A little late for resolutions : the purpose and method of goal-setting

resolutionsI know I haven’t been posting as actively as I, or anyone, would like. I also know that it’s a little late into 2015 to be talking resolutions. Still, there is a reason why we make resolutions on the new year, and there is a reason why around New Year’s Day there are thousands of memes going around joking about how nobody ever keeps their resolutions.

The reason we make resolutions is simple. The new year is at once an end and a beginning all in itself; it’s an occasion to tell ourselves we can let go of bad habits and start new, better ones. Working toward a goal is inspiring and exciting. It feels, and justly so, that we are taking steps to put ourselves back in the driver’s seat of our destiny, and that we are this much closer to something we desire just by making the decision to do something to get it.

That is, of course, all true. But, unfortunately, most resolutions get tossed out the window about this time of year. We look up from what we’re doing, realize we haven’t done anything toward keeping our promises to ourselves, and shrug it off, telling ourselves, that next time, it’ll be better. Next time, we’ll keep those resolutions. Because it’s all a matter of discipline, isn’t it?

Well, I have to say there’s a part of it that’s definitely discipline. But by itself, discipline isn’t going to get you very far at all. It’ll make you feel better and more resolute, and maybe you’ll work a week toward your resolution, maybe two. But real resolve, the kind leading to us effecting real change in our lives, can seem completely out of reach. It’s really not. There’s a lot more to it than changing calendars and coming armed with good intentions.

new-years-resolution-listThe thing with most people is not that they are not able or willing to hold those resolutions. It’s that they don’t have the tools to make it work. All the willpower, all the discipline in the world will never make any difference if you don’t have the tools to make it happen. After all, you can be perfectly willing to hang a frame on the wall; but without a nail or a hammer, you’re not going to get really far.

There are a few really basic steps you can take to ensure you keep those resolutions. Or achieve any goal you like, really. If you get into the habit of doing this for every goal you have, you can become unstoppable.

Write it out

It can be in a journal, a day planner, a post-it on the wall, an email to yourself… but the most important thing is to actually write down exactly what it is you want to do. Very often, what happens is that in our minds, the goal feels very specific and well-defined, but is actually vague and abstract. For example, I’ve heard a lot “this year I intend to write more!” well, that can feel really specific… until you write it down. Write what? How much? “Write more” is incredibly vague and relative, and it’s incredibly easy to feel confused and overwhelmed every time we attempt to fulfill our goal.

There needs to be a clear quantifier and qualifier that permits us to measure and evaluate whether the goal has been fulfilled. “Write more” could mean so many different things that basically making a grocery list could count; but writing 3,000 words might also leave us dissatisfied and unclear as to whether the goal is reached. Whereas “write 1,000 words a day” or “write one short story per week” is a clear, quantifiable goal. You can objectively measure whether or not you have done it.

Break it down

I think we’ve all heard the saying before: “How do you eat an elephant?” “One bite at a time.” The lesson is clear. No matter how impossible the task might seem, if you break it down into manageable bits, it becomes something you can envision doing without too much of a problem. This is the very reason behind a daily word count. “Write a novel” is a bit vague, and can even be unrealistic. There’s no way anyone can do “write a novel” in a day, and so, it becomes the kind of huge mountain that we put off to the next day constantly, because we don’t know what the very first thing would be to do that.

eatanelephantBut by breaking it in a daily word count, we make it something that becomes small, and much more manageable. Writing a whole novel? That’s hard. Writing a thousand words a day? That works. That’s doable. It’s not only doable, but it’s so close, day-to-day and within reach that it almost feels like a copout NOT to do it.

So that’s how you tackle a big task; if you can break it down to its smallest, most bite-size, manageable fraction, then it won’t feel like a big thing at all.

Fit it in

“But I just don’t have time to do that!” I hear that one a lot. The thing is, everyone has the same amount of hours, minutes, seconds, exactly the same, in a day. Yes, some of us have children (myself included) and some of us have jobs (as do I) and some of us even run businesses on the side (like myself). But some people get a lot done, and some people don’t. Surely, it can’t be a matter of “having” the time or not; it’s about establishing priorities and managing your time efficiently. Since I wrote a bunch of posts about these two things, I’m not going to be repeating any of it here; rather, just go and read this post about time management and this one about priorities. It’s an important part of goal-setting to be able to actually fit our goal into our schedule.

Make a commitment

The steps before are all you really need, logistically, to make things happen. But that’s not all it takes. In order to do these things, such as making the time, breaking it down, and actually writing it out, you first need to decide that this goal is important to you, that you are going to make it a priority in your life. This might seem obvious, but it’s really not. I mean, you decide you want to learn tap-dancing? Awesome. And tap-dancing is probably not as important as going out with friends, or cleaning out the garage. But goals aren’t objective, they’re subjective. They’re important because we decide they are. So decide that you are going to see it through, that this is going to be a priority in your life.

