Make Next Year the Best of Your Writing Life

James Scott Bell

Well, here it is, friends. The last TKZ post of the year. For the next two weeks of blogging silence let’s make it all about hearth and home, friends and family, Christmas and Hanukkah, food and football––and getting ready to make 2015 the best year of your writing life.
1. Take a Vision Day
What kind of writer do you want to be? What kind of career do you want to have? Dream. Every accomplishment begins with a vision of what it will look like and feel like to you.
Every year I go to a park for a few hours with a notebook and some music, and take stock of this life I’ve been given. I go over the big spheres of my existence: spiritual, family, community, writing. I assess and think about what I’d like to do better.
I look again at books that have spoken me over the years, like A. W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God and Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. I also like to bring along a favorite novel or two, which fires up fresh inspiration in me. Novels that remind me how sublime writing can be in any genre. Books like John D. MacDonald’s Cancel All Our Vows and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.
What books would you choose for a day like this?
2. Set Goals
I believe in goals. I’ve set goals for myself every year, and it’s the only way I can look back and explain whatever it is I’ve managed to accomplish. If you are not satisfied with where you are, the best way to remedy that is to plan to get to where you want to be.
Goals give your dreams walking shoes.
The way to set goals is, first, decide exactly what you want to achieve. This has to be something you can control and measure. If you want to be a New York Times bestselling author, that’s not a goal because you can’t control it. What you can control is your writing schedule, your training, your word count, your study of markets and so on.
Write your goals on paper. There’s something about pen and paper that cements a goal in your mind. Every now and then write your goals again on a fresh piece of paper. That pours fresh cement.
Write your goals in present tense, as in I will…
…write 3,000 words a week.
…complete my novel by March 1.
…query three agents on April 20.
…self-publish my novel on June 1.
I would advise setting five writing goals for yourself each year.
One of your goals should be growth as a writer. We don’t tell our brain surgeons to stop studying the medical journals. Why should we tell our writers to stop studying their craft? (At least when a writer makes a mistake, nobody dies.)
Take the plunge and go to a good writers conference next year, like Story Masters. Come spend four solid days immersed in the craft of fiction with me, Christopher Vogler (Hollywood’s mythic structure guru) and super-agent Donald Maass. Story Masters 2015, runs Feb. 5-8 in beautiful Charleston, SC.
By the way, if you use this code SMFLYER when you register, you’ll get $50 off. 

This is important: Take some action toward at least one of your goals every day. If you miss writing one day, at least read an article in Writer’s Digest. Reward yourself when you reach a major benchmark. Do this, and you will begin to feel unstoppable. That’s a good way for a writer to feel.  
And decide, right now, that you will never quit. You are a writer, not someone who wants to write a novel or five. Not someone who hopes to make some scratch. A writer.For the rest of your life.  
3. Simplify Your Life
The past few generations have each had their simplicity movements. From the hippies of the 60s to Richard Carlson’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff in the 90s, right down to today with what some are calling the “minimalist movement.” (On this, see a post over at Writer Unboxed by Jan O’Hara).
Uncluttering your life is always a good thing. I’m reminded of the great soliloquy delivered by the hobo (played by Walter Brennan) in Meet John Doe (1941, dir. Frank Capra). He warns people not to become “heelots.”
You’re walkin’ along, not a nickel in your jeans, you’re free as the wind. Nobody bothers you. Hundreds of people pass you by in every line of business. Shoes, hats, automobiles, radios, furniture, everything, and they’re all nice loveable people. They let you alone…Then you get ahold of some dough and what happens? All those nice, sweet, lovable people become heelots. A lotta heels!

They begin creepin’ up on ya, tryin’ to sell ya something. They got long claws and they get a stranglehold on ya and ya squirm and ya duck and ya holler and ya try to push ’em away, but you haven’t got a chance. They’ve got ya. The first thing you know, you own things – a car, for instance. Now your whole life is messed up with a lot more stuff. You got license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and courtrooms and lawyers and fines – and a million and one other things! And what happens? You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You’ve gotta have money to pay for all those things. So you go after what the other fella’s got. And there you are – you’re a heelot yourself.
Try this: give up one thing this year that you really don’t need. Skip one hour of television a night. Use that hour to write 200 words. An extra 200 words a day is an entire extra novel a year!
4. Be Grateful
Writers have many ways to make themselves miserable. Reading reviews, obsessing over sales rank, comparing ourselves to other writers. I keep thinking of one of the oldest jokes in the book:

