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BALLS OF STEEL™: 5 Lessons on Getting Real with Your Writing Goals

Whenever you set writing goals, ask yourself what you want out of achieving that goal. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares lessons learned when striving toward a goal.

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In Balls of Steel: Script to Novel – 5 Steps to Adapting Backwards, I declared my participation in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to challenge myself to get the words on the page. To my delight, several of you are joined me in the crazy 50,000-word quest. Bravo!

Whether your goal is a 50,000-word novel, a 110-page script, or just sitting your butt in the chair to write every day, how do you handle juggling a job and getting words on the page? 

Let's use me as a case study.

As I pushed through the challenge, I didn't always meet my word-count goal. Not meeting my goals was stressing the hell out of me. Why? Because I’m a competitive freak, and I was focusing too much on word count instead of quality. That’s not what I wanted out of this challenge.

Yes, I am aware the actual challenge is to get 50,000 words on the page in 30 days but “winning” that doesn’t mean squat to me if the words aren’t ones I can ultimately use. I’m way too practical for that kind of goal.

Truth is, the first time I did this challenge in 2010, I mastered the 50K in 18 days… and I had 175 pages of vomitorious garbage that I have yet to do anything with. But the intent of that year’s goal was fleshing out the plot, the characters and creating a decent storyline, which I did. Exploring the concept was worth the exercise, hands down. I only wish the prose itself was useful.

While the first draft of anything is never great, it can still be better than vomit.

So, if you don’t make your goal, does that mean you're a failure as a writer?

I don't believe in "winning" and "losing." I believe when a challenge comes to you in life, you either win or you learn... and when you learn from the difficulties that fall upon you, you do ultimately win.

Whenever you take on any challenge, ask yourself, “What do I want out of this experience?”

I wanted two things:

  1. To get back into the habit of writing every single day.
  2. To see my story come to life in the way I envision it.

Seems simple.

Fast doesn't always mean better.

Here’s what I learned when I tried to push a first draft out quickly. Remember, these lessons hold true for the first draft of a screenplay too:

1. Think about the rewrite: If you have 50,000 words of crap, or 110 pages of script that make you gag, just the thought of rewriting it is going to intimidate you. You’ll most likely end up tossing it into a drawer and forgetting about it.

Something my friend Clive Davies-Frayne told me has become my mantra: “Do you want it done right, or do you want it done right now?”

Let that soak in a bit…

Have some sort of plan when you’re purging words. For both scripts and novels, outlines are glorious, as are plot points to help your characters to develop. Having a script to turn into a novel is even better because you have the most detailed outline that could possibly exist. One of my NaNoWriMo buddies averaged two pages of prose for every page of her script. She kicked my ass in word count.

2. Don’t set yourself up for failure. When I write at the end of a long day, the quality suffers. It’s important to choose your writing time for when you are fresh. Not only will the content be better, but it’ll also take you half the time to write the same amount of pages.

Law of diminishing returns - a law affirming that to continue after a certain level of performance has been reached will result in a decline in effectiveness.

When I sit down to write first thing in the morning, I can pump out 1,000 words effortlessly. But if I take the same amount of time at the end of the day, after my job duties are fulfilled, family fed, kitchen cleaned, dog walked, etc., it takes me at least twice as long… that is, if I can manage to stay awake.

This reminds me of when I was preparing for my first black belt. I went to one of our master’s dojos to train with college students in an effort to ready myself for battle. After 90 minutes of an intense workout, I was told to spar a 3rd degree black belt. I knew I was exhausted (not to mention I’m old enough to be his mother), but I am one stubborn chick, so I fought.

As he blocked my side kick, I remember mentally quitting. Totally giving up and saying, “Screw it… I'm done.” I allowed myself to fall to the ground, not fighting it. On my way down, I heard a POP. My ACL tore.

One exhausted moment. One bad choice. One weak split second when I chose to quit cost me nine months in rehab… and more. Fear set into my psyche. Disappointment. Failure. I learned a lot of lessons from that one unfortunate choice.

When you set yourself up for failure, the cost is far more than just not putting words on the page. It sets you back emotionally and cripples your confidence as a writer. Learn your own writing patterns and try to guard those hours where you are at your creative best.

3. Learn something every time you sit down to write. Start by looking at the words you wrote the day before. Are they good? Do they move the story forward?

Every time I read what I’ve written in the past, I learn something. I can see not only the evolution of the overall story, but also of my writing voice. Sometimes, all I see is a day’s worth of crap that needs to be rewritten. But reading it before I start the next day’s writing helps me stay focused so I can improve every time I sit at my laptop.

My karate master always tells me there’s no finish line when we train. It’s about the journey. Did you train as hard as you could? Did you learn? Did you breathe in the lessons provided? Are you always open to learning more?

Writing is no different. It’s not the script option that will make or break you, but it’s the journey of getting there that makes you the writer you are in the end. Strive to learn something new each time you write, either about the craft or the business.

4. Writing every single day matters. It takes 28 days to develop a habit. When you write every day, your mind stays in the story, even when you aren’t at your computer. Even 15 minutes a daykeeps your ideas flowing and your mind always on the project at hand. I even “write” while I’m doing laundry, running or making dinner. As long as I stay tuned into the story, I’m working out the details all day long.

When you don’t write regularly, your writing brain goes into atrophy. You need to exercise your writing muscles.

Prior to this challenge, I had outlined the novel and written most of the first chapter. Then pushed it aside to work on a script rewrite. When I finally came back to the novel, weeks later, I had forgotten the details, and I had to rev my engines all over again. I didn’t even remember half of the plot ideas I had already put in the outline.

Same as when I don’t practice karate. I’m unfocused, and I don’t get as much out of the class because I spend the first half of the class trying to get my head back in the game.

5. Don’t make excuses, make a plan:

Stop making excuses for being completely off track on word-count goals. Instead, reshift your schedule and start writing earlier, when you're fresh. I continued to remind myself of what my original goals were (to write every day and to write quality). At the end, I had 20,000 amazing words, that’s a bigger win to me than 50,000 vomitorious ones.

Bottom-line: You can't play the game if you don't have something to enter. So write every day. Just keep at it, even if it’s only one scene or one page. Anything you put down does add up! I promise.

Every word written is one word closer to THE END.

One other thing that is always a win is becoming a part of a bigger writing community. Help encourage others as well as be encouraged by others. I absolutely love connecting with fellow writers. It’s my favorite part of what I do.

When we spar in our dojo, our master always reminds us we’re brothers and sisters, not enemies. We’re a community. A family.

At the end of each class, we bow our heads and think about what we learned. Even the night my ACL was torn, I stood with my knee throbbing, alongside my karate family, bowed my head and knew the lessons would come, and from them I would be a better person, a better fighter and a kick-ass writer for having gotten beaten up, yet again.

Please post your writing goals in the comments below so you can be accountable to your writing family. There’s something about saying it out loud that helps motivate us all.

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