I started out 2019 with a plan. Priorities. Ambitious plans to write, publish, learn, and market more stories and novels. The key principle of the plan? Consistency. Turns out that I struggled with being consistent.
I didn't have any problem with consistent performance while pursuing my degrees. I showed up each day and did the work. I don't have problems at work as a librarian. My word count dashboard shows that I failed to consistently produce new words. Though I don't have a dashboard to track it (at least not yet), I didn't follow a consistent publishing schedule. My marketing efforts languished. I studied erratically. This rotted the foundation of my strategy for the year. Without consistent performance my strategy for the year failed.
The Heinlein Solutions
The problems I faced with my writing are all examples of not following Heinlein's Rules. Many different writers have written about Heinlein's Rules. I'd picked up the basic idea early on when I started writing, but it was Dean Wesley Smith that first lectured about the importance of Heinlein's Rules in a writer's career. I've since heard him talk about these rules many different times, in person and online. I've read his book and blog posts about the rules.
I know the rules.
Yes, and I still missed on all of them.
Not all of the time. And not always in the same way. As we go into 2020 I want to look ahead with 20/20 foresight, identifying the ways that I failed this year—and recognize my successes.
I want to take that and identify possible solutions to avoid the failures of this year.
Rule 1: You Must Write
Sounds simple. It is. Pick your tool of choice and make marks. Marks that convey thoughts into a reader's head. Code your story.
Maybe the code works and runs flawlessly in the reader's gray matter so that they experience the story you wanted to tell.
Maybe your code contains bugs that causes the story to crash and the reader puts it away, forgets about it.
No matter the outcome—you must write. I did write this year. If we take a look at my dashboard, I'm nearly at 200,000 words for the year. Not all of that is fiction. The largest body of work was my journal, then short stories, and finally my novel Synthetic Pain. Plus some words on blog posts, studying, and emails to my list.
The Problem? I didn't consistently write new fiction. If I'd consistently written 250 words per day on my novel it'd be done at about 91,250 words. It's the simple math. It typically takes me less than 15 minutes to write 250 words. Yet I've only written about half that on the novel this year.
The nice thing about that math is that it's also easy to figure out how much time I'd spend writing the book. At 250 words per 15 minutes, that's 1,000 words/hour, so a 91,000-word novel will take ~91 hours. A year at 15 minutes a day, but only 3 months at 1 hour per day.
The Solution: Consistency
I need to write every day. I work best when I'm consistent. Taking days off throws off my routine. I'm a librarian, managing staff, and working on complex data analytics. It takes a lot of time. I enjoy spending time with my family and doing things at home. I read. I watch TV, movies, and play games. If I don't write each day it becomes that much easier to shrug it off and not get my writing done.
The Master of Consistency: Jonathan Mann
If you're not familiar with Jonathan Mann, watch this video.
Mann has been writing a song a day for 4000 days. That's the level of consistency I'm talking about. Writing only 250 words per day for 4,000 days is 1,000,000 words. That's a book each year, two if they're short, or a book and some short stories. In Mann's case—a whole lot of songs!
He's done more than write the songs. He records them. He creates videos. He's starting a new podcast about his process. It's inspiring.
How can I maintain that level of consistency?
- Track my work. I've created the dashboard on Tableau Public. I made a form that feeds a Google Sheets spreadsheet which supplies the data for the dashboard. Each day I record my word counts for each writing session on that form. It's a visual record of my work (or lack of work).
- No excuses. Mann talks about writing his song each day no matter what. Food poisoning? He does the song. Travel? He writes. Speaking? He writes. It's taking Rule 1 to heart. You must write. Unless I'm literally unconscious or dead there's no reason I can't find 15 minutes to write 250 words each day.
- Fiction first. Mann doesn't count the day if he hasn't produced his song. That's what counts. I've been tracking all of my word counts. That's fine, but other words can't take the place of new fiction. I should update my tracking so it can show fiction (default) or everything if I want. The day counts when I write at least 250 words of fiction. Every day, not average. Even if I write 4,000 words in a single day, the next day I still need to write at least 250 words. I hope to average more than 250 words per day, but that's the minimum. It's about a page. So instead of a song a day, it's a page of fiction a day.
