Goals, Discipline, and Doctor Who

>> Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Wendi and I are fond of making lists--shopping lists, travel lists, home improvement to-do lists, favorites lists--but if there is one thing we are positively pros at, it's making career goals lists. We make them all the time, and we used to not stick to them for too long, primarily because we got great new ideas, and went off in other directions. In terms of embracing our creative spirits, it was a fun thing to release something old and replace it with something new. But in a practical sense, switching horses in the middle of the race meant we very rarely ever made the finish line.

It was almost twelve years ago now that I made one of the most important goal decisions of my life. We we living in Cincinnati, where Wendi had a good corporate job in children's book buying and I had the art department lackey job they gave spouses to keep both parties mollified. (At least it wasn't the warehouse lackey job.) I didn't mind--I was happy for Wendi to bring home the bacon, and I didn't plan on working for The Man too much longer anyway. I was going to be a writer, you see.

And I was writing. A lot. I wrote comic book scripts, and television scripts, and still did some freelance radio commercial work. I was writing plays too--half a dozen or so for a Knoxville community theater. I even started kicking around some middle grade and young adult novel ideas, inspired by the terrific galleys Wendi was bringing home from work.

One night we were sitting around making career goal lists, as we are wont to do, and I said to Wendi, "Why can't I get any traction here? Why can't I get over the hump and sell something and become a professional writer?" Wendi's response: "Stop trying to have ten different writing careers. Pick one that pays, finish something, then send it out. Then do that again and again until somebody buys something."

Writing it out, here and now, it's absurdly simple and obvious. (When I tell this story on school visits, I often simplify Wendi's answer further to just "Finish something.") But when you're creative, you often can't rein in your impulses. You read a great comic? You want to write comics. See a great movie? You want to be a screenplay writer. Same for television, plays, books. Wendi isn't immune to it either: one day she'll want to make dolls, the next she'll want to run an online kids store, the next she'll want to design fabric. With rare exceptions (like my random, crazy ideas to go back to school for computer programming, or fashion design) our dreams hover around particular skill sets--writing for me, designing for Wendi.

But while you can occasionally get lucky with a shotgun approach--trying lots of different writing formats, for example, and then going with whichever one you manage to find success in--the percentage play is to pick one thing and stick with it. Not only will you get stronger at your chosen field faster, you'll also be able to build on your successes and failures in a more steady way. A good rejection letter on one novel (and yes, there is such a thing as a good rejection letter) may lead to a good acceptance letter on your next project. It's all a matter of picking a goal, working hard at it, and not giving up.

Which also means not getting distracted. I never once gave up on a dream because I didn't want the dream. It's just that, in the moment, I wanted something else more. But success has everything to do with dreaming big and then pursuing that dream, often to the exclusion of everything else. Achieving your dream may lead you down other paths--I know novelists who have later gotten to take cracks at writing screenplays and comics based on their books--but first you have to find that initial, singular success.

So I chose to punt everything else--all the TV scripts and comics and plays and screenplays--and go for a career as a children's book writer. And since 1998, I've been pretty good about keeping the blinders on. For me, at least. In truth, there have been lots of distractions and digressions. But for almost twelve years now, I've made writing novels for kids my priority. And it worked. I have a career as a kidlit novelist. Sometimes I have to repeat that to myself, just to believe it. I have a career as a novelist! I still shake my head at the wonder of it.

Now that I have that career, I want to both maintain it and build it. So, as we are wont to do, Wendi and I put our heads together after the new year and set out brand new career goals for ourselves. Not goals for new careers--new goals for the careers we're already cultivating. Here's my five year goal list, followed by my one year goal list:

Five Year Plan (Deadline: January 27, 2015)

- Publish at least 4 Newbery-caliber middle-grade novels
- Break into picture book writing
- Double my writing income
- Become a frequent attendee at lit conferences
- Become a frequent attendee at genre conventions
- Become more connected in the kidlit community
- Read more in my field
- Lose 30 pounds

One Year Plan (Deadline: January 27, 2011)

- Read one writing craft book per quarter
- Make every 2 out of 3 books I read be middle grade
- Praise one friend's book on Amazon each month
- Sell League of Seven
- Sell Nemo
- Write League of Seven first draft
- Write Nemo second draft
- Sell one short story
- Sell one picture book
- Interview one kidlit author each month on blog
- Feature one bookstore on my blog each month
- Develop one new MG proposal
- Lose 30 pounds and keep it off

It is a guarantee that I will not make that last one, although I've been a regular on Wii Fit for a month. I would not place cash money on the prospect of that continuing though.

There are some other ambitious goals on these lists too--doubling my writing income in five years, breaking into picture book writing--but no good career goal list should be without challenge, both professionally and creatively.

What neither goal list includes, you'll note, is writing a pitch for a Doctor Who audio adventure.

Good career goal lists focus you. You can hold up every shiny new thing that comes along ("Oh! Project Runway is back on! I want to spend seven hours a week writing up previews!") against your list of yearly goals to see how they fit in ("Oh man, I really should be using that time to blog bookstore profiles and interviews with authors instead.") Creative people often have trouble making decisions about which creative opportunities to pursue, but a well-crafted career goal list makes those decisions for you. No, I can't drive three hours to do a free appearance at your conference; no, I can't write a Firefly fanfic novel and put it online for free. I have goals to reach, and though I would enjoy both of those things, and want to do them, they don't fit in with my goals.

