Monday, January 5, 2015

Two Ways to Make Effective Writing Goals

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

On December 31st, I settled at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a notebook, and a pen. My seven-year-old daughter spotted me, retrieved a notebook and pen of her own, and asked, "What are we doing?"

I explained that because tomorrow would be the first day of 2015, I was thinking about goals and how I want to spend my time in the coming year. She told me about a show they had watched at school where the girl's goal was to read 30 books that year and the robot's goal was to take over the world. "Is that what you mean?" she asked, and then she set to work with a list of her own goals.

The only thing I love more than making a list of goals and plans is making a list of writing goals and plans. Depending on what I anticipate my year being like, I have two methods I like to use:

Method One: Start big and get small

This is my favorite way to make goals. I'm sure it's because it gives me a feeling of control, and I'm a big fan of being in control.

If you have a lot of structure in your schedule (or if you have writing contracts with hard deadlines) then this is a great way to make sure you're giving yourself enough time to get the work done.

Start by figuring out what you want to have done at the end of the year. One of the years this  method worked really well for me was when I had two books due to my publisher. So my yearly list was something like:

Turn in book two of Skylar Hoyt series
Turn in book three of Skylar Hoyt series
Get ready for release of book one in Skylar Hoyt series
Prepare to pitch new idea to publisher

Next I broke these tasks up by what needed to be done each quarter. That list looked something like this:

January - March
Write first draft of book two
Read proofs of book one
Create marketing plan for book one

April - June
Edit book two and turn it in to editor
Line up book signings and marketing plan stuff for release of book one

July - September
Write first draft of book three
Launch book one of series

October - December
Edit book three and turn it in to editor
Create proposal for new book idea

Then I break it down by month:

Write 30k of book two
Brainstorm three marketing ideas for book one

Write the rest of book two
Brainstorm three marketing ideas for book one

Enjoy time off from book two
Read proofs of book one
Put together marketing plan for conference call with publicist

And last, I break it down by what needs to happen each week. If I need to write 30k by January 31st, I would look at how much needed to be written per week. I personally like weekly goals because I typically only write four days a week, but that's just a preference.

When I have deadlines, this is a really effective way for me to make sure I'm spreading the work out well. I'm not the type who does particularly well when writing under pressureso it's helpful to me to think ahead about how divide up the work.

Method Two: One Big Goal And Plans for Growth

If I don't have hard deadlines, or if I anticipate an unpredictable year, making goals using the method above only makes me cranky. Instead I focus on one big goal, and alongside it, I plan ways to foster personal  growth.

Let's talk about the growth thing first. Instead of setting a goal of reading five books a month, I'll instead decide that I'm going to listen to audio books on my iPod whenever I'm in the car by myself. This way I don't get "penalized" if I choose to read The Goldfinch one month versus if I read The Giver. It's not about how fast I'm reading, just that I'm doing it.

But I also like to make one big goal and create a system for getting it done that doesn't put a time limit on things. Last year at this time, my son was regularly in and out of the hospital, and I knew this wasn't the type of year to make the super detailed goals list.

I had no writing deadlines on my calendar, and I had a book that I'd been burning to write for months, and I finally had time to do it. Theoretically, anyway. Some weeks I was only getting a few hours of work time, and I had no idea when it might get better. So instead of saying, "I want to have an outline by the end of January and a first draft by the end of March, etc." I told myself that when I had writing time, this was the project I was going to plug away at. Even if it took me all year to write it (and it did) I would just make whatever progress I could in whatever time I had.

Not a list person? Try a letter.

This year, since my life is shifting under my feet a bit more than I'd like, I chose to draft an email to my agent about how I would spend my time this year if it was solely up to me. It was a really helpful way to crystallize what projects are most important to me, and what I would ideally accomplish. It's also helpful for her to see what kind of pace I'm comfortable with and how I view success.

Be sure it's a goalnot a dream.

You know what I would love to have happen? I really want my next published book to be made into an audio book. But that doesn't belong my goal list because I can't do anything about it. It's a dream, not a goal.

Maybe you want to find an agent this year. Or perhaps you're hoping to finally find the right critique group (sometimes you've gotta kiss a few frogs before you find The One). But, really, you cannot make an agent sign you, and you can't make other writers be perfect for you. If you're wanting to set goals to help you acquire something that involves other people, be sure that it's something you can take action on.

