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The 5-Minute Guide to Goal Setting for Writers

WPM Gauge

Writing doesn't take much time. If you figure on a 1,000 words per hour pace, you can plan how much time you need to write a novel. If it's an 80,000-word novel—80 hours. At a 17 Words Per Minute (WPM) typing speed. You could cut the time in half simply by typing at a 34 WPM rate. The bigger question isn't how fast you can type. Without deliberate practice and focus on your typing speed it probably won't change much. The real question is when can you fit in the 80 hours, 40 hours, or 120 hours it will take to write your novel? That comes down to goal setting.

The Double-Edged Goal

Goals cut both ways. They can help you slash through distraction—and they can gut you when you fail to meet your targets. It gets even worse when you consider that most of us go through our days juggling dozens of different goals. If you're like me and have a career outside of writing, you'll have goals for that career. It may take up most of your time and energy. You may have goals around your family. Your health. And goals related to your creative practice. Often we don't think about all of these as goals. We might consider some to simply be tasks that need to be completed. A task might be mowing the lawn because it is the first sunny day we've had in weeks. You could even say that your goal is to have a lawn that looks good and the task of mowing is just one of the things that you do to reach that goal.

That's fine. Taking care of the lawn is one of those never-ending goals, same as taking care of your own health, and it is evaluated at any moment when you ask yourself if you are meeting the goal.

People also like to talk about projects as larger efforts that might contain many goals with related tasks. You might consider writing a novel a project. Whatever term you choose to use—your life is full of things to do.

External vs. Internal Goals

Your boss giving you an assignment is their way of accomplishing a goal (or several goals). In turn, you create goals based on that assignment, e.g. don't get fired for not getting the work done. Often we have less resistance when given external goals that are tied to “work.” We get up and go to work each day. We work to reach our goals as well as organizational goals.

Often it isn't the same with our creative practice. For one thing, it runs into other goals, ours and other's goals for us. I might want to spend the day writing and working on illustrations but I also need to do our taxes. I have other chores to do. My family also has goals for me. My son wants to play or code together. Our families understand that our jobs will take a great deal of our time. Naturally, they want to spend time with us when we're home. That's great! I definitely want to spend time with my family too, and I'm endlessly grateful that I have a family. I'm also fortunate in that they are also creative and artistic people. They have their own creative practices too.

Setting Our Goals For Our Creative Practice

With that in mind, I need to set realistic (and challenging) goals. I can't compare my productivity to someone else. What they're doing doesn't matter. I need to figure out what works for me. I might want to write a new novel every two weeks, spending 40 hours per week. That's not going to work with everything else in my life. Instead, I need to work back from what it will take to write a novel. If I need 80 hours to write the book, how much time can I spend on it each day?

Let's say that I figure I can manage a half-hour on my lunch breaks to work on the novel. That's about 500 words or 2,500 words during my work week. If I don't do any extra on the weekend it'll take 32 weeks to write the book. If I don't take days off I can finish it in 23 weeks. Figure that I'm bound to miss some days and call it 6 months to be safe. That gives me confidence that I can meet that goal.

Write a novel in 6 months by writing 500 words per day, 7 days per week. 

That also lets me use streak-tracking to help with my motivation on the book. I'll need to change parameters if I want to complete the book faster. Write more than 500 words (either by spending more time or increasing my speed). I need to keep my other goals in mind, things like blog posts, short stories, publishing, marketing, and illustration. Plus everything else in my life. I don't write in a void.

What About You?

What tips do you have for setting goals? How do you balance your career and creative practice? Share in the comments.

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5 Ways to Draw Readers Into Your Story or Novel

Apple drizzled with honey

“The air in the shop smelled of talcum, resin, and tissue, with a faint, almost indefinable undertone of pine and acid-free paper.” (“There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold” by Seanan McGuire)

Smell

Sensory details draw readers into your story or novel. Evoking one's sense of smell is one of the most potent ways to do this. Scents tie us to our memories and create a powerful sense of place. An opening of a story should draw the reader in and anchor them in the story. Scents can also substitute for taste, think of the smell of sugar when someone opens a box of fresh donuts. Or the way overripe apples smell almost like cider late in the season as they drop from the trees to rot among the grass.