So two weeks ago, when my friend Brian McNamara forwarded me the PDF announcing a brief window where Big Finish would be reviewing pitches from new writers for Doctor Who audio adventures, I of course immediately put up a hand and said, "Oh no. I would love to do that, but I'm on deadline for my work-in-progress, and besides, writing a Doctor Who audio adventure is not going to get me any closer to my kidlit goals. Good day to you, sir."

Or at least I should have.

What I said instead was, "Oh my giddy aunt, I want to do this so bad. It's only a 25-minute script, and all they want is a 500-word synopsis and two pages of sample script. How long would that take me? A couple of hours?"

I knew it was wrong to even consider it, and I felt so guilty after all the serious talk at our annual Gratz Industries planning committee meeting about staying focused and achieving ambitious goals, that I did not tell Wendi that I wanted to do it. I couldn't! I was sure she would shake her head and tsk at me. Wendi doesn't really do that, of course. She never has. She has always been supportive, and realistic, but never a nag or a task-master--perhaps because she too knows the siren call of that new and shiny dream that dashes existing goals upon its rocky shores. To her I had unfairly assigned my own inner overseer.

So of course after spending every free minute for two weeks thinking of a story to pitch, I finally confessed my sins to Wendi two days before the deadline in a rush: "I-know-I-shouldn't-even-be-thinking-about-it-but-I-am-and-the-deadline-is-tomorrow-at-midnight-and-all-I-have-is-an-idea-but-no-plot-and-no-title-and-I-need-help."

And Wendi's answer was, "Of course you want to do it. Tell me your idea and we'll figure it out."

It took two days of constant work (not the two hours I had foolishly let myself think it would take) to hammer out the story and then write what I hope are an intriguing yet concise summary and two pages of properly-formatted, engaging script. At ten o'clock p.m. Sunday, about five hours before the 9 a.m. London deadline, I e-mailed "The Monster Monks of Il Torrino" to Big Finish, and heaved a sigh of relief. It was time to sheepishly lash myself back to the mast of my goal list and get back to the real work of furthering my children's book career. I had not exactly done a good job of ignoring the sirens this time. In fact, I had pulled the wax from my ears and enthusiastically gone leaping overboard.

But sometimes I want to hear the sirens, damn it. They sing very pretty songs.


Tavey February 2, 2010 at 10:37 AM  

Thank you. I mean seriously. Thank you. I ignore that siren call far too often, being rooted in duty a bit too deeply for my own good.

It's actually inspiring to see another perspective.

Of course, you can never tell anyone I said that. They'd never let you live it down.

Bright Blessings and I think you may have made my already brilliant day.


Alan Gratz February 2, 2010 at 10:43 AM  

As important as it is to have goals, and to stay focused on them as much as possible, I think every now and then we HAVE to listen to the siren call. For our own sanity. We just can't let it pull us too far off course.

tanita davis February 2, 2010 at 11:26 AM  

Oh, WOW, a Dr. Who episode!!!!!!

You are extraordinarily gifted to be able to even visualize the mayhem of one of those shows from a-z. I really wish you the best of luck with that -- what an awesome reason to take out the wax and listen to the sirens!

Good luck on that one year plan, especially that last bit. Jane Yolen just lost forty pounds, and she's way older than us... this should somehow encourage us, but somehow just makes me cranky. I suppose that's some sort of motivation in itself...

R.J. Anderson February 3, 2010 at 11:33 AM  

I came here from Twitter expecting nothing more than an inspirational post about developing one's writing career, and what did I get? Unexpected Peter Davison! AWESOME.

Personally, I think the moral of this essay is that you should stay focused on a single, sensible, related set of goals *except* if somebody gives you the chance to do anything related to DOCTOR WHO, in which case just go crazy, because DOCTOR WHO is the best thing ever.

Alan Gratz February 3, 2010 at 2:29 PM  

@ R.J.: Agreed. That is now an addendum to all goal lists.

The brief called for a Fifth Doctor and Nyssa adventure, which, if produced, would be read by Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton. How cool would that be!? Well worth putting things on hold for a couple of days.

Here's hoping they call me back and ask me to write the whole thing...

Leeann February 3, 2010 at 2:39 PM  

Great post, Alan. I can relate to so much of it. Good luck in achieving your goals!

Shauna February 3, 2010 at 7:33 PM  

Thank you so much for this. I am often frustrated by my inability to focus on one path. I waver back and forth so frequently I feel like, while moderately good at many things, I will never be outstanding at ANYTHING.

But I'm going to save this little piece... I think reading it every time I feel a little stir crazy for change might help me stay on track at least a little bit better :)

Britt Kaufmann February 3, 2010 at 7:55 PM  

Shauna, apparently I am your long-lost twin. O, that I could finish a project and get it published!

Thanks for the great post Alan, though I think I'm in need of the beeswax more than anything else... But you know, I could probably make some really cool candles out of the beeswax too...

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