You can't make an agent sign you, but you can set aside $20 of every paycheck to help you afford that writer's conference in the fall. Or you can email a query each week. Or you can find a list of agents you want to stalk on Twitter.

My daughter, McKenna, is learning to sew right now, and I encouraged her to think not just about what she wants to sew, but also what it will take to accomplish those projects. Here's what she wrote for goals:

If you can decode her first grade spelling, you'll see she wants to be sewing "at least one time a month," and then she made a list of what she wants to make. We're five days into the year and she can already cross two items off that list. So while we may need to have a discussion about dreaming bigger, I think she's already learned a lot about the joy that comes from working toward a goal and achieving it.

If you're a goal setter, I'd love to hear what you're hoping to do in 2015!


  1. I've decided that I want to write at least half an hour a day and that I need to get my first draft done by the end of the year! I keep procrastinating writing the actual story by instead, rereading, rewriting and editing everything again! I also don't know where I want the story to go so I need to brainstorm some more plot points.

    1. It's easy to procrastinate in that way, but you're right. You've got to get the rest written before you can make real progress!

  2. Happy New Year, Mrs. Morrill!

    My goals are to finish my first draft by January 24th, start outlining book two, and begin querying agents by April 1st. I love your first method of goals--having everything I need to do spelled out is so helpful for me. Thanks for the post, Mrs. Morrill!

  3. I think this year calls for more organization that I really like. ;-) On New Years Eve I started out by making an editing schedule for WhiteFire so I know when I'll have other people's manuscripts on my desk and when they need to be OFF my desk--also in that schedule is when book covers, promotional steps, and layout are due. In addition to those 10 books I'll be managing, I have a February deadline for my Bethany House book 2, an October deadline for book 3, and a March deadline for my biblical Christmas story WhiteFire will be putting out in time for Christmas 2015. Toss in homeschool and all that goes along with it, galleys and revisions on all those books due to Bethany house, and I'm yet again toying with the edges of my sanity. ;-)

    1. But being so organized should at least help :)

  4. The upcoming year is going to be quite unpredictable for me, so thank you for this post of different ways of setting goals. I'm graduating this year from University (that's the plan at least ;) ) and will have to start looking for a job, find a place to live if I start working in a different city, and so on...

    Taking that into account I have basically two major goals that I have tried to break down roughly for myself. 1) I want to finish the third round of edits on my current WIP, and from there move on two goal 2) have critique partners/beta readers help me advance the story furthermore. Only a few days in to the new year, I have already found two girls to start critiquing with so I hope that is a good start for this new year. Let's hope some of it will be lasting.

    1. That's wonderful, Arlette! And I'm glad the second method looks helpful to you. The first year that I tried to make rigid goals in an unpredictable time, I thought I would lose my mind! I hope this helps you to achieve what you want while still having flexibility and grace for yourself.

  5. This is such a great post, Stephanie! I love it. It inspired me to write down some goals for 2015 on my blog.
    Some of my goals for 2015 include graduating high school, (which is something I'm very on course for, don't worry :D ) submitting a novel to an agent, and finishing the critique of a novel that I haven't been very diligent in doing.
    Thanks again for the great post!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    1. Those are excellent goals, Sarah. I'm a little saddened by the idea of you graduating high school this year! *Sniff sniff*

      I love how on your blog you also evaluated your progress from last year. That's a very effective way to measure progress!

  6. This is a very inspiring post, thank you!
    I think one of my writing goals this year is to write 1 or 2,000 words everyday.

    1. Good one! One suggestion I'll offer is to maybe a weekly word count goal instead of a daily one. Everyone is different, of course, but I found that making a goal of 7,000 words a week versus 1,000 words a day worked much better for me.

  7. Lets see. This this year could be a little unpredictable for me, with entering eighth grade and all...last year of middle school, yay! But I would at least like to finish that first first draft...wait, is that right? Yeeahh, I guess so. I love to edit and rewrite as in go, so edits should be easier for me, but as I've never finished a book before, it could be a little hard. Thanks for the post! Very inspiring.

    1. As *I* go. That teaches me for not proofreading.

    2. An awesome goal! You'll be amazed, I think, at how much your writing grows just from pushing yourself all the way to the end of a manuscript.

