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A Resolution for the New Year: Set Meaningful Goals

01/04/2011

I can always tell it’s January because the gym gets crowded again, full of people working off their New Year’s resolutions. In fact, my Twitter newsfeed is about evenly divided between people complaining about the unusual waiting times for machines and people complaining about the pain of returning to the gym after too long an absence. Both sides seem to agree, however, that by February everything will be back to normal, as the New Year’s resolutions lose their strength.

The magic of that new calendar page inspires resolutions, but the ebb and flow of gym attendance confirms something I already knew: resolutions don’t last. What lasts are goals, and the first of the year is a good time to set some. Going to the gym might be boring, but if the goal is to be able to take an extended bicycle trip or hike the Appalachian Trail, you’ve got something to work toward.

it’s the same way with writing. The goals can be big or the goals can be small, but you need to set them so that you know what you’re working toward.

A deadline, of course, is a rigid external goal. It’s the ultimate goal, but far from the only one. Lots of authors I know set daily word targets; some even go as far as to force themselves to stop themselves once they’ve hit 1,000 words, or 2,000, or whatever. Because I outline, I tend to think in terms of scenes or beats. As I work through a manuscript, those beats serve as smaller goals within the big goal of finishing the whole book.

Goals can and should be about more than the words on the page, though. In his wonderful book ON WRITING, Stephen King talks about the fact that he writes first and foremost for an audience of one: his wife, Tabitha. That’s more specific than most authors get, I think, but it is important to know what reaction you want from your readers. The atmosphere and tone of your story are just as important as the plot, and you can’t create them unless you know ahead of time what you want them to be.

The metaphor I go back to is the drive from Boston to upstate New York. I know where I’m starting and I know where I need to go; I start with a clearly defined goal. But the subtler goal, equally important, is the answer to the question, “What kind of trip do I want to take?” Is this a midnight speed run, or a country drive? Do I want to dodge the radar guns, or find a nice bed-and-breakfast along the way? Do I want my passengers to arrive refreshed, or do I want them stumbling out of the car, reeling as if they’ve gotten off a roller coaster? The luxury of a 400-page-novel is that I can do both, if I want to, as long as I’ve set the goals in advance.

Looking for help? You learn to write by writing, and most how-to books aren’t much help. Stephen King’s ON WRITING is an exception — a great read that is fascinating, inspiring, and offers some excellent practical advice on the writing life. Here are a few others I’ve found useful:

– Anne Lamott, BIRD BY BIRD. A frank, funny, practical look at the writing life, particularly good on the subject of ways writers sabotage themselves.

– Robert McKee, STORY. Directed at screenwriters, but useful for novelists because of its emphasis on structure, which is especially important for thrillers. The three-act structure is another handy way to set goals for your work-in-progress.

– David Morrell, THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST. Previously published (in a slightly different form) as LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING, this book will — sadly — not make you write like David Morrell. That would be too much to ask. It will, however, give you terrific insights into the process of creating a compelling, commercially viable novel. Best of all, it feels like sitting down for a long conversation with David, who is one of the nicest, smartest guys in the business.

– Al Zuckerman, WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL Some of Zuckerman’s examples are out of date, but the basics remain, and it’s very smart.