Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer
By Jeff VanderMeer, Jill Roberts
Tachyon Publications Copyright © 2009 Jeff VanderMeer
All rights reserved.
Building Your Booklife
* The Pillars of Your Public Booklife
MORE THAN TWO thousand years ago, the strategist Sun Tzu wrote that the warrior skilled in indirect warfare is as inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, as unending as rivers and streams, and passes away only to return like the four seasons.
Curiously enough, these classic lines could as easily describe the relationship between you and the Internet, given how quickly a writer must adjust to and take advantage of opportunities. It also reflects the ephemeral quality of the Internet. Because of the vast amount of information and opinion posted every single day, every hour, every minute — supplanting the information posted a minute, an hour, a day before. To exist in this world you need to be fluid and flexible while retaining inner calm and balance.
Traditional strengths like being fleet of foot, working hard, creating something seaworthy and imaginative, and finding interesting opportunities for collaboration still tend to be rewarded in the marketplace. However, the traditional career and promotional models that once helped you to brand and leverage your creativity often don't work today.
The modern context requires from a writer some combination of the following qualities or abilities to achieve lasting, sustainable career success:
Vision. Look five or six moves ahead, like a chess player, and recognize opportunities to diversify while remaining focused on the main goal.
Centeredness. Understand that committing to objectives does not mean giving up balance in one's life.
Adaptability. Have the flexibility to turn on a dime and reverse course or pursue some new course, depending on new intelligence.
Risk-Taking. Be able to leap into the unknown, although not without a bungee cord or safety net.
Honesty. Have the willingness to open yourself up to self- analysis and criticism from others.
Thinking about and nurturing these traits will be invaluable in your journey toward a sustainable Public Booklife.
* Creating and Managing Goals
The gap between the "professional" and "amateur" writer has been forever muddled by the advent of new media and the ability of individual content providers to find, at the very least, a niche audience. The situation in the writing world now more closely mirrors the way things work in the world of music. Many bands, including several that have hit it big, work from indie labels or create their own labels. A form of "self-publishing" is common and respected — an attitude we're only beginning to see gain traction in a writing culture that largely discourages any do-it-yourself efforts by individual creators.
While I don't believe anyone will ever completely replace gatekeepers in the publishing world, neither is that world the same as it was just ten years ago. Whether you've just self-published your book, or have a contract with an independent or commercial publishing house, you have a greater ability now to control the path of your career and the breadth and depth of your opportunities than ever before in the history of publishing. That amount of freedom can be frightening, and the complexity of possibilities mind-numbing.
That's why establishing goals is one of the most important tasks you can ever undertake for your writing career. Spending a little honest time in this area can sometimes save you years of misguided or misplaced effort.
Creating and managing goals isn't difficult or scary as long as you break it down into its component parts. A goal must be specific, measurable, and be attached to a timeline. Each goal should clearly state what you want to accomplish, and by when. Think in terms of declarative sentences like: "I will [achieve something] by [a specific date or time]. For example, "I will sell one novel to a commercial publisher by 2011." Make sure to write your goals down.
In updating my short-term and long-term goals document recently, the simplicity of my bullet point list struck me again — even the details of how I intend to achieve my goals are simple. But when I mention this idea to beginning and even experienced writers many of them look at me as if the problem is actually that I'm too organized. Sometimes that look also says, "I'm a starving artist — my genius lies in my disorganized random approach to life, not just my art."
I don't actually buy this argument. Down through the ages, more than one creative juggernaut, including the Renaissance artist Gregorio Comanini, has counseled the equivalent of "Live an ordinary, regular life so you can be irregular and brilliant in your creativity." Deep down, we all know that that focus — knowing where you want to go and how you want to get there — is extremely important to success. Having a document you can refer to that helps focus your efforts, even, perhaps, your behavior, seems ever more vital in this new world we live in — one so wonderful and yet so dangerous due to a combination of limitless possibility and limitless opportunities for distraction.
Providing yourself with positive structure is one way of affirming that you respect your own imagination and creativity enough to set yourself up for success.
