Tag Archives: goals

Lab Book for a Novel: Process, Targets and Goals

The Little Man is learning about the scientific method in school: making observations, asking a question, forming a hypothesis, making predictions, testing prediction, wash, rinse, repeat. Writing this novel, while not a perfect fit for the scientific method, certainly borrows from it. Observations I have made in the past when attempting to write at length have led to several questions. These include: Can I write well at length? Can I create a story that holds a reader through 100,000 words, and make them want more when it is all over?

I am generally a pantser—one who writes by the seat of his pants, without planning much beyong where I am in the story. Stephen King has likened this method of writing to digging up a fossil, revealing a bit at a time, until eventually, the whole thing is there for you to look at. I have also heard this described as a “headlight” method of writing: writing in the dark, with a headlight which allows you only to see a few steps ahead at any time.

This method has worked well for me with short fiction. In fact, I have sold every piece of short fiction I wrote using this method and sold exactly none of the pieces I plotted out in advance. That is well and good for short fiction, but I am becoming more skeptical that it works for me with longer fiction. My hypothesis, therefore, would be: If I blended my methods, mixing plotting and pantsing, I could write and finish a novel length story that keeps both me and readers interested throughout.

It is important to me to keep the story fresh for me. If it dulls on me while I write it, it certainly will dull on readers and that makes me losing interest in telling the story. Returning to the headlight analogy, perhaps if I set out waypoints, close enough that I know what direction they are in, but far enough away that I still need my headlight to find my way there, I’ll write a better story. This prediction is certainly testable, both in terms of the process and the output. Subsequent drafts allow me to iterate through this prediction and testing phase.

But what is the story? If you follow along with this lab book, it would be difficult to have the right context without knowing something about the story I am trying to write. And yet, I can’t talk about (or write about) the story specifics without losing the desire to write the story. In this regard, I am reminded of Ken Lui’s excellent novella, “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” In that story, it was possible to witness past events, but doing so consumed the ability to witness it again. Once I tell a story, whether describing it to a friend, or typing it into the keyboard, I seem to lose my desire and ability to tell that same story again.

What I can tell you is this:

  • Like the last several stories I sold, this novel features baseball as an important thread.
  • The story takes place across two distinct time periods separated by about 60 years.
  • Like “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” (IGMS, May 2015), the story, while centered around professional baseball, is really not about baseball as much as the effect the game had over the course of one person’s life… and its potential effect on civilization as a whole.
  • There is an element of the fantastic to the story, but I won’t say any more than that right now.

This is how I think of the story, now, at least. I’ll try to come back to this when the first draft is finished and see how that matches up to what I said here. Often, the story finds its own path as I write.

I learned through a lot of trial an error that I need a good beginning and a good ending to get started. These provide anchoring points, and while they may change over the course of a story, I need them to get started to know where I am going. In this case, I have 9 “waypoints” that I’ve marked out along the way to help me across what I imagine will be at least 90,000 words of storytelling. I am hopeful that these waypoints will keep me on track. Unlike short stories, where I have a pretty good sense of ending when I start out, for this one, I have only a vague sense of the ending. This could be good or bad. I’m going to take it as good. 90,000 words is long way from beginning to end and a lot can happen. Better to keep some slack in the line.

It would be good to have a schedule. That’s tough. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to write every day, given work and family obligations. I have no problem writing for 10 minutes here or there, but 10 minutes one day, no writing the next, and 2 hours the day after that makes it tough to come up with a schedule. So, I’m taking a page from my project management experience, and looking at past history. In 2013, when I wrote my first novel draft, I started at the end of the February and finished mid-September of that year. Call it six months, or 180 days. 95,000 words divided by 180 days comes to an average of 527 words/day. Let’s round it down to 500 words/day on average.

If I start in the next couple of days, I should finish in 180 days. Monday, September 23 is the first day of fall. Seems like as good a date as any to target as a start date. At 500 words/day that would give me an end date of March 21, 2020.

In project management, there is usually some contingency built in. Let’s call it 10%, or 9,000 words. 9,000/500 = 18 days of contingency. There may be some days I am not able to write at all. There are also vacations, busy work scheduled, etc. Of course, on other days I may write more than 500 words, but let’s factor in the contingency to plan for the unexpected. Adding 18 days to March 21, 2020 we get April 8, 2020.

I will aim to have the first draft of this novel finished on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

Again, this is a baseline that we can come back to in April and see how things are going. If I am off, we can investigate why.

