Chadwick Ginther on Goal-Setting for Writers (Interview)

Originally from Morden, Manitoba, Chadwick Ginther was fascinated by Norse Mythology at an early age. Today, he spins sagas of his own set in the wild spaces of Canada’s western wilderness where surely monsters must exist. Chadwick’s short fiction has appeared in On Spec magazine, Fungi, and The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir. He is a contributor to Quill and QuireThe Winnipeg Review, and Prairie Books NOW. His novels,  Thunder Road and Tombstone Blues (Ravenstone Books), were nominated for the Prix Aurora Award for Best Novel. He lives and writes in Winnipeg.

What is your goal-setting process, and how effective do you find it to be?

“Process” might be a bit generous. I don’t know that what I do is streamlined or reliable … yet. But it has mostly worked for me. My goal setting is largely deadline-driven. If I have a story or article due in with an editor, that obviously takes precedence on any more “recreational” writing. When I’m told to deliver something “whenever,” or not given a specific deadline, that item tends to drift away from my consciousness and takes forever to be completed. Which is probably why it took me so long to get this interview back to you. So my apologies.

I also find my goal-setting process to be something that is still under constant evolution, as my life has been quite different, year-to-year since starting this project. One year saw me change dayjobs, the next year saw me add teaching workshops to my to-do list. This year more closely resembles the last, and so while the year is still young, I find my planning is either more realistic, or my fulfilment of those plans is more effective. Maybe next year I’ll be able to say with more certainty.

When and why did you start writing down goals?

My first flirtation with public goal setting and blog accountability came in the lead up to the launch of my first novel, Thunder Road. I’d taken some time off prior to the launch to prepare (and worry and panic out of the public eye). I also set down a long list of everything I wanted to do during those two weeks. It was a very unrealistic list. However, I was still pretty happy with the results even if I didn’t immediately follow through with posting goals every month.

Early in 2013, (12:05am, January 1st, I believe) while under pressure about New Year’s Resolutions, which I never make, I realized I liked the term “Goals” better than “Resolutions. Goals can be altered due to changing circumstances. I suppose resolutions can too, but there is more of a concreteness to the term resolution. Goals may be altered, but resolutions are broken. It seemed like writing-based resolutions were only setting myself up to fail.

I wanted to do something though. I knew from experience that if I made plans for what I wanted to do writing-wise it was more likely to get done. Having a deadline, even a self-imposed one, made it easier to schedule the time to write. I also knew that even when I didn’t hit my self-imposed deadlines, I was always further along than if I’d said “it gets done when it gets done.”

Why did you decide to start sharing goals publicly on your website?

Accountability, mostly. There’s no ignoring the goal once it’s out there and public. Writing down my self-imposed deadlines made them feel a little more real. Once I started setting my goals publically, however, I found that I was getting good responses from my blog followers, and they turned out to be some of my more popular blog posts, so I decided to keep up the practice. I still don’t hit everything I set out to do, but I’m certain that I always accomplish more than I otherwise would if I didn’t think, and plan, and say what I was going to do, and when.

Aside from posting your goals publicly, is there any other way that you hold yourself accountable to others?

I suppose I could add that I occasionally get together with writing friends for “Writeoffs” where we sit in the same room and ignore each other and write or edit. I find these weekends very productive. Watching everyone else work away is a good motivator to stay off of Facebook and Twitter. I’ll also occasionally use Twitter to join up with other writers for a short 30-60 minute “Writing Sprint” where we write hard for the designated time, and then call out our word counts when we’re done.

You routinely post annual and monthly goals. Do you make goals on any other timeline — weekly goals, or a five-year plan, etc.?

At the moment, I concentrate on monthly and yearly timelines. When I set my monthly goals, I try and consider which weeks I might work on which of the named goals but that’s about it. I don’t break the month down for my readers that way. I also don’t set a word count goal for each week, although if I’m doing a lot of drafting, I like to hit at least 1000 words a day. Most of my long-term goals which might fit a “five-year plan” tend to be things that are not in my control:

  • Landing an agent.
  • Selling my next series of novels.
  • Selling a short story to a specific prestigious market.
  • Making a year’s best short story anthology.
  • Being a convention guest of honor.

