Setting Goals

by J.T. Ellison

Since so many of our compatriots are in Baltimore, having a blast at Bouchercon, indulge me while I feel sorry for myself for a few minutes. There really is nothing worse than having to pull out of a conference unexpectedly, which is what happened to me this week. I learned my lesson at Left Coast Crime in Denver – if you aren’t 100%, doing the conference right is very, very hard. I’d just come off emergency surgery, was weak as a kitten and still feeling horrid, and I went and tried my damnedest to be "on." It didn’t work. The pictures show a pale-faced wraith with a half smile, and all I could think about was getting back to my room to lay down.

For the authors, it’s a show, and you’re the star. You need to be able
to be on, to focus on the readers, to give them a slice of your
personality. You’re selling yourself as much as you’re selling your books. So, word to the wise. If you can’t be author boy or author girl, don’t go. Nothing’s worse than feeling poorly at a conference.

Okay. I’m done with the whining.

I thought we poor, wayward souls left behind could do some goal setting today.

Are you a listmaker who loves to cross items off your list, or are you a catch as catch can, try to remember, tie a string around your finger type? It’s a true assessment of your personality, I think. There are those of us who like to be hyper-organized, and those who let the chips fall where they may.

Though I’m a "pantser" when it comes to writing my novels, I like to be organized. I like to make lists, to tick off my actions. It gives me a sense that I’m getting something accomplished. I used to carry a day runner and have daily lists, weekly list, and monthly lists. Now I’m more electronic, and have a online notepad that I write my lists on. It’s not as satisfying, actually, so I’m looking at going back to the old way.

So aside from the day-to-day and week-to-week lists, I’ve been thinking about making myself a goals list – where will I be in One Year, Five Years, Ten Years? Why? I woke this morning wondering where I was going to be in ten years. I received the cover art for my 4th novel yesterday. (It’s BRILLIANT!) I’m revising that book now and will start my research for the 5th next week. Which in all actuality is my 6.5th, since my first didn’t sell and I wrote a novella prior to that. 6 full length novels. 6. That’s 600,000 words. I feels like an accomplishment. And it’s also going pretty damn fast, considering I started writing in 2004.

Yes, there’s a lot of writers with many more published books, but there’s also many people who never finish the first. So I had a little moment of triumph, all alone in my living room, with the cat staring at me like I was nuts. She likes it when I sit quietly and whistle occasionally, not smack my head and mutter incoherently.

And thus, I woke wondering where I was going to be in ten years. I spent last week in Omaha, with one of my favorite people and authors, Alex Kava. With her manager Deb at her side, they took me to bookstore after bookstore, and I got to watch a NYT bestseller in action. It was, to say the least, humbling. We did three audience based events, all of which went very well. Alex is a known commodity in Omaha the way I’d like to be a known commodity in Nashville. She has roots there: family, friends, but most of all, fans. Tons of them. Of every different stripe. It was so cool to sit beside her and meet all of these people, who I must say were incredibly gracious to the southern interloper.

Alex just published her 8th book, a fantastic title called EXPOSED. All of her titles have been in hardcover, which gives her a major leg up on me. But it’s more than that. She is accessible, sly and witty. The fans love her to pieces. They love Maggie O’Dell. They love having a chance to meet her. When we spoke to the "Detective Novels and Society" class at the College of St. Mary’s, Alex’s alma mater, I was struck by the respect she commanded from the students. She is something I aspire to be, a solid writer with a large fan base and a sense of humor about the whole process.

So I guess the first thing to consider when setting a goal is an act of emulation. Find your Alex. Find an author who you think embodies your career path, someone who you respect, whose writing you enjoy, whose publishing house does it right. Then look at where you are. Are you unpublished, writing in a vacuum, not a member of any organizations, never been to a conference? Are you with a small press and want to get into a major house? Are you a short story writer who wants to become a novelist? What is your next step?

Looking back to my own path to publication, I set small, attainable, intermediary goals for myself so I didn’t get discouraged. And that’s vital. You can’t set a goal like this: It is October 2008. I will write the great American novel by October 2009, sell it for a seven-figure advance, get coop in every store, be a Barnes and Noble pick and win the Edgar award. That’s setting yourself up for failure.

Set attainable goals. I will write 1,000 words a day. (You do that, you’ll have a rough draft in 3 months.) I will join my local chapter of Sisters in Crime and meet some new people. I will buy a subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace and put up a website. I will blog weekly. I will read at least two books a week. I will stop saying what if and start doing. My glass will be half full, and I will see others in a more sympathetic light. I will query my manuscript.

And follow through. I did all of the things I just mentioned, and found myself with a novel, an agent and a blog gig.

So we’ve set the small goals to get you started. When do you set the big goals? When do you start thinking about the possibility of becoming a bestseller? When do you lay out where you want to be in ten years?

Well, I don’t have the answer to that. I’m afraid to worry about the future. I feel much better setting my goals for the year, and not worrying about the what ifs. One of my favorite saying is:

"Control the things you can control."

You can control how many words you write. You can control your pace, your research and your quality. You can be open to new experiences and read out of the genre. You can. Remember that always.


So with that in mind, what are your short-term goals for your career? Have you set any long-term goals?

