Writing Excuses 15.05: Setting Goals for Your Career
Key Points: Set short-term and long-term goals. Think about who are you writing for. Do what you want to do. Write what you want to read. Watch out for the mortality rate in publishing, it can be demoralizing. Everone’s career is different. Set goals for yourself. Think about what you want to do this year, what you want to do with a series, what kind of space you want to be in, what genres you want to write in. Be aware of the wavelength in your genre, how big are the peaks, how long is the tail. Look for goals that you can control, such as daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly word count goals. Word count versus time spent? Another career goal might be to have a plan for when this career ends and you move to the next. Careers take many shapes. Focus on the goals when you are writing a book, what is the next step in front of you. One word at a time. Sometimes your career plan is to write something wildly different. Write what you love vs. mass appeal? Think about author brand, think about writing that is always you. What is your through line, to keep readers following? The voyage, what kind of story do I want to tell, is being true to yourself. How am I going to tell it is marketing. Look for the common thread in your writing, the similarity that you want to hold onto.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode Five.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Setting Goals for Your Career.
[Victoria] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Victoria] I’m Victoria.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m realizing that I should have set more goals.
[Brandon] So, this is a really interesting question we’ve gotten here that I don’t think we’ve ever covered on the podcast before. Which makes me excited whenever we get a question that spirals us in some new direction. What kind of goals…
[Howard] Especially one that depresses me.
[Brandon] What kind of goalsetting do you do in your career?
[Dan] This is something we have talked about a little bit with Dongwon. But I am very interested to hear what Victoria has to say about it, because I feel like she is one of my models that I try to follow, because you do so much career planning for yourself.
[Victoria] I’m a Slytherin, right?
[Victoria] So I’m both very ambitious and very prone to…
[Brandon] I’m a Slytherin, too.
[Victoria] I love it. I love it. This side of the table, we like to plan our futures…
[Victoria] In very specific ways. Well, I also think I’ll probably have some differing or interesting answers, only because I started when I was 21, I’m now 32. I have had many hills and valleys, and it has taught me to be very intentional about the way that I set goals, and that I try and create and shape this weird thing called a career.
[Dan] So, give us some examples.
[Victoria] Well, I think it’s really important to set both short-term and long con. I’m a firm believer in both. But I had an upset early on in my career, three books in, where everything went terribly, terribly wrong. I was 25 years old and about to quit. I decided, before I quit, I was going to try and write one more book. I was going to throw out any notions that I had about audience. I was going to write specifically for a version of myself. I was writing a 25-year-old me book. So, because of that, I put in it exactly what I wanted to read. I began to cultivate this idea that when we are writing for an audience, specificity will always be better than breadth. I wrote it as weird, as dark, as strange as I wanted, and I had a lot of fun. The book that came out of that was Vicious. It would go on to restart my career. It would go on to open a lot of doors. But really, what it did was it taught me, from there on, every book that I wrote, I would write for an age of myself, whether I’m writing for 10-year-old me with my middle grades, 17-year-old me with my YA, current me with my adults, and made sure that that audience was so hyper specific. The more specific I got in my planning of my audience, the larger my actual audience grew.
[Howard] My career really didn’t begin as a cartoonist until I was maybe 33, 34. I started Schlock Mercenary when I was 31. I’m fascinated that… Fascinated, and I’m saying this for the benefit of our listeners, that someone at age 25 can feel like their career is over. Because when I was… Wait, wait, let me finish. When I was 25, I had no career in anything yet. It’s not about getting started early, it’s about doing the thing that you discover you want to do. With Schlock Mercenary, I think I was about 32, 33 years old when I realized this comic is working for people because I’m writing the thing that I want to read. At the time, the idea that a science fiction comic strip could be funny without making fun of science fiction was a little weird. That was… Everything else in the space I was working in was making fun of science fiction. What I was writing, and it took eight years to figure it out, with the help of Brandon and Dan, what I was writing was social satire. I didn’t know that that is what I loved. But it turned out that it was, and I’m happy I did it.
[Victoria] I do want to preface this with a… I’m going to throw out some what seem like very young ages. I did start in my teens. So I did put in years from before. I knew I wanted to be an author from age 16. I got my first literary agent at age 19. I was 22 when my first book sold. One of the reasons I say you can get to 25 and feel like you’re ready to quit is because the mortality rate in publishing is very high, and five years in publishing… It’s like dog years, where I felt like I had been in this for a very long time. Publishing can be kind of demoralizing in that way. I’m sure that you guys have covered it and I’m sure that we’re going to cover it more.
[Dan] So, for me, I mean one of the mistakes that I made, looking back, is assuming that I was Brandon Sanderson.
[Victoria] Don’t we all?
