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Is Setting Goals Setting You Up for Failure?

It happens every January. I go to the fitness center to work out. I can’t get on a treadmill. They are all taken. So I wait until someone finishes their workout. By March, I have my choice of unoccupied treadmills.

Studies show that most people abandon their New Year’s resolutions within a month or two of making them. I used to set annual writing goals and post them on my blog at the beginning of each year. I’ve stopped doing it. It’s not that I don’t believe in goals. Taking stock of my life, my writing, and my work periodically is healthy. I do it more than once a year. I do it whenever I find myself in a rut.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about goal setting and it gives insight into why so many well intentioned New Year’s resolutions fail. Setting too many goals and unachievable goals is a recipe for failure. What has helped me more than anything is to focus on The One Thing that is causing the problem. And once I’ve identified The One Thing, I can turn all of my attention and energy to fixing it.

Let’s look at resolutions or goals that are too ambitious and unrealistic. Let’s see…I want to work out four times a week, eat healthy, lose weight, meet the person of my dreams and crank out a novel—all in one year. When I fall behind, when I can’t get to the fitness center, when I’m too tired to write, when I don’t have time to eat and I wolf down some fast food because it’s cheap and delicious, those goals fade away. And it shatters my confidence.

How to get back on track? Focus on The One Thing. Two years ago, for health reasons, I revolutionized my diet. I dedicated myself to work out three to four times a week and eat a health diet with no sugar, no processed foods and very little red meat. Two years later, I feel great. I’ve lost weight, I’m fit and I sleep better. I did that by focusing on The One Thing. And I’m a more productive writer.

While I am still struggling six years later on my novel (one of my old goals was to write a novel a year), I am a better writer now. Writing is hard. Writing is time consuming. My work-in-progress is stronger now because I’ve torn the story apart twice and rebuilt it into a more coherent and powerful narrative. My novel is infinitely better than it was two and a half years ago, when I sent it to my editor. I thought it was ready for publication again, but I had a long way to go. I’m now writing with focus and purpose.

So here’s my take on setting goals:

1. Set realistic goals, assessing where you are and what is realistic. Setting a goal to run a marathon in six months is unrealistic. Start with a quarter mile, buildi up to a half mile and you will be running a mile before you know it. It’s the same with writing. If you’ve never written a book before, it might not be realistic to expect to write one in a year, though that shouldn’t stop you. If you can’t get to 1,000 words a day, try, 500, or 300 good ones.

2. Take small steps. You’ve heard the advice that the best way to tackle a big project is to break it down into small pieces. It’s true in writing goals and in life goals. Using the word count analogy, if you have only 30 minutes a day, you can probably write 500 words. That’s 3,500 words in a week, and 42,000 words a year. Not bad for a half hour a day. of course you could always do more with more time to write.

3. If you don’t achieve your goals, recalibrate them. Small achievements lead to big ones and you’ll be surprised how much progress you will make.

So go for it. Set realistic goals and focus on achieving them.


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Book Review: “The Ninth Hour,” by Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott’s new novel, The Ninth Hour, begins with a suicide and a failed cover-up, setting off a series of events tinged with moral dilemmas that cascade for decades.

Fired from his job as a train man for the BRT and with a pregnant wife, Jim, an Irish immigrant, commits suicide in the apartment he shares with Annie. An elderly nun, Sister Saint Saviour of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, takes pity on Annie. The crafty nun makes a foiled attempt to cover up the suicide, wanting to give Jim a Christian burial.

The scene highlights the conflict between the Catholic Church’s rules and the compassion Sister St. Saviour feels for the fallen man and his poor widow. It’s a theme McDermott returns to throughout the story.

The nuns give Annie a job in the basement laundry room of the convent, where they practically raise her daughter, Sally. Annie befriends Michael and Liz Tierney, and their families become close over the years, their stories intertwining with hers.

Set in early 20th Century Brooklyn, The Ninth Hour portrays the nuns not as overly virtuous or inhumanly harsh caricatures, but as three dimensional sober-eyed champions of the downtrodden: cleaning bedpans and soiled clothing, ministering to invalids and poor people, and giving comfort to people without hope. Their morality is guided not by the priests, who rarely appear in the story, but by their own sense of what is right and fair.

The nuns are richly drawn characters. Sister Jeanne, a young nun who takes Sally under her wing, “believed with the conviction of an eyewitness that all human loss would be restored: the grieving child would have her mother again; the dead infant would find robust health; suffering, sorrow, accident and loss would all be amended in heaven. She believes this because…fairness demanded it.”