- Inspirational Goals. Even if my minimum word count is 250 words of new fiction, I want my average word count to be much higher—2,750 words per day. I may not be able to write that much every day. That means writing much more than I've done, to the point I'd be pushing Pulp Speed One. One million words of new fiction. My minimum would get me a novel in one year. Hitting my higher target would mean several novels each year along with short stories. Impossible? No, not really. Writers do it all the time. Some writers have put out that many words in a single month.
- Share my progress. The dashboard is public. Anyone curious enough to see what I'm doing can follow along there. I'm always tempted to blog more often but that's something else that takes more time. I'm thinking about doing a weekly blog post, though, to look back at the previous week. It's a way to share more details of what's going on. Since I keep a journal I can probably extract elements from that to make it easier too.
Rule 2: You Must Finish What You Write
Here's another rule that Mann absolutely hits. He finishes the song each day. It's done. It takes a bit more than 250 words to write most stories.
I missed on this rule too. I haven't finished Synthetic Pain. I did manage to finish some short stories, but there are some that I didn't complete. A great way to miss on this rule? Don't follow Rule 1.
That's not the only way. I wrote quite a number of chapters of Synthetic Pain and decided (for no particularly good reason) to toss those chapters and start over. That's a great way to not finish something.
The Solution: Fearless Inertia
Don't stop. Don't look back. It's the marathon. Keep hitting Rule 1 each day until you reach the end of the story. In my case, I might cycle through words I wrote the day before, creatively, to get into the flow and then go forward with new words.
How can I maintain my inertia?
- Tracking. The tracking helps. The more days that pass, the longer the writing streak, the more power it has to compel me to move forward.
- Title Tracking. Tracking daily word counts is a start, but I also want to track finished titles. What good is it to write a bunch of words if nothing is finished? I want to update my dashboard / form to include information about each title including the completion date. I can use that to display when I complete titles as well as information about the title.
- Fear is the mind killer. It's the little death. It's listening to my critical voice. That's what happened with Synthetic Pain. My critical voice (which is fear) convinced me that what I'd written wasn't any good. Ignore it.
Rule 3: You Must Refrain from Rewriting Unless to Editorial Order
Fear haunts all of the rules. Rule 3 is where many people get the gom jabbar. I'm no exception to this one. I start thinking that I need to spend a bit more time going over my story. Usually by that point I'm not doing it for any good reason. It's the fear, the doubt that I can get it right.
Dean points out the errors in logic around this one. “I'm not sure where the thinking comes from that if they couldn't get it correct the first time, why looking at it and stirring the words around will make it better, but that is the myth.”
I'm better about this one than some of the other rules, but it sneaks in sometimes. The issue with Synthetic Pain was an example.
The Solution: Get It Right the First Time
Dean digs into the details of Rule 3, the ways people fail, and what Heinlein meant when he wrote the rules (hint: exactly what it says).
How can I get it right the first time?
- Cycling. Not on the bike. It means cycling back over what I'm writing, still in creative voice, fixing errors, typos, and wrong details. Don't write sloppy drafts. Get it right.
- Done is done. Once it's finished, that's it. That manuscript moves on to the next rule. If it's a novel, it'll get added to my publication schedule. I'll send short stories out to the major magazines, add them into my publication schedule, or publish on Patreon. (Your support helps me move toward a full-time writing career, and you get regular stories, and other rewards based on tier level).
Rule 4: You Must Put It on the Market
The critical voice loves to stop this one. It's what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance. I've run into this, struggled with it, and continue to do so. On the one hand, I'm not afraid of what people will think about my stories. Except when I get a rejection or a bad review that sends me into a depression spiral and I realize that I do care. I care because I hope readers will enjoy the stories. Because I want to succeed.
This rule gets tricky because it's easy to ‘forget' to send something out. Or to take the time to publish it. Or fall into a Rule 3 temptation to ‘revise' the story.
The Solution: Get Over It
You don't own someone's reaction to your work. Mann shares this quote from Martha Graham in his video.
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is on a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
I love this so much. It's one of the best things that I've read. It's worth taking time to unpack it. Watch Mann's video. He goes through it. Graham says, “if you block it, it will never exist…” And, “It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression.“
Right. Send it out.
How can I get over it?
- Acceptance. Remember the quote from Martha Graham. I don't have to believe in myself, in my work. I don't have to be pleased. I only need to keep the channel open. Good or bad, it isn't up to me.
