Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Goals and Time Tables

I am very much a deadline-driven sort of person. Whenever I set out to write something, I always have a definite date by which I must be finished with it. I don't know why that is, except that open-ended projects--for me--always seem permitted to go unfinished forever. Which is very likely a more healthy way of looking at artistic pursuits, but my Virgo nature won't let me be healthy like that. Damn you, Virgo nature.

A year and a half ago I finished draft five (or maybe it was draft six) of a novel and set about finding an agent. I didn't have a timeline for that search but I assumed it would take a couple of months at least. Luckily for me it was a very short search and at that point, I figured I'd have the novel sold by the end of the year. That's last year--2009--I'm talking about. During those happy initial days of my relationship with my agent, I assumed that I'd be a published novelist before I was 50, and that somehow became my goal. I'm just shy of 48 as I type this.

What became clear in 2009 during the two rounds of rewrites to the novel that I did at my agent's request was that I had a good premise and good characters and a good fictional voice for the novel, but I had also written the book wrong. There is a structural problem with the last third of the book that I couldn't fix by revising what I had written, and in January of this year I told my agent that I couldn't rewrite the book anymore. I was done with it. It was a failed novel. I declared my intention of writing a different book and if, after that, I had any bright ideas about the book my agent and I had been working on, I'd see about fixing it. My agent said he'd be happy to read the new book when I was ready to show it to him, but gosh he wished I knew how to fix the first book. Yeah, I said, that would be cool, but whatevs.

This dramatic scene blew my hopes of being a published author by the age of 50. I don't have a MS in my agent's hands now, the different book I wrote has a lot of potential but needs some rewriting, and it looks pretty grim for me meeting my self-imposed deadline. Yes, I did in fact have a bright idea about how to fix the first book and I had that idea half an hour after telling my agent that the book was impossible to write and yes, I am now rewriting that book entirely from scratch and I'm a bit over halfway through a new draft of it and it So Totally Rocks, but it will be October at the earliest before I have a rough draft and then there'll be a couple revisions and it will likely be next year before my agent sees the damned thing. Which leaves 20 months, if my agent reads the MS in January and thinks he can submit it to publishers as-is, to go from unknown unsigned debut author to publication. That's a very short timetable. So I am coming to grips with the idea that I will not, alas, be a published novelist by the time I'm 50.

Yet still I write. I think about the WIP and give over most of my lunch breaks and evening commutes to the new draft, and I work on it in the evenings and I think about it when I go running and I make copious conflicting notes about it and I plow forward because that's what we do. I have a first draft of the next novel already written, and I know what the two books after that will be (plus, maybe, a cosy detective mystery novella this winter if I'm not still working on the current MS) and there is plenty of good writing ahead of me. My goal is to write those five books I've just mentioned, and hopefully I'll have ideas for other books to write after I've done those, and I'll keep writing novels and the occasional short story until the day I die. I want to be in the middle of a groundbreaking and amazing literary novel of baffling and mysterious beauty when I drop over dead. That's my goal, anyway.

When I was a kid (by which the old man means "when I was in my 20s") I was in rock bands. It's cool to be in a rock band, and I think everyone should do it. Too much of my time was wasted as I sat reading SPIN or Rolling Stone and imagining the interviews I'd give when my band became famous. I was not writing then, at least not fiction. Anyway, one day I realized that not only was I not a very good songwriter, I was also not really passionate about being a rock musician or playing electric guitar (though it's still supercool to play electric guitar and scream into a microphone, kids). What I am passionate about, as you likely know by now, is writing.

My point, if I have one, is that even though I began pretty late in life (first novel begun when I was about 30, second novel written when I was 45, third and fourth started when I am 47), being a published novelist is still an attainable goal. I love writing. I adore fiction. I read books about the theory and history of novels, and interviews with authors, and I am a total book geek. I write because I am fascinated to read what I've written, and I am a big fan of my own writing and I also have certain evolving but strong opinions about what should go on in a piece of literary fiction. So to be a novelist is a worthy and workable goal.

My timetables, on the other hand, are absurd and not under my control. I think I'm giving up on the idea of deadlines (until an editor at Knopf gives me one, that is) and learning to sit back and see how things go. The pressure of my 50th birthday, which looms threateningly out there on the horizon, is still something I feel constantly while I work on this MS, but I am trying mightily to ignore it.