I try not to sweat about those sorts of things. The only thing I can do to achieve those sorts of goals is to write as often as I can, and finish and submit the work. The more novels and stories I finish and submit, the better my odds, but there are still no guarantees.

Do you make use of any software or system to set or track goals?

I built a very simple spreadsheet for tracking words/day and one for short story submissions (sales and rejections by market). I’ve been tracking my short story submissions pretty much from the moment I started sending them to editors. The word count spreadsheet is new this year, so I’m still figuring its place in my system, but having a field to plug in everyday, is a motivator for me to get at least a little bit of work done every day, even when I’m exhausted, hung over, or stressed out about car repairs and if this winter is ever going to end.

I keep a master list on a Word document of everything I need to do for the year (and its deadline) and everything I want to do (and its deadline) as well as everything I’ve started working on, but haven’t finished. As the beginning of a month looms, I look at the master list and see which items are a good fit.

When Too Far Gone is off to press, I want to experiment with Scrivener.

Scrivener (Mac | Windows) might help with your goal-setting, since it has a number of great word-target features that help with planning. I’ve found it helpful because it lets me focus on the writing session, the work right in front of me, rather than the giant and unmanageable project that a book is, by nature. How do you keep yourself focused on the task at hand that day, and not get overwhelmed with the immensity of the project?

I’m a fast drafter, which helps me keep focus. With most larger projects I’ve been able to push through a first draft in a few months which keeps my mind on that phase of the creation. It is in tackling revisions where I always find myself bogged down by the immensity of what remains to be done (probably because I draft fast, and try not to edit as I go). It’s also when I tend to get distracted by the next story that I want to write, usually at the expense of the one that I need to fix.

I combat The God of Shiny New Stories by breaking my editing down into phases. Big story-level changes come first. Looking at character arcs, insinuating worldbuilding, reviewing pacing, and fact checking come next. Finally, and once I feel everything else is in place, I get into polishing the prose. While I don’t go looking for them, it’s hard not to clean up awkward phrasing, or fix typos when I spot them, so taking multiple runs at the manuscript helps keep the final polish from being too much of a trial, but there’s always something to find. The last thing I do is make a giant pot of tea and read the entire thing aloud to catch anything that sounds wrong.

How do you know when your goal is too lofty or not lofty enough?

I guess if I hit all of my goals with time to spare they weren’t lofty enough, and if I didn’t succeed I bit off more than I could chew. I’d say I probably set loftier goals for the year than are necessarily feasible more often than is the case with my monthly goals.

Over the last two years I’ve learned a bit of what works and doesn’t work for me, planning-wise. For example, editing always takes me longer than I think it will, and I always seem to forget about goddamned February only having 28 days. I also set lighter goals in months where I know I will be travelling now. I was on the road a lot last year, and I made grand plans to do some writing while I was flying, or in the hotel before I’d head into a conference, and that work rarely materialized.

In 2013, I participated in National Novel Writing Month, but that November happened to coincide with me having a table at C4 (the Central Canada Comic Convention) and being on tour for Tombstone Blues. I managed my 50,000 words that month, but it was more work than it needed to be. As I’ll likely be on the road again this November for Too Far Gone’s book tour, I left NaNoWriMo off of my yearly goals list for 2015. And besides, if things change, and I’m travelling in October, I can always add NaNoWriMo back in as one of my monthly goals.

Why did you make participating in NaNoWriMo a goal in the past? Can you walk through that specific goal in some detail? When did you set it, why did you set it, what was your thought process in selecting that goal, and what techniques did you adopt to help yourself succeed? (I assume you succeeded …)

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo three times, 2011, 2012, 2013, and “won” twice, 2011, 2013. I had to bow out in 2012 in week one, I injured my arm and couldn’t type after I’d hit my first 4000 words. Even trying to write by hand was too painful (and impractical) to continue. I tried voice recognition software, but didn’t have the patience to teach it to recognize the Icelandic and mythological words that would be necessary.