Rule 5: You Must Keep It on the Market Until Sold
Boy did I screw up on this one! I've unpublished books instead of leaving them up. I've failed to send stories back out to markets, allowing them to languish in a virtual drawer. On top of Rule 4 failures, Rule 5 is a common problem area for me.
Dean says, “So, these writers pull down an indie-published story, give up on a story, usually out of fear, and put the story in a drawer. No reader will ever buy it.
“Headshaking in this modern world of unlimited shelf space.”
Yep. And I've been one of those writers.
The Solution: Keep It Out
It's not complicated. If sending to professional markets, keep sending it out. Even after it has been published, it might be possible to publish it in a market that accepts reprints. Or indie publish it. Look at all of the possible rights you can license and Rule 4 and 5 the heck out of it.
So if it is that simple, what's the problem? Why do I have so much difficulty with this one?
How can I keep titles on the market?
- Plan Markets. Figure it out in advance. For short stories, determine which markets pay professional rates. Create a ranked list of markets. If the first doesn't take it, send it on to the next.
- Mailing Mondays. Okay, so generally stories aren't mailed any longer. Still, it can be helpful to pick a day to send any stories that came back on to the next market. I use Trello for tracking submissions and my plans.
- Publish Books Monthly. I want to hit a regular publication schedule for my novels. That's been the plan, but as with my other issues around consistency, it hasn't always gone as planned. No excuses. I have planned out releases on the 1st of each month. The next release is scheduled for Jan. 1st – Past Dark, available for pre-order now. I also have Time Retrievers set for a release date of Feb. 1st, also available to pre-order.
It's nearly the New Year. I'm excited about the opportunities in 2020. The key, as it was last year, is consistency. Like Mann, I need to write each day. I've gone over some of the issues that I faced, the tactics that can help me make sure that I stick to Heinlein's Rules, and some targets that I want to reach. I want to put that into a format that can help me with being consistent.
Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)
Adopted by Google and other organizations, popularized by John Doerr in Measure What Matters, OKRs offer a structure I like. It's one that we're using at the library too. It makes sense to me to create some personal OKRs for my writing. The tactics I listed above are the actions that I'll take to meet my objectives.
Doerr lists the first superpower of OKRs: Focus and Commit to Priorities.
That's key for me.
What is most important for the next three (or six, or twelve) months?…With a select set of OKRs, we can highlight a few things–the vital things–that must get done, as planned and on time.
See, it's not only words that I'm going for. I'm striving to write fun stories. Stories I want to read. I want to have fun when I'm writing! I also have fun with the other steps along the way.
I haven't explained OKRs in great detail. It comes down to a few things, as Christina Wodtke says in Radical Focus. “One: set inspiring and measurable goals. Two: make sure you…are always making progress toward that desired end state. No matter how many other things are on your plate.”
It's what you want to do and how you'll know if you've achieved it.
I know I've got a good Objective when you leap out of bed in the morning eager to make it happen. I know I've got the right Key Results when you are also a little scared you can't make them.
I'm setting annual OKRs. Each week I'll set priorities. Maybe I'll post about that, another way to remain accountable, either here or on Patreon. It's also a way to celebrate what has been accomplished.
Write fantastic novels
- Write 1,500 words (minimum) per day.
- 40,000 words (minimum) each month on the current novel.
- Complete a finished novel by the end of each even month (6 novels).
Write amazing short stories
- Write 500 words (minimum) per day.
- Complete a finished short story bi-weekly (26 stories).
- Submit or publish each story within one week.
Achieve Success with my novels
- 12 novels released, one each month, on my store and retail stores.
- Novels are available in e-book, hardcover, paperback, and large print formats.
- Average 10 sales per day, per title.
- Match my income from my full-time librarian job.
BUild an engaged community of readers
- Readinary newsletter subscribers increase by 25%.
- Broadcast open rate averages 60%.
- Click rate averages 10%.
- Reach 250 Patreon subscribers.
I'll start from that set of OKRs for 2020. I think it's a good set of objectives that covers my writing, publishing, and marketing bases. A weekly check in, commitment to goals for the week, and celebration of the previous week's accomplishments will help. I tried to incorporate the points I made about each of Heinlein's Rules.
I have other things I'd like to do in the new year, including additional work on illustration. I'm not setting OKRs for those because I want to keep my focus on what's important. Now I'll look at turning those OKRs into a dashboard.
I'd love to hear what you think in the comments. Sign up for Readinary below, or support me on Patreon.