What I'd like to know today is this: How many of you have come to writing as a serious business later in life? Do you have goals, and are they related more to the writing or to the calender?


  1. Hi Scott,

    I'm a new blogger and came across your blog today - I love true literary fiction and I'll be sticking around!

    My first novel has been knocking around in my head and in note form for about three years. I have decided (starting 1st August) to write 5,000 words a week until it's finished - with the goal that it is edited and accepted by a publisher before my 30th birthday in December next year. So my (audacious) goal is definitely calendar-related, and pegged to birthdays like yours. And, like yours, my open-ended projects never get finished! I've also committed to blog my progress with my novel, as I think I will need 'eyes' checking up on me to get it done.

    I've been pretending to do something else career-wise since I left university, but my intention is now to be a 'serious' writer. I very much admire you writing in lunchbreaks and on the commute, and hope to do this also from now on...wish I could afford to just write...

    Thanks for this great blog, and good luck with your goals - time-tabled or otherwise :-)

  2. Well I'm only 30, so I guess I'm not "later in life" yet, but considering how young people are publishing their novels right now, I do feel pretty old. I keep reading all over the place about novelists 18, 19, in their 20's, publishing their debut novels. It's kind of depressing.

    I've always thought I would write better stuff when I'm older, anyway. When I'm 50 I will be producing much better work than I am now, but I won't be producing it unless I'm writing now, so it always left me in a rut wondering if I should just write and write now and leave publishing until later. Which is stupid, I know. Or maybe it's smart. Too late now that Cinders is coming out, anyway, but as far as traditional publishing goes, that still looms on the horizon as an unreached goal I'd currently like to accomplish by the time I'm 50. Even when I was 19 I told myself I probably wouldn't be traditionally published until I was in my 50s. I know myself too well, but maybe I'll surprise myself.

    This comment has been all about me. Oh well.

    Anyway, I love reading about your writing and what you've done and how you've gotten to where you are, and I can't wait to read this new book because even the "wrong" draft was good. Even if you're not published until you're 51 or 52, that's a great thing! It might go a little past your deadline, but reaching a goal a little later is better than not reaching it at all. :)

  3. "I write because I am fascinated to read what I have written."

    Wow. Me Too!!

    I know it sounds weird, but I am getting ready to open up my WIP and I really have no idea where I left off. I have to be brave to click on it, because I am never quite sure what I will find. I am usually fascinated (one way or the other) by what I managed to crank out the day before...


  4. No matter the goals I set, the publishing industry has other ideas! I mean, who knew that once you found an agent, then an editor, and then a publisher, it could take another 18 months for publication. Okay, perhaps that's a bit of a stretch, but still . . .

    So, I write, I edit, I revise, I draft query after query, and just hope for the best.

    Do I still set deadlines for myself? Yes.

    Deadline - rough draft, 50K words in 30 days. That's a reasonable deadline.

    Deadline - give myself two weeks rest from end of rough draft to start of first edit phase. Again, reasonable deadline.

    Deadline - send out query and expect response in same day. Nope, not a reasonable deadline.

    I think, as with anything, reality doesn't care about our personal deadlines. I write, I have fun, and I still have the dream of publication . . . someday.

  5. I decided to try my hand at a novel about 8 years ago. I'm 38 now. To me that counts as late in life.

    My writing goals are based on completing manuscripts. Sometimes life gets in the way of daily or weekly word count, but having a draft done by the end of month X works for me.

    My life goal is to be published by the time I'm 40. If I don't make it by 10/10/2011, then I'll convert to dog years to buy me some time.

  6. I just turned 52. I'm writing the first draft of my first novel and can't even contemplate being published this early in the game. The goal for me is to complete this book. If it ever ends up published, that's gravy. So look, you are way ahead of me!! No timeline is wrong or right (write?) as long as you ultimately reach your goal.

  7. I find it difficult but essential to set goals for myself, but still be able to forgive myself and change plans when it's clearly not going to happen. Getting pregnant has thrown a wrench in my goals for the year, for example.

    I'm not starting late in life, but like Michelle, I don't feel like I'm starting early either. Kids these days! I fantasize about homeschooling my child, who will go on to write a bestseller by the age of eight.

