On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Setting Your Goals: An Exercise

I just read an interesting article that said people who write down a goal double or more the chance of accomplishing it. We've all heard to write things down, of course, but maybe it's a chestnut that needs to be revitalized. In this spirit of the new year, let's give it a try.

I’m sure you’ve heard the old joke:

How do you eat an elephant?
One piece at a time.

This process works with any large task, from prioritizing goals, to writing a novel or other large piece of work, to anything else you may wish to accomplish in your life. You start with an overview, then keep breaking down the big tasks into smaller and smaller pieces until each task is manageable so that you can make headway.

The first time you do this, it might take you an hour or more to organize your goals to write them down, but it’s time that’s well worth investing. You don’t need to wait until right before New Year’s Eve either – anytime is the right time to focus your life. Also, create a folder on your computer or get a notebook and write on it GOALS in big letters. You’ll want to get into the habit of writing down goals with the date as you think of them, big and small, and you can refer to your notes as you start to take action. Writing down your goals will clarify them in your mind and allow you to take specific, positive actions to accomplish them.

Finding your goals can be a repeated two-step process: first write down all your ideas for something, and then take time to winnow and prioritize. Both processes are essential, and they shouldn’t be done concurrently. This process can get messy after the first stage, but you need enough material to choose the best solutions, not just the quickest ones. If you’re stuck, try free-writing your thoughts (and make sure you WRITE them, not just THINK them). For example, “When I was a kid I wanted to sail around the world, and the idea still appeals to me even though I have many obligations and haven’t sailed in years. Hmm. Do I like the idea more of being on the water, or of visiting exotic places, or of doing something that people are impressed by? I think it’s the idea of being free, and no one being able to catch me. Well, there is the lake nearby and lots of people sail there every weekend; surely I might be able to at least start with this…”

Be open to crazy ideas, then find the realistic kernels hidden within those clouds. Ready?

1. Write down what you want to accomplish in your life. You know the drill: think of what someone might say about you if you died tomorrow or what you’d like them to say differently if you died in seven years, think of what might be on your tombstone, how you might be remembered by important people in your life, and so forth. What sort of legacy do you wish to pass on to the next generation? What are some things you could accomplish that might bring this legacy about? Take time to contemplate your own mortality and what you want to do with your brief time on Earth.

2. Keeping your life goals in mind, what would you like to accomplish in the next five years? Put down anything and everything you can think of, then study this list and choose the most important goals. You may want to divide them into different categories – mind, body, spirit, work, family, personal – then pick the top one or few for each category.

3. For each goal, break it down into two or more steps that need to be taken. Imagine this date next year, and think about the progress that would satisfy you. Be realistic: you’re not going to earn a PhD in a year, but you may investigate schools, take a few prerequisite courses, or sit for the GREs.

4. Break down each year goal into steps. Figure out how much you might realistically do each month on each goal. You may want to concentrate on one for a few months, and then switch, but always have reasonable amounts to do for each month. Choose a concrete endpoint. For example, if you wish to write a novel in a year, your monthly goal might be “produce 20,000 words” rather than “write every day.” The more specific your goal, the easier it will be for you to evaluate whether you have actually fulfilled your goal.

5. For each monthly goal, again break it down into four weeks.

6. If you wish, you can break down your weekly goals into day goals.


Once you have your goal list you have a good sense for where you want to aim your efforts. Now comes reality.

A goal sometimes sounds reasonable on paper, but when you start to implement your plan you find it’s not quite so easy. For example, if you want to write that novel in a year and calculated so many words per month will get you there, you may realize after writing for a few days or weeks that you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’re simply producing many pages of garbage (and/or becoming very good at Spider Solitaire). Step back. Should you outline your story before writing it? Should you read some how-to books, or join a critique group? Should you lower your word output from 1000 words a day to 300? YOU ARE NOT FAILING IF YOU HAVE TO MODIFY OR CUT BACK! As long as you’re doing something, and making progress, you are doing more than most people ever do to fulfill their dreams.

Another technique that many people use is a “to do” list for daily tasks. Some find these helpful, but others find them overbearing and guilt-producing. I like to have only one task on my “to do” list, and once I finish that to add another item and start work on that, but since I need to remember tasks to add to my “to do” list I may be engaged in semantics – a sublist from my true “to do” list. Oh well. Other people swear by using palm pilots, or having computer alarms, or whatever. Play with different organizing tools and tricks, and see if any of these helps you to become more productive. The most critical and basic one, I believe, is simply to write things down no matter which formats you use.

Good luck pursuing your dreams.

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