Reassessing my goals for 2018

When 2018 kicked off, I set an insane amount of ambitious goals for myself—most insane and ambitious of all being to receive 300 pitch rejections over the course of the year.

What possessed me to choose a number that high after failing to receive 20 pitch rejections in the last quarter of 2017, I have no idea. But I set the goal and I figured, hey, even if I get halfway there that’s good.

Well, it’s the third of August, we’re more than halfway through 2018, and I am nowhere near halfway to 300 pitch rejections. In fact, I haven’t even broken double digits. This hasn’t been for a complete lack of trying—I’ve submitted more pitches than I’ve received rejections for (meaning silence, not acceptance, is a typical response)—but recently, I haven’t even bothered to submit pitches because I know I’m not going to reach 300 in 2018. I probably won’t reach 100.

I’ve been talking to a lot of people about goals lately. In recent interviews with different CrossFit athletes—BackCountry CrossFit’s team that is currently competing at the CrossFit Games and Zack Ruhl, an adaptive athlete and physical trainer based in Texas—a consistent theme has been the importance of setting small, attainable goals. Ruhl told me, when he’s working with wheelchair athletes, he only lets them set small goals.

Small goals enable you to celebrate victories along the road toward the ultimate goal, so even if you don’t achieve the big goal, you can look back and appreciate how far you’ve come.

My huge goals have been paralyzing me lately—particularly the goals related to freelance writing, the very thing I want to be my long-term profession. The unreachable goals have aided my procrastination. I’ve hardly moved at all because “there’s no way I’m going to reach that,” and I now find myself in only a slightly better position freelance-wise than I was eight months ago.

“Lower the unit of what you need to accomplish so much that it’s hard to believe you’d feel much resistance to writing,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, in this piece from The Atlantic.

(Feel free to change “writing” to whatever it is you need to get done.)

Realizing my own problem with procrastination and the discouraging height of my goals, I decided this morning to reassess all 15 goals I set at the beginning of this year. I made some adjustments, scrapped some goals completely, and this is what I ended up with:

Eight new and improved goals for the rest of 2018

  1. Spend 45 minutes each day working on my book (fiction).
  2. Submit a minimum of one researched pitch each week (nonfiction).
    • Be diligent about following up on pitches.
    • Pitch may be chosen from a batch of ideas I’ve been researching.
    • Resubmitted pitches do not count—but be sure to re-pitch rejected ideas.
  3. Go to literary/journalism events, connect with people, and stay connected. Invite potential freelancer/writer friends to lunch or coffee.
  4. Return to 100% physically (long story, but yes, I hurt myself).
  5. Get a physical and go to the dentist (same as original goal 8).
  6. Stay faithful with Scripture reading all year long (same as original 9).
  7. Memorize five new verses (essentially the same as original 10).
  8. Read one biography (done), more narrative nonfiction, and at least five good novels (done), for a total of at least 20 books (same as original 14; I currently have six more books to read in order to reach the goal, which I plan to overshoot).

“Lower the unit of what you need to accomplish so much that it_s hard to believe you_d feel much resistance to writing._

Original goals that I scrapped entirely:

Goal 12: Write three one-act plays. (One can only handle so many writing goals.)
Goal 13: Read plays. (I may end up reading plays as part of my regular reading, but I decided plays aren’t a high priority.)
Goal 15: If financially feasible, go to the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. (This conference already happened and was not financially feasible. Maybe next year.)

Book Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A refreshing read for the discouraged creative soul, Big Magic is essentially a long, written pep talk encouraging you to stop quivering in fear about your creative projects and go out and make stuff already, for no reason other than:

a. It’s fun.
b. That’s what humans have always done.

I copied down quote after quote from Big Magic’s pages, on everything from trusting and surrendering to the process, to pushing past fear and perfectionism and refusing to accept that creative living is an inherently miserable way of life.

View all my reviews

A word for 2018: Diligence

Diligence. Careful and persistent work. Slow, plodding, steady effort that isn’t crushed by setbacks. Keep moving forward.

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Rocky’s got it.

