Goal + Deadline = Magic
Goal plus deadline. Two very pedestrian kind of boring words but they lead to magic, you know. I think we celebrate the sexiness of inspiration and imagination in creative acts and sometimes not these kind of practical frameworks that help us execute them. So, a goal without a plan is just a wish said Antoine de Saint-Exup�ry. And NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, this is sort of what we do. A goal with a deadline is empowering. If you don't know what National Novel Writing Month is at its most rudimentary, it is a challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days in the month of November. So, that's about 1,700 words a day so it's a big goal. Granted that each year of those 500,000 people who sign up about 15 to 20% of them succeed, you know and they're a lot of reasons that they succeed, it's really the most effective way to get out a rough draft and I'll talk more about that as well. So, let's, and it's because you do need a framework like this because writing a book is super tough.
Be the, one of the toughest things you do in your life. This is one of my favorite quotes, Joyce Carol Oates. Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor. How many people enjoy that? Yeah, it's kind of tough, you know. But I think the thing is and this is like, I think she's exaggerating a little bit here. You feel like this sometimes, but sometimes you feel joy you're getting meaning and you establish this wonderful momentum. I mean, this is coming from Joyce Carol she publishes a book about every other day, right? So she's doing a lot of pushing that peanut. But you know, I think what, what NaNoWriMo, that's the acronym for National Novel Writing Month, does is it, it focuses on, it helps you focus on progress, you know so you're really speeding up that process of getting that peanut across that dirty floor. And just to use me as an example before I did National Novel Writing Month I was a very ponderous precious writer that's the way I describe myself. And what that means is that I would write the first sentence of my novel or the first paragraph or the first chapter and I would just tinker and rewrite it endlessly. I had this feeling that I had to get it all perfect before I could move on, you know and what this did to my writing, it totally skewed the amount of attention I gave the whole book. So I might give the first act of the novel 60% of my time and my work. The next act 25% and the next act 15% and what that did is my novel got consistently worse as people read it. And the other thing is, is that your first chapter it doesn't need to be perfect, you know. It's likely going to get cut and changed when you edit it. So, why spend all that time with it? One of my favorite NaNoWriMo quotes come from the author Jennifer Alben. She wrote the bestselling novel Cruel that she wrote during NaNoWriMo, it was her first novel that she wrote during an NaNoWriMo and she said that her husband use to tease her that she was the author of 20, 20 of the most promising first chapters ever written that, that would be in her obituary, right? and that's the way I felt too because I was so hung up on that idea of perfection and so the goal and the deadline really helps you measure your progress and move towards and keep things moving forward like past that first chapter, not to get too hung up. And there are other benefits of writing with a goal and deadline as well. Constraints, constraints have a negative connotation, right? Constraint of time, who wants that? But I think they're advantages in disguise and a constraint is the goal and a deadline, right? 50,000 words and 30 days that's a constraint. And so, when you have that constraint it takes away the choices available to us. This is the one of the, one of the beautiful things that I think NaNoWriMo gives us, is that you have to judge your other acts beyond writing. You have to, when you go on social media you have to ask yourself, okay this five minutes, I'm going to supposedly spend on social media. That will likely turn into 15 minutes or 30 minutes and make me feel worse afterwards. Is this helping me, right, you know? Could I use those five to 30 minutes on my book, you know. So, it helps you make those like really crucial decisions, I think, I think it also helps you say, no so that person who said you should do the dirty dishes in your house or you should clean it up. You can say no to that. You can make creativity a bigger priority than cleaning your house. I've never known someone on their death bed to say I wish, I had a tidier house, but I have, I have known people who say I wish would have written that book. Also it teaches, you know, I think, I think the ability to say no is undervalued in life for every person, but also every artist, you know. I am the worst example of this, I say yes to almost everything whether it's a dinner party or a speaking engagement or, or anything. But every decision like that is crowding or squeezing out my writing time and so, I think a goal and a deadline helps us say no and helps us evaluate all these little decisions in our life. Part of the constraint, our imagination thrives from boundaries are set. So, this is kind of counterintuitive when I, I all the writers I talk to and myself included, we all want more time. I would love if somebody would just give me this gift and say, Grant the whole