When You Don’t Meet Your Goals

So NaNoWriMo was in the month of November. Show of hands, who participated? Who is close to completing the goal? For me, yes on the first and no on the second.

Unfortunately, while I participated in NaNo this month, I was not able to complete my goal. I am not going to be able to reach 50k unless something really drastic happens. I was on track for much of the month, though, and I did write over 30k, which is still the most I’ve ever done.

And I have to admit I’m disappointed in myself. I feel like I let myself down. I feel like I let my fiance down, since he was rooting for me so much to reach my goal. And worst of all, I feel like I let my dream down.

So what happened?

Very simply: life.

Long version: I was on track, then I had a friend visit for a few days, so I was entertaining instead of completing my writing. Then I went home for Thanksgiving. Then I was in South Carolina for the weekend. And by that point, I was hopelessly behind, even though I did try to catch up when I could.

Now, this is the second time I have attempted NaNo. Last time I made it to 14k before I called it quits. That time, it was an intensely stressful month and the onset of a depressive episode that blocked by path. This time, it was poor planning. But I still got closer than last time.

So how do we handle it when we don’t meet our goals? Here are some tips that I’m trying to keep in mind and might help you also.

1.  Acknowledge how you feel. Don’t try to bury your anger or guilt or sadness or whatever other emotion developed from you failing to reach your goal. It’s okay to feel. Let yourself feel it. Just don’t let yourself stay there and sit in the mud.

2. Evaluate what happened. Take stock of the situation. What prevented you from reaching your goal? Where did it come from? Be realistic: was it preventable?

3. Cut yourself some slack. Don’t beat yourself up for failing. If you really tried, then you still accomplished something that hadn’t been done before. In the case of NaNo, if you wrote at all, you still added words that didn’t exist before November. Just because you didn’t finish the entire goal doesn’t mean you deserve to feel like crap about it. Life happens. Things happen. We mess up or get lazy or have too much to do. It’s okay. Accept it for what it is and strive to do better as best you can.

4. Create an action plan. After you figure out what prevented you from reaching your goal, set up a way to reach your next goal. For example, since I didn’t complete NaNo this year but still want to, I will alter my approach next year. I will weight the writing at the beginning of the month so that I have the room to spare at the end, when holidays and life really get in the way. If illness got in the way for you, like it did for me last time, make a plan to address it. If it can’t be resolved or won’t be resolved for a time, create a plan to cope and fit your writing in around it. Remember: your health always, always comes first.

5. And most of all, don’t give up. Yes, failure can feel very personal and devastating. Don’t use it as an excuse to throw in the towel. Pick up your manuscript and keep working on it. Just keep putting those words one after another, and you’ll get through it. Don’t stop writing, and don’t give in to whatever negative emotions come up.

There you have it: advice for the writing failures in your life. I hope this list of tips is helpful to you. For now, I’m going to shift back to my own writing now. I might not be able to complete the 50k this month, but I can do my best to get close.

Happy writing!

The Power of Writing on a Schedule

There are so many things I could say about this. But today, as I was trying for the millionth time to catch up on my NaNoWriMo word count, I had a moment of realization.

Let me back up for a minute. This morning I had been driving to work when an old story paid me a visit. It was a story I had so much enthusiasm for at one time, but I never made it very far because it was a bit outside of my usual genre… definitely more on the thriller side than the fantasy side, even though there is potential magic at work. So after 14 single-spaced pages, I had closed it up and walked away.

Well, the main character came back to me. Cara Ebner, a girl with a pretty tragic past and some crazy happenings in her current life. A girl from my own life, one with Pennsylvania Dutch (German) roots, a rural upbringing, and a brain for science. A girl finding herself at college and alone for the first time ever. She didn’t remain alone for long, since she was befriended by a sweet English major named Bronte Celestin, a smart girl who was born in Louisiana but moved to Ohio at a young age (more I don’t really know how to write… never been to Louisiana, and I never wrote a woman of color quite like her before, and it scared me to mess it up).

I loved and still love this story. But there was so much that was challenging, I moved on to other projects. But this morning, Cara was whispering in my ear. “Where’d you go?” she crooned. “I need resolution!”

“But your title was just taken by a published book,” I tried.

“There are other titles.”

