The Big Plan
Last year when I was on book tour, I occasionally asked new people I met who were in the process of writing a book to get in touch with me in the future. Together we picked a date or a month. I wanted them to let me know how their work was coming along, and I also thought it would be helpful for them to commit to an end point for their project.
For some people this meant in three months, some in six, some a year. I didn’t hear from everyone about the success of their projects, which is understandable: this year sucked. But when I did, it felt like little bombs I had set to go off with good news. What a pleasure to hear from these young writers, especially in these lonely times, as I struggle on occasion without the regular interaction I get from touring and events. These emails are the best epilogues to a book tour that feels like it happened a hundred years ago.
This past week another email rolled in from a woman I met at an event at The Ruby, a wonderful arts & writing workspace for women and nonbinary creatives in San Francisco. She told she’d made some life changes to enable her writing of the book, had successfully built a practice that supported it, and had finally finished a first draft. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. All I want is for people to get the same kind of joy and fulfillment from writing that I do. That would be my one wish for you all.
And now I am thinking not of New Year’s resolutions (because that always feels like too much pressure, while also being too simplistic), but of how to strategize your long-term projects and recognize your commitment to them. I am speaking to the person who wants to finish things. If making your art feels casual and playful to you, I support your good time. But for those of you who have a professional endgame here, I’m talking to you. It is good to look out at the year ahead of you (although you can do this any time, obviously, because we all know the calendar year is simply an organizing principle that some dude invented a long time ago) and plan a vision for what you want to accomplish. But how to begin?
I know I made fun of calendars mere sentences ago, but there is nothing more effective than picking a date in the distance and making a promise to accomplish something by that date. Your schedule gives your process a spine. I’d suggest not just picking one date, but plotting an entire timeline, a rough estimate of how long you think it will take you to finish each step of the way. Everyone’s breakdown is different, of course. The first three chapters, the first 100 pages, the first two parts of the book, the first draft, the second revision, and so forth. Don’t be afraid to play around with these goals. But then hold yourself to it. Write to the future, write to those deadlines.
There’s something about breaking the big project into parts, too. So that it does not seem like an entire book but instead a series of goals. Eventually it will all have to fit together, and that is part of a different conversation, but if you’re trying to visualize the future, and want to feel like you have a handle on something so you’re not as intimidated going in, these smaller goals put things within reach.
Of course, I am always reassessing those deadlines I set for myself, a week here, a week there. But I reassess to make sure I’m connecting with my goals, whether it’s meeting them, exceeding them, or failing them. I have written before about how nice it is to have an accountability partner, but remember: the person you truly have to answer to is yourself. It is hard to put creativity into a box; we want to daydream, and I support that. But this is about finishing a book. Pick those dates, and shoot for them.
Another way to strategize for a long-term project is to know your skills. Make a list of what you’re good at, where you move quickly on the page. This will help you to assess how long things will take you, and give you a sense of confidence going in to a project, and, in fact, something to look forward to: the times where you can easily succeed.
For me, especially when I’m writing fiction, it usually has to do with identifying certain characters I feel most connected to, the ones who showed up first, usually, who will show me the other characters, too. If I know one better than others, I can see in the distance I need to allot less time for their chapter, or I can use them to fall back on if there’s a lapse in momentum. Or if I can see in the distance I’ll need to write some dialogue, then I can easily assess if it’s going to be a day’s worth of work or two. Characters are my mouthpieces, and I do love to talk.
On the flipside, if I know I will need to do more research on something, I can allow more time for that. I’m a little clunkier when I need to be a journalist. In my memoir, I’ve been working on a few chapters set in foreign cities, and I knew I would have to spend time learning about those places before I could write about them with ease. A chapter set in Palermo where I have only visited a few times would take twice as long as one set in Brooklyn where I lived for sixteen years. But it was good to know where I would struggle. I could start to see how the schedule would roll out on the horizon.
What are your strong suits? What areas will need more consideration? Can you recognize these strengths and weaknesses before you start a project? It’s crucial to go into a project with confidence, knowing when you can rely on yourself without question and when you will need to lean in a bit more to a particular challenge.
And finally: I’d know the whys of your project, as in why you want to work on it, why this story is important, why you are dying to tell it. Perhaps write an entry in your journal on the topic. For me, I need be damn sure I want to invest that much time in a project. Have you already written this letter? Is it time to refer back to it? The project will evolve, inevitably. It will be informed by the days/months/years it takes to write it. The swirl of your life. But that original intention will always matter, even if it is no longer the basis for the project. Because it matters that you cared enough to start something big. It matters that are trying to change your life forever.
Know your schedule, know yourself, and know your intentions. The contemplation of these three things is an excellent place to start — or complete — a project. And this is what I want for you. To finish it.
I’m opening up the comments on this post so you can all share what your writing timeline/goals are for your project. It could be about finishing a first draft, doing a round of revisions, finishing the final short stories in a collection. Or contacting a few agents for the first time. All these things are great goals. So I want you to put it in writing somewhere to strengthen that commitment. My hope is someday you’ll be able to update your comment with good news. We all are craving good news where we can take it.
Here’s to a better new year for us all.
You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). Last week I donated to Treehouse Books and Second Harvest Food Bank.