    Haha, but not REALLY...

  8. I didn't come to writing later in life, but somehow it just kept getting later in my life.

  9. Thanks for describing your process. It's fascinating. I think I know how that is -- when you find a fatal flaw in a book and only writing a new book out of the old one will do. I hope your book will be stronger for it. What I've seen of it so far is very good, but of course, it is impossible to tell the strength of the story arc from small glimpses.

    I had a goal to be published before I finished school. HAHAHA. Well, take that Unrealistic Goal! I just keep returning to school over and over again! At this point maybe I should make my goal to have a degree by the time I'm published.

  10. First of all, thanks for speaking up about finding one's passion late. I returned to writing in my late 30s after hiatus publishing a lit mag (certain my gift was polishing others' work, not creating my own).

    Our society loves benchmarks but the best things in life don't arrive on a timetable. I missed my "marriage deadline" by five years; the "have child" deadline by far more. Those stupid benchmarks mocked me for years, made me feel my good life was somehow "less than" because it didn't arrive at my moronic ideas of when I thought it should.

    Achivement benchmarks are happiness stealers. Go ahead and chuck them right out the window. My Libra nature says that anything capapble to stealing so much joy is out of balance and has to go. :-)

  11. I'm revising my first novel, and I'm 50. The story of this novel has been in my head for 14 years and I never thought I'd write it - and then I did.

    I am so glad I waited. I realize that I needed to be at this precise point in my life to write the way I want to write. A few years back I would never have had the guts to expose my writing, first to a critique partner, then to beta readers, then to agents and so on.

    I have an idea (and partial outline) for a trilogy, and the ghost of a really interesting idea for a fifth novel. Instead of declining, my creativity seems to be burgeoning! It's never too late.

  12. Very lovely post, Scott. I feel like I started writing later in life only because I spent twelve years working on painting and hating the written word. Then, I met Mrs. Abood in high school and suddenly writing was easier, but that's a different story. I started writing fiction seriously at 21, and I think the only goal I've ever set for myself was to finish a book by 30, which I didn't do, which resulted in me being depressed on my weekend in Amsterdam on my 30th birthday.

    Deadlines are good for me, though I don't have them as often as I should. Whenever I have one, I think I freeze up less and am more courageous in my work. As for my life, I have always envisioned writing three novels, for some reason. And, let me assure you, they are very good novels.

  13. My first novel’s pub date is one month shy of my 56th birthday. But I’ve been writing since my teens. I have ten (bad) novels in a closet, all of them sent out multiple times to agents or publishers.

    In my late 30s I attended Clarion West, a six-week writing workshop focused on SF/fantasy. I was miffed when an instructor (Gardner Dozois, then editor of Asimov’s SF mag), told me that my writing was “slick, but empty”, that I wasn’t truly writing from my heart. It took me something like five years to realize that he was completely right. After which I found a story I truly wanted to tell, that I was totally passionate about, and wrote the first draft of the novel that’s about to published. And then it took me over ten years to find a publisher.

    I’d submitted it several places, then revised it, then sent it to Baen Books, who kept it for over a year before an editor there phoned me to say she loved it, but couldn’t get it past the publisher due to the losses they suffered on bad decisions the year before. At that point I think I’d been trying to sell it for five years or so. I was devastated, and I put it away and didn’t think about it again until several years later. There was no place else to send it, and no agents were interested.

    Then about two years ago I discovered a publishing house in Canada that was SF/Fantasy only, and decided to give it one last try. They also kept the MS for about one year before deciding to buy it. Then one more year after that until publication.

    Now I think I’ll retire.

    Seriously, though, don’t get hung up on numbers. Age is just a number. My publishers had no idea how old I was when they bought the book. Most readers won’t care, either. When I pick up a book by an author I’ve not heard of, it doesn’t even cross my mind.

  14. The thing is, I think there is a difference between goals you can achieve on your own (finish a novel) and goals you can't control (publish a novel). It's important to have goals, and deadlines, but they have to be something you are responsible for, not something dependent on someone else's decision/taste/pocketbook.