  8. Hmm, I have never set writing goals before, but you have me thinking. :-) I guess it's to get my first draft done by early July. I've been working on my book for a year and I'm only on the 7th chapter in my first draft. :P
    And I guess that's it. I'll probably make more as we get further into the year. Thanks for this post! :D

    ~Lydia~ <3

  9. Aw, how cute. I love sewing with my machine, and I wish I had started at 7. Does McKenna use a sewing machine or sew by hand? This year I got really organized with my goals. I created a binder with my yearly goals, monthly goals to help me reach the yearly goals, and weekly goals to help me reach the monthly goals. Then, I took apart a calendar and hole punched it into my binder. I also included submission tracker worksheets. I'm feeling good about this year. Writing a letter to myself is a good idea, too. Maybe I should do that.

    Anyways, this year I hope to finish drafting and editing three WIPs. I want to finish the second draft of each of the WIPs. Then, I'll choose one to really polish and I hope to begin querying agents. I also want to do some more magazine writing so I made a goal to write and submit one short piece to a magazine every month.

    1. McKenna is sewing mostly by machine (she was given one for Christmas) but is learning to stitch by hand too. She's really taken to it. My mother-in-law is giving her lessons, which is great. I can sew and could probably teach her, but I'm not good at it and my mother-in-law is. Plus, it's a nice bonding activity for them.

      Three WIPs is a big goal! I love your organization binder :) I want to see a picture.

    2. I got mine for Christmas, too, but it was about two years ago. I know how to stitch by hand, but I get too impatient doing it, haha.

      I hope I can achieve it. And I'll update you if I take a picture of my organization binder.

  10. This is perfect! one of my many sisters plans out her chapters by making lists on index cards. She writes a very short summary of what each chapter is about, and then write the book. I think she's more of a plotter than I am :-)

  11. I set my goals by stuff I have to get done and what I'd like to get done.
    So my have to list this year looks like:
    Publish MY KINGDOM FOR A QUEST (Bookania #3)
    Publish WATER PRINCESS, FIRE PRINCE (Rizkaland #1)
    Write THE QUEST FOR THE QUINCE (Bookania #3.5)
    Write Rizkaland #2
    Write WORTH OF A KING (though this one also depends on my coauthor, but we're fairly confident that we can pull it off this year)

    And my like to list is:
    Publish a big Bookania collection
    Write Bookania #4
    Write Rizkaland #3
    Write ROCKS (HaV Academy #1)

    Good luck on your goals everyone!

    1. Oh, that's very smart, Kendra. Especially once you've ventured into publishing, there are books that MUST be written and books that you would LIKE to write. Sometimes, fortunately, they overlap :)

    2. Yeah. I'm really excited about finally getting back to writing R#2 this year, as it was the book that initially got me writing. This will be its fifth and (I hope) final draft, and I actually dug out some of the previous drafts the other day to look at. It's changed a LOT over the years, even between the last draft and the one I'm writing right now. (Shish-kabobs, there's only one or two characters that still have their original name! Plot? It's changed completely.) But yeah, I'm very excited about what I have on my plate this year.

  12. I would love to sign a publishing contract with Enclave publishing this year... So as far as stuff I can make happen myself, I want to finish my edits and send The Hunted out to beta readers and submit :) It's gonna be a big exciting year!!

  13. I have a first draft nearly finished, so I hopefully will finish it this month. Perhaps in March or so I'll start editing (I'll have to wait and see when I have time, 'cause school is asking a lot of time). It might be great to have another project set up this year and maybe, when I can find enough courage, I'll consider publishing more seriously (things work a bit different in the Netherlands, we don't really have that stuff with agents and things like that, as far as I've seen now).
    So, that's at least some work to do ;-)

    A happy new year to y'all, by the way!

  14. This was immensely helpful. Thank you muchly for posting it!

    Several of my writing goals are:

    • form a habit of writing at regular times each day.
    • Complete two drafts of "Silver Glass" (the first book in the Runner Chronicles, my YA planetary fantasy.)
    • Write the sequel to my sci-fi re-telling of Beauty and the Beast.

  15. You are very wise, Steph. I love this. (And Brad and I love McKenna's list! Though we're still trying to figure out what a peols is. A pillow?) I always make a list of goals by month, but I know deep down which are reasonable and which might not happen. I always make way more goals than will happen, too. I don't know why I do that. I don't think it's possible for me not to. I'm an unintentional overachiever, I think.

    1. Yes, pillows :) Her misspellings often feel extra creative to me. Like I just kept looking at that and thinking, "How are you getting those letters from that word?"

