How Not to Write a Novel
Anthony Trollope, a Victorian novelist– and one of the most prolific writers of all time– had a special way of structuring his week. He wrote approximately 50 novels in his life, yet he spent only a fraction of the time writing that most of us spend working every week. In addition to writing three times as many novels as Charles Dickens, he held down a full-time job and still managed to get out fox hunting every few days.
And yes, Trollope was married with kids.
I’m not going to tell you how he did all of this quite yet. Instead, let’s pretend that you’re writing a novel– we’ll come back to Trollope in a minute. So obviously, you want to break down your goal into smaller parts than “write a 50,000-word story”. How would you do this?
Let’s say you decide to go with a daily goal of writing 10 pages. That’s pretty tough! But let’s say you stick with it for now. So you mark “Write 10 pages” at the top of today’s to-do list.
Monday you write 10 pages. Tuesday you write 10 pages. Wednesday, something came up with your family, so you didn’t write any. Now what do you do? Writing 20 pages on Thursday would be pretty dang tough, so 10 pages it is again.
“Write 10 pages” is your goal for every day, day in and day out. Doesn’t matter if you have other obligations. Doesn’t matter if you accomplished 10 pages yesterday or the day before– the to-do list says you’re doing them today.
Well this will be fun…
Now how motivating does that sound? Approximately zero, right? It’s drudgery, and writing a novel shouldn’t be (all) drudgery– we’re talking about creating an unrivaled amount of artistic expression! So how can you fix your schedule?
One trick is to view your output in pages per week, not pages per day. Let’s say you shoot for 40 pages, which is pretty manageable. You want 10 pages per day, 4 days per week. The other days are for relaxing, recharging, and taking care of other commitments. Let’s see how that goes.
Sunday, 10 pages. Good. Monday, 10 pages. You’re halfway to your goal, and the week’s just begun! Tuesday and Wednesday, nothing. You did other things. But see, you go into Thursday and Friday knowing you need those pages– you want your weekend after all. And you nail it. The week’s over and you’ve written 40 pages on the great American novel of the 21st century. Take Saturday off!
By the way, that’s how Anthony Trollope wrote 49 novels in 35 years. Ten pages a day; 4 days a week.
Bozo buckets = way better than flowchart of drudgery
Introducing: Weekly Goals
Every day compiling a to-do list, only to see half of it slide over to the next day and again to the next… that strikes me as a poor way to live. Your day’s structure is about the things you failed to do yesterday. Same sheet of paper, same dreary responsibilities.
Don’t let daily to-do lists be the upper bound of your planning. Instead, try creating weekly goals.
A weekly to-do list works a little bit like a daily one. There are some tasks on it, and you cross them out when you complete them. So what’s the difference here?
It all boils down to what you can get done in a week versus a day. A week is for bigger thinking. Broader goals and plans. And you find those by looking at two things:
- Your biggest goals in life
- Your relationships
Now I’m not going to cover making your life goals too much here (see this article for ideas– full disclosure, I wrote it). But here are a few questions you can ask yourself to make sure you have a good idea of your goals and some sample answers.
What do you want to create? A poem. A painting. House. Family. Business. Family business. Bar. Restaurant. Non-profit. Novel.
Where do you want to go? India. Mexico. A Rolling Stones concert. The running of the bulls. New York City. Abroad, alone. Every MLB stadium.
Who do you want to be? A mother. A father. A grandparent. Loved. A good friend. Tattooed. A saint. A Saint. Amateur genealogist. CEO. Oenophile. Someone’s hero. Mayor. Your own boss.
What do you want to accomplish? A marathon. NaNoWriMo. Grad school. Mt. Kilimanjaro. The Great American Roadtrip. Swim in the Mediterranean. Run up the Eiffel Tower. Be a film extra. Shake Obama’s hand.
What do you want to learn? Arabic. The constellations. Countries of the world. Something new every day. Muay Thai. Thai. Thai cooking. Ruby on rails. Patience.
What do you want to quit? Smoking. Drugs. Drinking. An eating disorder. Processed sugar. Your boring home state. Nail-biting. Shyness. Self-doubt. Soda. Procrastination.
The important part now is scaling those down to chunks that can be completed in a week’s time. People could do this all sorts of ways, but here’s what’s worked for me:
- Start small. Trollope didn’t aim to write 10 pages every day; his goal for himself was more modest. You’ll quickly learn just how much you can do in a week, and it’s probably not as much as you’d think when you start making these goals. But that’s OK; you’ll figure it out fast.