Wine of the Week: 2005 Pascual Toso Cabernet Sauvignon

14 thoughts on “Setting Goals

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    Wish you were here in Baltimore JT. I’ve already had the pleasure of meeting Alex and Zoe yesterday along with many other great writers. I’m looking forward to meeting more.

    As I’ve yet to be published, I think as far as a short term goal on the way there is to learn as much as I can about the publishing.

    And feel better already, would you? πŸ™‚

  2. Naomi

    Hi, J.T.!

    I’m not at the Bouchercon party either (and it sounds like a good one–yay for them and boo for us).

    I have long, overarching goals for my series (I know that I want to write around 10). I also would like to write more middle-grade books (number not yet known), a couple female historicals, and yes, a thriller (I can’t wait until I complete Series #4 to start the research).

    I have had professional mentors, too: Denise Hamilton and S.J. Rozan, whether they realize it or not.

    The goals for marketing, etc. are the easiest to conceive and easiest to implement. Harder are the creative choices.

    I’ve had to readjust my goals about every two, three years to allow for creative and personal changes. The world and the market change as well, which may impact the timing of what projects we choose to tackle.

    There are a couple of philosophical principles I’ve chosen to adopt: one, which I’ve had from the beginning of my writing career, is not to agree to less money for a novel than I have received in the past. The other, which I’ve embraced this year, is to be more philanthropic in the way I promote my books and to team up with nonprofits to help further their cause.

  3. toni mcgee causey

    Naomi, that is an excellent principle, that second philanthropic idea. Clever and useful.

    My short term goals–get this book edited and into the best shape it can be, set the bar higher than previous books, work hard. Then start the next book (not a series book). Long term–I know the story arc for the Bobbie Faye series, and I know the other types of books I’d like to write. Like you said, JT., the market isn’t something we can control, so I’d rather keep my goals to those things within my power to pursue.

  4. j.t. ellison

    RJ, I’m so sorry to miss it. I hope you’re making all kinds of great connections.

    Naomi, I think the reason I’ve never laid out my long-term goals is I know how much I change from year to year. Things that once interested me seem dull. I can’t imagine actually setting specific concrete goals and sticking to them, so I have to do this is a completely fluid manner. I agree about the contracts, that’s a great standard to have.

    Toni, smart thinking. Control the things YOU can control, which is more than you may realize…

  5. MF Makichen

    Hi JT,This is such an excellent post full of good advice. I’ve been thinking along very similar lines regarding goals. . .after all autumn is a time for reflection. Writer Lynn Viehl does a yearly business plan. She plans out how many books she’ll write and how much time she’ll allocate to each one. I find the idea of doing an annual plan intriguing. However, I think you also have to have a smaller set of goals as well. I like your list of attainable goals–I think I’ll adopt them as my own:).

  6. j.t. ellison

    Mary-Frances, thank you! I like the idea of plotting out the books, month by month, setting the goals that way. I do it on an intellectual level, but I’ve never really written them down like that. Think I’ll try it.

    And Helen, thank you. I went to your blog and saw your post on Donald Maas, and downloaded the book. I guess we know what I’ll be doing this weekend…

  7. Naomi

    Very cool–I downloaded the book, too.

    It was published in the mid-1990s, but it’s surprisingly not that dated. I guess Maas is a good prognosticator.

  8. Allison Brennan

    GREAT post, JT! I love Alex Kava’s books, and I was thrilled when I met her at Thrillerfest in Arizona (where I met you and Toni and Rob and Brett and Alex!!!)

    Definitely your last comment is vital: control the things you can control. It’s the only thing you CAN do. As writers there’s not much we CAN control other than our stories.

    You know at the beginning of the year when people make new years resolutions or set goals for the year? I don’t. Either you set the bar too high and feel like a failure because you can’t reach it, or you set the bar too low and then never strive to exceed it.

    I have one more book to write this year, plus production work on another (copyedits, pageproofs, etc.) That’s what I have to do. A goal? Not really. I have to have it done, or I’ll be woefully behind on the third book I need to write.

    I don’t like lists because I lose them. Or I forget to write something down on the list, something important. I’m not very organized. I know, shocker. I live my life in a constant state of crisis control. Not ideal, but to be honest, when I try to get organized, I stress far more and waste oodles of time. My mom is endeavoring to keep my office organized, and I love her for it πŸ™‚ But if she didn’t . . . well, let’s just say I would still know where my bookmarks were. Box three down, four across, in the back . . .

  9. Jude Hardin

    “I set out to write a good story with ‘The Notebook,’ one that would sell 10 million copies and make me rich . . . and I did.”–Nicholas Sparks

    My goals are the same as that guy’s.

  10. j.t. ellison

    Allison, I am so anal retentive that I couldn’t survive that way. I’m miss hospital corners, everything organized. It’s limiting. But it keeps the house straight. I think if I had 5 kids I’d probably be a little less structured too : )

    Jude, me too : )

  11. Will Bereswill

    Hey, JT. I’ve been looking for you and thour compadres said you were unable to make it.

    I was looking forward to meeting you along with most of the rest of Murderati.

    Everybody keeps saying it’s not the same without you.

  12. Dan

    If you’d like a tool for setting your goals, you can use this web application:

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.A mobile version and iCal are available too.


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