  15. I'm a virgo too. No procrastination here. Even when I try to procrastinate, it doesn't last long. It doesn't feel comfortable.
    I also hate deadlines so what I end up doing is telling myself that I absolutely, cannot, work on anything else until I get to a certain place.
    Wow, I guess that is sort of a deadline, isn't it?

  16. I never knew this relationship between virgos and procrastination, but it explains so much.

  17. Wow, what a great post and what wonderful comments- I know I'll be reading back through them again when I have more time.

    Scott, don't worry about the big birthday- they say fifty is the new thirty you know (at least I really hope they do because I am turning forty next year...)

    I wrote my first draft of my first novel in 2008. Yes, you can do the math that qualifies as 'later in life'. I just never considered even trying it before-and yes this is the truth- I heard about NaNoWriMo (long live Chris Baty.)

    I wrote short things, mostly in groups with other writers, and I loved not only the creative interaction but the end result too. Writing was my escape, I never imagined making it a serious goal to get published. Then I wrote the novel, worked on it a long time after, and beta readers were positive about it and I wondered.

    Then I went blind.

    When you can't read or write for long periods of time (most of 2009 for me was spent recovering from surgeries that allow me to be writing this to you right now)you don't have much to do but think and that's when I set the goal of trying to submit my first ms, among other goals.

    This time last year I was still almost totally blind- and now that I can see again- especially after the trip I just took- I've realized that I was right all along- it's not the 'published' part that matters to me and that's why I've been not only writer's blocked but also so creatively miserable the last nine months.

    For me it's only about the storytelling. I only sent out three queries, got 2 full requests (ultimately rejections) and one form rejection and at least for now, at this point in my life- I'm done with all that.

    My goal now is to write things I care about, love and have creative control over, and get the work out there- so it can be shared, not necessarily just so I can hold the book in my hands and say I've 'made it'.

    So at the end of this long winded reply (sorry) all I can say is that I completely agree with Tara Maya- the goals have to be ones you can accomplish on your own or it can drive you mad.

    Congratulations to Mizmak- what a great story! And thanks again to Scott for the great post.

  18. I didn't take writing seriously until I was 45 although I always wanted to write and dabbled with it here and there.

    I never thought about how old I would be when I was finally published. Like you, 50 is looming.

    With 35K left to go on the latest WIP, I'm hoping, praying, begging, to get it done by the end of August. Once Monster Baby is finally in school full time, I'll be able to breeze through revisions and edits and hopefully query by October. Hopefully.

  19. AlphaChick: Welcome to our blog! I can't believe how young you people are. I can't believe how old I am, is more like it. You have set yourself an ambitious goal. Good luck! Say something about your novel-in-progress.

    Michelle: Oh, you old woman, you. My advice, despite my addiction to deadlines, is that you should just enjoy the writing you're doing now and try to satisfy yourself. And tell me how I can get a copy of Cinders.

    Shelley: Yeah, my approach with first drafts is to just write forward, so when I finish and read over what I've wrought (or if I've taken a break from the MS and am coming back to it), it's always a surprise to see the story I'm writing. Which is dead cool.

    Scott: Yeah, without the fun, what's the point? People who know me well will say that's hypocrisy on my part, but the deep truth is that it's all about my own personal amusement.

    Rick Daley: You have an agent and a MS out on submission. You've got plenty of time to make your arbitrary goal, sir.

    Liza: Hurrah! Another oldster! Fine wine, etc. Good luck finishing the book. Keep us posted.

    Genie: That's sort of what I strive for, to set goals but not whip myself when I miss them. To have some drive but not self-loathing. My little brother is home-schooling his daughters. They both seem frighteningly smart to me.

    Tara: That's too funny. It does just keep getting later and later. I'll admit that part of my frenzy about finishing the current novel is I don't want my agent to forget who I am or lose interest in the project. I have a big fear he'll get hit by a bus or something before my book goes on submission. How sick and selfish is that? And you are a published novelist already.

    laurel: It's funny, because I gave up creative writing to be in rock bands. I was sure that writing was something I could just pick up whenever, later on down the road. It never occured to me when I was young that writing was a) hard, and b) something you got better at over time and c) something that took a lot of learned skills to do well. Oh, the arrogance of youth.

    Jane: Yes, it's true that being a writer involves a lot more than just having good prose and a story to tell. There are other skills that take time to develop. When I was younger, I would've been too painfully shy to query agents. Now I'm older than most working agents, and they don't intimidate me.

