goal-setting

What’s More Important: Progress or Discipline?

What do you do when your passion for one worthwhile goal edges out your progress on another worthwhile goal?

My goals for March include writing a whole lot of Frobisher and a tiny sample of Hubris Towers.

But Hubris Towers has proven incredibly fun to write, with the result that so far this month I’ve written a whole lot of Hubris Towers and a modest amount of Frobisher. More precisely, I’ve hit a third of my minimum goal for Frobisher, and maybe ten times my stretch goal for Hubris Towers.

That raises an interesting question: Is it more valuable to make fast progress or to stick with the plan?

My guess is most people would vote for fast progress, assuming it’s good-quality progress on a worthwhile task. And there’s a good argument to be made for that. If each of several tasks (say, work on 3 different drafts) will be contributing to your overall goals (say, publishing lots of books), then it stands to reason that the more quantity you can achieve, the sooner you’ll reach your overall goals. If you can write 100 pages of one book instead of 20 of the other, why not go for the easy win, right?

But if you’re dealing with a well-designed long-term strategy I’m going to argue for sticking with the plan. That’s right. Given my March plans, I’d ultimately rather hit 12,000+ words on Frobisher and 500 words on Hubris Towers than 4,000 words on Frobisher and 12,000+ on Hubris Towers, even though it’s adding less to my total word count, and even though it seriously could mean not reaching some of my publishing and financial goals as quickly.

Because in the long term, patterns matter.

Right now any time I choose to write the quick, easy, fun story over the tricky, deep (but fun) story, I’m training myself to do the work that appeals to me in the moment, not the work that is strategically valuable. And I’m training myself to act like the goals and deadlines I set for myself don’t matter.

Every writing project—really any important project you love—is going to hit a point where it gets tricky, where the ideas aren’t flowing as smoothly or the next steps aren’t as much fun as they used to be. A new project or a new system or a quick win can feel like a delightful escape, like you’re finally making real progress again and your work is fun and meaningful.

But every new project will, at some point, start feeling tricky and unglamorous too, and the real key to success lies in that decision point: push through and finish, or start developing the next fun, interesting idea?

In the end I’d rather know that I can keep the promises that I set and that no matter how tricky or complicated or unglamorous a goal feels in the moment, I can reliably push through and deliver anyway.

In the end, I’d rather keep finishing important projects than keep reaching the unglamorous halfway point of fun new ideas.

Hubris Towers: My Secret Master Plan, Mk. I

Ok, so writing Hubris Towers is officially getting addictive. This is my first deep fiction collaboration—working with Bill, who blogs here—and it’s so much fun that I want to give you a behind-the-scenes peek at our process, my personal goals, and some fun new things I’m trying with this project.

Before I go further, a caveat: This is all highly speculative and subject to change. Part of the fun of this project is the freedom to try things out and experiment freely.

Serial Structure

Right now we’re planning on writing episodes of 12.5-15k words each—that’s about 35-45 pages—with eight episodes to a season. That lets us bundle each season into a solid, novel-length book, idea being that we could sell the book at a discount to reward loyal readers who know they’ll read the whole season, while also serving everyone who’s eager and likes a steady drip of new stories as they come out.

It wouldn’t be out of the question to release an episode a month, though for now we’re both sustaining day jobs, families, real lives, and other writing projects, so we’ll see. But even with a slightly slower pace that’s a steady output of a full season each year in steady, snackable chunks.

Our Collaborative Process

Bill and I have been friends for decades. We were friends in grade school in Ankara, Turkey, where we would routinely spend the night at each other’s houses on short notice and spend long hours reading and writing and plotting together, and now we live a few blocks apart in Baltimore, where, along with some other friends, our families have dinner together several times a week and we spend long hours sipping whiskey and reading stories and talking philosophy or theology or writing.

So you could say we’ve got an understanding of one another by now. I pray everyone who’s reading this has or will one day have friends like mine—it’s a massive blessing and one of the most fulfilling parts of my life.

Mushiness aside, here’s how we’ve got the collaborative process set up so far.

We met for a couple big-picture brainstorming sessions to lay out the story concept, setting, and characters. At the last of those meetings we sketched out the overall arc of Season 1, then developed it into paragraph-length summaries of each of the eight episodes, along with a few ongoing hooks and interesting ideas that will take us into Season 2.