Patient: “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” 

Doctor: “Then don’t do that.”
Stop doing the things that lead to misery. Do not, I repeat, do not click on that one-star review. I’ll let you peek at a five-star every now and then, but don’t let it go to your head. It’s better not to get caught up in either praise or criticism.
Instead, learn to be thankful. The religious sages and sagacious philosophers have taught us that the secret to happiness is gratitude.
Be thankful for every single good thing in your life, from the ability to get up in the morning to the people who love you most. Be thankful for the existence of language and beauty, of music and food. Write these things down and look at the list often.
Be thankful even for obstacles and challenges, because it is in meeting those that we grow stronger.
Finally, be thankful that you yearn to tell stories. It’s a good thing to have that inner fire. It makes life brighter, and reminds you that you are a human being and not a chair.
So here is a year-end toast to the scribes, the mad ones, the strange breed not content to trudge through life in the tight shoes of the ordinary but who, in Kerouac’s words, burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
May your writing pop ever brighter in 2015! 

36 thoughts on “Make Next Year the Best of Your Writing Life

  1. Jim, great advice. I especially need to work on #3.

    Thanks for all the wonderful teaching moments this past year. They’ve been great. I’ve learned a lot.

    Hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a very successful New Year.

  2. A vision day is exactly what I’m planning for myself over Christmas break. Every December around this time I look forward to getting a chance to breathe and sit down with myself and plan the next year. 2014 had next to no writing in it, but I’ve made some technology changes which should make it easier for me to set at least a minimum daily/weekly word count goal by giving me the ability to write on the go.

    I do love writing in spiral notebooks, but I’m forcing myself to give it up–because then I have to have time to transcribe it, and I simply don’t have transcription time any more. So I finally bit the bullet and got one of those little 2-in-1 laptop/tablet thingies. Too small a screen to work on for hours on end, but small enough to be convenient and portable and take advantage of a few minutes here, a few minutes there.

    Thanks TKZ. Best wishes to all for a wonderful 2015!

  3. If I may…

    One thing I picked up this year (and have to pick back up), was a T.E.D. Talk about goal setting – realistically, as a “doable” habit~ by taking small things and making them a 30 day goal… do whatever it is (or don’t do whatever it shouldn’t be), and make it part of what you do (or don’t) for just 30 days. In that realistic, short-term timeframe, if it’s important, you will make it a habit, something you’ll miss not doing, be it writing first thing in the morning or not watching useless TV at night…This way, in a month, as opposed to saying you have the year to do something, you’re setting a deadline you can meet without being overwhelmed or able to push back (much like my checking in here every morning)

    • G. you reminded me with the useless TV comment–I have no excuse for not writing at least an hour a week because I finally gave up on Hawaii Five-0, which, now in its 5th season, has been subject to some of the most horrific writing I’ve ever seen in a TV show. So much so that I finally threw in the towel.

      But that’s an hour for the writing side. I’ve heard many people mention the T.E.D. talks. I’ll have to look into those.

  4. Excellent post. Goals are written and now taped to the glass of the pictures that surround my desk. Achievable goals and a time frame to reach them.

    Thanks Jim, and a Merry Christmas and Prosperous New Year to yourself and everyone at The Kill Zone. Cheers.

  5. I’ve been working on my goals for 2015, thanks to your latest book, “How to make a living as a writer.” I like the idea of a vision day–I’ve spent time working on my “mission statement” as a writer, but never taken a few hours to look at the big picture.

    What really strikes me here is your comments on having gratitude. Having an “attitude of gratitude” about having the opportunity to write seems fundamental to being happy as a writer. It’s the flip side in a way of expectations. Only where expectations can hold the future hostage, gratitude can set you free to write with passion and abandon in the present.

    I’ll be keeping that foremost in my mind in the coming year.

    That and continuing to hone my craft 😉

    Jim, thanks for this and all the excellent posts you put up here at KZB, as well as your writing books. Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to you and yours, and to everyone here at the Kill Zone!

    • Back at you, Dale, and great point about gratitude being the flip side of expectations. It’s good to have goals and dreams, but keep expectations in check. Do your work daily. As the old saying goes, “All you can do is all you can do, and all you can do is enough.”