* Mapping Your Future: Think Strategically Not Tactically
Because writers often work organically and hate doing mechanical things like detailed novel outlines, they sometimes also shy away from creating actual lists of long-term and short-term career goals. Instead, many of my colleagues have daily, weekly, or monthly "to do" lists that help keep them focused but also keep them stuck in a tactical mode, which makes it hard to engage in strategic thinking. Yes, you know what you want or need to do for the next thirty days, but what about for the year? What about for the next five years? How do your daily/weekly/monthly tasks feed into short-term goals, and how do your short-term goals feed into your long-term goals?
Many writers never progress in their careers — except in a shambling, two- steps-forward-one-step-back way — because they always focus on the moment, and the moment after that. Their maps lack all kinds of details essential for finding their way toward a destination. Even if you self-define as a "disorganized" writer and believe you could never focus on the "big picture," you can benefit from taking a stab at a loose plan.
* Approaches to Planning
When I wrote briefly about this topic on my blog, the idea resonated even with those who had been skeptical. Writer Michele Lee, for example, had this to say:
I love making lists and organizing and goal making. But I wasn't sure how much it would help me seeing as I'm only half a step into my career. But it really has helped. I got serious about it at the beginning of last year and wrote up a business plan. While a lot of the goals changed due to outside events and agent/editor feedback it's still helped a lot to have goals. I break mine up into three categories; Private, Public, and Uncontrollable Goals. I highly recommend others sit and work out where they want to be and what they can do to get there. It also helps letting go of the things you can't control.
I like how Michele acknowledges that even if you can position yourself to be successful some things will always be out of your control. Identifying those elements and acknowledging them in your list of goals will alleviate certain types of career frustrations. (See also Marly Youmans' essay on luck and the writer, in the appendices.)
Another way to organize your goals is to create one-year and five-year plans. Your one-year plans should support your five-year plan. Each five-year plan should build on the last, if possible. It also shouldn't result in the equivalent of crop failures or massive purges, like most of the Soviet Union's five-year plans.
Here's a simple strand of a plan, one I created when I was seventeen and beginning to think about my long-term goals. At the time I was going to college and had just transitioned from writing poetry to writing fiction. For me, short stories made sense because I couldn't even comprehend creating something as long as a novel.
Five-year plan: Publish one book, possibly short stories, from an independent press.
One-year plan: Publish at least one story in a publication with greater prestige or circulation than any of my previous credits.
Monthly task: Write at least half a short story per month. Complete one story every two months.
Weekly task: Keep finished short stories in constant rotation, submitting each to the top markets and working my way down until acceptance.
Usually, barring acts of God and the tender mercies of editors looking for the hot new author, you cannot walk before you crawl. The simple fact is: if you don't write stories, you can't publish stories. If you don't publish stories, you usually can't find a publisher for a collection of short stories — just as you cannot build a wooden house without wood, and you cannot build the ceiling to keep out the rain until you've built the walls. It sounds simple, but many writers neglect this basic element to keeping their careers on track. (The same principles apply to novels, of course.)
Notice, too, that I gave myself more time for the act of creation, but that the pace quickened with regard to the task of getting my stories out there. One task simply requires more mental space than the other. As for meeting my five-year goal, I missed it by one year: it took six years before my first collection came out (although I self-published a chapbook before that).
What do my current goals look like? Here's a peek at just a few, with most of the specific names left out. I wrote these down in early 2008 and each had a deadline of the end of 2009. Two have already been achieved as I write these words, in early February 2009.
Acquire at least one speaking engagement with higher brand-name recognition (corporate but creative).
Create a graphic novel with an artist and sell it, to diversify portfolio and form new creative alliances.
Write one novel in the mystery genre.
Write reviews for The New York Times Book Review.
Each of these goals has a timeline and tasks associated with it, as with the example from when I was seventeen. The only difference is I have many more goals now, some of them long-term and some of them short-term. You'll also notice that my goals, even in this limited sample, are a mixture of career and creative. The goals document isn't the place to map out what you want from your Private Booklife, but it should acknowledge that you want to grow as a writer, and push yourself to do new things. Diversification, if you have the temperament for it, is one of the ways in which you can best take advantage of the opportunities that have opened up in this century. It also limits your susceptibility to those elements outside of your control — like a weak economy, for example.