I’m great with characters and settings, and my prose skills are pretty solid, but I have always found plots a lot harder to develop. Bill is a veritable fountain of brilliant plot turns and devices. I can say something like “We just need these three impossible things to happen. All at once.” And then he’ll think for a second and lay out a plan for how all three of them can happen at once, with this other clever twist developing in the background. So the plotting went pretty quickly with Bill in the room.

Short version: We had a four-hour meeting where we made each other laugh constantly.

Then Bill expanded Episode 1 into a detailed summary of a few thousand words, say a quarter to a third of the total projected length.

I’ve taken that summary and am fleshing it out into the full draft. We have very compatible senses of humor and are both being pretty unselfish with the plot, so it’s really turning into the best of both worlds. He’ll put all his best ideas in the summary, then I’ll take those, run with them, and add my own. I suspect it’s going to start turning into a sort of contest of trying to make each other laugh out loud. Certainly that’s where it’s going so far.

A Series That Pays Minimum Wage

This is a little ambitious, but I want to see if we can make this a project that pays minimum wage or better on average. Our plan is to keep it light, fun, and fast, and it occurred to me that I can actually track all the time I spend on it and calculate my overall hourly earnings for the project.

With our collaborative process it’s a pretty speedy production cycle, and I bet the serial structure will help us be efficient with post-production and may even net some economies of scale like, say, repeating cover design elements within seasons or bulk purchase of ISBNs.

My part of the planning for Season 1 is basically done, and took about 4 hours. I’ve since maintained an overall average of 15 words per minute composing the draft. If I can maintain that, writing a season of 100,000 words will total around 111 hours of writing time. Let’s add 20 hours to account for post-production. That may seem optimistic, but I’m only counting my own time here. With Bill’s help my time on editing should be minimal, and I think we can get the compiling and publishing down to a science.

I’m going to assume the average reader (who goes on to finish Season 1) buys one standalone episode then gets the full season. With that assumption and a 50/50 income split, some back-of-envelope calculations indicate we’d need a little under 600 readers for me to make minimum wage on this. And that’s not out of the question by any means. If I can bump my speed up to 25 words per minute the minimum-wage point drops below 400 readers. That’s really not out of the question. The Stone and the Song passed 100 sales in its first month and that was just my very first short, preliminary test run, with no product funnels in place and minimal marketing. Hubris Towers will be building on itself over months and will have both Bill’s network and mine drawing readers.

Anyway, that’s all kind of pie in the sky, but it’s fun to think about.

More to the point, at this stage the writing is cracking me up constantly. It’s so much fun I’m stealing time from other projects, even Frobisher, which I love, to write more of Episode 1. I’ve already written about 10 times as much for it as I meant to this month, to the extent that it’s almost becoming a problem. Except not really, obviously. Glee! I can’t wait to unveil it in all its Wodehouse-y (Wodehouse-ish? Wodehomely?) glory. Patience.

Cheers!

—Ben

Measuring Success as an Indie Author

Figuring out when you’ve “made it” as an author can be tricky. Perhaps the easiest measure of success is signing a publishing deal, though in reality that’s far from indicating any lasting literary or financial success. Still, it’s a convenient benchmark.

Unless you have no interest in getting a traditional publishing deal. My goal is to make a full-time living as an author, and, in broad strokes, I’m convinced self-publishing is the best route for that. So I don’t have the convenience of a literary establishment to give legitimacy to my work.

So maybe it’s about sales numbers. But what’s enough? 100 sales per month? 1,000? 10,000? It feels totally arbitrary. There’s always going to be someone selling more than you, and as soon as you’ve sold any books at all you’re in a pretty high percentile among aspiring authors. And there’s such a smooth gradation in between that I don’t think I’d be satisfied by reaching any particular number; it would just be time to bump the number up and start again.

Same goes for income. I do have a specific target income in mind that would allow me to quit my day job and write full time, but even there, how long do I need to sustain that income before it’s justified to make the leap? And who says that means I’ve made it? If I give in and write crappy 30,000-word self-help books with SEO’d titles that will sell like hotcakes and get me there faster have I really won at writing?

Is it enough for my family to barely scrape by on my writing income, or do we have to be marginally comfortable and secure before I’m really successful? Or do I need to be able to buy nice things or rent an office or something? Past a certain point, income is just another number. No, my financial goal just marks when I get to go full-time, not whether I’m succeeding as a writer.

In the end, I have settled on two measures of success. To measure my success as a writer, I always turn back to this:

1. Am I crafting worthwhile stories and ideas that only I can put into the world?

2. Did I substantially add to my word count today?