Sister Illuminati runs the basement laundry room with energetic efficiency. Here, McDermott’s fine eye for detail is on display as she writes of Sister Illuminati’s assortment of laundry ingredients: “the store bought Borax and Ivory and bluing agents, but the potions she mixed herself: bran water to stiffen curtains and wimples, alum water to make muslin curtains and nightwear fire resistant, brewed coffee to darken the sisters’ stockings and black tunics, Fels-Naptha water for general washing, Javelle water (washing soda, chloride of lime, boiling water) for restoring limp fabric.”

There is the no-nonsense Sister Lucy, who is described as having “a small tight knot of fury at the center of her chest.”

Each of the nuns makes compromises in the name of love and mercy. Sister Saint Saviour, when she reflects on her attempt to obtain a Christian burial for a man who committed suicide, prays to God, “Hold it against the good I’ve done, she prayed. We’ll sort it out when I see You.”

On the cusp of adulthood, Sally believes she has a vocation for the convent. However, during a train ride to a Chicago convent where she will prepare for her orders, Sally is revolted by the cruelty and squalor she experiences. She quickly decides not to become a nun.

What she desires more than anything is to find happiness for her mother, who spends her afternoons with Mr. Costello, a milkman, but cannot marry him because he is married to a bedridden, invalid woman. Sally witnesses Mrs. Costello’s cruelty and contempt for the nuns who care for her each day while Mr. Costello is on his milk route, and she wishes life were more fair.

Eventually, Sally marries childhood friend Patrick Tierney. Later we learn from their children that she has plunged into clinical depression in midlife.

McDermott chooses as her narrator Jim and Annie’s grandchildren, which gives the story a panoramic scope and the perspective of the passage of time. Interwoven are vignettes about the family’s history and the sacrifices made and sins committed in the name of love.

There are many lessons to draw from this novel. The one that resonates most for me is that we are all imperfect, but we must strive to do what is right. As Mrs. Tierney, Sally’s mother-in-law puts it, “God’s not going to hold it against you if you’re something less than a blessed saint. Aren’t we all human? Aren’t we all doing the best we can?”


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Late Revisions Can Save Your Manuscript

I just finished a round of major edits on my manuscript. I was pleased with it, until I received a very thoughtful email from a member of my critique group who had read the latest iteration. Something about the actions of the protagonist’s love interest early in the story bothered her and she presented a way I could fix it. The fix would require major changes later in the manuscript and months of work.

As much as I didn’t want to make any late changes to the story arc or the characters, the more I thought about her suggestion, the more I convinced myself she was correct.

Keep in mind I’ve been working on this story for five years. I’ve reached that point where I am growing tired of the story, but the scene in question is a pivotal one and it had always bothered me.

In the problematical scene, the main character’s lover leaves her without notice when she is seven months pregnant and doesn’t return for a year and a half. He eventually tries to win her back. My colleague’s issue was that his initial action makes him so unlikeable that it is impossible for the reader to believe that he could redeem himself. And she was right. I was conscious of that on some level, but I was too wedded to my original concept to consider changing it.

Now I’m going to have to rewrite that scene and many others. In the new version, he will have a reason to leave. His mom is going through a crisis. He will leave a note for his lover and stay in contact. She will, of course, still harbor resentment, and whether he left to run away from his relationship will remain a source of conflict between them.

All of this raises important questions for writers who are in the late stages of revising a manuscript. At what point does a writer call it a day? How does a writer know the story is done? Is the writer too close to the work to even know?

Here is a series of questions to help make that decision:

–Does the story arc hang together in a cohesive way?

–Do the actions of the main characters make sense to an objective person? A lover leaving his pregnant girlfriend might make sense if he is an antagonist who is going to be an obstacle to the main character achieving her goals, but not if he is going to attempt to reconcile with her.

–Are the actions of the characters consistent with their roles in the story? In the case of the protagonist, is the character’s growth and transformation to achieve her goals realistic? Is the way the protagonist overcomes her weaknesses believable to the reader?

–Are there any unnecessary scenes or characters? Does every scene pay off the story and relate to the protagonist’s transformation?

–When you identify changes to the story, will those changes improve the story in a significant way?

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The Value of a Writer’s Retreat

WU Writers RetreatI returned on Nov. 14 from a six-day writer’s retreat with 15 close friends and colleagues from the online Writer Unboxed writer’s community. Here’s what we accomplished:

Total words written: 126,205
Screenplay drafts: 1
Revised short stories: 4
Poems written: 13
Book Manuscripts Completed: 2

The numbers don’t begin to tell the story. It’s difficult to describe the magic that happens when a writer is united with a supportive group of colleagues infused with a common purpose.

But, first, let me describe the setting. The retreat took place at the When Words Count retreat center, a restored farmhouse built in 1809. The sprawling house is perfect for a retreat, with many writing spaces and cozy nooks perfect for writing. There are 16 acres of rolling hills and farmland surrounding the house.

