First, Make a Plan

My sister, who, like most of us, procrastinates out of anxiety, once hung a sign over her workspace that said, “Stick to the plan (First, make a plan)”

I always liked the sign, but recently, I’ve finally fully grokked what it means, and how to live by it.

It happened in January, when I hit a wall of sorts. It was the end of the period of time during which I had three releases in three months, during which I had, against my will, more or less, worked through both Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation, during which I had desperately tried to do everything I needed to do to have the career I imagined I wanted. Only it didn’t feel like what I wanted. It felt like a sheer, dead weight, a yoke, and an ankle chain.

It is the writer’s job to listen, to stay open and let ideas come to us, to entertain the possible and impossible, to let imaginary people tell us their stories and to be convinced by them so we can convince our readers too.

But this talent of ours, for staying porous to possibility, can become a liability when we come out of our caves into the real world. January was not the first time this year—by which I mean the year since I crossed the line from “aspiring” to “author,” that I have found myself so totally overwhelmed that my strongest impulse was to quit. Throw in the towel, open a chocolate shop, and revert to reading, not writing romances.

What all those moments had in common was that I had become too reactive—too porous—to everything around me. I lost track of who I was, what I was doing. I’d lost track of who was driving the bus.

In the first year of author-dom, you are barraged by new inputs. Everyone has an opinion. Up to the point when you first get an agent or sell a manuscript, you have been fully and completely in charge of your destiny. But that changes, almost overnight. Suddenly you have an agent, an editor, a copy editor, a cover artist, possibly a publisher, certainly critique partners and beta readers who care passionately about helping you have the career they want you to have—or, most generously, the career they believe you want to have. And that’s not all. Facebook and Twitter have an opinion, not to mention Instagram, Google+, Tumblr, and Pinterest. Reviews, of course, are nothing but opinion. Even deadlines, which seem in some way to be neutral, are an opinion.

Some of these opinions are explicit—This is your brand, Romantic suspense doesn’t sell, We want to grow you this way, We set up this promo opportunity for you. Bad reviews, of course, are explicit, as are good reviews, and no less destructive. Then there are implicit opinions out there in the community, as faint as smoke signals: The more books you write in the shortest amount of time, the better, If you want to Twitter to work for you, you have to be on it at least a couple times the day, Facebook is best if you make it really personal, Vampires are so turn-of-the-century, Write tropes.

There are the opinions that come hidden in conference opportunities, invitations to writer getaways, a request to critique someone’s book, the realization that someone else is doing something awesome—a giveaway, a Facebook party, travel to give a talk. The recipe for what someone else’s success looks like is its own opinion. And some of these opinions are buried so deep in our psyches, we don’t even recognize they’re there—leftover needs to please parents, a set of church teachings that oppose our own artistic impulses, the need for popularity, the desire to be tough, the conviction that artists stand up for themselves and don’t sell out.

And finally there are the darkest, most unwanted opinions, the voices in the lizard brain—Who’s on Twitter, Did I read everything, Did I respond, Am I a good friend, Have I done right by them? Is so-and-so selling better? Does so-and-so like so-and-so more?

That’s a fuckload of noise.

In the midst of all that noise, it is so hard, so terribly hard, to write a book, let alone a good book. It is very hard to revise it to make the best possible book, to decide who should publish it, to decide even whether it should be self-published or traditionally published, whether you need an agent, how much and where to promote your book, how far out to contract books, which deadlines to give, how much of your life to spend writing.

Under these conditions, you can’t stop reacting, because there is so much to react to, and you feel that you cannot miss an opportunity or take a wrong step.

But the reason you feel that way is not because there is any real danger of missing an opportunity or taking a wrong step. It’s because you are in all-out reaction mode, because you want desperately to stick to the plan, but you do not yet know what the plan is.

You need a place to come from, proactively, a yardstick with which to measure whether any given course of action fits what you—the core writer you, the one that got into this for all the right (and by right I do not mean morally or ethically, but spiritually, as in those that are true to you) reasons.

So. Shut it off. Shut it all off. Not forever, because living in a cave will make you even crazier than living in a circus, but shut it off long enough to make a plan. Make a plan that draws you back down into the core of who you are and why you are doing this—money, popularity, sheer love of writing, a compulsive need to tell the stories you hear in your head, a desire to please Uncle Joe. Remember what it is. Remember what you’re doing, and articulate a plan that will make it possible to do that, and only that, that core thing. Let that—your real reasons for writing—speak louder than everything else to you.

This is, of course, easier said than done. The noise is loud, and you have forgotten what the core reason for doing this really is. So I recommend you start by making a list of all the reasons you’re doing it, and then put them in priority order. Maybe Uncle Joe’s first, maybe money is first, maybe it’s that crazy, intoxicating flow state in which you don’t actually remember anything you’ve written. Getting on the USA Today Bestseller list is a different reason than having enough money to send your kids to college, even if, at first blush, they look interrelated. Whatever it is, acknowledge it, be true to it, be honest with yourself about it.

