Monday, September 25, 2017

How to Build Systems so You Can Reach Your Writing Goals

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

This post is the third in a series about goals. In case you missed it, we talked two weeks ago about stating our writing goals. Even those big ones that we can't control 100%. Then last week, I talked about recognizing and documenting our personal writing rules.

Today we get less dreamy and more boots-on-the-ground. We're going to examine each goal, identify what we do now to action on achieving it, and building systems so that we make sure those actions happen. Working on these steps feels like constructing a ladder so we can more easily climb to where we want to be.

To make this post super accessible, let's use a goal that many of you have mentioned to me, that you would like to be traditionally published by the time you graduate high school. (Those of you who are interested in self-publishing, we're going to talk about that too.)

First, let's start brainstorming actionable items:

If you want to take action on your goal, the place to start is assessing what you have control of. To get traditionally published, you'll need a few things in place:

1. A stellar manuscript
2. An agent (probably) and an editor (definitely)
3. A platform (likely)

This is an overly simplistic list, but it'll serve our purposes for today.

Let's take these one-by-one. If you don't yet have a stellar manuscript, that's the first thing you need. (It's basically impossible to get a book published if you don't have the book written, right?) There are lots and lots of actionable items that I could list on this one alone, but for time's sake, I'll include a few. Assuming you've already written the book, your actionable items might be:
  • Do at least two rounds of edits. If you're feeling overwhelmed by edits, the Go Teen Writers book was written to be a helpful guide through that process.
  • Ask several friends to read the manuscript and give you feedback. Ideally these are friends who know a thing or two about story structure, grammar, and writing. But before I had writing friends, I received several very thoughtful critiques from friends who simply enjoyed reading, so receiving their feedback can still be helpful. (I also received some very bad, damaging feedback along the way, which is the nature of opening yourself up for critique.)
  • Continue to study the craft of fiction by reading books, listening to podcasts, taking courses, or reading blog posts.
Obviously, this isn't an exhaustive list of everything you need to do to write a fabulous, shelf-worthy book. We have several fairly detailed series on the blog about writing novels from beginning to end, so maybe start with the Looking for Something Specific tab if you're wanting a more extensive list of posts on that subject.

Onto agents and editors. There are lots of different ways to look for these seemingly illusive people. Most of the time you need an agent before you can gain access to editors, but not always. Writing conferences are the easiest place to get direct access to agents and editors, but if you live somewhere rural or can't afford to travel, that may not be an option. Here are some ways you can take action on finding an agent or editor from home:
  • Lots of agents have blogs or are active on social media. This is a great way to learn about their personalities, tastes, and what they're looking for. 
  • You'll need to know how to explain your book in an interesting sentence or two, so you can work on that. You should also have an idea of where your book fits in the market. What other books are like it? What established authors do you have a similar style to?
  • You could take part in (or stalk) an online event like #pitmad 
Again, these are just a few ideas to get you started.

Lastly, if you want to be published traditionally, you need to have some kind of internet presence. No publishing house will expect you to have a ridiculous number of followers, but like editor Jillian Manning said when she was with us back in May, it's concerning when she searches for a writer online and finds nothing. 
  • If you haven't yet, at least reserve your website name, which should be If you can't get that, you can add "books" or "author" to it, but it's best if you can get your name.
  • If you haven't already, and if your parents say it's okay, pick a social platform and focus on growing it and learning how to use it well. Don't put pressure on yourself to be everywhere, but be somewhere.
  • Start your email list. This is a metric publishers care more and more about. If you want to see what kinds of things authors talk about in their emails, start by signing up for a few lists. Like maybe mine, Jill's, and Shan's. *Wink, wink*
These suggestions are all items that will help you move closer to your goal of being a published author, whether that ends up being in high school or after.

Maybe your goal is self-publishing. While many of the suggestions above still apply, here are some other ideas that are unique to indie publishing:
  • The indie author community is a generous one. Find the experts. Read their books, listen to their podcasts, and take their tutorials.
  • Follow indie authors on social media. When you find authors you really like, buy their books and see if there are ways you can help them out. Like being on a launch team or writing consumer reviews.
  • Look for Facebook groups or blogs dedicated to indie publishing. Not only can you connect with and learn from other authors, but this will also be a good way to find freelance editors and designers.
  • Work on growing your platform, same as if you were trying to be traditionally published. You will need ways to tell people about your books!
Once you've brainstormed a list of ideas for taking action on achieving your goal, you can start to find space for those tasks on your calendar. The easiest way I've found to do that is to build systems:

Create systems:

Meeting a big goal always involves making regular space in your schedule to chip away at the tasks. You can't spend a day building a social media presence and then mark it off your list forever, right? Instead, it's better to come up with ways that you can make a little progress on a regular basis.

Using social media as an example, the system you build could be something like, "In the five minutes that I wait for my bus to arrive, I'm going to look up an author I like and follow them on Twitter." That's a system (or the start of a system) you're putting in place to build your following. Donald Miller refers to this as "adding something to the plot" of achieving your dream or goal.

Or if you have a personal writing rule that involves learning more about the craft, maybe instead of listening to music while you clean your room, you instead listen to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast. We're just looking for little habits we can change that will help us chip away at our goals.

Even though new systems can feel stiff and difficult at first, it doesn't take long for them to start making your life easier. My system for getting books written is that when my baby naps and my kids are at school, I write. I never think about turning on the TV instead of writing during my designated time, unless I'm really sick. That hasn't always been true for me, but because I've been working my system for almost ten years now, writing is a habit and watching Gilmore Girls reruns isn't.