We now have the baselines for this experiment of mine:

  • Target length: 90,000 words
  • Target start date: Monday, September 23, 2019
  • Daily goal: 500 words
  • Contingency: 10% (9,000 words, or 18 days)
  • Target completion date: Wednesday, April 8, 2020

And yes, all of these stats are tracked and captured in a Google Spreadsheet (called my “Logbook for a Novel”) which I will talk about tomorrow when I talk about my tools for this project.

Of course, the first draft of a novel is only one part. What about after? Well, I’m not ready to plan that far ahead. One step at time, as the saying goes. I’ll worry about the second draft after I have a completed first draft.

2011 – A year in review: Introduction

Over the next 7 days, I’ll be doing a series of posts that look back over my various goals for 2011 and set some new ones for 2012. Last year, I mostly did this in one or two post. So why spread these over 10 posts this year? A couple of reasons:

  1. I wanted to be able to focus on the topic at hand in each post.
  2. I wanted a clearly identifiable reference post to refer back to throughout 2012. So if I am talking about progress in my fiction writing, for instance, I can refer back to the post on my fiction writing goals.

Here are the planned posts in this series:

  1. 2011 – A year in review: Fiction-writing goals
  2. 2011 – A year in review: Blogging goals
  3. 2011 – A year in review: Short fiction reading
  4. 2011 – A year in review: Novel reading
  5. 2011 – A year in review: Conventioneering
  6. 2012 – Fiction writing goals
  7. 2012 – Blogging goals
  8. 2012 – Reading goals
  9. 2012 – Conventioneering goals
  10. 2012 – Health and wellness goals

I don’t have a set schedule for these posts yet, but I should get them all posted by December 31. It’s possible that the first one will get posted today.

Writing goals for 2011

While there are still 16 days left in 2010, I thought now would be a good time to get my writing goals for 2011 down on paper. A number of factors have influenced the goals for 2011:

I won’t write up the final review of my progress (my “annual report”) for 2010 until the year is over. I still have some stories out and there is still a chance those stories can sell (or be rejected) before the end of the year.

2011 will be a Year of Short Fiction for me. If I had to craft a mission statement for the year, it would be as follows:

To become better recognized as a writer of quality science fiction stories; someone to keep an eye on.

With that as my mission statement, here are my writing goals for 2011:

1. Make 3 short fiction sales to professional markets

In 2010, my goal was to make 5 story sales, 3 of which were to be to professional markets. This was an unrealistic goal, but it set a baseline for me and after a year with this goal, I think that 3 short fiction sales to professional markets is much more reasonable, especially after my sale to Analog. I do feel like the quality of my stories have been improving and by focusing on short fiction this year, I hope to improve further.  Here are some of the ways that I plan to do this:

  • Write 12 new stories in 2011. I need a bit of a stretch goal and this is it. I will likely finish 2010 having written 8 or 9 new stories, far better than anything I have done in the past. 12 stories isn’t too much of a stretch because I also spent an entire month of 2010 writing 61,000 words of a novel. Replace that time with more story writing and I think this is a challenging, but achievable objective. This also means I can pace things at roughly 1 new story each month which helps for planning purposes and sets a somewhat arbitrary deadline for each story to keep me focused. And for me, a month is generally enough time to produce a story of modest length.
  • Aim for 30 submissions. This is less than a third of what I aimed for in 2010, but what I aimed for in 2010 was not set realistically. For one thing, I didn’t consider response times. But I am also hoping that as the quality of my stories improve, they will have to see fewer markets before they are accepted. I made 24 submissions in 2010 and so 30 seems like a reasonable increase. And 3 sales means a 10% hit rate. Also, there have been new markets introduced in 2010 that should becoming “professional” markets in 2011–places like Lightspeed, Redstone, and Daily SF, for instance.
  • Continue to improve the quality of the stories I write. I feel like my stories are getting better and practice makes perfect. But I hope to improve in other ways as well. I hope to receive more editorial feedback on stories and learn from that. And I will continue to submit stories for critique to the Arlington Writers Group and to my first readers in hopes of getting more feedback and learning from that as well. Finally, I plan on making more of an effort to read more short fiction as it appears than I currently read.

2. Earn at least 1 positive review for a published story

Since my overall mission is to become better recognized as a short fiction writer to keep an eye on, it would make sense that I’d hope to earn at least 1 positive review for my published fiction. This, however, is almost entirely out of my hand and is thus a very tricky goal to meet.  Nevertheless, if I can continue to improve the quality of my writing and my stories, then it seems like a positive review is inevitable. But I sure would like to see one in 2011.

3. Attend at least 1 convention as a partipant

I managed to attend 2 conventions and one social function related to the science fiction world in 2010. In all of these–with the possible exception of the SFWA Author & Editor reception–I attended as a fan. And as I have stated elsewhere on this blog, I still think of myself as a fan first and a writer second, but in the coming year, I’d like the science fiction world to begin to recognize me more as a writer and to that end, I feel as if I need to increase my participation in the machinery of science fiction. One of the things that I can do is to try to attend a convention as a participant, on who sits on panels or gives readings.

