When I first started writing romance, a few folks rushed to tell me what every author HAD to do (or mustn’t ever). A lot of the advice contradicted itself and others’ suggestions…which flat-out drove me nuts for a while. Supposedly everyone in Romancelandia did this stuff, right? Maybe it was my obligation to follow suit. Happily, the film industry had given me a healthy skepticism of bromides and blandishments. I tend to be an ornery cuss with a contrary streak, so I took the advice that worked and discarded what didn’t. Mainly, I knew what I was playing for.
Now I have a lot of fun as a writer. I treat our industry as a game because it has rules and players, conflict and strategy, touchdowns and trophies… Although the stakes are high, no one dies if they don’t hit a list or win an award. This also helps me keep things in perspective and my nuttiness to a minimum. You can’t win if you don’t play.
Of course, before you tackle any game you need to know the prize so you can focus on a strategy; that can present a freaky challenge to everyone who hasn’t taken time to seriously examine their own personal goals, motivations, and conflicts. Different players in different contexts seek different rewards and play radically different games: some of us dig chess, some can’t get enough Pokemon Go, and others seem to gravitate toward flaming-chainsaw-hockey.
One of the persistent, pernicious falsehoods in our industry is the idea that there is one incentive, one path, or one solution shared by all writers…or put another way, that we all share the same GMC. That’s nonsense. People write for many reasons and publish with many different approaches and outcomes in play.
Still, the appeal of monolithic solutions is obvious: quick fixes and E-Z shortcuts don’t require subtlety or explanation. How can you customize professional advice for every possible context?
In practice this is created some silly shibboleths which terrorize and depress folks: everyone wants to win a [insert award], [insert social media platform] is essential, only [insert generic adjective] books become bestsellers. Let’s be clear: that’s goofy. We aren’t assembly-line androids.
One albatross that hangs around the necks of newbies is what I call borrowed goals. Rather than goals sprung from creativity and joy, these get picked for them by well-meaning family and friends, or worse: by insidious enemies and neuroses… and these goals are as inspiring and supportive as a rusty iron saddle nailed to your back. In these cases, you’ll hear writers talk about writing the “real book” their mom demands or the “award” their husband thinks will prove their worth. They’ll write in genres they loathe because their agent bullied them into it. They contribute to anthologies with hacks and jerks because their writing group insisted. Those aren’t prizes; those are prisons.
Ugh. What a waste of energy and effort. Nobody wants to spend their whole life climbing the wrong mountain.
Don’t let other people pick your prize for you. Writing is a hard gig at the best of times, so at the very least you should be working towards something you truly believe is important.
Wishing isn’t a path to winning. If you want to make any progress, you’re going to have to act with intention…taking steps, making choices, and holding yourself accountable when you fall short. How can you gauge progress if you haven’t established the parameters? Before we get personal, let’s talk about setting goals in a way that tips the scales in your favor over your entire professional journey.
A few years back, management guru Peter Drucker popularized a George Doran technique now known as S.M.A.R.T. planning. In the simplest terms, the best measure of success will be:
- Specific: with a tangible goal with clear limits and definition.
- Measurable: with a concrete, calculable indicator of progress.
- Achievable: within reach of your current skills and resources.
- Relevant: important and appropriate to your current objectives.
- Time-based: using a firm start and finish to focus your work schedule.
Use that measure of success to determine if and when you’ve succeeded, and why and where you fell short. Aim for progress, not perfection; molehills can build a mountain. Any time you fall short, you’re better equipped for the next round. Hold yourself accountable and tailor subsequent decisions based on those results.
Get serious and specific. What do you want and why do you want it?
Grousing about failure or obsessing over screwups doesn’t actually fix anything. Waiting and whining are worthless, but if you can make brand new mistakes each time, you will gradually get where you’re going.
The next time you consider jumping into a twitter chat or decide to upgrade your website, or plan your next unforgettable swag item, establish a measure of success that holds you accountable and gives you useful intel on the back end.
Articulate a S.M.A.R.T. goal and you’ll always be playing to win.
Now it’s personal. So to start with, ask yourself: what is your primary professional goal at the moment?
Okay so sure… we can agree that fame, fortune, favors, and fans all sound better than a stick in the eye, but what is the Big Shiny Trophy™ you play for every time you get up and get in the game? Shouldn’t you know the rules and the prize before you play?
Ask yourself what matters most to you in this wacky career: is it the relationships with readers, the clamorous accolades, or the cold, hard cash? All of those are valid spurs, but they suggest radically different approaches to every aspect of your writing life. If winning awards floats your boat, but you never enter contests or miss deadlines when you do then your personal trophy will sit unclaimed on the shelf.
Now be S.M.A.R.T. about that professional objective. How will you know when you’ve succeeded? Whenever you face an opportunity or a challenge articulate a measure of success, the way you’ll gauge the results. Establish a personal metric to gauge your progress before beginning the process. I set a measure before everything I do: books, signings, cons, trips, meetings, collaborations, ad design…Hell, even this article.
I want my work to matter and so I hold myself accountable. How can I get better without paying attention?
As an added bonus a clear measure of success will also help your rep team, your publisher, your colleagues, and your fans to boost your professional goals as well. If they know what matters to you, they can conspire in your win.
You have the power to tell the story of your own career, but only if you decide what matters most to you. For best results, cast yourself as the active, focused protagonist of your own adventure.
Your career has motivations, conflict, and an arc. Like it or not, you make the choices, you do the work, you scoop whatever loot ensues. If you suss out exactly what you’re playing for, you can nail down a coherent strategy that addresses your unique goal, motivation, and conflict so that your authorial story can arc towards its own HEA.
Yay, independent thought! Yay, narrative structure!
I am always acting with intention in my career so my effort isn’t wobbly or wasted. Think of each measure of success as an expression of active intention by using the phrase “in order to…”
- I am attending this signing in order to connect with readers in a new market.
- I am teaching this workshop in order to attract savvy colleagues to my library.
- I am joining this anthology in order to support two young writers I admire.
- I am testing a new subgenre in order to expand my footprint on the shelf.
- I am blurbing this series in order to buy time with the fans while I finish this sequel.
Full disclosure: I literally articulate a measure of success before every con, when designing swag, or planning an ad campaign just to keep myself focused and honest about results. Each measure lets me keep track of what works and why so I can keep improving and evolving.
Before you make a significant professional move, weigh the strengths and flaws, opportunities and threats. For best results, make sure that your measure of success is unique to the project to clarify your path and independent of external influence, because it’s all too easy to let raves and praise derail your personal GMC unless you nail down the endgame.
You’re a writer after all. You have imagination, curiosity, drive, ambition, and savvy. Each challenge ups your game. Each of your goals leads to the next. Don’t cast yourself as a sidekick or an extra in your own publishing story. With your assets and allies in mind, you can map out your entire career as a series of interconnected measures of success that point to the horizon.
Craft your professional journey as carefully as you would any hero you ever caught on paper…and you have a much straighter path to the kind of happy ending you want.