As soon as I finished college, I started learning the disappointing lesson that big achievements don’t just happen. Maybe if you went to an Ivy League school and had the right connections, you got your dream job right after graduating, but for most of us, job #1 isn’t the one we always wanted. And neither is job #2, #3, #4. (Or maybe we get the dream job, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and we’re left scrambling for purpose, because what we idolized for so long didn’t follow through.)

Right now, I’m actually okay with that. I’m okay with having limited reach and responsibility so I can continue to practice and learn and improve, especially in writing.

Ideas often come to me in the shower, and that’s how diligence ended up being my word for 2018. I was thinking about the coming year as I rinsed shampoo out of my hair, and diligence literally just popped into my head. I’ve never had a word for the year before, but as soon as it came to me, I knew it was right.

2018 will be about diligence. Setting myself to work steadily each day, taking small, seemingly insignificant steps toward long-term goals.

My goals this year will require that I work diligently, rather than swinging back and forth from all-hands-on-deck productivity to lethargic stagnation.

Here’s what I’m aiming to accomplish by the time 2019 rolls around:

  1. Write 300 words of unnamed work of fiction every day for total of 109,500 words.
  2. Get 10 articles published in actual publications.
  3. Make a sustainable living doing just freelance writing and editing.
  4. Receive 300 pitch rejections.
  5. Get more efficient at researching, writing, and submitting story pitches.
  6. Start building a freelance network/support/friend group.
  7. Get back into CrossFit and compete at least once.
  8. Be a responsible adult: Get a physical and go to the dentist—use my insurance.
  9. Stay faithful with Scripture reading all year long.
  10. Intentionally memorize a verse or passage each month.
  11. Hike regularly (maybe do a 14er).
  12. Write three one-act plays.
  13. Read plays (see above). Suggestions welcome.
  14. Read one biography, more narrative nonfiction (books and magazine stories), and at least five good novels, for a total of at least 20 books. Suggestions welcome.
  15. If financially feasible, go to the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

Bonus: Get a short story published.

My little siblings might be my new muses

Over vacation, I read my kid siblings the beginning of my chapter book for kids.

My 9-year-old sis said to tell her when I was done so she could order it from the library. I told her I’d have her read it before it was published.

A day later, I explained the concept of publishing to my 7-year-old brother.

In the meantime, my 11-year-old sister read me the first chapter of her superhero book and (unquestionably) out-wrote me all week — she was finishing chapter five when I left. I only added a 69-word paragraph to my story.

It was cool. Not just their interest, but seeing my baby sister embrace the writing process. She had two notebooks: one for her book, the other for doodles with a single page where she wrote down “the plot” (her words). It felt familiar — seeing her curled silently over her spiral bound notebook, pencil in hand, scribbling away the blank rows. It was almost like I was watching my younger self at work. And now, I’m home and that’s what I want to do. Put words together. Map out stories and then quit sitting on them, actually write, from beginning to middle to end.

8 writing lessons I (re)learned through revision

I spent the majority of this week and last wrangling a story. The first 1,600-word draft — written to follow an outline I thought was solid and completed at approximately 6:30 p.m. last Friday (that’s 1.5 hours late to the weekend) — read like a list of events. No emotion, no thought progression. Just, this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this, and then they got a cool letter. The end.

I’m not sure if the three-day weekend (Happy belated Memorial Day!) helped or hindered the revision process. I returned to the office on Tuesday, looked over Friday’s draft, heard Peter Parker’s editor in my head:

Megacrap
Spider-Man (2002)

And decided to trash it. Back to the drawing boards.

(Almost literally, actually, since my first outline evolved out of a color-coded mess of whiteboard notes.)

Here’s what I (re)learned through this particularly frustrating revision process:

1. If you begin in the wrong place, nothing about the draft will seem right.

When I sat down to write from my new outline, I realized my planned beginning was still wrong (cue fists slamming on the desk) and I couldn’t write anything else until I got that right.

Writing tips for when you're stuck on a story

One of my most-used pieces of writing advice (courtesy of Sarah Dessen) is:

When you’re stuck on a story, go back to the last place things were going well and take a different course.

I apply this to nonfiction on a regular basis and, when I can identify the stuck spot and devise an alternate route, it works like a charm. With this piece, devising an alternate route took more effort than usual, but once I figured it out, the wheels on the bus went round and round and the story got moving.