  • I have already sent a request to be a participant at one convention in 2011 and I am waiting to hear back.
  • I plan on attending at least 5 science fiction events in 2011, which I will detail in a subsequent post and for one or two of these events I will also attempt to participate as a panelist.

The trick here is that, once again, this is largely outside of my control. I can send email messages and offer myself as a potential participant and panelist, but if I have not yet really made a name for myself in the field, than, well, why should I be picked, quite frankly. Attending a convention as a panelist, therefore, is more a barometer to my growing renown in our small field. (So that a future goal in years to come might be to be invited to participate in one or more conventions–as opposed to begging.)

4. Continue to expand and enhance my network

Aside from writing stories, the one other area that I have full control over is marketing myself and expanding my network.  Last year, my objectives in this area included attending more conventions and attempting to participate more in the machinery of the science fiction world. I think I made some good strides, but I think some of those objectives were not specific and focused enough. In 2011 I am aiming for more specific things:

  • Triple the traffic to my website by providing more relevant content, more frequently. This means more content about science fiction and writing. It means getting some external recognition of the stuff that I post, either through science fiction news sites or Twitter retweets, or word of mouth. I’m not looking to become John Scalzi’s Whatever, but if I can go from an average of 35 hits/day to an average of 100 hits/day, I think that will be a good sign of success in this endeavor.
  • Attend more science fiction events. I mentioned this above.  I attended 3 events in 2010 and I plan on attending at least 5 in 2011 (and at least one as a participant). I’ll be posting about this later on.
  • Become more involved with SFWA. I am now a full active member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I have been a volunteer for more than a year, but I would like to look for ways to become more involved, especially if they line up with some of my other goals and objectives.
  • Pay it forward. That is a tenant of the science fiction world. I have been extremely fortunate to have people who have–out of nothing more than the kindness of their hearts–help propel my career as a science fiction writer forward. If I had the opportunity to do the same for others–especially new writers, I would love to be able to do this.

Establishing goals at the beginning of the year is important. If I hadn’t done it last year, I don’t think I would have written nearly as much as I did, which would have kept me from the practice I needed to continue to improve my craft and may very well have meant being rejected from Analog instead of selling a story there. Of course, the goals for last year were unrealistic, but I’ve learned from that, too, and I hope I have set more realistic goals for this year. (And I should learn from these and set even better goals in 2012.)

I am very comfortable with the notion of focusing the entire year on short fiction, improving my skills there, and making a name for myself in that arena. I love short fiction. I recognize that most people cannot come close to making a living as a writer of short science fiction, but I am not trying to make a living at it. I am trying to write quality stories that entertain people and maybe make them think–the kind of stories that I love to read.

An update on my writing goals

Tomorrow, at the Arlington Writers Group meetup, I will be leading a discussion on NaNoWriMo and writing goals.  In light of that, it seems appropriate to provide an update on my own writing goals for 2010.

I set out four major goals, each of which had some objectives.  I’ve had mixed results, but I see now that my goals were incredibly aggressive and probably not entirely realistic, but I set the bar high, and with one month left in the year, I think I’m doing pretty good when everything is taken as a whole.

Goal 1: Make 5 short fiction sales (at least 3 of which should be to professional markets) and become an Active SFWA member.

Well, the fact it that so far, I’ve made only 1 short fiction sale this year, but it was to a professional market (Analog) and in doing so, it earned me my active member status in SFWA.  That’s pretty darn good, I think.  At the time of this writing, I have 3 stories out. 2 of the 3 have been out for quite some time, which could be promising.  The last is another submission to Analog, an attempt to strike while the iron is hot.

One objective of this goal was to write 20 new stories in 2010, which now seems absurd to me.  In previous years, the best I’d ever done was 2 or 3.  So far this year, I’ve written 7 complete new stories, and have two more in various stages of completion. It is possible that I will finish the year with 9 new stories, less than half of what I aimed for, but more than three times what I’ve done in any previous year.

My objective for 100 submissions was based on the fact that I could submit each of my 20 stories to 5 pro markets in the space of a year, but it wasn’t well thought-out logistically.  (For instance, it didn’t take into consideration response times.)  As of this writing, I have made 23 submissions.  I’ve received 19 rejections, made 1 sale, and have 3 stories outstanding.  It is possible that I will squeeze in 2 more submissions before the end of the year, making it an even 25, or one quarter of what I foolishly targeted.

