From my forthcoming book A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Fiction for Young Adults. E & E Publishing.
A few years ago, I got in the car and headed for Los Angeles and the SCBWI conference. Because of previous obligations, I was a day late and driving alone. Since I didn’t have my friend Marge in the passenger seat (Marge can find any destination in the world), I had to depend on mapquest.com. I have news for you. Mapquest does not always send drivers on the most direct route to reach their goals. I took some scenic, gas-guzzling tours through several neighborhoods before arriving at the end of my journey.
Because I was at a writing conference, I began to think how this experience could be applied to me as a writer. Did I plan each project so that I could finish it with the least amount of detouring? Did I take a lot of wrong turns before I found the direction of my plot? Was I a creative gas-guzzler, idling and enjoying the scenery instead of getting myself to the computer? Was I in such a hurry to get where I was going that I didn’t take time to write in my journal, sit in the shade with a cup of tea, ask for guidance in daily devotions?
It came as a shock to realize that my writing life was not guided by a reliable map or by an estimated time of arrival. I needed some goal-setting strategies! After a good deal of soul searching, I came up with the idea of creating a “Goal Notebook.” I bought a standard 11×11 1/2 three ring notebook with a 1 1/2 inch spine. I filled it with paper, using dividers with tabs to separate the categories: Inspiration, Short-term goals, Long-term goals, Journal entries, Images, and Progress Diary.
The front and back of my notebook have plastic overlays in which I slipped a colorful cover, courtesy of clip art. I can change this every couple of months, using any kind of image I find inspiring. I printed up some of my favorite quotations about writing and slipped those inside the back cover. It looked good. It looked professional. It made me want to get to work!
Here are descriptions of how I approach each section of my notebook:
Inspiration: This is where I do a little soul-searching each morning. I like to do this in my back garden where violets grow wild beneath the roses. But in bad weather the kitchen table does nicely, for a bird bath sits beneath the window, and our resident towhee likes to visit. Sometimes I copy a Bible verse or meaningful quotation into the “inspiration” pages. I write a few thoughts about these words and thank God for the sunshine warm on my back, or for the rain that keeps our hillsides green. Then I ask for guidance for that day.
Short-term goals: These are projects that I plan to finish in a day or two, a week at most; for example, a short article that doesn’t require research, a poem, a rebus, a letter to the editor, lesson plans for the classes I teach, an editing job, a synopsis or query, a family story. I usually list these in order, with the most pressing first. The list seems to grow daily. Then, for each idea, I use one page to create a working outline. When the outline suits me, I print it out and put it in a standing file on my desk and cross if off my short-term list.
Long-term goals: These are projects that won’t be finished in a day, or even a month. They are books I plan to write, major articles that require extensive research, family and church histories, and working outlines of writing workshops I plan to give. On the first page of this section of my notebook, I list these projects in no particular order. Order is not a criteria here. The idea is what counts. This list serves as a kind of working Table of Contents. Now comes the fun part. Each separate idea has 5-6 blank pages of its own, separated by those useful see-through page protectors, which hold lots of “notes to myself” that aren’t quite ready to be finalized. On the first page of each idea section, I write “Synopsis” and an estimated time frame for completion. The second page is for “Potential Markets,” and the third page is for “Research information.” On subsequent pages, I write bits of narrative and dialogue. I ad lib. I free write. These meanderings, through some literary metamorphoses, eventually combine to form whole thoughts and cohesive paragraphs. When this happens, it’s time to move this particular long-term project to a notebook or folder of its own.
Journal entries: Journaling is journeying . . . traveling through introspective space . . . a trip without reservations. A blank page provides me with that instinctive need to fill it with words — my words. I have an entire bookshelf filled with journals. Some are almost full; others have yet to be opened. The unopened ones have such beautiful covers, such velvety pages, that it takes courage to open one up and write the first word. But I eventually do reach for one and write a few sentences in it, quickly, before I can change my mind.
I carry a journal with me everywhere I go for two reasons: (1) to have paper handy when an idea blooms and (2) to force myself to begin developing that idea. I am not, by nature, a courageous person, and I would rather record an idea and let it go at that. The developing part takes courage. The journal makes me a more courageous writer.
Where does the Goal Notebook fit into journaling? As soon as a journal idea is developed — even a little bit developed — it is on its way to the Goal Notebook section labeled “Journal Entries.” I copy it here, work on it, embellish it, edit it, until finally it is ready to be moved to either the section on Long-term or Short-term Goals.
Images: This portion of my Goal Notebook is the least tidy. I collect images on journal pages, post-it notes, pieces of paper torn from newspapers and magazines, and even from snapgshots and postcards. Then I staple or paste them onto the notebook pages. What kinds of images do I collect . . . and why? I aim for two varieties:
(1) Images that are printed, snapped, or sketched. The subject must be something that encourages a strong feeling. For example, my notebook contains snapshots and sketches of several houses that (metaphorically) opened their doors and invited me in. It also contains faces, flowers, birds, brick paths, and a small printed card that commands me: “Just do it!” These are all visual images that have been recorded in printed form.
(2) Images that are seen or heard and described in writing. For example: “The dust motes fell slowly, softly, like snow on a winter night.” Or “The sparrow tree is a giant aviary, a gymnasium.” Or “The clouds are frothy bubbles on a glass of milk.”
Such images seem important to me when I record them in my journal, but I’m seldom sure why. When I copy them into my Goal Notebook, it always surprises me to find that many of them seem to fit into something I am currently writing. I believe in serendipity, don’t you?
Progress diary: This is just what it sounds like — a record of my progress. It is one of the most vital sections of the Goal Notebook. It keeps me honest about how much writing I am producing. Each piece in progress has a separate page (or pages) on which I record the dates I work on the piece, with both proposed and actual word counts. In other words, I might say: proposed — 500 words; completed — 379 words. I would then know that I was behind my self-imposed schedule, but at least I was 379 words farther along than the day before. On these pages I also begin listing possible markets for the piece. When it is ready for submission, I record where it is sent, the date, the editor (if possible), and the name of the publisher or the magazine title. When the piece is rejected or accepted, I record that information. When a sale is finalized, I staple the papers together and put them papers in a file folder with a copy of the manuscript. Goal accomplished! If I receive as many as ten rejections, I pull out my manuscript and try to determine what I need to change to make it marketable. Then I start all over again.
If you haven’t already created your own Goal Notebook, I encourage you to get started. Write and tell me how it is working for you!