- Create 2-4 goals per week. One goal per week is fine if it’s big, urgent, and important. But 5 or more goals means you’re probably putting too small or unimportant of things on your weekly goal list. These are the “big rocks” of your life. Pick the most important few for the weekly list and just fit in the rest when you can.
- Is this enough to feel like success? One of the best parts of weekly goals is nailing them all and feeling like you had a successful week. Ask yourself: “If I accomplish these things, will I feel like the week was a success?”. If yes, you’re good to go.
So your bucket list is one place to get weekly goals from, and while that’s a good start, no one’s life is solely about themself. That brings us to relationships.
You Are (Basically) Your Relationships
“There are many kinds of success in life worth having,” Teddy Roosevelt wrote, specifically listing being “a successful business man, or railroad man, or farmer, or successful lawyer or doctor; or a writer, or a President, or a ranchman, or the colonel of a fighting regiment, or to kill grizzly bears and lions.”
He would know. He was almost all of those.
But being a family man, he said, “makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison”.
Likewise, when planning your weekly goals, don’t forget your relationships. You have a lot of things that you can do with your time, and a lot of things to work towards. But there are a lot of people that you play different roles to: mother, mentor, sponsor, grandfather, uncle, employee, boss, teammate, and so on.
When we get focused on the idea of daily to-do lists, it’s very difficult to account for these relationships. Why? Because it’s impossible to fit every relationship into a day. Being a parent is easily a full-time job alone, and that’s on top of being a full-time employee, and that’s not even close to all the roles you play. How can you try and cram all of those into your busy schedule?
Steven Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says not to view your daily list like that. Instead, try and play each of those roles over the course of a week. Sunday might become “family day”. On Friday, you’re out with friends. Tuesday is for calling another friend, and Wednesday you can shoot off an e-mail to the grandparents. A day is not an appropriate amount of time to wear every hat we need to wear. A week is much closer.
So make a list of all the hats you need to wear– all the important relationships in which you need to play a part. And then decide what it’s important that you do in the next week to play that part.
Who you are = who you are to yourself + who you are to others
And then schedule it.
This sort of top-down planning has changed my life for the better.
What Weekly Goals Have Done For Me
Sunday is the most relaxing day of my week. But not only do I do enjoyable and reflective things– go to church, drive to the mountains for a hike, or hang out with friends, etc.– but Sunday is also my official “Week-planning day”. I spend that time not worrying about accomplishing or doing anything. Instead, it’s a time to reflect on the weeks behind and ahead– what I want to do and who I want to be.
And if the next 6 days are successful, then I will fall into bed Saturday having accomplished everything I wanted to for the week. Time to relax! When I wake up Sunday, I’ll feel great.
Here’s my system:
- Think about my larger goals on Sunday
- Break a few down into specific tasks I want to accomplish for the week
- Write 3-4 goals on a 3×5 notecard
- Tape the notecard to the bottom of my computer monitor
- As I accomplish a goal, cross it off
- At the end of the week, record in my journal which goals I did and didn’t accomplish, and how I could do better next time if I missed some
And then I’ll start over, taping the next week’s notecard on top of the last. The cool effect is that these cards start to pile up. Do this, and at the end of a few months, you’ll have a whole stack of them with medium-sized tasks, most of which (hopefully) you’ve accomplished. And you know what? That feels really awesome.
Goals for this week taped to my monitor with a stack of old goals behind it.
When you start to plan your weeks around doing the big projects and taking care of the important things first, you actually really start to get things done. In the last six months, I’ve used weekly goals to work on a muse, launch and write my own blog, plan and take a trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro, and finish reading the entire Bible.
In short, it’s been six of the most productive months of my life, and I am excited to see what happens in the years to come. What would you be able to do in six months?
Somewhere between grandiose life goals and the drudgery of daily to-do lists lies the power of weekly goals. It’s a big enough period of time to think about the big rocks and relationships in your life, but not so large that it’s not manageable. When you achieved all your goals for the week, it feels like a big accomplishment, but if you didn’t, you’ll get another chance in a few days.
A lot of people talk the talk about life goals. Who doesn’t have half a dozen friends with dreams of building their own house, taking amazing vacations, or starting a business? And yet, how many of our friends end of up doing these things and how many go the path of wistful has-beens? The “wantrapreneurs”, as Noah Kagan calls them. Don’t be them. Use the power of weekly goals to forge the important dreams in your life into reality.
Erik Kennedy blogs about achieving your life goals at The Bucket List Society. In addition, he is spreading a network of accountability groups dedicated to bucket lists– a book club for your life goals– called The Finishing School. He can be found mostly in Seattle. The first item on his bucket list is to shave his face with a whaling harpoon.
Photo credit: ‘Football Field‘ by Big Stock