      And your goals are actually what inspired me to draft that email to my agent. Because I thought, "No, I don't know what the year holds, but there's value in me thinking through what I would do if I can do anything." So thanks :)

  16. Happy New Year! Great post!

    The type of goal list that feels most comfortable to me is the big-goal and system approach, since I have a tendency to focus more on meeting the goals than on the activity itself. I've learned my lesson the hard way about doing this with word count or with Bible reading. I’d like to improve, but not by becoming a ritualistic robot. ;) Of course, when there’s *real* deadlines one has to meet those.

    Let's see... this year I'm going to work on my shelved first novel. I'd abandoned it because of its flaws, but now that I’ve done another NaNo and spent time in other storyworlds, I've realized melodrama and over-complication are my flaws as a writer no matter what I'm writing. I’d given up on that story as hopeless, but clearly it didn’t get the message, so back to fictional medieval times I go. And hey, after fourish months away from the endeavor, killing my darlings feels more like weeding a garden to find the real story than, well, killing darlings.

    Other writing goals... I’m going to try to the “edit as I go” writing process (all my attempts at the draft method have left me with frustration and an unsalvageable first draft) and hopefully get some form my reinvented first novel down on paper, write a few short stories, and oh yes, work on making my Go Teen Writers comments shorter.

  17. My main writing goal this year is to finish a draft of my novel because I have never done that before! NaNo helped me get about 2/3 of the way through it, but I still have a decent amount left. I also want to share it more, with my family, with my amazing critique partners/group, and just more people in general since that really scares me. The first method really helped me just to do it quarterly and plug it all into my calendar with reminders since I like to be very organized that way.
    Thank you GTW for helping me with this!

  18. Great timing! I'm taking this week as my planning week to get my writing back on track. While I wish I could do the detailed list, my year is just too up-in-the-air for that. So right now I'm planning my blogs. Tomorrow I might just have to decide which "burning idea" to work on first.

    I think the key with open-ended plans is to keep track of ANY progress. Then I feel like I'm being productive even if I'm not checking things off a list.

  19. I set goals for my self all the time, but I don't give deadlines unless they have to have one. This way I can remember what I want to accomplish without stressing about if it will happen with my busy schedule. So far I have five major projects on my list for this year. One is contingent on completion of another, but the rest are all set to be done this year at some point. If I reach one, I immediately plan a new one to take its place. And I still need to set my TBR goal on Goodreads.

  20. Thank you SO much for this post, Mrs. Morrill! This is just what I needed. :) I have several goals for this year, but looking at them, it's like, "How on earth do I get it all done?" ;) Your method of going from big, and then breaking it into smaller portions, etc., is such a wonderful idea! I'm definitely going to try this. :) Much more manageable. Thanks again!

    Happy New Year!

  21. Happy New Year everyone! Setting goals for myself is so hard - I tend to do so many things at once that I can't keep myself organized with the things I want to be doing (writing, of course, the thing I love!). Typically I just keep myself going with the 100 words a day goal. Last year I submitted two short stories to publishing contests and having those definite deadlines was so awesome.
    This year for goals I'm contending with the aftermath of knee reconstruction and doubling up on my courseload to get my Library Technician's diploma before my college changes the curriculum on me! After that, my writing depends on the time I have to offer. I want to finish my first draft for THREE, polish three short stories in the wings, start on WONDER, and if I'm lucky work my way into STATE OF MIND.
    Mrs. Morrill, I hope everything in your house goes well. McKenna sounds like she's having a blast and I'm thinking of Connor.

  22. I'm writing 200 words every day :)

  23. I plan to finish the first draft of my first novel I'm writing. I wrote short stories, poems, song lyrics, and TONS of fan fiction, and I attempted to write a novel SEVERAL times. But I never once completed a, my main *writing* goal (I have other goals as well) is to complete my novel I'm writing. I already wrote 650 words of the yet uncompleted first chapter this, making some progress. :P Anyway, good luck on everybody's writing goals this year!

  24. Just found this website, EXACTLY what I needed.

    My goal is to actually finish a book. I've toyed around with 11 different books over 3 years, but it feels nice to actually buckle down and get into it.

  25. So much good advice here. I would LOVE to draft two complete books this year. I've been hesitant to call it an actual goal, but what the heck. Goal it is.

  26. Usually when I need to set up my writing goal I use my planner. It may seem simple and not effective enough, but believe me, that everything genius is simple, and for such non-organised people like I am planner or diary will be a good motivator. You can invent your own system of estimating your goal achieving.