[Dan] We’ve been friends for decades.
[Brandon] Man, I have trouble with that as well.
[Dan] So, we shared an editor at the same time. All these kind of similarities. So, watching your career gave me… Not an unrealistic sense of my career, but just an assumption of oh, this is how a career works. Which is not true. Everyone’s career is very different. So I was not setting goals for myself, I was just kind of like, “Oh, I got published a year behind Brandon. Everything’s going to also be about a year behind Brandon.” I was not setting goals for myself at all. This has nothing to do with relative levels of success, just that I was not proactively planning what my career was going to look like. I was kind of coasting on assumptions. Then I hit a point where I realized, “Oh, wait, I have to try so much harder than I’m trying right now.” So I did set down and do some goal planning. This is what I’m going to do this year. This is my goal for this series. This is the kind of space that I want to be in next. In a few years from now, I want to expand into this other genre, or do these other things.
[Victoria] Well, I do want to also say I came at it through a bit of trial by fire, in that I started in YA. YA is potentially, of all the subgenres and all of the classifications, the most cutthroat in that they decide before your book is out…
[Dan] Oh, my word. Yes.
[Victoria] Whether you have succeeded or failed. It is not a mentally very healthy and sustainable way to do things. So I think YA has the highest mortality rate, as I call it, among authors. They are very, very flash-in-the-pan focused, very what is hot right now and it is not hot tomorrow. Whereas one of the best things that I did for myself mentally was to expand out into adult genre, into science fiction and fantasy. I remember going to my publisher about two weeks after Vicious came out and being like, “Am I a success or am I a failure?” He said, “Your book just came out two weeks ago.” I said, “Yes. You’ve had plenty of time to know.”
[Victoria] Tor was like, “Check back in in a year or two. This isn’t how we work.” So I do think that there’s a lot of these things which cause us to feel even lonelier in the process, even lacking in not only role models and ideals, but also simply in peer qualities, peer information. We don’t share information very willingly. We’re taught that everyone is an island unto themselves. It’s a very isolation driven process.
[Brandon] Yeah. You talk about mortality rate. I’ve always discussed it as what I call wavelength. Certain genres have bigger peaks and bigger valleys. Just because of how many books are being released and the potential audiences and things like that. YA, I’ve noticed, man, if you get kind of a staple in adult science fiction and fantasy, it sells much longer, has a much longer tail, but that peak sometimes can be a lot lower than in YA. I like that you’re all talking about this. I think people, when they hear or read the title for this episode, they’re going to think, “Oh, goals are things like I want to hit the New York Times list, or I want to sell this many copies.” None of us are talking about goals like that. We’re talking about, if I… What are my goals? When I set goals, my goals are usually daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly word count goals. I actually have a spreadsheet, and every day, I have the spreadsheet showing me how much I’ve done, how much is left. The average I would have to write each working day if I want to finish by this date. That’s a really useful word count for me, because I know if it gets too high, then I have to change my date. Because it becomes beyond what I can do in a given day sustainably.
[Howard] Isn’t that more of a Ravenclaw thing?
[garbled… You just… Howard… The other day…]
[Victoria] I think it’s really interesting, and I do want to bring it up, because I think you and I, Brandon, have very opposite tactics, but we both measure. Which is that I used to measure word count, but some days, as everyone who listens to this and I’m sure all of you know, you can work for eight hours that day, you can do a huge amount of legwork on your story, and you can achieve very few words. So, earlier, about a year and a half ago, I switched from word count to time spent. It’s not quite as reliable for hitting a very specific deadline, but I found that from a mental health perspective and from a productivity perspective, creating a lower threshold of what I need to accomplish in order to feel like I’m succeeding creates a much more diminished self loathing and then allows me to conversely be far more productive in any given day.
[Brandon] This is definitely something you have to do individual, because… Individually, because I don’t have that worry. I don’t have that… What is… If I’m recording every day and I hit a period where there’s low word counts, that’s important for me to know, because it means that I need to look at the story and something’s wrong. Right? If I’m doing low word counts… If I’m doing low word counts once in a while, the average word count I need to hit in order to hit this goal doesn’t change very much because it’s over time. But I don’t have this… Like, if I’m not productive, like the…
[Victoria] You don’t have my self loathing existential crisis. [Garbled]
[Brandon] I don’t end up having that. But a lot of people do, that’s very, very common.
[Victoria] It is. It’s very common. But I think this gets back to the point you were making before, which is when we are talking about goals, we are being very careful to confine it to goals that are in our control as creators, because we all know that there are so many facets of this industry and so many factors that will never be in your control. It is really fun to dwell on those instead of doing your work.
