2015 Annual Review

By JT Ellison

For the past several years, I’ve been doing annual reviews of my life and work, based on the format from Chris Guillebeau’s wonderful Annual Review on his blog, The Art of Non-Conformity. Chris’s system is exceptionally detailed, more so than I really need, but the gist is there. It’s a great system for those of us who are self-employed and want to do an assessment of our work for the year. I don’t know about you, but I like accountability. I like the feeling of accomplishment I get when I look back over the past year’s worth of work and see what worked, and what didn’t. Here’s the link to the actual post. Go on over there and take a read. I’ll wait. And if you’re interested, here are the links to my previous annual reviews for 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

2015 will go down in history as possible the wildest year I have ever had. The harvest was abundant — several years of writing manifested in multiple new releases, and those releases got onto the interwebs and bred. They had book babies and short story babies, resulting in multiple blog posts and nominations. Television shows appeared out of thin air. Websites sprang from nothing. New deals were struck, travel was abundant, my staff doubled (from zero to one, ha!). It was an incredible year.

There’s only one problem.

2015 was supposed to be my Year of No.

Here’s what I set forth as my goal last year. You’ll see immediately why I say I sort of messed it up.

2015 is the year I will begin setting real boundaries for myself. As much as I love to say yes, it’s beginning to hurt me. I need to back off traveling for conferences, back down my non-fiction writing, focus more on fiction and being creative at home. I need to work to be more present and more internal – journaling and exercising and meditating regularly. Finding a real writing schedule, the discipline to stick to it, and continue growing great relationships with my readers and fans. Hiring out more professional/business tasks to allow me a deeper focus on my fiction. Be more present, be more creative, read more books, do more yoga, spend more time with friends, and continue working toward my mantra – calm, kind, graceful, focused, strong. And make sure to have more queso dates.

Instead, it became, as we jokingly called it, the Year of Go.

There was a section of time when I was home for exactly 10 days out of 45. Too much away time, for sure. But even so, I will admit I absolutely achieved a number of my 2015 goals. I feel like my personal and professional connections were deepened this year. And sometimes, especially for an introvert, the quality of your interactions is paramount.

What Went Right

All in all, 2015 was a brilliant year. So many great things happened that to list them all would keep you here longer than necessary, so I’m only going to hit the high points.

I released two original novels (WHAT LIES BEHIND and THE END GAME); released two paperbacks (THE LOST KEY, WHAT LIES BEHIND); started a publishing house, Two Tales Press, which published 10 short stories and three ebundles; was asked to host a rebooted version of A WORD ON WORDS for Nashville Public Television and got to interview a bevy on incredible authors; and rebooted my own wine recommendations with an awesome site called THE WINE VIXEN.

WHAT LIES BEHIND and THE END GAME were both nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award and for the Silver Falchion from Killer Nashville. THE END GAME got starred reviews in Booklist and Publishers Weekly, and WHAT LIES BEHIND received a starred Booklist review and a RT Top Pick! And THE LOST KEY was in the top ten on the New York Times bestseller list for 5 weeks. (For these honors in and of themselves, I fall down with gratitude. Holy cow!)

I am surrounded by incredible people. My team has grown this year — Amy, first and foremost, became my full-time assistant in August, after 8 months as a part-time wunderkind. She is more than an assistant; she is also my business manager and co-publisher. I couldn’t do any of this without her. My dear friends at Writerspace help us communicate ALL THE THINGS, and my designer, Kim Killion, has done an outstanding job on branding, delivering gorgeous book covers and logos. My dear agent continues to be my most trusted advisor, and I’m blessed to have four incredible editors at four houses. Catherine and I are having more fun that should be allowed with Nicholas and Mike — I even took a nice research trip to Venice for the newest title.

I also signed new deals for multiple new books with multiple houses. So basically, I have some serious job security right now, which is really the only thing you an ask from a writing career.

What Went Wrong

Well, several things. Because of all the travel, harvesting the bounty of writing years past, I decided to take a few months off from writing. Wow. That was a mistake. Even though I wrote during that time, in trying to refill my well, I lost the habit, lost the focus I’ve always had, and had one heck of a time getting it back. Writing is like running in that way — when you stop training for the marathon, you can easily backslide. To get myself back in gear, I ended up taking a course in productivity, and I feel like I’m back on track.

Never again.

Nerdology – AKA The Nitty Gritty

My word count goal for this year was 200,000, and I met and exceeded it. So hey, a goal achieved! But as I mentioned, I didn’t write every day, or even every week, and I am feeling the strain of that. It’s not that I didn’t write — I did. I finished THE END GAME, wrote half of a new standalone novel, and wrote half of THE DEVIL’S TRIANGLE. I did edits on FIELD OF GRAVES (formerly knows as CROSSED) and NO ONE KNOWS. I heavily edited 9 short stories to get them ready to publish through Two Tales Press, and wrote a brand new novelette, THE OMEN DAYS. I could have done more, and next year, I will.