next year you're gonna have a personal assistant who's going to take care of everything. She's going to drive your kids to school, she's going to actually do your job for you you know, all you have to do is sit here and dream up novels and write them and that would be a dream to me. But I think there are perils to that and the peril is that, sometimes having that expansive time you're actually less and less efficient with it you know if you want to get something done the saying goes, ask a busy person to do it. Your imagination can get flabby, you know because, I think constraints actually help ignite your creativity and your imagination. In fact, Ray Bradbury in his early days as a writer he wrote on his lunch breaks. So he had a half an hour that's the way he wrote Fahrenheit 451. He wrote in half an hour on his lunch break it was a constraint of time he knew he had to be super efficient. The other story about Ray Bradbury that I love in this regard is that, to get away he had to get out of his house because his kids were like too noisy to write, anyone who has kids you know this. And he went to the UCLA library this is obviously way pre-internet and they had something where you, you had to pay to use the typewriters at the library and so he put in whatever it was just a quarter or 50 cents and he had that typewriter for half an hour and so to maximize the amount of you know efficiency, he would just write as fast as he could and that's how he developed his early work so constraints can be good. So, think about the constraints in your life and how they might actually feed your creativity and your imagination. And then finally, you know constraints keep perfectionism from niggling at us and that's like the story of me, I think with perfecting the first chapter, you know. If I know I have to write 50,000 words in a month I can't just rework those first thousand words over and over again, I got to move on and get the 50,000. Because then, hey, I got a rough draft and that's, that's the beauty then I can edit that and revise it. That's where so much writing happens. I also think creative constraints or creativity igniters there are also accountability enforcers. A goal and a deadline prevent you from, from fooling yourself and I recently, my wife got me a Fitbit Christmas. I don't mean to do product placement for Fitbit here, but NaNoWriMo and a lot of that I talk about here is kind of like a Fitbit for writers. If you don't know what a Fitbit is, you say, you wear this thing on your wrist which I don't have now. It tracks how many steps you take syncs up to your computer and tells you how many steps you took every day. So, my goal was 10,000 steps a day and I thought that was pretty easy. I thought that's what I did just in my daily life but it turns out I only take about 5,000 steps in a typical day. So it was this moment of, of awareness you know. That, oh, I only walked 5,000 steps and I think a day, and I think this applies to writing too, I think, there are a lot of ways to pretend you're writing when you're not really writing. I'll pick on social media endlessly today because of the way it kind of infiltrates my writing, but when I sit down on my computer, I should actually get one of these software you can buy software that detects how, what you're doing. I go over to social media like every 15 minutes and so if I write for an hour I don't really know, do I write for an hour or did I write for like 37 minutes, you know. And so if you have a goal and a deadline though it enforces that, right? You're tracking your words so, you know whether you wrote 800 words or 2,000 words or 30 words and sometimes, I think also beyond social media writers make, we're just like creatures of excuses, you know we rationalize the research we need to do, you know. And you know, you can go decide that you going to do research and one day turns into a week turns into a month, turns into a year and your professional researcher, but you're not getting those words on the page. I love this one because a goal and a deadline invite in your future self and that means, I'll just use NaNoWriMo as the example here but your future self is your November 30th self. And that future self really wants your novel, wants 50,000 words on November first you know you've got to be thinking of the future self because that future self is going to be really angry if you quit on day three with like 3,000 words and I think, that this is plays in for me as a motivator because I think, we're creatures that are wired to kind of live in the present tense mainly and so we look for immediate gratification, we're myopic creatures. So it's easier to say, yes, I'm going to just wash the dishes I can't write my novel now. I'm going to go to this party, I can't write my novel now. You know there's plenty of excuses we can put between ourselves and our writing. But our future self is the one that is going to crack the whip on us. A goal and a deadline prods you to go further I'm gonna use Fitbit again for this. So, recently I came home and I synced up my Fitbit, it was seven o'clock at night it was a really dark stormy night. I only had 8,000 steps it's highly disappointing for me not to hit the 10,000 step mark. So I put on my coat, last thing I want to do I took a walk I got those extra 2,000 steps only because of the goal and the deadline, right? I couldn't do it tomorrow I had to do