There has never been a more exciting or vibrant time to be an author. At its best, the industry gives us an opportunity to express ourselves and rewards successful authors with fame, fortune, and literary awards. At its worst, publishing is difficult, fraught with rejection, loneliness, and disappointment. While there is no way to guarantee the former outcome rather than the latter, by setting goals, making and implementing a plan, authors can greatly increase their chances for success.
These six steps will help you to crystalize your needs, your hopes, and your dreams, and give you the tools to help you achieve them.
Define Success. Until we know what success is, until we define it for ourselves, we have no hope of achieving it. We can't reach a goal we haven't identified and we have no way of knowing we've arrived.
Culturally, we've been conditioned to admire, even idolize, the rich and famous. Achieving success at so high a level requires single-minded dedication, sometimes to the exclusion of family and friends. That some authors happily give their all to their craft is both wonderful and inspiring. But not everyone is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to be a millionaire or win the Pulitzer Prize. And that's OK too. The key lies in figuring out what success means to us, not in the cultural or socially expected sense, but internally. If balance is important, for example, our vision of success should include balance in our life.
For some authors, it's enough to know people are reading their work. Others won't feel successful until they've sold a million or 10 million or 100 million books. For others, success may mean receiving critical acclaim or winning a literary prize. The only thing that's important is to know what it means to you.
Set Short- and Long-term Goals. Most people achieve enormous success -- win a Pulitzer, for instance -- only after a series of smaller accomplishments, such as winning local and regional prizes. Setting and achieving small goals gives us the confidence and determination to pursue increasingly challenging ones. Smaller goals are also more realistic than huge goals that only a handful of people will ever reach. A woman who can barely run a city block may ultimately hope to run a marathon; first, though, she has to run a full mile, then two and so on. For an emerging author with a long-term goal of selling 10 million books, a realistic short-term goal might be to sell 25, 50 or 100 thousand copies of his or her first book.
A long-term goal can be as lofty as we'd like it to be. Short-term goals, though, should be focused and concrete -- finishing a first novel in six months, finding a literary agent before the end of this year, winning a specific local or regional book award in 2013 or selling 1,000 books in the next three - six months.
Create a Plan. As with defining success, without a concrete plan we will never achieve our goals. Trying to reach a goal without a plan would be like a spatially challenged driver (like me) driving cross-country with no GPS and no map. I might reach the other coast in spite of myself-- or I might find myself in a swamp. The majority of authors I know have a reasonable definition of success and concrete goals. Many, though, either don't know how to reach their destination or haven't bothered to map out a plan.
Creating a plan requires doing our homework -- reading, studying the market, watching and emulating those who've reached the goals we hope to achieve. A workable plan is concrete and includes a global -- big picture -- strategy as well as a series of detailed steps necessary to implement the global strategy.
Identify Strengths and Weaknesses. Before I can hope to win the National Book Award, I must first master my craft. To achieve mastery, I need to evaluate my strengths and weaknesses. Because it's easier and more rewarding, most of us prefer to focus on our strengths. We're like gym rats, bench-pressing 300 pounds, forgetting our back muscles. After a while the gym rat looks like an ape with overly developed pectorals and a dowager's back, knuckles dragging across the floor. Olympic athletes, on the other hand, achieve balance by working their strongest muscles but also focusing on strengthening the weakest.
The most successful among us use their strengths to forge ahead while improving their weaknesses. They evaluate the most successful authors and works in their genre, know how their own work compares and also how they're different, or unique, and they work on making their own voice distinct.
Evaluate, Assess, Realign. Periodically, we must evaluate our path to determine whether or not we're on the right road. If we've approached 100 agents and received a form rejection from every one, we're doing something wrong. Maybe we need to rewrite our cover letter or rethink the opening pages of the novel we're trying to sell. Perhaps we're approaching the wrong agents, sending a thriller to agents who prefer YA. If we're falling too far short on our book sales, maybe it's time to rethink our marketing plan.
As with every step along the way, it's important to be brutally honest. I don't know a writer who doesn't crave positive feedback. But we should leave the praise-singing to others. With ourselves, we need to be honest. To succeed, goals and plans need to be realistic and well-aligned. If we consistently fall short of our goals, we're on the wrong track. It may be that we've planned well but set too high a goal. Or we've tried to do too much too fast, without a solid foundation. Whatever it is, setting it right -- evaluating, assessing strengths and weaknesses, identifying problems, revising the plan -- should get us on track.
Celebrate Victories Along the Way. For me, this has always been hard. I tend to keep both eyes on the future. This keeps me from losing sight of my goals, but deprives me of enjoying small successes along the way. Celebrating baby steps strengthens and gives us confidence. A stone may seem inconsequential, but 10 stones form a small pile. Baby steps may not feel like much -- after a series of baby steps, or small victories, people take notice, word spreads, and we're soon on the path to success.