I spent a lot of time on the road. I attended my very first ComicCon in San Diego (total blast) and hopped a plane from there directly to ThrillerFest in New York (also fun). I did a small tour for WHAT LIES BEHIND, including a stop at FoxTale Book Shoppe in Georgia (which was a blast), a lovely night with wine and friends at Parnassus, and a delightful visit to Reading Rock. I also attended the Southern Kentucky Bookfest, and went on an extensive research trip to Paris and Italy.

In September, I attended my first Novelists, Inc. conference, which was very eye opening. I went to get a solid footing into indie publishing, and while I was there, I ended up changing my mind about where I wanted to go career-wise and did a new deal with my longtime publisher, Mira Books, which allows me to resurrect my Taylor Jackson series and write more Samantha Owens novels. I can’t tell you how excited I am by this. Around this time, I also signed up to do two more Nicholas Drummond books with Catherine, and the series is moving to Gallery, which is where my standalone NO ONE KNOWS lives.

I am beyond blessed in how my career is shaking out right now. My agent and I spent a lot of time in 2013 and 2014 putting irons in the fire to broaden my literary reach and, somehow, all of them caught and erected a roaring blaze. Everything I’ve been dreaming of has come to fruition, and now is when I buckle down and write all these new books.

As for non-fiction, I hosted 26 authors for “7 Minutes With… Interviews” on the Tao of JT, wrote 14 essays for the blog, compiled 14 newsletters, and in general, grew all the social media platforms I’m on.

And a large part of that due to the influence and hard work of awesome Amy. My co-publisher (Two Tales Press), co-blogger (The Wine Vixen), business manager (JTEllison.com), assistant extraordinaire — whatever role she plays, she does with aplomb, good humor, and unflagging enthusiasm. The reason my personal email numbers shot through the roof was because of our correspondence, and it’s the reason my non-fiction number decreased, as well. But in the vein of “if you build it, they will come,” Amy was the reason everything shook out the way it did this year. Because of her, I was able to resurrect my weekly wine recommendations, because she built a gorgeous website, The Wine Vixen, to house the recommendations, and she expanded it to include her white wine reccys. She is also the co-publisher of Two Tales Press, where we’re publishing all of my independent fiction and non-fiction that doesn’t fit with the traditional world. Great fun. But more importantly, I am able to move my focus to my fiction, and the other business aspects are run by her capable hands. Which makes social networking FUN again!

And in the most unexpected of all, Nashville Public Television tapped me to co-host a reboot of A WORD ON WORDS. I’ve written at length about how this came about and how cool it is to continue the great John Seigenthaler’s literally tradition. So now I have a TV show, too. (Yes, I am giggling. I know. Me and cameras and a fear of public speaking? I’m so glad I said yes. Who knew how fun it would be?)

I think the most important thing I take away from 2015 is this:

I’m not nearly as afraid of things as I thought I was. I can do anything I put my mind to. And that’s a powerful realization.

All in all, 2015 was astounding. I can’t wait to see what 2016 brings.

2015 Word Total: 735,799
Fiction Total: 203,749
Non-Fiction Total: 532,050
Email: 430,000
Fiction Percentage: 28%
Books Read: 62 (of a goal of 70)

2014 Fiction Total: 291,114 (Fiction 36%)
2013 Fiction Total: 270,000 (Fiction 34%)
2012 Fiction Total: 265,000 (Fiction 34%)
2011 Fiction Total: 252,300 (Fiction 35%)
2010 Fiction Total: 198,383 (Fiction 32%)
2009 Fiction Total: 135,738 (Fiction 27%)

2016 – The Year of Lent

This is the year I let go of all my earlier goals and preconceptions and live in the moment, focusing on controlling what I can control and not worrying about things out of my immediate control. No more striving, no more craving. As always, trying to make do with what I have, reading books I’ve already bought, minimizing clutter, allowing for better organization. I want to learn how to be more present, more involved in the now, which means more yoga and meditation. Taking all I’ve learned about writing and productivity and putting it into action. And letting go of the idea that I can’t work on more than one project at a time, which is simply resistance. Continue meaningful and satisfying connections with friends and readers, be a good boss, a good wife, a good reader and writer, and learn how to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The Year of Lent

This may strike you as a strange title for a year’s goal. For me, Lent is generally a solemn six weeks in the spring when I give up social media, hunker down, turn inward. It is a time of great reflection, and usually, exceptional creativity. To make this an annual goal, I’ll have to work on a deeper understanding of what I’m trying to give up. I’ve been thinking hard about this, and what I want to walk away from this year is what the Buddhists call striving. Wanting. Looking for something external to satisfy me. There’s a specific goal, actually, that I can’t seem to achieve and it’s been driving me bonkers. And you know what? Achieving it will not matter a whit.

Will it being me happiness? No. I am happy. Sickeningly so, actually.

Will it bring me contentment? No.

Will it make my friends’ lives richer? No.

Will it make the cats love me more, my parents love me more, my friends love me more, my husband love me more? No.

Will it make my body behave and my cheeks flush and my sleep regulate? No.

Will it satisfy a goal I set years ago that I thought would bring me happiness and contentment? Yes. I will be able to check the box, and move on with my life.

You know what was a real eye-opener? Realizing that checking the box doesn’t bring me anything tangible but the satisfaction of checking the box. If you’ve followed me for more than five minutes, you know I am a goal-oriented person. I thrive on goal-setting and goal-achieving.

