Bucket lists, and how to set any goal

At the New York Public Library, ticking off one bucket-list item, and adding another...
At the New York Public Library, ticking off one bucket-list item, and adding another…

What’s on your bucket list? Running a marathon, visiting Macchu Piccu, buying a house? Some goals take ages to achieve. There’s no way I could run a marathon unless I trained for a year, and probably not even then. And I couldn’t get really good at Spanish without some serious study or immersion. Could I do that in a month? Maybe. What about losing five pounds? Yes, that’s probably doable in a month. Losing five stone – less so. I’m an incurable list maker, with lists of things to do for the day, week, month, year, and next five years (and beyond). Some of these things are quite possible (like going to New York, which was on there for ages and I just did last week. Turned out I just had to book it, who knew?). Some are less so (like becoming really good at swing dancing. Not sure I have the time or focus or for that matter, the dancing feet).

Many people have the goal, secret or otherwise, of writing a novel, and luckily enough we find ourselves now in National Novel Writing Month (or NaNo, to aficionados). Can you even write a novel in a month? At first glance it might seem ridiculous, like me signing up to do that marathon in four weeks’ time (please don’t make me I will die). But if you have a goal, the first thing you need to do is clarify what you mean by it. Do you want to write an amazing polished novel with time for several edits in a month? That’s probably a stretch, for those of us with other work and lives and who really need to watch The Walking Dead season four. I think it’s probably possible, for people with a great idea and lots of time (and maybe lots of recreational drugs; cf Kerouac writing On the Road in a month).

However. Is it possible to write 30 or 50 or even 60 or 70 thousand words in a month? Of course it is. Most people doing ‘NaNo’ aim for 50k, or around 1700 words a day. When I’m in a writing phase (and I by no means do this all the time), I aim for 1,000 and I will sometimes do as many as 7,000 (I said SOMETIMES). Is it possible to write 1,000 really good words every day? Maybe not. Is it possible to scribble down 1,000 words of any thing you can think of, without editing or spellchecking or even reading it back? Yeah, it is. You can do this in 15 minutes if that’s all you have (try a timed NaNo writing sprint and you’ll be amazed how much you can get done).

You can use this process of clarification and simplification to set any goal. Remember the irritating acronym you learned on that pointless training day your work sent you on, and you went because it was a day away from the office and there were free biscuits? Cast your mind back to that dusty overhead projector. A good goal should be SMART, ie:

Specific – ie, ‘I will write 50,000 words this month’ instead of ‘I will write a novel’. Or if that’s too many, 30,000, or 10,000.

Measurable – can you measure how many words you’ve written? Yep, that works

Achievable – see previous discussion. I can’t train for a marathon in a month, but I could maybe train to run a few miles (I’m VERY unfit guys). Likewise, it’s achievable to write a certain number of words in a month. You decide how many.

Realistic – is it realistic for you? It’s definitely possible, but have you cleared enough time, and dealt in advance with your likely obstacles (family, work, illness, traffic jams etc)? What’s the most likely thing that will hold you back? What happens if your laptop carks it on day four (they’re helpful like that) or you lose your document or you end up having to work late because Samantha in Accounts has messed up the purchase orders yet again? Can you add in catch-up periods? Can you cut back on other commitments for a month? It’s only a month after all.

Time-related – use a month, or six months, or set weekly goals too. That huge ‘I will write a novel’ will never get done, but break it down and it will.

So seen in this light, writing a novel in a month (or a good chunk of one) is totally doable. Just don’t aim to write a book that will instantly sell without any edits (because that’s unlikely). (though also not impossible). If you manage 50,000 words, a typical commercial novel nowadays is at least 80,000, so you’ll need to add to it (though some ebooks are shorter now). GOOD LUCK. I know at least two writers who sold their NaNo novels (with editing), so why not you?

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