Just having this list will make it so much easier to say no to the voices. No, bad review, I don’t need to hear what you’re saying, because you are not relevant to what I do next. No, I don’t care that beta heroes aren’t selling. No, I don’t need to do that promo opportunity, because it doesn’t feed my soul.

It will also make it easier to say yes. Yes, that will help me make money, and if I am being honest with myself, money is big, bigger than I wanted to be. Yes, I want to be on Twitter today, because part of why am doing this is the people, the conferences, the camaraderie. Yes, please, I want to be your friend, I have always wanted to be your friend, even when I thought you were so much better than me that I didn’t think it was worth trying to get your attention.

Most of all, it will make it easier to distinguish between yes and no, because it will make it easier to remember what matters, and why.

So do it. Stick to the plan.

First, make a plan.

About Serena Bell

Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better. Read more >
This entry was posted in Writing Wonkomance. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to First, Make a Plan

  1. Rhyll Biest says:

    Very true, writers sometimes seem to be the people worst affected by too many outside voices.

    • Serena Bell says:

      I think it’s the strength-weakness thing. Greatest gift also equals biggest liability. :-) Or, really, I should have said it vice-versa, since that’s a happier thought. :-)

  2. I am in the quit and open a chocolate shop place and it feels just awful and I want to scoff at your plan idea.

    Like that will help.

    But it does. I know it does. Thanks for this post – I needed it today.

    • Serena Bell says:

      You’re really, really welcome–it makes me happy to help you on a chocolate shop day, and you know, if you don’t feel better soon, we can open a shop together. :-)

      Making a plan definitely doesn’t help instantaneously. But you can keep looking back at it, every time something comes into your mental space, every time someone demands something of you, every time you feel overwhelmed, and you can say, In a clearer head, this is what I knew I needed to do, so I’m going to just believe it and do it, now. I put “sustainability” at the top of my list of priorities for my career, and as whacked as that sounds, it really does, on a daily basis, help me make better decisions. Will replying to this email RIGHT NOW BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE IT’S REALLY REALLY IMPORTANT help me make this career more sustainable? No? Then it’s not that important.

  3. Fledgling published writers need an “It Gets Better” campaign, I often think.

    Although it didn’t seem great at the time, looking back I’m sometimes glad I wrote my first two published books in an almost total vacuum. I was working so hard to stay anonymous, I had no CPs and almost no web presence, nothing to distract me (other than the two kids and full-time day job). At least when I hit the input-overload stage I was on about my third or fourth book. I was facing a lot of conscious incompetence, though.

    Were you part of the conversation (can’t remember if it was at a con, or Camp Wonkomanka) where the upshot was, the whole Malcolm Gladwell, 10,000 hours thing applies to several different stages of the writing career? Like…it takes about two years to learn how to be a newly published author, including the part where you query successfully, etc. and basically everything that happens *after* you sell the book but *before* the book drops, through the first wave of promo, blog tours, and all the other “firsts”. Then there’s another two years or so where you know that part, but you’re learning how to integrate all that with your writing, and find that balance. By the end of that time you can more or less crank out three or more books a year and write up a guest blog post with one hand while the other is busy updating your website…and then you wake up one day and realize, “Hey…craft! That is a thing I have room in my brain to care about!” And the next stage begins, etc.

    Learning to tune out the noise is key at every stage, because when you can do that, you can finally pay attention to the noise of the *next* stage. Those later noises are arguably less stressful and more engrossing (right now my background noise is all about craft and I don’t mind it one bit).

    Obviously the final stage–which hardly anybody reaches–is Nora “Apotheosis” Roberts.

    • Serena Bell says:

      An It Gets Better campaign would definitely have been helpful this year. And t-shirts. T-shirts always help.

      I think? maybe you and Cara and I were talking about the 10,000 hours thing at the airport. I was definitely there, regardless, and I actually think about it all the time. 10,000 hours for telling a coherent novel-length story, 10,000 for figuring out how to tell one that will sell in the market (and if you’re lucky, writing the synopses and queries you need to do it), 10,000 for figuring out how to be a published without losing your mind–mastering social media and promo and interacting with a publishing team and all that stuff. I think once upon a time you didn’t need 50,000 hours to be really really good at being an author, but (as we’ve all said so many times it has become a cliche), in this environment, where authors are expected to be writers, sales & marketing experts, Web site designers, self-publishers, SEO/social-media experts–that’s a lot to master, and we’re just little individual humans.

