If you’re a novelist, you’ve probably come across two different camps of people: the “plotters” and the “pantsers” (seat-of-the-pants writers).
While there’s no right way to approach a novel, I’ve definitely started moving from the “pantser” to the “plotter” end of the spectrum over the past few years. I like plenty of room for exploration and spontaneity … but I don’t like having no clue where I’m going.
In your writing life, too, having a plan makes it much easier to actually get somewhere.
I got lucky in the early stages of my writing career. I got into blogging on a whim, then started freelance blogging entirely by accident.
It was one of the best things that ever happened to me … but I realise now how fortunate I was to be in the right place at the right time.
These days, I’m a lot more strategic. I don’t plan in obsessive detail, but I do set goals and take conscious steps towards them.
If, like me, you want to do a bit more planning and a bit less winging it, here’s how.
First, Understand the True Value of Planning
When it comes to writing and your writing career, your plan is not supposed to be a set-in-stone document that never changes. As Charlie Gilkey puts it, “If you’re planning effectively, you’ll always be changing your plans.”
Your plan helps you head in the right direction. Of course you’ll learn more along the way. You’ll revise your plan. You might change it quite drastically. But the important thing is that you have a plan. When you deviate from it, you’re doing so thoughtfully and consciously.
If you have no plan or a half-hearted vague goal like “make money writing”, chances are, you’ll end up doing nothing – or doing a bunch of disparate things that don’t really get you anywhere.
I don’t think it’s worth coming up with a complicated, pages-long plan that covers the next decade of your life. The dangers here are that:
- You waste a lot of time planning in immense detail, when your plan is bound to change anyway – due to life changes, or industry changes (e.g. the rapid rise of vaiable self-publishing).
- You get so attracted to planning that you never make a start on the actual work.
- You feel a strong sense of achievement and success from simply having planned your future success. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t feel good about completing a plan, just that you don’t want planning to take the place of actual writing and building a career.)
- You find the whole process of planning so dull / daunting that you decide not to plan at all.
Instead, you want a clear, simple plan that helps you make sensible and effective decisions on a daily basis.
What Do You Want to Achieve Before Christmas?
As I publish this post, it’s the middle of May 2016. That means you’ve got a little over seven months until Christmas.
(If you’re reading this at a later stage, pick a milestone that’s around 6 – 8 months away: Easter, summer holiday, Christmas, whatever works for you.)
If you could achieve one writing goal by Christmas, what would you want it to be?
Depending what you want to achieve and how much time you can spare each day/week, that goal might be:
- Plan/outline and then draft your novel. (Check out my two-year plan for achieving this in seven months, working 30 minutes per day.)
- Launch your freelancing business, working around your day job, and get a steady stream of work and income.
- Start a blog and grow it to several hundred subscribers.
- Write five to ten short stories.
I think six to eight months is a good timeframe for setting and reaching goals, especially if you don’t normally tend to plan. Once you’re well underway and staying on track, you might want to plan at a one to three year level.
The Problems with Winging It
Perhaps you’re concerned about committing to one goal. What if some great opportunity comes up? If you’re too focused on “draft novel” or “blog consistently” at all costs, you might miss it.
Here’s my take on that:
Opportunities rarely just land in your lap. When I got that first freelance blogging gig by accident, it wasn’t because an editor had somehow spotted my untapped potential and contacted me out of the blue. It was because I’d sent that editor a guest post (to help promote my own blog) and he really liked my writing. My goal was to grow my own blog: this opportunity came out of that.
You can plan to be open to possibilities. Sitting at home reading books and blogs about writing, waiting for an idea or opportunity to come along, won’t get you far. You could plan, instead, to attend a certain number of conferences each year, or plan to try out two new types of writing or two new markets each month.
Any state of uncertainty shouldn’t last too long. It’s fine to spend a year or two of your writing career exploring different directions – but if you’ve been doing this for a decade already, it’s definitely time to commit to one thing (at least for now).
Winging it all too often leads to procrastination. If you’re waiting for the path ahead to become clear … you could be waiting a long time. When you don’t have any goals or targets for your writing, it’s very easy not to write at all (or to spend a ton of time “warming up” to write).
If you’re keen to keep a certain amount of spontaneity in your writing life, just allow space for that in your plans. You might commit to one specific goals for the year but also set aside time for exploration and experimentation. (You might also find that, when you have a limited and specified amount of time for this, you actually do more of it!)
How to Plan for the Next Seven Months
Here’s how to come up with a plan that’s clear without being insanely detailed:
Step #1: How Much Time Can You Commit Daily / Weekly?
I know this sounds obvious, but if you have two hours a week for your writing, you’re not going to be able to do as much as someone who has two hours a day.
So before you set any goals for the next seven months, you need to know what you’re working with.
How much time can you realistically and consistently commit?
(Don’t get too gung-ho here. Yes, you might be able to work full time and write two hours a night for a week … but you’re going to struggle to keep that up for seven months.)
You might also want to think about:
- Is it easier to write on weekdays (e.g. in your lunchhour) or at weekends (e.g. when your spouse can take care of the kids)?
- Do you prefer writing in short, daily bursts or in longer sessions once or twice a week?
If you don’t really know what will suit you, start with 30 minutes per day, seven days a week. Try sticking with this for two weeks, then adjust if you want to.
Step #2: When and Where Will You Write?
I’ve found it far easier to stick to a daily writing target when I have a specific time slot for my writing. Otherwise, it’s way too easy for writing to get left for the end of the day, when I’m tired and very prone to procrastinating.
You don’t have to stick to this all the time, but I’d suggest having a “default” place and time to write. For me, that’s my study, 5.15pm – 5.45pm every afternoon.
Try to pick a time of day when your creative energy isn’t too depleted or low and a place where you won’t be interrupted.
Step #3: Choose Your Goal(s) to Focus On
If you haven’t done this yet, it’s time to pick ONE goal to focus on over the next seven months. What would you like to achieve by this Christmas? What would set you up for a good 2017?
You can pick more than one goal if one of these is true:
- Your goals are fairly small ones (e.g. “write a short story”) that can be accomplished in well under seven months.
- You have a fair amount of writing time (say, 10+ hours per week).
If you pick more than one goal, one of them has to be your primary goal. When crunch times come, this goal gets attended to first.
Step #4: Commit to Your Goal(s)
Write down your goal somewhere for regular review. If you possibly can, be accountable to another person or a group of people for your progress.
My husband and I sit down on Sunday evenings to talk about our goals and our progress towards them: perhaps a similar routine would work for you.
I’d definitely recommend reviewing your goals at least once a week. Anything less, and it’s easy to get off track and distracted. To begin with, you might even want to take a one-minute glance over them every day, or even at the start and end of each day.
But what if it all goes wrong? Check out the second half of this mini-series: How to Get Back On Track When Your Writing Plans Go Awry.