Give yourself incentive

Is there something you want to get? Or do? Why not promise it to yourself as a reward? Then, instead of a distraction from your task, it becomes a powerful motivator. Want to go see that movie in the theater? Better make sure your task is done before it stops playing. Want to play that new video game you’ve been dying to play? Why not make its release date your deadline?

What goals do you want to accomplish this year, and what steps are you taking to accomplish them?

Author cookie (recipe) swap party!!

So you haven’t heard from me in a little while (or very little, since I had me a little baby and then got buried in NaNoWriMo) so you might be surprised to find that I’m writing today NOT about writing. It is, however, about authors, so bear with me.

cookie-exchangeIt’s that time of year again when the days are short, the nights are long and cold, and we eat an outrageous amount of food to make it all seem better (and it does feel better, doesn’t it?)

This year, I am participating in an author cookie recipe swap. This all got started by local, award-winning, local author Linda Poitevin. She posted a cookie recipe and tagged four other authors, who were then invited to post a cookie recipe in 7 days. Linda tagged Marie Bilodeau , who posted her recipe, and then tagged Nicole Lavigne , who tagged me.

Now, I am tagging four author friends as well: Karoline Deschenes, Shanan Winters, Connie Roberts-Huth, and Marielle Dicaire (author and crochet artist) will be posting their own recipe. Remember, girls, tag me in those recipes when you post them, I always love new cookie recipes, because, COOKIES!!!!!

These are my favorite holiday cookies to make. My godmother taught me how to make these some 20 years ago, and I have made them diligently, almost every year, since then. Every time I make them I think of her, and I always will, and they will always have a special place in my heart because she does.

Chocolate/vanilla Pinwheel cookies

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Preparation time (including baking) 2 hours and 30 minutes

2 cups of flour

2 teaspoons of baking soda

¾ cups of butter

1 cup of brown sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon of vanilla

1 square of Baker’s unsweetened chocolate

Pre-heat oven at 375.

Mix the dry ingredients together. Mix the butter and brown sugar together until light and fluffy, then add the egg and the vanilla. Gradually incorporate the dry ingredients.

2014-11-21 21.15.31Separate the dough in half. Melt the chocolate and mix it in with one half of the dough.

Refrigerate dough for at least an hour, or until firm to the touch. Then roll down dough into two sheets (one chocolate, one without the chocolate) and put one sheet on top of the other. (I usually roll it out on wax paper so that the transfer goes smoothly!)

Roll up your sheets together in a cylinder. Refrigerate another hour, or until firm to the touch.

Cut up the cylinder (approximately ½ inch wide slices). Bake on cookie sheet for 5-10 minutes, or until white parts are JUST starting to turn golden. Cool on rack.

Failing forward

First drafts and not being perfect

Dali1954Today I want to talk about something we all experience on a regular basis, but try to pretend doesn’t ever happen: failure.

If you have an ambition, a goal, if you’re striving to achieve something or walking off the beaten path, you have experienced failure of some kind or another. And failure stings. It feels negative, and that’s why we don’t talk about it that much. We tend to focus on the positive, which is good and constructive, except for one thing: failure can be a huge positive. Fear of it is the biggest negative here.Theodore Roosevelt campaigning to be president in 1904

Failure happens to be part of everything we attempt. It has to be. If there wasn’t such a thing as “trial and error”, we wouldn’t discover new things, we would never advance in any field whatsoever, and we wouldn’t be able to learn; to be confident in what works, we have to experience what doesn’t. Pablo Picasso said it best: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn to do it.”

thomas-edison

That goes double, triple, quadruple, and a hundredfold when creating art. Art is a subjective pursuit, in which there is no set end result; as Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished; only abandoned.” In fact, the very process, the journey to the finished piece is itself as important, sometimes even more so, than the end result itself. If not for failure, art would be impossible. It is mistakes and unintended results that often lead the way to true innovation, to the greatest ideas, and to new techniques.picasso

This doesn’t just apply to visual art. Every artist – be it actor, painter, illustrator, sculptor, musician, and writer – must learn to venture outside of their comfort zone to progress in their art. That is how they test their limits and discover that they are capable of so much more. And, by the way, “testing your limits” doesn’t mean you succeed the first time you try something outside of your comfort zone; in fact, if you do succeed right away, chances are you haven’t really reached one of your limits yet. It takes trying over and over again to be able to push back these boundaries and add another skill to your toolset.