it that day and I had to hit 10,000 words. I think, if you've got a goal and deadline whether it's NaNoWriMo in November or for, you have a yearly goal and deadline it will help you take those extra 2,000 steps. And then measuring your progress is its own reward. You know during NaNoWriMo the thing is like writing can be such a tough act that it's great to have a reward at the end you know whether it's like a chocolate bar after one day's writing session or a massage after writing for two weeks in a row or as I've heard of people who take a wonderful vacation after they've finished a book. All these things are motivators except what's interesting I've read studies that, there external motivators don't work as much as internal motivators and so, they say that you get more motivation out of seeing your progress than you do out of getting that, that vacation that you've promised yourself. And I see it with, the most popular tool in the NaNoWriMo site is the word count tracker. It's a very simple technology, but you put in your daily word count and you see where it measures up against the bar going up and you see your progress and when you're meeting your progress standards your goals, it is so fulfilling, it is so motivating. The thing you want to do the next day is go right back and write and see that bar go up, you know where NaNoWriMo is kind of like the Fitbit of novel writing you know, we've taken that same methodology or actually predated Fitbit so. So yeah. And I think, also importantly a goal and a deadline they spawn a routine. Again, it's like one of these unsexy words of writing, but it's, but it's very necessary and I think, it's a, it really helps writing in many ways. One, is that a routine is a plan, you know it's a plan of dedication. It makes, it puts borders around your writing time it defines it and helps make it sacred when I had, first had children my wife and I who, my wife is also a writer so there's this battle for writing time and we first had children, you know we had to figure out how are we going to be writers and parents and have jobs. As much as we want to get rid of the job we had to do it. But anyway we had to define our lives so she would have Saturday mornings for her I would have Saturday afternoons for my writing then I would have Sunday mornings and she would have Sunday afternoons for her writing. And so the regularity of that though we need to be prepared to write during that time and to try to maximize it. Now as a writer I, the only time I have, I'm a morning person I cannot create at night or my creative, creativity is I'm just exhausted it's not that, not my prime hours so I have to structure my day in order to, to allow myself to get that hour or two in before I have to take care of life things. And so, you know the routine is a navigational tool for me you know, I have to decide if I want to have that extra glass of wine in the evening I know that my sleep will be worse and that I will not be able to be, to write in the morning. So, it helps me make those decisions. I think writing regular your routine is really another word for muse. Regularity and repetition are like guides who lead you deeper into your imagination and I don't know, if you've read anybody's read Stephen King's, On Writing. That's a great book, but he talks about his routine and he compares it to going to sleep. You know, most of us whether we're conscious or not we've developed a sleep routine whether you sit in bed with the New Yorker and read until you're sleep or have a cup of chamomile tea. A routine you just kind of naturally have it and what he says he compares that to writing because he says, he writes, Stephen King writes every day by the way. He writes on his birthday, he writes on Christmas, he writes on other people's birthdays. And but he says that, that routine like going into the same room and sitting at the same desk he said that there are all these creative triggers that happen. And so he's, he's kind of like absorbing them into his subconscious and that helps that ignites his imagination in a way that not having a routine doesn't. Now these aren't, I'm sorry. I'm kind of talking like, like, this is all a prescription for writing, I mean these are things to really experiment with because there are, of course, writers who who write in a less routine oriented manner, but I do think it's really effective to have a routine. This last quote. Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy. So I incorporated this at the last moment because I watch this talk by James Clear who I don't even know who he is, maybe people in the audience do. But his talk was about how to improve 1% a day. And what I liked about it is, is that thing of looking for the 1% that you can improve on and I think like some of these things I'm mentioning address that, like it's not like overhauling your life it's finding that 1% and if you can increase your effectiveness and sit down and write 1% more each day. It's like you're just making small decisions in the end, but it's leading to something big, I think big things are created with small increments, you know. So, let's talk about how to put that goal and deadline into action. How many people here are busy people? I think, everyone raised their hand. Yeah, I've asked that question so often everyone has always raised their hand it's amazing to me, you know. I'm sure we have all