What are some ways you can take action on your goal? Do you need to develop a system to help?


  1. Great post Mrs. Morrill! I always make SMART goals and stick to them

    1. You're ahead of me then, Sorrel. I'm still working to grow in this area!

  2. This was an awesome post, Stephanie - thank you so much for sharing it with us! I'm definitely bookmarking it for future reference ;). Quick question - I currently have a blog (, and I've been considering changing the blog address because it definitely doesn't seem very official. But I've had people tell me that it might not be a smart idea to change the address after I've had it for awhile, because I could lose followers by changing the address, since everyone would have to re-follow to receive my posts after I change the address. So my question is, would it still be a smart idea to change the address (probably to something like, or

    ~ Savannah | Scattered Scribblings

    1. Oh, gracious - that was a little longer than 'quick question'. Sorry!

      ~ Savannah | Scattered Scribblings

    2. Hey, Savannah, hopefully you don't mind me putting in my input. Have you thought about creating a second blog specifically for your writing endeavors and having a more professional name? You could keep your awesome blog scattered scribblings for book reviews and other posts that you tend to do and you could have the other one for all things writing and for your books.

      That's just my opinion. :D I do know someone who changed their blog address. I can find out if they lost followers or I can just link you to her blog if you'd like so you can talk to her. :D


    3. Your blog is super cute, Savannah. You're getting good interaction in the comments, and I wouldn't want you to lose traction by changing it. Eventually you'll want a self-hosted website, and you could always link to Scattered Scribblings rom there. Which is what Roseanna White does for her blog. For Go Teen Writers, we put on everything, and it just redirects to the blogger site.

  3. This was an awesome post, Mrs. Morrill. Definitely helpful for the technical side of things. :D

  4. That was a great post, Mrs. Morill! A little overwhelming to think about, but definitely worth it, I suppose. I do have a question about social media and blogging - what kind of things do professionals want to see when they look up prospective authors? Followers? Official-ness? How much "fun" is advisable, and how much it focus on writing and "professional" things?

    1. Vera, I asked my editor about that when I interviewed her for the blog. I'll paste her answer below. Your question about fun and professional is a great one. I don't know that I have any hard-and-fast rules for professional accounts. The purpose of it is to connect in real and authentic ways with your readership. So you want to have fun and be authentic. But there's minutiae of my life that I don't share on professional accounts that I am more likely to share on a personal one. Like I love the Kansas City Royals, and if my Twitter was just for me as a person, I would RT a ton of stuff about them. But I know a very small percentage of my readers are also interested in the awesomeness of Mike Moustakas, so I don't RT or talk about the Royals much. When I share something on social media, I try to think about who I'm sharing it for. Is that helpful at all?

      And then here is Jillian's answer about social media for not-yet-published writers:

      Publishing is a business, and sales and marketing people want to know that the books editors bring them can be commercially viable—meaning they can sell! One of the ways to help sell a book is by being an author with a platform online, since that means you have a built-in fan base.

      For a debut author, I definitely want to see a professional website/blog, as well as a minimum of 1,500 followers across a maximum of three platforms. Those three can be a mix of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube, and it helps to see a steady number of followers on each site, rather than 1,000 on Twitter and 10 on Facebook. (P.S. Editors know what a follow-for-follow account looks like, so someone who has 10K followers but is following 12K people will give us pause.)

      I’ll admit, it’s a little scary when I get a manuscript in and when I go to look up the author online I find…nothing. No website, no blog, no social media. (And by social media, I mean professional social media, not a personal page for friends and family.) That being said, I know that someone who has never published a book won’t have the same draw to followers as a published author would have. So the only real “rule” I try to follow is to make sure the author has some form of professional presence online to use as a starting point.

    2. This was amazing - thank you so much! Mrs. Manning's explanation did help me understand some of what an editor might be looking for, and your description was really helpful in describing kind of things to post. ("When I share something on social media, I try to think about who I'm sharing it for." That sentence really helped me put it into perspective.) This "platform" and "social media" is still a vast, slightly scary world for me, but I'm getting my map sorted out little by little. Thank you for a fabulous post and wonderful answers!

    3. That mindset was very helpful for me too, so I'm glad to share it. The other breakthrough I had in regards to social media was learning that there are very few of us who are naturally good at it. It's okay for it to be a growing process and to look to others for guidance.

  5. This is a helpful post. I don't like social media and right now I'm not using any, so I'm not really excited for that step. Thankfully, that's still a while away from where I am now.

    What kinds of things would you put on a social media page? Would you just explain your book and leave it at that?


    1. Mila, you're certainly not alone in your dislike for social media.

      I've heard several similar philosophies on social media that helped me, and maybe it will help you:

      1. About 80% of what you share on social media should be focused on others. Whether it's inspiring quotes or links to posts on websites other than your own or promoting a book you loved. And then 20% of it can be "buy my book" kinds of things.

      2. Guy Kawasaki said in an interview about social media, "Would you rather be NPR or QVC?" QVC sells stuff all the time. That's what they do. NPR, on the other hand, provides great content everyday, and because of that they earn the right to have pledge drives a couple times a year.

      Those two things have been really helpful for me, and hopefully they will be for you in the future!

  6. This is super helpful! I'm starting down several new paths with my writing, so it was nice to read about ways to keep those big goals organized and less frightening! Thanks for your pointers!

    1. Sarah, yay! "Organized and less frightening" is lovely feedback to receive on a post like this :)