A final objective here was to learn from my rejections and I think I have done a good job of that.  Stan Schmidt at Analog had previously sent me 2 detailed rejection notes and with encouragement from friends, I finally sold him a story this year, so I must be learning something.

Goal 2: Submit my novel through an agent to one or more publishers for consideration

When I wrote this goal, I was still thinking that I might actually finish the novel I started for NaNoWriMo 2009.  However, after reading through the nearly 60,000 words I’d written, I decided that what I wrote simply wouldn’t work and no novel would come out of that effort–and therefore, I would have nothing to submit to agents for consideration.  But it was not a wasted effort.  The lessons I learned from NaNoWriMo 2009 helped enormously in NaNoWriMo 2010 and what I have so far (just over 61,000 words and counting) is much better than what I had the same time last year.  This ties into…

Goal 3: Write another novel

This is what I have been doing for the last 30 days.  I’ve successfully completed NaNoWriMo for a second straight year, and I am aiming to finish the first draft by December 15.

Goal 4: Expand my network

In this area, I have had the most success this year.  I laid out a set of objectives to expand my network and get my name out there and I think I’ve done a good job of this and it is beginning to show:

First, I had an objective of attending more cons.  In 2010 I attended Readercon in July and Capclave in October.  Because of other travel, that was all I could get away with this year, but I also attended my first SFWA Author & Editors reception in New York and that was a big deal for me.  I also had my first lunch with an editor in New York City.

Second, I had an objective to participate more in the convention machinery.  I tried to get on panels for Readercon but I was too late this year.  I will try again for next year.

Third, was to participate more online.  To this end, I think I’ve done a remarkable job.  I’m back to regular blogging and my daily visit counts are going steadily up.  My Facebook and Twitter presence are helping, too, and I am getting connected to many people in the science fiction world that I never dreamed of being connected with.  (And sometimes, they friend me.)  I’ve joined the Codex Writers group, which has been a big help.  And while it is not online, I’ve also joined the Arlington Writers Group meetup and I’ve looked forward to attending those meetups each Wednesday.

So over all, I’m doing pretty good.  At the end of the year I’ll post some metrics to show how much and how well I’ve done, and I plan to use these as a baseline for 2011.  Instead of picking arbitrarily high goals, I’ll base my goals on incremental improvements over the previous year.  Stay tuned for that post toward the end of December.

Getting back on the wagon

I think my nadir of laziness has passed this weekend, as I suspected it might. I am turning things around. While Sunday’s are my day to just veg, I have spent this morning planning how to get back on the exercise wagon and stay there. I have set a personal goal for myself, and I’ve started to plan out my daily routine in great detail. This is something that helped me turn things around back in college, where my first 2 years I performed mediocre, and my last 2 years, I got nearly straight A’s while working almost full-time. I haven’t gone back to this detailed type of planning in 12 years, but maybe it’s time now. I will post the details in a future post, as soon as I have them more or less finalized. My goal is to be in the best possible physical condition I could be in (and the best condition I’ve been in in my life) by July 1, 2007. This gives me roughly 7 months. I have an idea of how I want to look and how I want to feel. So I’ll go from there.

I have a lot of errands to run today. I want to get some new gym shoes so I don’t always have to lug an extra bag of stuff to the gym with me–I can leave the spare shoes at work. I need a new gym bag as well, since mine is starting to fall apart. I need new shoe laces for my regular shoes. I’ve got grocery shopping to do. For the gym shoes I’m going to DSW and that’s in Silver Spring, so I figured that while I am there, I might as well catch Deja Vu. I got a ticket for the 12:30 showing, and I can take care of just about all of the rest of my errands on the way back home.


In other news, I finally canceled my subscription to THE NEW YORKER yesterday. My last issue will be in late January. It was tough to do, as I have been receiving the magazine for several years, but in these last months, they have been piling up unread and although I tell myself I’ll get to them, I never do. There are other magazines that are higher priority for me and I am having trouble keeping up with those.

I noticed on my most recent Visa bill that the APR went up once again. I called VIsa and asked what they could do about lowering it so that it was more competitive with everyone else. They lowered it back into a competitive range right there on the phone. I guess if you don’t stay on top of these things and pay attention, you get nailed.

I’m probably one of the only people out there actually looking forward to Rocky Balboa, which comes out later this month. Yesterday, I went out to buy season 4 of Lois & Clark and also picked up the Rocky anthology. I watched the first two movies last night.

I went to cancel my Verizon phone and DSL service, now that my cable and internet service is working well. Turns out Verizon is closed on the weekends and I have to wait until tomorrow to do this.

And if all of that isn’t exciting enough, tonight is trash night, here in Riverdale, Maryland!