The greater danger, for most of us, lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. — Michelangelo

As I mentioned earlier, I took a productivity course this year and realized a fundamental flaw in my goal setting. I have been setting the bar way too low. In 2014, I set out to write 300,000 words — three full-length novels worth of work. I barely made it, literally clocking the last words to arrive 10K short on December 31. I felt guilty stopping at 290K. In Dean’s way of thinking, it’s much better to fail at achieving your goal than to not make it in the first place. His suggestion, like Michelangelo — set the bar higher. Ergo: Aim for four novels and fail at three. So I’m going to revise my goals upward this year. I’d rather fail to three than only get two.

And if I want to do this, really live it, I have to get out of my own way, which means letting go of this silly, arbitrary goal I set five years ago and haven’t achieved. It’s holding me back. It gets me upset, it colors my work, and it’s time for it to go away.

So 2016, my year of Lent, will be focused on less, and on more. Less of holding myself to standards that are completely out of my control. More controlling what I can control: the quality of my work, the amount of time I spend writing, the amount of time I spend worrying. More time with my friends and family — actually engaged with them — and less time striving.

I think it’s important to point out that without putting in the writing time, everything else crumbles like a house of cards in the wind. I’ve said it time and again, if you’re not careful, your writing time can leak away. Protect it. Write more. Write hard. Be selfish with your creative time. Words equal money. Money equals freedom. Freedom equals all sorts of things, including happiness. More words, more time spent on the craft, more focus on your creativity, will bring you all kinds of rewards. If you’re working hard but you still aren’t meeting your goals, think about investing in this. Getting out of your own way is the key to a successful career, as I remind myself daily.

And hey, if you’re not in this to have a career, but just want to finish that novel you’ve had in you, this applies too. Every writer is different. Evert writer’s goals are different. There are many, many ways up the mountain. But regardless of your goals, recognize that dreams are only realized through hard work. So do your work!

Exercise is a major goal for me this year, too. I love yoga, and I want to get into a more regular practice. I rejoined the gym (hello, Cybex leg press, you sexy beast) and have been loyally going three times a week for the past two months. I’m starting to see results, which is so heartening!

More writing time, more self-care, less fretting and striving — these are worthy goals for my Year of Lent.

My day needs to have three components — (at least) one comprehensive writing session, one exercise session, one reading session. My world balances very nicely when I manage to do all three things in a 24-hour period. I’ve also realized that no matter how I try to change my creative time to the morning, to write first thing, I’m not good at it. So I’ve gone back to handling business first thing whilst the tea takes effect, then getting started in make believe. It’s working much much better. So I will spend January setting the habit, and hopefully be able to carry it on throughout the year.

I have three original novels releasing (NO ONE KNOWS 3.22.16; FIELD OF GRAVES – the Taylor Jackson prequel 6.14.16; and THE DEVIL’S TRIANGLE 9.16). I want to finish writing three novels (THE DEVIL’S TRIANGLE – Nick #4; ALL FALL DOWN – Sam #5; and the standalone) and write half of Nick #5. That word count puts me in the 250K range as a fiction goal for what I have to do. I’d like to write 400k fiction this year. I want to write two new short stories, and maintain a weekly blog. I want to lose ten pounds, and maintain a regular exercise schedule. I want to continue mentoring new writers, and learning from more experienced ones. I can’t wait for the new season of A WORD ON WORDS to start taping, and getting the Taylor prequel out in the world. And I’m going to write a 15-minute-a-day novel. I’m going to aim high, higher than every before, and see what happens.

There’s a lot to look forward to this year, and I am going to live every moment of it, mindfully and quietly. I hope you’ll follow along and encourage me when I flag.

Happy New Year!

The Deets: 2015 Writing

In case you’re interested, here are the tools I use to keep track of my world:

  • Daily word trackers (excel spreadsheets) from graphic artist Svenja Liv
  • Scrivener – My go to writing program for fiction, their Project Target tools allow me to set a deadline and see exactly what my daily word count needs to be.
  • Ulysses – A very cool Scrivener alternative I will be using to compose my blogs this year.
  • Day One – I use this for journaling, keeping track of major events and minor triumphs, idea capture
  • Squarespace – my web platform, where I host this blog, Tao of JT, The Wine Vixen, and Two Tales Press
  • Wunderlist – the very best online To Do list
  • Trello – A workflow tool Amy and I use for template-driven work
  • iCal/Google Calendar – I have both online and paper calendars. I don’t like carrying a day planner, so I use my phone when I’m out and traveling
  • Hobonichi Techno – my day planner, annual planner, daily goals, it’s small enough to fit in my purse
  • Journal 21 – my weekly and annual planner and logbook (I haven’t decided whether to phase this out or not)
  • Clairfontaine and Moleskine notebooks – idea capture, notes, book notebooks, research, planning
  • Pilot Knight Fountain pen – beautiful, sturdy, a real workhorse
  • Sharpie Fine Point Pens in Blue
  • MacBook Air – the all-day battery life is essential to my well-being.

Via: JT Ellison


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