Our days were unstructured, except for breaks each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, served onsite. What we accomplished was completely up to each of us. Many of us rose early in the morning (okay, some earlier than me) and began writing well before the 9:30 a.m. community breakfast. During the afternoons, after a rigorous six or so hours of writing, some writers took walks to enjoy the breathtaking views of the farmland and the mountains in the distance. At 5:30 there was a cocktail hour, when we could unwind and discuss writing challenges, family life, or anything else that came to mind. A few hearty souls even wrote well into the night, but most of us called it a day at dinner.

After dinner, the conversation was free form and relaxing. One evening, we had a sing along with the renowned Sean Walsh, husband of Writer Unboxed co-founder Therese Walsh, leading us on acoustic guitar. Sean was in fine voice, as usual, and the rest of us did the best we could. It was just the tonic we needed after a day spent in intense concentration.

If you are weighing whether to attend a writer’s retreat, I can say from experience it is worthwhile. It will jumpstart your work-in-progress and you will make new friends and colleagues. Here are some tips for maximizing your retreat experience:

–If possible, arrange to attend with writing colleagues. I’ve never attended a retreat with complete strangers, but the advantage of writing with friends is that you have already formed a bond and can discuss a variety of writing challenges in a candid fashion.

–Check out the retreat space in advance. If it is close enough to where you live, take a trip there. Ask for a tour. Make sure there is ample space for writing. During my last retreat in 2015, I had a positive experience, but the writing space consisted of a large dining room table, where the 10 writers were cramped. There was a smaller table on the second floor where some writers worked, which relieved the crowding. Look for a place with plenty of light and lots of room to write.

–Have a plan and goals going into the retreat. This is the most important tip. If you are working on a first draft, set a goal of finishing the draft. Even if it’s a stretch goal, it will give you something to work toward. Six days is a long time. It’s a rare gift to have a dedicated chunk of time. You must take advantage of this gift.

My goal was to finish the latest draft of my work-in-progress, A Prayer for Maura, and then begin building and editing the manuscript, which was contained in separate chapter documents. I worked feverishly during the weeks leading up to the retreat to get as close to the finish line as I could. On Friday morning, the second full day of the retreat, I finished and then began the tedious work of putting together and editing the manuscript. I finished a few days later, cutting an unwieldy 114,000 words and 46 Chapters to 92,000 words and 21 Chapters. It’s amazing what one can achieve with a block of uninterrupted time.

I am so thankful to my Writer Unboxed colleagues for sharing their experience s, love and support with me. Special thanks go to Amy Rachiele for organizing the retreat, to my roommate, Brian B. King for putting up with me, and to Therese Walsh for creating and leading such a nurturing writer’s community.

Have you attended a writer’s retreat? What advice do you have for others considering a retreat?


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What Happens to NaNoWriMo Novels?

A recent article in Publishers Weekly discussed why the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) program is a boon not only to writers, but to publishers as well. Now in its 18th year, NaNoWriMo is a non-profit organization whose mission is to “provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.”

Writers who enter its contest each year commit to writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, from Nov 1 through 30. That is 1,667 words per day every day for 30 days. Some 350,000 writers joined the annual writing marathon this year. That means there will be a lot of first drafts of novels floating around on Dec, 1. So what happens to all of those novels?

A total of 449 traditionally published novels began as NaNoWriMo projects, wrote Jason Boog, who penned the article entitled, “NaNoWriMo is Big for Writers and It Helps Publishers, Too.” This number only includes those reported on the NaNoWriMo website, where authors can fill in a form stating their book was published. Some 80 of those books were published by Big Five publishers.

That figure is most likely conservative. And it doesn’t include self-published books that began as NaNoWriMo projects.

Publishers like the program because it encourages writing and writers’ communities, the article stated. “It’s been wonderful for the publishing industry,” said Laura Apperson, an editor at St. Martin’s Press. Three St. Martin’s novels began as NaNoWriMo projects: Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, and Nora Zelevansky’s Semi-Charmed Life.”

Author Scott Reintgen, quoted in the article, obtained an agent for his NaNoWriMo novel. He had this to say: “You’re building muscles and you’re leveling up and you’re getting better with every single word you put on the page. That’s what being a writer is all about.”

Having “won” NaNoWriMo three times, my view is that it provides an intensive challenge to writers, forcing discipline and focus. It’s as much about the habits writers develop as it is about producing those 50,000 words. It’s serious business, like a boot camp for writers. And it creates and fosters writing communities. I joined the regional NaNo community in my region and it is a highly supportive and friendly group of writers.

My current work-in-progress, now at 106,000 words, started as a NaNoWriMo novel. It’s been through numerous rewrites and story changes since that time, bot NaNoWriMo was the impetus for its creation.

NaNoWriMo has its critics. Some say it encourages and re-enforces bad writing techniques in the quest for volume over quality. That may be the case, but only if writers don’t treat their work as a first draft in need of heavy revision.

