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The Best-Laid Plans

Welcome to 2004. Now's the perfect time to establish some realistic writing goals, with this gentle nudge in the right direction.

If you want to make serious progress with your writing in the new year, mastering the skills of goal-setting is one resolution you'll want to keep. And if just the thought of tackling goals makes you reach for those New Year's party leftovers, take heart: grasp pen and paper instead.

Adopt these simple steps and by 2005, you'll be able to look back with pride at all you've accomplished.

1 Put them in writing. Break your goals into easy, manageable segments. Prioritize the segments by deadline date, amount of research required—or however you feel most comfortable. If you write several hours each day, you may need weekly goals. If you're writing in your spare time, a monthly list may suffice.

2 Be specific. Instead of setting "Write one book this year" as your goal, try, "Send book proposal to publishers X, Y and Z within the next three months." If you have just a seed of an idea for a book, describe it in as much detail as possible. Knowing exactly what your goals are helps eliminate mental wandering and keeps you from exerting time and energy in the wrong direction.

3 Set your goals high, but not too high. Goals must be attainable. For example, if you write at home and you have toddlers or an elderly parent to care for, you can't expect to write three novels per year or even two articles a week. If you work 60 hours a week, your writing time is limited. Give yourself the opportunity for success by planning realistically. If you aim only for what's within easy reach, however, you won't stretch and grow as a writer. You need focus for your energy and discipline.

Ancillary Goals

In setting your writing goals, be sure to include activities that contribute to all aspects of your writing life, not just your actual writing time. 1. Research. Interviewing and background reading lay the foundation for your writing. Educate yourself on your subject, but remember that you don't have to know everything. Attend free seminars or sit in on college classes. If you're writing a crime novel, for example, ask to hang out at the police station or shadow a police officer to immerse yourself in the atmosphere and jargon.
2. Query. Crafting effective query letters and book proposals is time well spent. You can send published articles to noncompeting publications that may be interested in reprinting them (if your original contract allows this). This is a great way to earn extra income from an already completed project.
3. Submit work. Be realistic. If you write full time, completing several projects a week might be a good goal. If you work full time and are just launching your writing career, one or two projects a month is more feasible.
4. Promote yourself. Find creative ways to market your work. Search for new markets in Writer's Market (Writer's Digest Books) or at www.writersmarket.com, as well as other periodicals and Web sites. Write to publishers or check the Internet for guidelines.
5. Take care of business. Include in this category correspondence beyond queries—sending invoices, keeping records for tax purposes—as well as making sure you have office supplies.
6. Improve your craft. Writers must learn constantly. Set aside time for writing conferences, online communication with other writers, critique groups or a community college course. Read at least one writing book per month.

4 Post your list where you can see it. Try above the computer or next to your calendar. Frequent reminders of where you're going will keep you on track. At the same time, knowing you have a custom-designed plan gives you the freedom to dream and to indulge in the occasional whim.

5 Keep your goals to yourself. This list is for your eyes only. No one else should see it—unless you think you'll benefit from having a trusted friend help you stay on track.

6 Review your list frequently. Nothing (except maybe opening the check when it arrives in the mail) gives more satisfaction than putting a big checkmark beside a completed project on your list.

7 When you achieve a goal, celebrate. Fix a special dinner, play with your kids, watch a movie, read a good (nonwriting-related) book or have lunch with a friend. Celebrating will boost your self-confidence and motivate you to tackle your next goal. Savor the moment!

8 After celebrating, review your list. Do things need to be rearranged? Did you learn something in pursuit of this goal that affects one of the others? Did you achieve your goal too easily? Did you discover writing skills you need to hone?

9 Stay open to revision. Your goals will change. They aren't etched in stone. As you develop as a writer, new opportunities will arise to add to your list and possibly preempt another goal. Be flexible.

10 Don't be too hard on yourself if you fail to reach a goal. Failure is not an end. It can be a great teacher. Figure out where you missed the mark, reevaluate the project and get back to work.

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