[Howard] I want to offer a goal here which may sound a little bit negative at first. When I was talking, years ago, with Jay Lake, who has since passed away. He is one of my favorite people, because he introduced me at WorldCon to other people by saying, “He’s writing the best science fiction comic that exists.” I was like, “Who is this guy? How did I end up on his friend’s list?” But he told me that the average career length for people in this field… Not career length for the people whose names maybe you know from seeing them on bookshelves forever, but for people who get published, and then go on to do other things, was like 5 to 7 years.
[Howard] Yeah, the mortality rate. Then he told me, “Howard, you’ve been doing this for 12 years, you’re a fixture.” Except he began… He inserted an adjective before fixture.
[Howard] It made me feel wonderful, but it was also a little terrifying. Because the career goal that I didn’t have, and the one that I’m offering to all of you is, I want… When this career ends, I’m going to accept that it may end at some point, I want to know what I want to do next. I want to live my life in such a way, I want to do this career in such a way that when it draws to a close, it doesn’t draw to a close in a panic, it draws to a close because I still have a plan.
[Victoria] This is fascinating to me. I just celebrated a decade in publishing, like I celebrated it, like I had hit… Like, my 100th birthday.
[Victoria] I was so excited on it. Because… I think I did that because around six or seven years in, people started calling me an overnight success. I was amazed and insulted, because I think we have this idea, we love to fetishize the metrics of success, which are not in an author’s control, and in so doing, erase a huge amount of the work that is going to create where you are at that point. So I think that’s one of the reasons we’ll always be focusing, or we try to re-center this on the minutia of the daily word count goals, or of the annual creativity goals, or of the hopes for the longevity or shape of our career, or the caveat plans that we make. Because, like you… The same way that you write a book, one word at a time, you get through and you make a career one word at a time, one year at a time. You finally get to say… And look, like five years in, right around the time that I sold Vicious, I also did a work-for-hire project for Scholastic. I found other ways to stay in the career, because a day job in writing was still going to give me an opportunity to be writing. I think sometimes we get to purity focused on like you’re either a full-time writer, or you’re not a real writer at all. The fact is like there are so many shapes that these careers take. There are so many hills and valleys, even on an escalation towards whatever we call success. You’re still going to have years where you feel like you didn’t do as much, where you feel like your position wasn’t as high, regardless of where you are. I think that can be very un-grounding. So I think focusing on what are our individual… What are our goals when we’re writing a book, what are our goals for the next step in front of us? Because really that’s all we can really contain.
[Brandon] One of the best writers I know, flat out best writers I know, has never sold a book. This is partially because lots of health issues, some mental health issues, mean that for her, simply writing every week is a fight and a struggle, and writing something good… She keeps going and has kept going for 20 years, and writes amazing fantastic stuff, where the question for her is not, “Will I hit the bestseller list?” It is, “Do I get my writing done this week, through all the other things in my life that are so difficult?” She’s really inspiring because of that.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is Ghost Station.
[Dan] Ghost Station. So, this is mine. About four years ago, as I started to realize, oh, I have hit the end of a phase of my career, and I did not plan for a second phase, what am I going to do now? That’s when I sat down and, like I said earlier, I started to look at genre. This is a weird thing for me to say, because I’m already in like four different ones, but I decided part of my career goal, my career plan, was I wanted to move into something wildly different. Reach an entirely separate audience that I had not yet been reaching. I love historical fictions, so I started writing historical fiction. It took me a couple of tries to get it right. But, last November, it came out as an Audible original called Ghost Station, which is my historical thriller. Cryptographers in Berlin in 1961 about two months after the Wall goes up. They’re trying to figure out what’s going on, and they’re trying to reach their double agent on the other side. It’s all just Cold War thriller. It’s totally different from everything I’ve written before, but I loved it. I love everything about it. I’m hoping that this can build a new phase of career.
[Brandon] That’s an Audible Original, so if you have an Audible subscription, it’s one of the freebies that you can get every month, is that what that is, or is it…
[Dan] It’s not… It’s not necessarily going to be free. But you can get it dirt cheap, yeah.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah, because I think with your subscription, they have some weird thing. So go look it up. It is Audio Original.
[Dan] Yeah. So, a year after it releases, so next November, we’ll be able to bring out a print edition of it. But…
[Dan] For now, it is Audible exclusive, and they’ve done a fantastic job with it.
[Brandon] So, kind of coming out this topic from a different direction, we have two questions here asking basically the same thing. How do you balance writing what you love versus aiming for mass appeal? I like this question, because a lot of our listeners might be thinking, “Man, I wish I had Dan Wells’s problem.”