“Humans called it the Medusa. Its long twisted ribbons of gas strayed across fifty parsecs, glowing blue, yellow, and carmine. Its central core was a ghoulish green flecked with watery black.” (“Hardfought” by Greg Bear)

Sight

As surprising as it might be, sometimes we forget to include sight in our story. Our characters appear, converse, and interact without any word of where they are located. Sensory details emerge through the character. All of the senses, including sight, are interpreted by the character. Your characters will notice different things about the setting and have different opinions about it. In the “Hardfought” opening, Bear shows the characters opinion even before naming the character by describing the nebula as “ghoulish green” and “watery black.” In the next paragraph, introducing the character Prufrax describes the nebula further as “malevolent” and goes on revealing character details. This not only draws the reader into the story, it also reveals character details.

“Rinna Sen paced backstage, tucking her mittened hands deep into the pockets of her parka. The sound of instruments squawking to life cut through the curtains screening the front of the theater: the sharp cry of a piccolo, the heavy thump of tympani, the whisper and saw of forty violins warming up.” (“Ice in D Minor” by Anthea Sharp)

Hearing

Sounds convey so much of the character's experience to the reader and provide another powerful way to anchor the reader in the story. In Anthea Sharp's story, the contrast in the first line with the second is interesting and tells us something is different about this scene. The sounds of the orchestra immediately provide a sense of place and tell us the character's view of the instruments. It also reveals that the character knows each of the instruments.

Often sound is coupled with other senses. Or the absence of sound can reveal details about the setting and the character. As with the other senses, it all flows from the character. To one character the buzzing of the fluorescent lights in the office ceiling, the flickering of a dying bulb, might drive them batty. The other person in the office doesn't notice the buzzing of the lights but does notice how the person sharing the office is always snacking on M&Ms, making smacking noises that drive them crazy.

“When he was very young, he waved his arms, gnashed the teeth of his massive jaws, and tromped around the house so that the dishes trembled in the china cabinet.” (“Dinosaur” by Bruce Holland Rogers)

Touch

Touch adds an additional sense of being physically present in the setting. It gives the character solidity. The character lives in the environment—they aren't a disembodied bundle of cameras, microphones, and other sensors. Touch links us to the character and setting. It's also overlooked. It might seem unlikely, how do you miss a sense of touch? Suppose that you write, ‘John picked out an apple from the basket'. There are no specific details in that description. It isn't filtered through the character's sense of touch, or opinions. ‘John plucked an apple from the basket, the skin giving beneath the gentle pressure of his fingers to reveal the worm-blasted rot inside.' Or, ‘John selected an apple from the basket and relished the crisp firmness ripe with juicy potential.' Two different experiences, sensations, and opinions of the apple.

“Cat waited for a moment as she stepped into the bakery, the bell dangling from the door announcing her arrival. Trays of baked goods surrounded her. Silver trays with goodies packed to the edge—baklava, chocolate sponge cake layers held by ganache and lemon cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, the lemon filling betrayed by the dollop of neon-yellow filling on the center right on top.” (“True Calling” by Irette Y. Patterson)

Taste

Patterson's opening evokes several senses. It also evokes a sense of taste simply from the description of the baked goods. The character pays attention to the pastries. She knows what they are and there's a sense of relish as she takes it in. Although the scents aren't explicitly mentioned, the description evokes the scents of sugar and lemon. Some words have a strong association with scents and taste. The two often go together. In this case, it's enough to make the mouth water. As the opening continues, the sense of taste is further utilized to ground the reader and develop the character.

Taste is one of the senses—like a sense smell—that has strong associations with memory. We associate tastes with events and times in our life. A character's sense of taste can also link them back to memories and gives the character a feeling of reality outside of the page. They came from somewhere. They didn't just start on the page.

Evoking All Five Senses Every 500 Words

Author Dean Wesley Smith recommends hitting all five senses quickly in each opening, whether the start of a story or a scene opening and again every 500 words. It grounds the reader and keeps them in the story. This is an area of craft that I plan to practice as I write my weekly stories. I also plan to go back to familiar stories and look at how the author used the senses in their stories.

Who Does This Very Well?

What writer, story, or book engaged your senses? Share your thoughts in the comments below.