I won’t be entering NaNoWriMo this year, but to all my colleagues who are, I will be thinking about you and rooting you on.

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Insights from Colson Whitehead

It isn’t often one gets to attend a presentation by a Pulitzer Prize winning author. On Oct. 6, 2017, Colson Whitehead, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad, gave a presentation and a reading at Goodwin College in East Hartford, CT, as part of the college’s Roots at 40 academic conference program.

The author of six novels, Whitehead said the idea for a story that envisioned a real underground railroad to carry slaves to freedom came to him years before he started to write the book. At the time, he wasn’t ready to write it. Fast forward to 2014 and Whitehead was working on an uninspiring project and the idea took root. He told his agent, who called him back and said, “I can’t stop thinking about that idea of yours.”

In crafting Cora, the main character, Whitehead drew on slave narratives by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. Also helpful to his research was Fergus Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan, a history of the underground railroad. He also read accounts of former slaves that were transcribed under a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program in the 1930s.

By reimagining the underground railroad, Whitehead sought to illuminate larger truths. “If I stuck to the facts, I wouldn’t get to the larger truths about oppression,” he said.

The story takes place in the 1850s. Each state where Cora hides out on her journey to freedom is its own place with its own set of rules. South Carolina is a relatively benevolent place, but there is a hospital that conducts disturbing experiments with sterilization. When Cora gets to North Carolina, she finds a white supremacist state where lynching of blacks is so common that it is done weekly in the public square as Friday night entertainment. Cora ends up in Indiana, a “black utopia,” where an enlightened farmer provides housing and jobs to former slaves. All the while, she is pursued by a relentless bounty hunter.

As a way of story telling, the technique of creating unique “places” in the various states on Cora’s journey drew on the structure of Gulliver’s Travels, a series of allegorical tales. “The structure is really old, but it’s a natural way of story telling,” he said.

“I wanted to stick to the truth of the black experience of slavery, but not necessarily the facts…I’m playing with history and time, moving things up to talk about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the Holocaust, and the eugenics movement.”

Cora’s journey is harrowing, but Whitehead didn’t feel the need to over-dramatize events. In researching slavery, he found that the matter of fact accounts of the violence inflicted on slaves were the most powerful. “You don’t have to dramatize the violence. The facts speak for themselves.”

He said he wrote The Underground Railroad in 14 months to meet a publication deadline. For the most part, he wrote chronologically, except for the chapter that introduces Ridgeway, the slave bounty hunter. Initially, Whitehead didn’t have the character developed so he went back once he had a fully drawn character.

The Underground Railroad is a powerful story that contributes to our understanding of the reprehensible institution of slavery in all its dimensions.


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Book Review: “The Leftovers,” by Tom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, The Leftovers, is widely seen as a commentary on religious fanaticism. Perrotta conjures up a Rapture-like event, which results in the simultaneous disappearance of millions of people. Its randomness leaves religious fanatics flummoxed. This rapture doesn’t just take the righteous; it takes all sorts of people, from sinners to saints.

The story picks up three years later as the after shocks continue to reverberate. The people left behind are shell shocked. Perrotta’s cast of characters reflect the different reactions to the event. Wealthy businessman Kevin Garvey, who decides to run for Mayor of the small northeastern town where the novel is set, represents the optimistic spirit of human nature. Garvey simply wants to move on, even as his own life unravels. As Mayor, he plans community events that celebrate the survivors and the normal life for which they yearn. Others aren’t so willing to return to normal, including his wife, Laurie, bereft by survivor’s guilt. The Garveys were spared, but their daughter’s best friend was taken, causing her mother to join a cult called the Guilty Remnants. They see this event as a sign and they refuse to return to a normal state. The Guilty Remnants wear white clothes, stalk residents of the town, and smoke cigarettes as a reminder that the end is coming, so why worry about lung cancer. Their son, Tom, drops out of college and joins a different cult led by a charismatic charlatan called Holy Wayne. His special talent is to take away people’s pain, but it turns out he also has a fondness for under-aged girls.

Meanwhile, Nora, who lost her whole family, struggles just to make it through the day. When she finally gets her footing, she finds herself in a budding romance with Kevin, but she still can’t find happiness and closure.

While The Leftovers is about religious fanaticism, the story had a different impact on me. I saw it as a commentary on how we deal with loss and disruption, whether it’s 9-11, the financial meltdown, or a death in the family. Do we simply move on, as Kevin does? Do we let it destroy our life as we know it, as Laurie does? Do we deal with it honestly, acknowledging the pain and loss, as Nora does? I suspect the message is that loss changes our lives forever, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

Perrotta doesn’t offer any easy answers to the profound questions about religion, mortality, and loss. The Leftovers is a powerful reminder that there are no easy answers to these age-old questions.

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