[Brandon] “Of, man, I have to have four different careers going.” They’re like, “I’d like to have one.” So, backing it up to aspiring writers…
[Victoria] Yeah. I have very complicated feelings on this, and I’ll try and articulate them all. But I was actually thinking about what you were saying, Dan. I was thinking about the nature of your career, Brandon. I was thinking about the ways I fall somewhere very specifically in between them. Which is, I was thinking about author brand. Right? The thing is, like all of your books, Brandon, happen inside a universe that you have designed. So they all have a connective thread. Very few of my books have a connective thread, but I feel like we have… we both have an author brand. The idea that my readers can go from my middle grade, my YA, my adult, they can pick up any of the books, they’re still going to feel like me. Damn, you were talking about the fact that you’re entering into a genre that you haven’t written in before, but I’ve now read your work in several genres, and I would say that your books always feel like you. So, like I know… I would be completely inauthentic to say, “Just write what you love. Never think about audience. Never think about brand.” Because even when I’m thinking about audience, it’s me. But I’m thinking about very specific versions of me, targeted to very specific audiences. I think one of the greatest things you can do as a creator is begin to think about what your through line is between your books. Is there something that kind of Pied Piper leads readers from one to the next? Is there a reason that readers should not, se… A series fandom should not stick with you for only one series, but should follow you from book to book. Because I think that’s one of the great challenges that authors have, perhaps when they start with a series or a trilogy, and they finish that trilogy, and they go to write a new thing and they haven’t cultivated an author brand. So they have a series brand, and people don’t follow.
[Howard] Next week, we’re going to be talking with Pat Rothfuss about prose. It just occurred to me that… This is harkening back to stuff that we said last month about the voyage, point A to point B. The story that you want to tell may well be that voyage, that point A to point B. What kind of person takes that trip in a sports car? What kind of reader takes it in a minivan? What kind of reader takes it in a four-wheel-drive truck? The prose that you use, the words that you use, the pacing that you used to tell your story, I think that is going to have more bearing on the market than the point A to point B. So being true to yourself may be what kind of story do I want to tell. Then, market chasing is how am I going to tell it?
[Dan] Let me give an example of this from my own work. This is not something that I had realized was my through line until a reader pointed it out. That in all of my books, there is a character who is obsessed with something and you get very deeply into it. Whether that is serial killer lore or virology in the Partials series or computer programming in the Mirador series. Even my middle grade is essentially a hard science fiction as a kid learns about space travel and microgravity. So what I have realized since then is, “Oh. My characters tend to get really excited about something. They delve super deep into it.” That is what excites me as author. So I can write in anything. That’s why I wrote a book about cryptographers, because they get super excited, enthused, and we learn all this stuff about cryptography. But then there’s a totally different story around it.
[Victoria] I definitely think if I’m looking at similarity, I have 16 books. The thing is that they’re all about all kinds of different things. The two things they all have in common is that they’re weird. Like, they’re not realism. They have some kind of thing that’s left of center. But also, I try to balance the accessibility of the prose with the poetry of the prose that I like. I am really interested in writing books that convince people that they don’t like a genre that they do like the genre. So I’m very much about finding that central space that doesn’t alienate, but opens the door and says, “Come in.” Like, I know that you don’t know if you like the space. I know you find this space daunting. But I love being an entry point into a deeper space of the genre. For me, a lot of that comes down to, as Howard was saying, to the way I tell my stories. I specifically gear them toward a central audience that is perhaps a little bit wider, a little less niche. I do that because I know once I can get them in the room, I can tell whatever story I want. But I want to get them in the room first.
[Brandon] We are a little overtime…
[Brandon] So we’re going to wrap it here. We could probably keep talking about this forever. But, Victoria, you have some homework for us.
[Victoria] I do have some homework. We’ve been talking in this episode about making sure you not only have goals, but those goals are delineated between things in your control and things out of your control. An exercise that I actually go through with my agent every year, and that I did before I was agent did as well, is called the 1-5-10. I sit down, because I love lists. I feel like most of us really like making lists, because it gives us a false sense of control over the universe. I make goals of what do I want to achieve in one year, in five years, and in 10 years. Where do I want to be? Thinking of it that way allows me to look at my most immediate goals, finishing a project that I’m working on, maybe the five year allows me to shift my place in what kind of stories I’m writing or take on something that’s a bit of a daring challenge, and the 10 year starts being about career, starts being about the shape of the imprint that you’re making and the goals that you hope to do. I think it’s really important. I want you to try and make three lists, a one, a five, and a ten. I want you to be ambitious, but I really want you to try and keep those goals to things that you can actively influence and control. If you need to make a second list of 1-5-10 for hopes and dreams, that is absolutely fine, but I think it’s really important that we don’t conflate the metrics of success, like hitting a bestseller list or selling X number of copies that the industry controls so much of with the things that we can actually control as creators.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.