Where do you want to be next year as a writer? That’s the question I asked myself last November, and it led me to the most serious career planning I’ve done. Looking back at the people I’ve connected with, the works completed, and the contests and workshops I’ve participated in, I see strong accomplishments.
I’m back to planning, and I’m going to share my process here. There’s nothing absolute about my approach. Take from it what works for you and leave the rest. And, as you develop your plans, limit the time you’ll invest. It is all too easy to get distracted and take too much time away from actual writing. As a rule of thumb, commit to dedicating no more that 1% of the time set aside to this sort of career planning. Intend to spend 400 hours writing next year? Spend four hours planning.
Brainstorm - Who do you want to be as a writer? A novelist who publishes a book once a year? A showrunner for a TV series? A speechwriter? Someone who writes tentpole features? The family memoirist? You get to decide. And dream big. The impossible may become possible or you may come up with an alternative. My answer was showrunner, which led to plans to create a fiction podcast series, which led to a search for actors, which led to an invitation to join a Web Series writing team. Reach high and be creative. (It might be useful to review my six-part Write Who You Are series.)
Review Your Projects - Some people never have more than one going. I try to keep to one new project and one dedicated revision. But your projects (completed) can tell you a lot about what you like, what you don’t, where you’re strong, where you’re not, and the themes, genres, and media you connect with. Your review (which can include your work in progress, your unfinished works, your completed works and your concepts of interest) will point directly to the content that you should feature in your work and suggests the form (feature film script, stage play, short story, etc.).
Review Your Opportunities - Assignments, spec work, volunteer work, conferences, workshops, contests, and courses all represent specific investments in your time, often with defined deadlines and budget items.
Evaluate Your Options Strategically - If you know where you want to end up, you can form a strategy that includes current opportunities, opportunities that might be created (through education, achievements, and contacts), possible pathways, and areas of exploration. The last is aimed at creatively learning more so the scope of opportunities can be expanded. For me, strategy is more Zen than setting goals. (Just as the Zen archer seeks to master the elements — stringing the bow, nocking the arrow, drawing the string, aiming, etc. — I look toward mastering project selection and concept development and building a synergistic portfolio.) I find scoring options and force ranking them to be helpful.
Evaluate Your Options Tactically - One thing leads to another. Sometimes a collaboration is less about the project than about the relationships. Providing a peer with feedback sharpens critiquing skills, but it also can build your reputation. My whole career got kicked off with a review written for a give-away newspaper. That credit led to others, making me less of a risk for future editors. Again, you may wish to score these options and force rank them, though here the latter will be more subtle. I think of tactical efforts as the mortar between the bricks of strategic efforts.
Make Your Project Choices - By now, a lot of options will be eliminated based on scores and your ambitions. There will still be some that don’t make obvious sense but are alluring. Put all (well, maybe all but one) of these aside. These can be kept in reserve in case you complete your main tasks or they popped up because your intuition was smarter than your brain. In all probability, none of these will claim spaces on your calendars in the near future. A few may find spots in the coming years.
But… now that your list is much shorter, you need to decide what will claim your time in the coming year. It is valuable to have definite criteria for your choices. (It may be useful to review my four-part series on Decision Making for Writers. I recently found the article How to Make a Big Decision, and I recommend it as well.) If you have no other criteria, here are my big three: Payment, Portfolio, and Passion. Well paying projects tend to edge other things off the list. Projects that enhance my writing Portfolio are also prioritized. And Passion? Well, if you can’t do projects that get your juices flowing, why are you writing?
List Your Tasks - There is some real work here. Break down the projects into specific tasks. This means going beyond, say, “rewriting,” to reach details like articulate content in each scene, identify story beats, correct spelling, read text aloud, etc. Tasks, by the way, include writing up loglines and pitches, researching markets, analyzing comparable works, and more. As you go for a comprehensive list of task (and it’s likely many will not occur to you in your first try), estimate the time required to complete each of them. Estimate high. I like to add 50% to my optimistic times.
Build Your Calendar - Block out already committed time from your calendar. None of that is accessible. Then look toward any deadlines in your top priority project. Get these on the calendar and block out the time you need for each task that must be completed before those deadlines. Move onto the second priority project, and do the same. Third, same. Etc. You may find that some projects are undoable (or don’t fit into the year’s schedule). Be flexible. Adjust. But don’t make things impossible for yourself. Triage is your friend.
Identify Triggers - Sometimes you get a yes. Sometimes you get a “please revise.” Sometimes, a credential or a course or a meeting with an influential person is on the horizon. I keep a list of these and add to it throughout the year. Imagined new opportunities can become real and trigger a plan revision (or the execution of Plan B). The more you can anticipate these, the more you can make of them. I blocked out 2018 days for a conference I never made, but I also blocked out days for one I thought would never happen, but did.
Be Generous with Yourself - Life gets in the way. Sickness, unexpected expenses, family duties, power outages, and more can disrupt your plans. So don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get everything done. Life can be like that. In the midst of demands, commit to keeping some writing time to yourself. (I have recommended 15 minutes a day, five days a week to even the most harried and that seems to be both doable and valuable. It keeps you in the game.)
On the other hand, be ready for good things. Consider a stretch goal. Mine that list of alluring projects if time permits.
In my case, some of my plan went away because I said yes to good things I’d hoped for but saw as unlikely and, in some cases, I hadn’t even imagined. It’s not a bad problem to have.
Don’t expect to have everything, no matter how well-planned, go as expected. As Helmuth van Moltke (more or less) said, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Next year’s plan will be better because of the lessons of this year.
The most fundamental advice? Finish something and submit, even if it’s only 1,000 words long.