Author | Speaker | Teacher

The Value of an Effective To Do List

Writing GoalsThe fire is blazing, the snow and temperatures are falling, the dog is asleep by your feet (or your cat is curled in your lap), a steaming cup of something is within reach, and your New Year’s resolutions are still fresh in your mind. Writing opportunities get no better than this.

So, where do you start?

And how do you keep going?

I explored those questions and many more during my most recent writers’ workshop in mid-January. Fifteen enthusiastic writers met in a charming Victorian B&B for 3 ½ days of mini-lessons, exercises, critiques, classic films, and fine foods as we explored “The Hero(ine)’s Journey”. To make the weekend even more memorable, a blizzard raged outside our doors as we snuggled by fireplaces, laptops on laps, cups in hand, imaginations at the ready. Impressive work resulted.

But how do we keep our imaginations working full-speed when we return to Real Life after our enthusiastic start?

I blush to admit that I am a file-by-pile, charge-in-where-angels-fear-to-tread kind of writer, but even I know the value of reasonable goals, written commitments, and an effective To Do List.

What is the most effective way to set goals?

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advises writers to break down each project into smaller, more attainable pieces. That’s why I invented the 6-Block format, the stepping stone leading from an Ordinary World into an adventure filled with obstacles and crises, and ending with a transformation and a New World. I describe the process in Writing S’mores.

By dividing a short story/novella/novel into stages, you can set attainable goals for yourself. First, assemble a story’s “ingredients”, one at a time (characters, time period, place, themes). Next, light a fire under them (inciting incident), and let it propel their story into motion.

Realistic, measurable goals are the stepping stones to success. Janice Martin, a member of my Cedar Chips workshop, advocates SMART goal-setting.

  1. S:  Set SPECIFIC goals. An example of a non-specific goal: “Write the Great American Novel and make a fortune.”
  2. M:  Make goals MEASURABLE. You can choose to write for a certain length of time each day or week, or you might decide to write a definite number of words or a unit (chapter/poem/short story) before stopping.
  3. A:  Make goals ATTAINABLE. Don’t set yourself up for failure—start slowly and surely, with a commitment you know you can reach. You can adjust your goals at any time, depending on what’s happening in your life.
  4. R:  Make goals REALISTIC & RELEVANT. “Know thyself” is an excellent reminder. Set yourself up for success! Make sure you have the time, energy, motivation, resources, and equipment to meet your measurable, attainable goals. Again, it’s better to adjust goals than to abandon them.
  5. T:  Make goals TIME-related. And make that period of time realistic and attainable.

For example, I’ve tweaked Dear Ginny so many times I can quote the manuscript by heart. It’s been polished and re-polished, reviewed with my (enthusiastic!) Beta readers, and revised one last time. The time has come to send my baby off into the world. So…This is what my SMART goals look like for early winter 2020:

  1. S:  Specific goal: Connect with the best agent for Dear Ginny.
  2. M:  Devote 2 hours a day (or more) for 2 weeks to research agents, comparable titles, and query letters.
  3. A:  Attain the names of ten agents who have sold epistolary novels and specialize in historic fiction—preferably tales set in WWII.
  4. R:  Study their submission guidelines and decide whether my manuscript would be a realistic fit. If not, identify other agents.
  5. T:  Spend an appropriate amount of time to compose, revise, and polish my query letters – 1 week should do it. Vow not to dash the letters off, since I’ve spent 5 years working on the novel. Resolve to email 5 query letters and early pages (depending on agents’ specifications) at the end of that week. Wait 2 weeks and send the next 5.

Now, it’s your time to be SMART! What do you want to accomplish in the year 2020? And then get your fingers moving on that keyboard! You’ll be glad you did.