The single most important step in the realization of your writing dream is setting a goal.
It’s for this reason that the process of goal setting figures prominently into the programs of every self-help/ life-coach everrrrrrrrrrrrr. Not an exaggeration. Check out the programs of Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar, and Napolean Hill to name a few. The foundational element of their programs, and all programs like them, is the “goal.”
These people get results by showing people how to take control of their lives. They show people that all big things are achieved by little steps. And if writing is anything, it is the achievement of big things (or books) by little steps (or words). So how does this apply to my writing dreams?
Thriller writer and writing teacher James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers is a compendium of small steps that can lead you to big results. Bell’s books on craft are, in my opinion, some of the best, if not THE best, books on craft on the market. I realize there are a lot of good books, and I don’t say this lightly. But the thing is, I’ve read most of them and I know the difference. The reason Bell’s books are so good, is that he not only tells you what needs to be done, but he shows you how to do it. In this way, he strikes me as one of the few real writing “teachers” out there. Anyone can tell you how to write, very few know how to show you.
I can’t tell you how many books of craft I’ve read that are chock full awesome advice while completely barren of any suggestions on how to put that advice into practice. The old adage, “show don’t tell” applies as much to books on craft as it does to fiction. Most writing books miss this completely. Their authors simply talk at their readers like stodgy old economics professors. I don’t need another person to tell me that what my main character “wants” may be different than what he “needs”! I need someone to show me how to get there.
About my “Writing Tips: The Best Lessons from the Best Books on Writing” Series
But Bell is a real teacher. He understands that there is a difference between intellectualizing an idea and actually putting it into practice. Because of this, Bell’s advice always comes with practical examples and exercises for how to get the idea from your brain to the page.
The Art of War for Writers collects many of Bell’s finest pieces of advice and, with a little help from Sun Tzu, organizes them into easily digestible tidbits. The book is divided into three main sections: “Reconnaissance (which deals with the “mental game” of writing); Tactics (which deals with the craft of writing); Strategy (which deals with the business of writing). Each section is made up of 20-30 easy to digest chapters.
There are two chapters from Bell’s book that seemed appropriate for my first post of the New Year since this is a symbolic time of renewal and rebirth. Both relate to goal setting.
Casting Your Vision
The first entry in the book’s section on “Strategy” suggests that you, as a writer, “Cast Your Vision.” Just as all businesses have a mission statement, so Bell suggests that all writers envision what they want to accomplish. Bells advises you “dream big and dream in detail” by explaining who you are and what makes you unique. As all of the big name life coaches will tell you, this “vision casting” is the first step in making your dream a reality.
Bell suggests you imagine yourself in ten years and write what you see. This little trick is straight out of the Neuro Linguistic Programming playbook and it forces you to turn your vision into a reality, if only on the page. Basically, you will write, “I am,” instead of “I want to be.” (Look up Neuro Linguistic Programming for more about how you can change yourself by changing how you “talk” to yourself.)
Here is the vision statement I came up with (remember this is me in 10 years):
I am an eclectic American writer of children’s books and screenplays.
I am a multi-published author of award-winning books for children. My books are known for their lyrical and evocative language, and for their thematic exploration of creativity as a way to change the world. One of my books has won a Caldecott, and this year is the second time I have been a Newberry finalist.
I am also a multi-produced screenwriter known for the creation of several action-thriller, franchise characters. I specialize in gritty, international thrillers with international casts. Asian companies have figured prominently in the production of my movies and I’ve written for some of the biggest Hollywood and international stars.
Yeah, I’m dreaming big. But that’s the point. If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly, right? Try casting your vision now. I’d love to see what you come up with!
Making Your Writing Dream a Reality
The title of the second chapter I want to share is, “A Goal is Just a Dream Unless it has Legs.” Basically, now that we’ve defined our dream, Bell shows us how to start making it a reality.