On a tactical level, you can use a high-level task list to encompass general activities that support your goals. These are things you weave into your month as time and opportunity allow, and which feed into your overall efforts. Here are a few examples of high-level tasks connected to my current goals:
Consolidate gains in getting better speaking engagements by re-evaluating criteria for acceptance and rejection of opportunities.
Leverage contacts that occur due to the release of new books and made through writing workshops to acquire information about potential speaking engagements.
Determine stakeholders, allies, neutrals/potential allies, and detractors/obstacles to current goals (assess which obstacles to engage and which to ignore).
Research potential collaborators for a graphic novel.
Pursue higher-profile book reviewing opportunities by leveraging the Huffington Post and Washington Post gigs.
Those high-level tasks feed into low-level general tasks like the following:
Repurpose my own author's note and the combined bio for Ann-Jeff.
Research new up-and-coming comics artists.
Update the Services section of my website.
Get video equipment for webcam.
Low-level general tasks get worked in with daily/weekly project-oriented tasks on a document tracking a month's worth of effort. Remember I said weekly or monthly task lists are no good without additional structure? Within that structure they work marvelously well to focus you on important deadlines while not losing track of the bigger picture. Keep one eye on the task at hand and one eye on the horizon.
Here's an example of a typical day's task list for me:
Saturday, January 17, 2009
FOCUS ON BOOKLIFE
60 in 60 Amazon entry, plus more Amazon entries, for coming week
Deadline for getting sample project to Artisan Books
Get the Third Bear story collection contract from Tachyon
Go through and organize/archive email
Go through contacts for Matt Staggs and delete those that are out-of-date
Podcast "The Situation"
Figure out Booklife PR schedule
Notice how the emphasis is on the creative work first and foremost. Also notice how simple this list is — and I make it even simpler by keeping it in a standard Word document rather than in a spreadsheet. You need to be able to easily update the list for it to have value. The danger of using Windows project management software or some other organizational tool is that you'll find yourself spending more time and energy creating your schedule than actually accomplishing the tasks associated with that schedule.
Ironically, many modern inventions designed to streamline our lives, such as time management software, can actually be counterproductive to creativity by being too complicated or automated. Simple actions, however, like using an automated reminder for deadlines or storing documents can be very helpful. You just have to experiment until you find the mix of tools that makes you efficient without distracting you from your goals.
* Change Management
As my friend New York Times best-selling author Tobias Buckell reminded me recently, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, but you at least need a battle plan!" To put that comparison in writing terms, strategic goals are almost like a novel outline: the story always changes when you actually write it; or, in this case, live it. One of the trickiest things to determine is when to change your goals. You must continually revisit your progress, your level of happiness, and your interest level. Sometimes you just need to tweak your goals — or the tasks associated with them, if those tasks aren't fully supporting your goals. Other times, you'll need to perform a complete overhaul, especially if the law of diminishing returns has come into play. Here are some scenarios in which you may want to consider a change:
You have new priorities or responsibilities. We all experience life changes, and when we do, we have to modify our goals to reflect those changes. Each change carries with it a range of pitfalls and opportunities. When I quit my day job and began to live off my book and reviewing income I took advantage of that opportunity to make my goals more ambitious, because I had more time to work on them. But one thing I discovered is that without the structure of the day job I also had to be more focused and work harder than I ever had before. Because I was used to the time it took me to do things with the day job, I had no idea how long things took when I could work on them 24–7 — or how important taking breaks would become. As a result, I missed several book deadlines before I adjusted to the new rhythms of my life — and had to go back and adjust my goals yet again.
You haven't made progress on the tasks associated with the goals. While you're busy berating yourself for being lazy, maybe something else is going on. Maybe you really don't like doing the tasks associated with your goals. In fact, you dislike them so much, you can't bring yourself to follow through in any consistent way. At that point, you have to change your goals or you'll continue to be frozen. (If, on the other hand, you haven't even attempted the tasks, maybe you just need a swift kick in the pants. After all, as the Romanians say, "A kick in the pants is just another step forward.") (Continues...)
Excerpted from Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer, Jill Roberts. Copyright © 2009 Jeff VanderMeer. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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