different levels of busyness. I had a friend who, he had a trust fund and he did not need to work and he didn't work for a number of years and he would always complain to me about how he didn't have enough time to get certain things done and so what, the lesson I learned from that is the busyness is often times a perception and I think, we're all no matter how crazily busy we are we can find nooks and crannies in our days to write. And one way I recommend doing that is going to time hunt. And the way I define a time hunt, is I do it every year before I do NaNoWriMo in November. I take a week or just a couple days depending on what I have available and I'll literally write down what I do in 15 minute increments and then I'll look at that and I'll think about how, how, where I can find time you know and there are these fantastic places where you can find time, just like Ray Bradbury wrote during the lunch hours. You know, sometimes it's a matter of going to bed earlier so you can wake up earlier. Sometimes it's like realizing that you spend way too much time on social media or you can skip the latest hot Netflix show to binge watch you know, and so, yeah, so I find that, before I had kids I would create a life where I could find these kind of pristine two to three hour blocks of time each day to write and then after I had kids those were swallowed up, you know and so I had to change my writing pattern and so now I write in the nooks and crannies of time. So I might be 10 minutes here 10 minutes there, but it all adds up, you know, so we all, I think most of us can find the time. and then after you, you figure out how much time you have like let's say, it's even just 30 minutes a day. Think about how many words you can write in 30 minutes, you know. If you're starting a weight training program you don't start with like lifting the, the biggest amount of weight. You start with something that's the feasible, right? Like, and then you can build on that. And so if you can write 30 minutes a day let's say, that you write 250 words in that 30 minutes you can probably do that in 10 or 15 minutes so I'm gonna do a little math around this. because 250, that's doable, right? 250 words, that's not that much that's like maybe two paragraphs. Maybe a whole page, maybe one page anyway let's go with it. Right, 250 words a day that's 7,500 words a month. So you do the math 12 months, that's 90,000 words in a year. Who knew you could write a novel by writing 250 day, 250 words a day in a single year a rough draft. So, so think about ways you can find small increments or small pockets of time in your life and then and then build on them. And then the last one here is Oh, don't allow your lapses to derail you. I think this is really important because, they say, I think it's something like 90% of people who, their new year's resolutions aren't don't, don't, they don't act on them. They don't succeed at them, you know, they drop off. I think, I think by the end of January something like 50% of the people have dropped off and the thing is that once they have a lapse they're like, it's over, I failed. Yeah, we all have lapses and so you're going to have lapses with your novel writing you're going to get sick. Something's going to come up, you're gonna have to fly to a wedding somewhere in the world the thing is to get back up on the horse essentially and you do this, I think the great technique is to look for a new kind of starting milestone. So if you drop off writing on a Tuesday or Wednesday, just say next Monday that's the day I start again or the first of the month, you know, don't wait a whole year to start again like prepare for those lapses and prepare like to come up with a new framework to start. And this last one that helps make it work is to announce a goal and deadline to the world and this is like the beauty of social media. After this class, after this day I hope you go out, post on Facebook I'm going to write a novel this year, you know. I'm going to write a novel by May or whenever it is. And the reason this is like usually you don't want to risk embarrassment, right? Once you've announced it to the world they say, this is the best way to give up smoking too. Because people are going to ask you how's your novel coming? You know, you're going have to give them an answer. So this is the good type of peer pressure not the bad type. And it all helps you get over this, this, this is a great quote, Dorothy Parker. I hate writing, I love having written. So, I think this goal and deadline approach help you get over the hate writing part. I feel like this is like a Zen Koan that I haven't, I like having written is that, that's when it becomes meaningful and joyous and you're happy with yourself and that helps you get back in the sea but I think the goal and the deadline is worth it as well. I recently heard that Twyla Tharp famous dancer and she has a great creativity book too is that, when she wakes up to go to the gym in the morning she doesn't focus on the gym and the exercise she focuses on getting in the cab. That first step, once she's in the cab she's good, she's on the way to the gym, she's fine. And so, I think the same thing can be applied to writing. Don't, don't focus on the actual writing focus on that first cup of coffee if you're cup of coffee drinker. Once you get the coffee in your hand you're more likely to sit down and start writing.