pablo-picassoWriters and composers have such a huge advantage over other artists in that respect. When creating visual art and you try something that doesn’t work, more often than not you will have to scrap that drawing, or paint over that canvas, or throw away that sculpture. You have to start all over again until you find the one that works. When you’re writing, though, no matter what new thing you’re trying, you’ll very, very rarely have to scrap everything and start all over again. vinciOnce you’ve got that first draft down, you can tweak it, change it, edit it until it’s finally the way you want it. You have so, so much more luxury to make mistakes than most other artists. Take advantage of it. Let loose with that first draft. Give yourself permission to fail, to write something really bad. Stop letting fear of not writing a sentence perfectly the first time around make you stare blankly at your screen for an hour. Let it be a bad sentence. You can go back and fix it once you’ve written all the rest of your sentences. Chances are high anyway that you’ll have a much better idea of the voice you want to give this project by the end, and then it’s so much easier to go back and correct it with that in mind.

woody1A friend of mine used to say that even if you fall flat on your face… depending on your height, you’re more or less five feet closer than you were the moment before. The only true failure happens when you decide not to get up again. When you stop trying. The minute you’re not doing something that leads you to make some mistakes… you’ve stopped getting better at what you do. So continue to celebrate your successes, by all means.

But also learn to celebrate your mistakes.Robert-Kennedy-006

Structuring your novel with the post-it method

I meant to talk about something else, but over the past few weeks I’ve found myself explaining this method so often that I just decided to write it out so I could have a link to post. Here it goes!!

The “post-it method” is, I find, the easiest and most efficient way to come up with an outline for your novel. Its non-linear process helps naturally eliminate surplus or nonessential scenes because you tend not to come up with them in the first place, as opposed to when you’re working in a linear fashion and constantly have to come up with what happens next.

All you need is a pen and a pack of post-its (or masking tape and index card, or sticky tack and cut up pieces of paper, you get the idea… basically something you can stick to a wall and remove and reposition easily, or a software that allows you to do that, even Word with cut and paste works great) and a piece of blank wall. I have used the staircase, the headboard to my bed, my kitchen cabinets… there’s always a space in your house that you can use to do this. And don’t worry about needing to have it up there for a couple of days or more; this method is so easy you should be spending a lot less time on your outlines.

Step 1: timelines

The first thing I want you to do is if you know you’re going to have subplots, divide your space into the amount of “timelines” equivalent to these subplots.

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Behold my kitchen cabinets, and the low-battery induced bad lighting!

Step 2: the best scenes

Next, you should write out your favorite scenes on individual post-its. We all have a few scenes in our heads that we KNOW are going to happen when we come up with a story, the ones we’re excited about. Start with those, they’re likely to be pivotal, and well, you’re excited about them, so you might as well! Don’t write out the full scene; just one sentence summarizing the main action in that scene.

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Behold my horrible handwriting, and more badly lit kitchen cabinets!!

Step 3: filling in the blanks

Put your best scenes up in the timelines where they belong in relative order of causality. Even if you’re doing anti-structure, your outline should be done in order of causality just to make sure you’ve wrapped up anything; you can deconstruct it later.

Once you’ve done that, comes the hardest part (and it’s really not that bad). You need to fill the spaces in between your best scenes so that the reader has all the information that they need to appreciate/understand those scenes (and obviously, the climax, if it wasn’t part of those scenes). That can be events, character development, etc. (If you’re wondering about that, you can read my posts about scenes and my post about exposition.) Come up with all the scenes that you need to fill in that information, and put them up there, until your main plot and all your subplots are wrapped up nicely and there are no loose ends.

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Ok so this is the broad lines of a story whipped up in 15 minutes for the purpose of writing this post. Typically a novel would have around 30-40 post-its (at a rate of one post-it per scene), if you’re going for a 70-80k average.

Step 4: putting it all together

That is the easiest part. Basically, take all your timelines, and put them together in one great timeline, deciding which scenes are merged, which bits of timelines interact with others, etc, creating the natural rhythm of your story. This is also the part where you can deconstruct your timelines, in the case of an anti-structure storyline (as in Memento, Pulp Fiction, etc.)

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Why are some of these post-its stuck on one another? I merged some scenes. You might find that you need to do that too.

Step 5: get that stuff off the wall before your child eats it or your roommate throws it away

If I’m lazy, I usually take down the post-it notes and stick them directly in a book, in the order they go in. Then, because I don’t want to lose that book, eventually I can transcribe that outline to Word (or whatever software you are using) and BACK IT UP. And you have an outline.

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More horrible handwriting! And there’s my lens cover for my no-battery camera!

I hope this is helpful in its very crude and non-witty way.

Interview on Ottawa Writes podcast

Hello everyone! Last week I gave an interview to Kevin T. Johns for his awesome podcast, Ottawa Writes. We talked about many things, mainly the release of my newest book, Kindred Spirits, the themes which I discuss in my writing, my crazy productivity, my involvement in Renaissance Press, and the importance of a writing community. In the beginning of the podcast he also discusses Goodreads reviews. You can listen to it here!!