2. Be willing to go back to square one. 

I was annoyed that I’d written nearly 2,000 words of what I thought was unusable draft, and I was immensely frustrated that I had to outline all over again.

Once I have an outline, I’m usually convinced I have the story figured out. In this case, I was wrong and I was convinced I’d have to trash the entire draft.

But when I re-outlined and started writing, I found that I was wrong again: a lot of what I’d already written was usable — it just needed more narrative around it, more actual storytelling instead of just rehashing events.

Embrace the process. Go back to square one.

3. Get up close with your notes.

If you don’t know which page to flip to for that one quote or anecdote, you haven’t studied your notes enough.

I have this tendency — when a story involves talking to a lot of people at different times about the same thing — to think I know the material inside-out after I transcribe the interviews and read through, highlight, color-code my notes once. This tendency, I’m learning, is actually laziness I have to fight for the quality and integrity of my work.

I need to be as familiar with those notes as I am with my Bible.

When a quote comes to mind that could fit in this section about people’s perceptions of prison inmates, I need to know exactly where in my notes I can find it. If no quotes are coming to mind, I have a lot more studying to do.

4. Take the time to narrow your notes down, so you have a more concise reference that is tightly focused around the same things your story is focused on.

When you’re working with pages and pages of notes, it’s easy to get so overwhelmed by the information, you lose sight of the story.

When I sat down on Tuesday, I opened my notes — on paper and the same document on my computer — and, as I read through them, I copied and pasted what related to my story into a new document. This cut my active notes in half.

Doing this for investigative journalism will be more complicated, of course, but the principle holds regardless of what type of story you’re writing:

Cut your notes down to what is related to the story.

Remove anything you know you won’t use. If you’re so overwhelmed that you have no idea what you will or will not use, keep studying your notes and question whether or not you’ve done enough research.

5. Be patient, but keep pushing.

It’s okay to show signs of exasperation.

Examples:

  • Slamming your hands on your desk
  • Muttering, You have got to be kidding me!
  • Crumbling every sheet of paper you’ve written on in pursuit of this story. Okay. Maybe don’t do that.

But whatever you do — unless you happen to be a verbal processor, which is rare for writers — don’t vent to people.

Venting turns into talking as if you hate the work. You don’t hate the work. You’re just frustrated that it’s not going smoothly. Channel your frustration into the work, and eventually things will move the way they should, even if the movement is slow and clumsy.

6. Kill your darlings. Or at least be willing to.

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard this advice countless times. Like most cliches, it’s been repeated over and over because it’s right.

When a draft is under revision, everything’s on the chopping block. In order to stay, it has to prove it belongs. If a beautiful line, scene, description, word, gets in the way of the story, the only choice is to cut it.

If it’s any comfort, remember this: being willing to cut something — laying that beautiful line on the chopping block — doesn’t mean it will actually be cut in the end. When my new draft started flowing, I was thrilled to discover that a scene I thought I’d lose actually got to stay (points if you can correctly identify it).

7. Keep pushing.

I repeat myself, because the push is a necessary part of the struggle. Without it, you’re not struggling, you’re accepting defeat.

If writing is your job (like it is for me — one post-college life win!), accepting defeat makes you a bad employee. If writing’s not your job, it just makes you a bad writer. Which if you’re actually a writer, you are not okay with. So push on.

8. When you finish the piece to satisfaction (which you will), celebrate the way writers do.

Read. Subscribe to another magazine. Buy a load of books off Amazon. Search for your next story.

And if you need some weekend reading, check out the piece that in some backhanded way inspired this blog post:

Five Thursdays in Prison

This spring, six exercise science students and their professor traveled to New Castle Correctional Facility to gather data for a research project. They left with more than numbers.

Comment if you find the scene I was afraid I’d lose — or if you have writing lessons of your own to share.

Photo credit: Notebook via photopin

Five ways journaling has improved my life

When I’m writing, I’m actively engaged with life. When I’m not writing, I’m just going through the motions.

Since the 29-day writing challenge I did in February (successfully writing from every daily prompt), I’ve felt

  1. more myself
  2. more at peace with life
  3. more excited about life, and
  4. more interested in the world around me.