  6. “Goals give your dreams walking shoes.” What a great image. It sounds like something my dad would have said. He started every morning making a list of what he was going to accomplish, and went to bed when the last one was crossed off. And he was also good at gratitude, convinced it was more important to be happy with what you have than to struggle for things that might make you happy. So that’s my goal for the year. To try to be more like my dad.

  7. Inspiring, as usual, James.

    1. Book I read recently with a “change your life” theme: Margaret Atwood’s “Lady Oracle.”

    2. Today I took five bags of good clothing to the charity guys. Why was I hanging onto five pairs of black slacks and did my retired husband really need a tux and 55 ties. (The charity guys loved the one with cats in Santa hats).

    3. I am turning off the TV and writing today all day. Which is easier to do now that the Dolphins are dead meat.

    Happy holidays!

  8. Merry Christmas Jim and all of you who blog and respond at TKZ. I’m grateful for each one of you and your thoughts and encouragement all year long even when I don’t respond. I’m all wrapped up in physical therapy this Christmas season after knee surgery on the 5th, so yes I’m grateful I can walk even if it is with crutches.:)

    One thing surgery gives you time to do is think and even write on the good days. I love vision building boards and planning. Life gets in the way sometime of our planning so I would add that we all build in time for the unexpected as we plot and plan for 2015. I just watched, Frozen for the first time this week with my family. So let it go, be one with your words and goals.

  9. What a fantastic way to end the year!! Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year to all of you!! Your blog posts have taught me much this year, can’t wait to view more goodies next year!!

  10. Sigh… Such an inspirational post as we face a New Year. Thanks so much for your sage advice, Jim! Love the taking stock, the looking ahead and making concrete, reachable goals, and the advice on simplifying your life and decluttering – all of which are important goals for me. And we can all benefit from being grateful for what we have. I love these words of yours and am off to share them:

    “Be thankful for every single good thing in your life, from the ability to get up in the morning to the people who love you most. Be thankful for the existence of language and beauty, of music and food. Write these things down and look at the list often.

    “Be thankful even for obstacles and challenges, because it is in meeting those that we grow stronger.

    “Finally, be thankful that you yearn to tell stories. It’s a good thing to have that inner fire. It makes life brighter, and reminds you that you are a human being and not a chair.”

    Good luck with your Story Masters conference – lucky students to have an opportunity to learn from the best! 🙂

  11. I’m really looking forward to my writing life in 2015. This past year I’ve really grown as a writer and author (two different things for me) and I have several projects and goals for the coming year. And thanks so much for reminding me of Meet John Doe (great film) and Walter Brennan (great character actor who stole every scene he was in).

  12. I’ve known all along that I don’t want to be a writer when I grow up. I want to remain in the field of IT, it’s what I do. But I think I’m starting to understand my calling to write a little more. I’m not needing to write fiction. I just needed to express myself more through communication. With that discovery I’ve pursued and been accepted into the Masters of Communication Program at Purdue University and my first class starts in January 2015! Wish me luck.


  13. And a Happy Holidays to you and all our visitors. I need to Simplify so I like that advice. However, the area I’d like to simplify is all my writing projects. Too much going on but they have to get done. Then maybe life can be simpler.

  14. Mr. Scott, what wonderful advice. Thank you so much for posting this.

    I’m going to share the link on the Books and Writers Lit Forum if you don’t mind.

    I’m in the process of querying my epic fantasy and writing the new wip. I read, you can’t do this, you must do that, this isn’t selling, write this way, don’t write that way, never, always. It makes my head explode.

    It’s refreshing to just get back to basics. Set realistic goals. Make them real. Improve your writing and most important, just make it a habit to write and read.

    Wishing you and yours a wonderful new year.

  15. I feel like a bit of an interloper here. I’m just discovering TKZ now, although I have several of your books, Jim – Write Your Novel from the Middle changed everything for me.
    Coming from “down under,” puts me at a disadvantage sometimes; especially when it comes to attending writers’ conventions. They’re few and far between and always seem to be in another state and I hear about them so late it makes them a ‘no-go zone.’
    #3 resonates with me. I so need to de-clutter – especially after moving from a 5-room house with a nice big study to living in two rooms. But I’m grateful it’s two rooms and not my car.
    I’m going to bookmark this post and return to it every day for the next week. I need all the inspiration I can get. Spurs and a whip might come in handy too 🙂

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