      I’m DEFINITELY looking forward to a moment when craft becomes the main thing on my mind again. :-)

  4. Ruthie Knox says:

    I have nothing but incoherent nodding today. Plans are good. Plans are a form of self-care, and self-care is necessary in a business — maybe like most businesses? — where the only person who is going to take care of you is you. Where, in fact, the tendency of the industry is to exploit every last drop of your willingness and energy, cheerfully, while praising you, until you are a husk. The only thing to stop huskdom is you. Backstopped by your plan.

    • Serena Bell says:

      And I nod back in incoherent agreement, about the tendency of the situation to reduce us to husks, unless we say just refuse. And this is even when all the players involved are loving, well-meaning, supportive people.

  5. Shari Slade says:

    *snot crying* Yes.

  6. Sri says:

    “A fuckload of noise.”

    Yes and Yes. This is how it feels in my head, all the time now. And I can’t drown it out. I’ve forgotten why I even started on this path..

    I’m still not sure if a plan is enough to drown out that noise but I’m more than willing to try.

    Thank you for this,


    • Serena Bell says:

      You’re so so welcome. That is EXACTLY how it felt to me, more than once this year. But I have slowly gotten it to quiet down. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one back, and occasionally one forward two back :-) but it IS getting easier and the plan, particularly the articulating of the priorities (for me, in order: sustainability, enjoyability, quality, revenue, popularity), has played an enormous role in making it possible to make sane decisions.

  7. Well. This was aptly timed for me. I was nodding along vigorously with this entire thing. It’s so true, every bit of it, and you’re right. Everyone needs to step back and breathe, make priorities and realize it’s okay to say no to something, that you’re not missing out if you’re not on Twitter/FB/G+/Pinterest/Whatever-the-fuck all day long. Now I just need to find time to actually do this. My deadline lurks right around the corner.

    • Serena Bell says:

      :-) Glad the timing was good. And hiya! Good to “see” you. :-)

      Take ten minutes & write out the list of all the reasons you’re doing it, five more to put them in order of priority, and then look at it every single time you have to decide anything–whether to check email, whether to go on Twitter, whether to do that promo thang, whether to sign another contract. See if you don’t feel better three days from now because of that fifteen minutes of expended effort.

  8. Karla Doyle says:

    Oh, very yes to all this.
    Thank you for the post, Serena. xo


  9. Jessi Gage says:

    “In the midst of all that noise, it is so hard, so terribly hard, to write a book, let alone a good book.”

    YES! Exactly, Serena. Thank you for saying this.

    I see it in my own life. I see it in my friends and critique partners. That first book (or first 5) we wrote before “arriving” in publishing contain such magic because we were able to write at our leisure, driven by our own sense of purpose, free to explore where the muse led us. After arriving, we are driven by external forces and unnatural influence that may clash with our muse. Our failures become public. Our ability to flower or fumble under pressure is exposed, sometimes brutally.

    But if we can make it work and still create something magical despite the noise, it’s the greatest high. To do so, you’re saying we need a plan. That’s a wonderful concept and one I’ll be thinking about. It’s more than determination. It’s being deliberate while also maintaining that spontaneity that allows us to embrace the wonder and magic of story.

    Thank you for the encouragement. This will help a lot of people today.

    • Serena Bell says:

      You bring up a really good point here, about balancing deliberate & spontaneous. I think the idea is that if you make a plan, you can be spontaneous, trusting that you’ve done the hard thinking about what matters so when you make a decision, you’re doing in a framework you’ve thought about & embraced. Then you don’t have to agonize about every one, which actually promotes spontaneity and creativity.

  10. Lauren Layne says:

    I could not stop nodding and making “I hear that!” type noises while reading this. I appreciate your bravery in speaking up, because I think these honest posts are so important. Writing is such a solitary career and without this type of candor from other writers, it’s all too easy to go down the “what am I doing wrong?” path.

    I know everybody’s journey is different, but I for one, am right there with you. With so much noise and so many paths (none of them easy), a plan can really make the difference between creative paralysis/burnout and a fulfilling career in something you love.

    And for those of you who chafe at the idea of a plan, start small! When the business plan I wrote pre-agent wildly underprepared me for published life, I knew I had to rethink everything, but didn’t know where to start. Write down your five top priorities when it comes to your writing (money, bestseller, creative freedom, work/life balance, etc) Don’t be fancy and formal about it. Get a sticky note, open Evernote, uncrumple a cocktail napkin, and just go with your gut. Now circle/bold three of those priorities that speak loudest. Good. Now underline the noisiest of the priorities.

    There you have it — THAT is what you want. Go forth.