Those daily prompts dipped me into words in a way that reminded me why I decided to be a writer in the first place. That led me back to journaling, and journaling has been huge in rehumanizing the Internet-addicted person I had become since moving back to Indiana.

First, journaling showed me how boring constantly scrolling through Facebook and Twitter makes me. Constantly ingesting other people’s thoughts, ideas, or stupid videos bereaves me of original thought. Those things in moderation, okay. But when I’m scrolling and I feel my brain go numb, I’ve been there too long. Get off and actually do something.

Second, journaling awakened me to how isolated I’d allowed myself to become. Journaling about me, me, me all the time is utterly insufferable — and not just for whoever might peek into my journals (don’t do that). It’s insufferable for me. No wonder I’d stopped doing it, outside of devotional notes, since returning to the place where I once had friends galore (thanks to college) and now have basically none (thanks to adulthood/graduations).

This spring, through journaling, I’ve admitted to myself that I am isolated, I have no solid friendships where I am, and that’s not okay. I need friends, so I need to do something about that.

Third, journaling got me thinking about more than my job and my career. It brought me back to thinking about my craft as a writer and different projects I want to work on.

Fourth, journaling has tuned me back into what I like, what I’m interested in, and reminded me that there is no life script I must live by (outside, of course, loving God and loving people). Since my senior year of college, I’ve felt this pressure to either get it together as a career woman (i.e. get your dream job, already!) or scrap the dreams and find a husband — something I’ve never considered a priority. Why either of those attitudes are wrong is another post entirely, but the point is, under that pressure, I lost sight of what excites me about living and learning and creating.

My interests are all over the place and though brand experts say choose a specialty, that just doesn’t fit who I am. That’s not a mold I was made for, and I’m not going to contort myself to fit into it (the same way I will not wear heels or makeup to live up to some arbitrary standard of female professional appearance — again, another blog post).

Journaling has tuned me back into my own interests and passions, and it’s helped me process (or start to process) a lot of thoughts about life, dreams, and the patience that both require. Which leads me to the fifth and final piece (for now):

Journaling has reminded me that I need room to breathe, not just physically, but creatively. If I pile all this pressure on myself to write like crazy, hustle, hustle, hustle, when I’m not taking time to recharge my batteries and reboot my mental hard drive, I’m going to hurt myself in my attempts to reach “success”.

A dream, an ambition, should not be a burden. It should be a motivator, something — like a good song — that excites you to get out of bed in the morning. If they’re burdens, they’re probably idols, because you think you can’t live without them.

So journal. Because it’s good. Because it’s healthy. Because it helps you examine and ponder pieces of life that would otherwise go unchecked. And because journaling is a way of showing yourself, I’m here and I’m good.

Good Reads: Dancing through a clouded life

This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).

The Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort Of) Rattled the Scientific Community by Jon Mooallem, The New York Times Magazine

The most quotable piece I’ve read recently, this story examines the culture of cloud-loving in a way that observes science, philosophy, and love of life. There’s reflection (from the people involved, as well as the author), education (a healthy serving of cloud facts), history, and the impact of the Internet. Great piece.

Gotta Dance! by Elizabeth Gilbert, originally published in GQ, republished on Longform.

Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for her bestselling memoir, Eat Pray Love. This piece is from her previous work as a magazine writer. It’s a profile of a former swing dance icon who, when war service removed him from the limelight, became just a postman until he was “rediscovered” in the 90s’ swing dance revival. Cultural commentary and a fun personality, with Gilbert’s satisfying sentences, make this piece well worth your time.

How a Son Survived Being Injected with HIV by His Father by Justin Heckert, GQ

Twenty-four years ago, a little boy was betrayed by his father in a despicable act of malice. The title says it. But what it doesn’t say is what surrounded the betrayal and what followed the injection. Twenty-four years later, the boy has grown up and, against all odds, survived. Read it.

In a Perpetual Present by Erika Hayasaki, Wired

Imagine living today and forgetting it tomorrow. This woman’s life is basically Adam Sandler’s 50 First Dates and this story considers whether or not memory-less life could be a good thing, a counter-intuitive step forward, rather than the backward declension it at first seems. Bizarre.