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BATTLE PLAN Part Two: Defining Your Writing Mission

After the Drill Sergeant’s tirade on Saturday, it’s nice to get back to some level of normalcy around here.  We sent him on a field exercise and he won’t be back for awhile.  No matter; we should get on fine without him.

If you’re new to the site, this is Part Two of a six-part post series entitled Conquering the Page: Creating Your Own Fiction Writer’s Battle Plan. You can find Part One, The Overview, here–and don’t mind the Drill Sergeant.  His bark is worse than his bite.

Why Is A Battle Plan Important?  The Drill Sergeant was all about motivation and not a lot about explanation, so I can hear the questions from a mile away: what will a Battle Plan really do for me?  Why do I need one?

After eighteen years in the military, my view on how to execute any project is defined by Benjamin Franklin’s great quote: “He who fails to plan is planning to fail.”  The military lives and dies–literally–by this credo.  I believe it’s useful for writers too–no matter the experience level.

Having a Battle Plan–since the military loves acronyms, we’ll call it a BP–is essential to the successful execution of large or complicated projects.  For us writers that means anything from writing a novel to a short story to jumping into the query wars.  The point is that getting published requires the execution of a wide variety of activities over a course of many months, sometimes years.  If you want to do it efficiently and effectively–and still maintain your sanity–you should have a plan.

Sure, small projects go off fine without a lot of planning.  You can probably jot down a short story or a poem without much prior thought; but for a multi-year project as involved as writing and publishing a novel, a good BP is not only advantageous, it could be a deal-breaker.  Even if you’re a short story writer or a poet (or any other kind of writer for that matter) a well-constructed BP will help you focus and consistently hit your writing targets.

Here’s what a good Fiction Writer’s Battle Plan will do for you:

Flexibility.  If you’re like me, carving out time to write is a constant struggle.  On any given day, there are literally dozens of other responsibilities that place demands on my time.  Having a good BP means that when an unexpected event occurs–the boss asks me to come in early for a presentation for example–I can adjust my writing effort and still meet my goals.

Resilience.  I believe the best writers can write under almost any circumstances.  They can be productive during the most trying times and can even muscle through writer’s block and other maladies that afflict less organized writers.  A good BP will help you get where you’re going, but will also help you develop the skills you need to complete the mission under less than ideal circumstances.

Peace of Mind.  IMHO, a writer’s mindset relates closely to his progress.  If he feels he’s moving forward–he’s written a couple great scenes, for example–then his attitude is positive and his outlook is rosy.  On the other hand, if he goes three or four days without writing–he was supposed to finish those two scenes but didn’t–then the lack of accomplishment may push him into a slump or make it harder for him to begin again.

What if, despite having missed a few days, the writer is still 3,000 words ahead of his annual goal (because that writer has a BP and has planned for eventualities such as not being able to write for a few days)?  His outlook remains positive because he understands where he is in his larger plan and so has no reason to worry.  Having a good plan creates peace of mind–and helps the writer focus on the most important thing: writing.

Defining Your Writing Mission.  Before we can build a BP, we have to identify what we as writers wish to accomplish.

Every time I go flying (by day, I’m a helicopter pilot), I sit down with the flightcrew and we brief what will occur during the flight.  One of first things I generally cover is the flight’s mission, and from that flows everything else in the discussion.  For example, a Combat Search and Rescue mission is briefed in a completely different way than an Instrument Training hop.  How much fuel do we need?  Are we carrying any passengers?  What is the weather like?

But could you imagine the funny looks I’d get if I said I didn’t know what the mission was?  “No.  You heard me right.  I don’t know what the mission is.  Seriously.  We’re just going to go out there and burn holes in the sky.”  Not only would I get strange looks, but the execution of the flight would be confusing, sloppy, and certainly not as efficient as it could be.

It sounds unreasonable, but I bet when a lot of writers sit down to write, they make this mistake.  They write without a mission in mind.  I know for the longest time, I did.  Sure I might get some good pages done that day, but how did those pages fit into the larger whole of my project–or my writing “career” for that matter?

Even if I was working on a long project like a play or a novel, I often had no clear picture of my progress from one week to the next.  If I was doing work as part of a class for example–I often waited too late to finish things and then had to accomplish a ton of poor quality work in a short period of time to make deadline.

In those cases, I failed to determine clear goals and make a plan to attain them.  Which bring us to our second quote of the post (if you haven’t figured it out by now, I LOVE quotes): 

Yogi Berra said:  “If you don’t know where you’re going, you will wind up somewhere else.”

If we take Yogi at his word, we have to know as writers what we want to accomplish–in both the short-term and the long-term.  Knowing what we want to accomplish allows us in turn to build a BP.  So.  What are our writing objectives?  What is our writing mission?  Yours might be to write 10,000 words a month, or finish a first draft of that WIP by June.  Or you might want to become a published author by 2012.  The goal can be virtually anything.  And once we’ve identified those goals, we can start building a plan for success.

Constructing Goals.  As you’re starting to consider your goals, here are some things to think about.  Well constructed goals are both achievable and specific.  By achievable, I mean that you can build a BP to get there.  For instance, I would argue a goal such as “become the best-known American author in the 21st Century” is not achievable because there are simply too many variables.  There’s no way to map a path to that goal.  On the other hand, a goal of finishing three novels by 2012 is very achievable because the goal can be broken down into smaller steps.  Identifying and organizing those smaller steps will be our method for BP construction.

Specificity is an essential element of a well constructed goal also.  I can share with you that one of my goals is to submit a novel for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2011.  That means I’m going to have to write through to a final draft, have the novel beta’d, and be ready for submission by early next year.  A lot of work I know (particularly because to date I have written only about 500 words of an outline), but I have a sturdy BP based on all the relevant details so I’m not concerned.  Because the goal is specific, I have planned all the tasks needed to get to the finish line, on time, on target, without losing my mind.

Homework.  On Wednesday we will start building BPs.  In order to do that, you first need to identify your goals–your writing mission.  Here’s your homework (you didn’t think there’d be no homework, did you? :D):

  • Write down up to three writing goals.
  • Make sure the goals are achievable–in other words, a plan can be built to achieve them.
  • Make sure the goals are specific.  Include key information like time frame and size of project, and all the things you think you’ll need.  For example, you may say: Novel first draft and first edit completed, 100,000 words, by the end of August.
  • If you have more than one project that you’re working on, that’s fine (one novel and five short stories ready for publication, for example).  Include them all, but remember your BP will have to account for all writing activities.  If you are writing three different novels simultaneously, you may discover your goals taken together put you in the unachievable category.
  • If you’re not sure what your goals are or should be, that’s fine too.  Pick a few just for fun.  Make your best guess.  If you realize later that you picked the wrong ones, you can change them.  The important thing is to identify what, as a writer, you really want to accomplish.  This may take some time, but the sooner you start thinking about it, the farther along you’ll be.

Once we have our goals defined, we can start building a personalized Battle Plan.  If any of this doesn’t make sense, feel free to post a question below and I’ll respond.   If you can share a writing goal with the group in a comment below, that would be fun too.

Wednesday:  Part Three: Organizing Your Battle Plan.  See you then!