What follows is his process for setting goals and realizing them. Here are the steps Bell suggests:
1. Decide Exactly What Your Goals are.
Think of these goals as practical extensions of your vision or dream statement. Bell suggests you start with yearly goals and that you make sure they are measurable. “Being happy” isn’t a measurable goal, but finishing an 80,000 word novel is.
Bell also suggests that you think pragmatically and that you use the “Return on Energy” model to decide which goals should take precedence. Basically, he’s assuming that we’re busy people with limited time and money, and suggesting that commit to those goals which will give us the best return on our investment. (By the way, if you don’t have limited time and money, I have an action thriller I’d like you to produce.)
2. Write Goals Down on Paper.
Again, this is straight out of NLP and the Tony Robbins goal setting playbook. Having these goals in front of you on a daily basis will help keep you focused and committed. And if you want to get a bit “new-agey,” writing them down also energizes and activates your subconscious.
3. Make Plans
Here, you break down those goals into smaller, measurable tasks. You should also address any foreseeable obstacles, and how you’ll overcome them. The best way to do this is to brainstorm.
A few years ago, once I’d fully committed to the goal of being a screenwriter, I had to address the fact that I did not live in LA. Because of this, I wasn’t going to have as many “natural” opportunities to interact and make friends with other screenwriters. I began looking for ways to overcome this dilemma. Around the same time, I met with a literary manager (kind of like a Hollywood agent but different) who invited me to join a weekly screenwriting workshop he’d started. I drive to LA at least every other week now to attend that workshop. Sure, the drive can be tough, but I see it as a measure of how bad I want this. I want it bad. Do you?
Set your goals. Consider the obstacles. Then figure out how to overcome them.
4. Take Some Action Towards your Plan Immediately
This is just good advice. Bell wants to make sure you get started when you’re hot. You don’t have to do anything big, so long as you show yourself you’re serious. Print out your goals. Tape them up. Revise or brainstorm some more. Whatever it is, do it. Once you do this, go onto number 5.
5. Do Something Every Day Toward Your Goal.
Every day! Yes. At least at first. Why? Because momentum is your friend. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write every day, it just means that you are actively working towards achieving the goals you set.
Having said that, Bell also suggests that occasionally “taking a writing break to recharge your batteries” can actually serve your writing goals. So enjoy that Margarita. Just don’t enjoy too many.
6. Decide in advance you will never quit.
This is a critical step. We tend to want to be great now. I know I do. But the truth is, very few of us are going to be great all at once. Most of us are going to have to work hard for a long time. The Chinese world of martial arts understands this inherently. The word kung-fu, which in the West has come to be a generic term for Chinese martial arts. But it’s original meaning refers to any “skill developed over time.” It is this commitment to developing over time that we must all make.
Ironically, this commitment and decision to never quit relieves some of the pressure and anxiety we put on ourselves to be immediately successful. Instead, it forces you to take a long view about your dream, while remaining committed to achieving your smaller goals.
7. Review Your Vision and Goals Each Year
You don’t have to wait for New Years to do this, but it’s important to take stock and to be honest about your accomplishments and failures. Be honest about what is working and what isn’t and adjust your goals accordingly.
8. Act professionally.
I think what Bell is suggesting is that if you act like a professional, you start to become one. This isn’t some magical transformation formula. It’s simply a way for you to take control of your dream. A professional works every day, whether they feel like it or not. A professional treats other professionals and industry people with respect. More importantly, a professional treats themselves with respect.
Again, this a kind of classic goal setting/performance-enhancement type technique. On a physical level, you get to smile. On a psychological level, you create positive associations with the task. Basically, if you give yourself positive encouragement when you reach your goals, you will want to reach them more often and, as a result, you WILL reach them more often. I promise.
So celebrate. The big and the small things. Always. And forever.
I’ll share my New Years goals in the next post. But until then, Welcome to the New Year! Now set some goals! I need more people to celebrate with.