I didn’t even need to think that hard to come up with a new title I loved, and I love it way more than the original title. I’ll refrain from sharing it here, at least this early. But just like that, my interest was reignited. I still want to write the story of Cara, of her first experience in college, of the things that haunt her.

And this is my realization. This is one of the secrets of NaNo that not everyone notices. When you write consistently and on a schedule like I have been all month, you just want to write more. You’re never satisfied with where you are; you see where your current story is going, you see the next story, you see how to fix the last story.

I was feeling pretty discouraged when this all started, that I wasn’t a writer worth anything and that perhaps I should give up on storytelling. But now, with one draft awaiting the end of its resting time before edits, one draft being hacked at with huge chunks falling off every day, and one draft waiting in the wings, I feel like I have more passion to keep going than I did in the last three years.

Let’s do this, writer friends.

The Writer’s Support System

Let’s face it: writing can be a solitary and lonely activity. It’s easy to let yourself get sucked into your world and forget about what exists around you or to become so involved in the process of writing and publishing that you forget about people who can help you. And it can be incredibly discouraging and disheartening; our lives are filled with rejections.

My friends, it doesn’t have to be this way, and, quite honestly, it’s better if it isn’t. For your health and your stories.

Writers need other people. Why? Here are a few of the biggest reasons.

1. Writers need teachers. Even the ones we consider masters of writing, like Stephen King or Anne Lamott, will tell you this. We all need teachers. We instruct and inform each other, we can make each other better writers. We can learn so much about our storytelling, our writing flaws, and our writing strengths if we just take the time to ask other writers.

2. Writers get stuck in their heads. If you made it into the querying minefield already, you might be more familiar with this feeling than most. We’re constantly surrounded by comparison: what books you compare your manuscript to, what authors you know have gotten offers, how well your story is told compared to similar ones, how many offers or requests you receive compared to your friends or the average… it’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.

3. Writers need encouragement. Because of reason number two, we might need a bit more encouragement than the average person. This is often because of our creative natures: we strive for perfection and beat ourselves up when we can’t reach it. And, like I mentioned above, our professional lives are filled with rejection.

So now that we know why we need a support system, what exactly is it?

A support system is a network of friends, family, and professionals tailored to meet specific needs. In our case, it should be our professional network of agents, publishers, and authors we have met and corresponded with, our family (but not always), and both writer and non-writer friends. Let’s break down the roles of each of these spokes on the wheel.

Professional networks. Now, these people aren’t directly your support system, but they can certainly provide you with industry relevant advice. When it’s appropriate to do so, you can seek out answers to questions or knowledge they might be able to share with you. You can even simply follow these professionals on your social media outlet of choice; their feeds tend to be full of gems of wisdom for your professional development.

Family. This one can be tricky and really varies from person to person. Family, theoretically, should be the people who support and encourage you and your dreams no matter what they are or how difficult they are to achieve. Realistically, this doesn’t always happen. It can be hard for them to understand, especially if you plan on making writing your career. And family doesn’t always act like family. But if it is possible, and if they at least understand enough to do this, lean on them for emotional support when the writing gets tough. And if you can’t do that, lean on your friends.

Non-writer friends. This is very similar to family. Just like family, they might not be the most supportive, even to the extent of thinking you’re wasting time. But on the other hand, some of these friends will be your biggest cheerleaders, and these are important people to have behind you. If you’re struggling with an idea or comparing yourself or your work to something else, talk to them and allow them to build you up again.

Here’s a couple examples for you: when I was writing my first novel, the one currently being posted at Wattpad, I hit so many blocks of where I was going. One of my closest friends, a non-writer, had so much enthusiasm for my project! We talked about it so much, and ultimately, she was one of the key people who helped me finish it. Talking to her really helped me regain joy in my project and work through difficult scenes.

Writer friends. These are the people who really understand, the ones who know the process and understand the intense emotional swings that go along with it. They get it when you have writer’s block, when you think your story isn’t good enough, when you are ready to throw in the towel and quit writing forever (but let’s be honest, we’d never actually be able to do that). They are the ones who can realistically, with understanding and a no-guff attitude, push you toward your dreams.