    Davin: I am trying hard to not be depressed that on my upcoming birthday, I won't have this version of the book finished. Yes, I have already written three novels, but it's this one that counts the most. I am certain that your three novels are things of utter beauty. So write them, already. I mean, you've already got one finished.

    Mizmak: I love your "road to publication" story, you know. And you've got a really healthy attitude about it. Me, not so much. I worry too much; it's just my nature. Say, how's Connie's sequel coming along?

    Tara: That's perfectly true and reasonable. I am not always swayed by reason when I think about publication, though.

    Davin: You need to hang out with more Virgos.

    Bru: 50 is the new 30? I hated being 30! Waah! Erm...That's a really impressive response rate on your queries. I don't know why you aren't still querying the novel. But you are exactly right that you have to write about what you love. One reason I pursued the guy who's now my agent is that he said, "Write what you care about." He almost never talks about "what sells." That impresses me.

    Anne: You and I are at about the same points in our current drafts. It's exciting to have the end mostly in sight, isn't it? I don't think I'll be able to make enough time to finish by the end of August, but the end of September is starting to sound reasonable. Good luck, and I'll be watching your progress (even if I never comment on your blog, lazy slacker that I am).

  20. Scott,
    "My timetables, on the other hand, are absurd and not under my control." Yeah, I'm there with you.

    I don't have age goals per say, but I tend to set absurd goals on myself for no damn good reason. Like how I proposed to write the first draft of my current WIP in eight months knowing I wouldn't meet that goal. Also did a three month goal of editing that novel which I blew.

    I've come to realize my little goals are great to get me motivated to move my ass, but I also have to be realistic with myself and well, chill out.

  21. Scott,

    I began writing creatively at age 47. I avoided creative writing classes when I was taking my undergraduate degree--I have many of the same regrets you do--starting too late. I never set a goal of being published by 50--that would have been unrealistic--though I did have a short story published within a year of writing. But like you, I have used up more time on earth than I have left--and time looms large in this writing. career--or lack of it. I took a detour and got an MA in Creative Writing--just completed--and also completed a new manuscript as a result that I've begun to shop. You are absolutely doing the right thing--keeping at it--a day at a time. Commit to finishing a new mss or another draft. Nothing starts until then. And know that there are lots of others who feel .as you do. Love your blog, btw. Best of luck

  22. Hi Scott,

    Great post! I totally know what you mean about deadlines (and I don't think it's just a Virgo thing because this Aquarius does it too).

    For a while I was really focused on the "race to publication" but having just graduated from grad school I've come to realize that it's more important to build a fulfilling writing life.

    For me, that means not only writing and reading, but also spending time teaching the craft. This summer I've had the pleasure to teach some fantastic students and I think I've come to the conclusion that I love teaching even more than I love writing. For the first time in my life, I'm finally happy in the Now, rather than always thinking about what will come After.

    In terms of the book you abandoned, I've been there too and I know how tough that is. But I applaud you for having the strength to see it wasn't working and knowing it was time to step away.

    Thanks for a fabulous post! It really got me thinking.

  23. Okay, I'm a Virgo too. And if you don't mind me using le Francais: Fuck you, Father Time!

    I started my first novel at age 34 (this year). I also started my second novel at age 34. I will finish the 2nd novel this year (in draft form). And despite it being flagrantly commercial, I will not apologize, and will retain my love for litfic.

    Who knows when I'll be pubbed? It'll be someday, for sure. Just I can't put a timetable to it.

    Let's flip Father Time off together, shall we, good sir?

  24. Mr. Larter: Indeed, good sir! Father Time can fuck off.

  25. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the welcome! The Literary Lab is a fantastic resource for newbies like me, and I'm glad I found you guys.

    My novel-in-progress is actually centred around a writer and his family - he's a guy who writes generic detective fiction / thrillers and has done for years. He's successful but desperate to write something 'literary', win the big prizes etc. I don't want to give too much away just yet, but his new creation is wonderfully different, all-consuming, and ends up spilling over into reality and affecting his sedate family life...

    At least that's the story as it is at the moment, but I don't trust the characters not to re-write it as I go :-)

    See you on here soon!


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