mother insisted you wear.
Wandering the aisles in a local bookshop, you trail your fingers over the spines of glossy paperbacks and robust hardcovers. The wooden floors squeak underfoot. Your breath feels like a tight package in your chest.
“Someday,” you whisper. “Someday my name is going to be on one of these books, lining this shelf.”
Was this you? Is it still?
When you want to write a book … but the world conspires against you.
I’ve been writing professionally for more than a decade and teaching writing and book publishing courses for about half that time. I’ve talked with many, many writers who tell me how frustrated they are. There are all sorts of reasons that they’re not writing their novels. Some of the most common reasons I hear are these:
- “I don’t have enough time.”
- “There is too much stress in my life.”
- “My job gets in the way.”
- “I’m the stay-at-home parent, or caregiver to aging parents.”
- “My creative well is as dry as the Sahara.”
- “I’m exhausted.”
Sadly, many creatives do penance for not writing. They mentally flog themselves, calling themselves names like: lazy, uninspired, hack. They write the same script over and over in their minds that says one thing: I can’t do this.
Does the stick work?
I call this method the “stick method,” because it works like punishment. You set out to accomplish a goal (writing a novel). You fail because it’s too big or overwhelming or you don’t know what steps to take. Then you beat yourself up (stick) because of it. This continues a shame/guilt cycle.
Do you see yourself in the above description? If so, I want to ask you something. But you have to promise to answer honestly. Does it work?
Even if you answered, “yes,” I would like to offer you a better way. An easier way. And a far more enjoyable one.
Why carrots are better
There are two types of action-takers in the world. There are those motivated by “sticks.” We see these stories a lot in business publications and glossy consumer mags. These are the Type A’s who wake at 4 a.m. for a two-hour workout, write a scholarly article while sipping an antioxidant smoothie before heading off to their full-time, high pressure, high powered job. Here, they’ll work for 10 hours before starting a round of volunteer board meetings in the evenings.
And then there are those of us motivated by “carrots.” We haven’t quite lost touch with our inner kid, so spend a good deal of time trying to find ways to make otherwise boring things fun. Yes, we have to work all day. But what fun thing could we do after work? How could we add a little joy to our week?
What experiment would we try? A painting class might do the trick. Or maybe signing up for hot yoga. We could snap a picture or two while out for a walk and play with the filters. Maybe a new dish at dinner tonight… or we could write a single scene from a book we will eventually finish. People motivated by carrots look for rewards every day. And if they can’t find them? They make some of their own.
Writing for carrots
At one writing course I led, a participant told me in a frustrated voice that he wanted the writing time to be the carrot. He wanted that to be the reward, not something that had to be gotten through every day.
And over time, it might be. I say “might” because there are still days, more than ten years into this, that I still don’t feel like writing. Sitting down to work on the next short story or book sometimes feels as thrilling as scrubbing grout.
But I’ve learned some great tricks and tips that I’ll share with you in a future post. Just remember right now that implementing any new habit is challenging. And creating a writing practice is a habit.
It is something that won’t feel very carrot-like at all in the beginning. Over time though, it will become less and less difficult. It will become something that eventually you won’t have to think about. Or at least, not as much. It will start to feel more like brushing your teeth–you don’t necessarily always look forward to it, but you recognize it’s just part of your daily routine and get on with it.
When you create your first writing goals keep them small and manageable. We’re talking a gentle two-minute stroll here, not scaling Everest.
- Write a single scene
- Write one or two paragraphs
- Write one sentence
- Set a timer for 15 minutes and see how many words you can bang out
- Set a timer for 5 minutes and see how far you get
- Visualize a particular character and write a paragraph of just dialogue. What is he/she saying to you or someone else?
Note when you feel that old resistance rise up (and it will). Have a game plan. When you hear that negative voice smacking you with the stick, pause. Take a deep breath. And choose to listen instead to the voice that says, “Yes.”
“Yes, I can do this.”