    • Serena Bell says:

      I am actually kind of a huge fan of the napkin. I think all the best thinking happens when the circumstances aren’t too formal. Or, you know what else is good? I like to take printed manuscripts and cut each sheet into quarters and use it as notepaper. (That’s also a good reminder that today’s brilliance is tomorrow’s recycling. :-) And if you want to keep extending the metaphor, that from old brilliance new brilliance springs. :-))

  11. Serena Bell says:

    Also, I really needed this today, too, I’m realizing. One of the things that’s hard about the onslaught of noise is that it feels like the only way to make sense of it and stay true to yourself is to retreat into the cave. But then if you get too cave-y, you get sad. Also, I think the more noise, the easier it is to get “lost” in the crowd. Like, I’m surrounded by this awesome community, but if I don’t deliberately engage it (because the plan says so :-)), then I sort of drown in it. I didn’t realize I was feeling lonely, but writing this post, and having everyone say, HEY YEAH, has been a big boost.

  12. Cate Ellink says:

    Thank you, Serena. Reading that list of inputs during your first year of author-dom, is exhausting!

    I’ve been struggling but couldn’t distinguish what I was struggling with. Your post articulated what I’ve had no clue about – as so often the Wonk posts do! Thank you!

    Cate xox

    • Serena Bell says:

      So glad it helped! I was that way for a long time, too, struggling, unhappy, with no way to articulate it. I think that’s why when I finally found a way out of the madness that worked for me, I wanted to tell as many people as I could. :-)

  13. Christine says:

    First I love your books!
    But secondly and most importantly, I find your article to be very timely. It’s a much different world to live in as an author now, with the age of social media. So much time that used to be used for writing now being taken up by these miniscule time bits of twitter, and facebook and so on that add up to huge chunks of your day, and your psyche. I don’t envy the stresses that come with being an author, I’m much happier to be in the reader category. And I feel the least I can do after reading a book that I enjoy is to write about it, share it, review it honestly and make the author feel that they have done their job in sharing their vision with a reader. Kudos to you for broaching this personal topic.

    • Serena Bell says:

      Thank you so much, Christine! I’m really happy to have you as a reader.

      I think all this stuff applies no matter what you do. You can get overwhelmed by opinions and outside inputs and the general overstimulation of the world no matter who you are and what you’re doing. And the cure is still the same. Figure out what the heck you WANT to be doing, then require everything else to line up and take a number. :-)

  14. Bona says:

    Great post. I’m a reader, not an author. I have seen that no matter how great I think a novel is, there’s always some other reader that finds it horrible. And meaningless novels that I just want to throw to the wall, are very ‘artistic, insightful and marvellous’ for others. So, I just don’t how you authors do it. I mean, how can you know which critic is really useful and which is not. Even bona fide critics can be very wrong in the end.
    And the second thing is that you always need a plan in life, no matter what your job is, but specially if you are a creative person. If you don’t, the anxiety will creep all over you. You will not be able to breath, to enjoy your life because there’s always something you have to do in this chaotic world. There was a time when I discovered that I had to stop and say I have just these hours a day and I’m going to use them this way. First this, then that and when it’s over it’s over.
    I remember a model, Judit Mascó, once said something like time is like a puzzle: you have to fit in all the pieces but don’t try to put more pieces that you can.

    • Serena Bell says:

      Thanks! Loved this response. Yes, it’s very hard to know what criticism to take, and it takes time to assimilate. The best way, if you can do it (on good days I can, on bad days I can’t), is to take it in but to view it all as “just opinions” as opposed to truth. And then sit with it a long time until your own internal critic, which is the one you need to listen to, decides which of the criticism really resonates with what it (the internal critic) already believes. And then you can figure out what changes to make.

      And yes, everyone needs a plan, every day. And I think smaller plans, moment by moment ones. Otherwise life ends up being like that funny thing that happens when you go upstairs and then can’t remember why you’re upstairs and have to go back downstairs again to remember why you went upstairs.

  15. Fiona McGier says:

    Thanks for this. Yes. I’ve just had an unpleasant reaction from an author on whose site I was going to do some promo, but I don’t have twitter. She told me it wasn’t worth it without it, then sent me links to how to set it up. I work outside the home, and have a family to interact with also. So my hours to write are precious. I barely have time to check my emails some days, let alone time to write. So I told I’d have to decline. She wasn’t happy with me. Sigh. Some days I’m not happy with me either. And my husband, loyal to the end, has begun suggesting there might be better, more productive hobbies for me to spend hours on every day. But I still like to tell my stories. As long as publishers think what I write is worth it, I’ll keep writing.

    • Serena Bell says:

      It is so, so hard not to let everything that happens feel like either affirmation or criticism. Being a people pleaser, I have had a terrible time with this. When a decision I need to make for myself clashes with what someone else wants, or even wants for me, those are the hardest moments. Hang in there, and definitely keep writing!

  16. Jackie Horne says:

    Coming out of my own cave days after your post just to say “thanks.” Your idea of writing down why you write, and keeping it handy, using it to help you stay focused on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, to help you choose what to say yes to, what to say no to — SO needed today!

    Of to make my own list….

    — Jackie