So just how important is the support system of a writer? Here’s an example: last night, I found myself nearly three days behind in NaNoWriMo. That’s 1667 words per day that I didn’t write. It felt like too much. It was overwhelming, and I was about to give up. Then my fiance, another non-writer but active advocate for this story in particular, pushed me to sit down and pound out the words. He knew how much writing meant to me and how much I wanted to finally be able to complete NaNo. Because of him, I got over 3000 words down within two hours. Without him, I would have quit. I feel like I have a good person on my side to get me to the end of NaNo with enough words.

So I implore you, fellow writers. Find your support systems, and hold onto them for all they’re worth. If your current support system drags you down or discourages you, find new people to inject life and excitement to your writing life. Don’t discuss your writing life with negative people. We have enough negativity for our own work; we don’t need to hear it from someone who’s supposed to be on our side.

So how about you? Tell me about your support system and your greatest writing advocates!

The Comparison Conundrum

So today I got an email.

Nothing special there, right? I mean, I get at least a hundred emails per day, mostly because of my problem with subscribing to too many author newletters. But this email wasn’t one of those. No, it was a Goodreads email, a monthly YA newsletter.  I scrolled through like normal, then I got to an author profile. “Oh, cool!” I thought to myself. “This is kinda like me. PhD student to writer.”

I kept reading. Not only was this person a PhD student, but she wrote her debut novel while at MIT. Awesome for her! But it didn’t stop there. She was a neuroscientist.

I stopped reading, and all my feelings changed. Instead of the connection and interest I had felt at seeing someone like me, it shifted to jealousy and a case of “why not me?”

You see, I wrote my first novel (well, my first completed and polished novel) while I was in grad school. For neuroscience. But unlike her, no one offered to represent my book. It sat in the query spiral for two to three years before I finally decided to pull it and publish it on Wattpad (you can read it here. I’m publishing it in serial form, which you can read about here).

Let me tell you, it is not a good feeling to see someone like you, only better (at least in your mind), succeeding at your dream. And not only that, but she used her science, like me, to influence her writing. I felt like my identity as a writer had been stolen.

Side note: if we, as writers, are truly honest with ourselves, jealousy is a very real issue that we all face at some point in our careers. It’s okay to feel jealous, as long as you don’t act inappropriately because of it and as long as you strive to get past it.

Here’s where the comparison gets deadly. It would be so easy for me to just quit trying at this point, to say that my voice can’t possibly matter because someone like me did better. To say that my voice has already been heard.

But that isn’t true. Even if you find an author similar to you, who did the things you did, even if they seemingly did better at it, that doesn’t mean your voice shouldn’t be heard or that you aren’t succeeding at life. It also doesn’t mean that their story is the same, and by its very nature, that means your storytelling is different.

Success is relative, my friends. For me, grad school was a monster with teeth and poison, and I had to deal with that while pulling myself out of it and completing my degree. That severely and negatively impacted not only my health but also my productivity and creativity. But I graduated, and at that time, that was a huge success.

I found a science job I love, and I excel at it. That is also success.

I love to write. I’ve written a total of four complete novels in the last five years and have polished, cleaned, and queried one of them. I’ve entered two short story contests and was a finalist in one (the other one is still pending).

This is my success, and all of these things are my story. No one else has exactly my story, though it’s the relatability of my story that can connect to others.

I love to write and I keep sharing it with others. Putting my dream into perspective, that’s what I wanted all along. I wanted to share my work, to make connections with people. And I’m doing that. Yes, I also want to be a published author, so very much, but just because the book I queried wasn’t right for the publishing world at this time doesn’t mean it’s a bad book or that I’m a bad writer. On the contrary, I’ve gotten a number of compliments on my writing and on that book, from beta readers, other writers, and industry professionals. As writers, we need to separate our ability and skill from the publishing market, because the market is fickle and relies on what the publishers decide is marketable…not on how good a book is.

I know it’s hard to avoid, but comparison is the killer of dreams. Once you start going down that alley, it’s a quick spiral into “not good enough”s and “why bother”s.

But here’s the truth of it: no matter what someone else has done, no one else can tell your stories that way you can. And no one should. Don’t let self-doubt and criticism and jealousy win. Write. Listen to the criticism of others. Rejoice in the success of others. Let your doubt make you more determined, and let your voice be one well-regarded and respected among your peers, no matter how well you are achieving your dreams. Don’t give up on those dreams.

Keep writing, and keep telling the stories the way only you can.