I didn’t have much desire to participate in NaNoWriMo prior to working with someone who was a champion of Novel Month. I was vaguely aware of it as a thing, but not much more. I was comfortably drafting around 30,000-40,000 words a month at that time, so I didn’t think NaNoWriMo would be much of a challenge, but it turned out those extra words were harder than I’d thought. I’ve come around considerably on NaNoWriMo since then, obviously, having participated three times.

This is one of those every writer is different and everyone’s process needs to work for them moments. At the time, I was working in retail, and committing to starting a novel at my busiest time of year, when I was already exhausted and the worst was still to come, was hard. Even now that I’m away from the retail world, NaNoWriMo isn’t something I’d want to do every year, but it still has its uses for beginners and pros.

I know lots of writers who use it as an excuse to just join a community of likeminded folks seeking to (usually because of a looming deadline) get a lot of words down in a short period of time. Others use it as a push to finish a project they’ve already started, or to get a bunch of short fiction done. I’ll probably used all of these motives at some point or another.

Getting to 50,000 words in a month was also a good learning experience. It also broke down my normal writing process and made me stretch to find and steal more time to write whenever I could. I realized that “pantsing” a novel as I had with Thunder Road and Tombstone Blues and a few other unpublished works wasn’t the best NaNoWriMo option for me.

While I don’t usually outline, I also only tend to start working on a book after the story, world, or main character has been rolling around in my head for a while. I had none of those things the first time out. Instead, I started with two ideas that had collided together at the last minute and I spent the four days I had at the end of November frantically brainstorming to try and fill a novel’s worth of story.

That book was an utter mess, and I’m still fixing it. The 2013 NaNoWriMo project wrote a lot smoother at the time, but I learned from my first mistake and outlined a little more thoroughly than I normally do (I’m usually content to work with mix-tape style soundtrack and call it an outline) and while I haven’t tried to edit that book yet, I’m more confident that it will hold up better, if, for no other reason than I was more experienced when I wrote it, and hopefully internalized some of my editorial notes from my previously published works.

I think if you want to be successful at Novel Month, having a good foundation for your story and goal is necessary. I’ve used lots of strategies from my gaming hobby to help me be able to improvise on the fly, so that I don’t waste time working on things that don’t add to the word count, lists of names that I like, random character tics, folders with pictures of people and places which look interesting, etc. I also have a file of all the little notes I make while I’m on the bus, or out for a walk that don’t necessarily belong to another project. I mine those notes before I start something big to see what might fit in. If I’m going to do a Novel Month, I try to block out at least the month prior to brainstorm on what I want the book to be, some major plot points, and make myself a writing soundtrack for how I want the story to feel, that I will listen to while I write. You can change that outlined framework later, but having some sort of map in mind will help hit the ground running. I feel like those who outline prior to NaNoWriMo are more likely to end up with something they’re able to revise, and sell, more swiftly.

I also don’t write in chronological order, necessarily. If I’m not sure what comes next after I finish a scene but I know what comes after that I’ll write ahead, and usually by the time I’ve finished that, I know what the earlier section of the book will need. Once I’m certain of the ending, I write that immediately, and then write the rest of the middle towards that end goal.

As I was promoting Tombstone Blues at the time I was writing my 2013 NaNo novel, I mostly had only my coffee breaks, and lunch breaks to put down words. But in those panicked 15 minute and hour bursts, I’d usually write more than if I had a leisurely four hour block of time, because those short stints were all I had. I tried to not fall behind during the week, and then write ahead on the weekends. One of the tricks I used for that was to leave ragged sentences at the end of a writing session, so I knew what I needed to do to finish that sentence, and once it was done, I was already writing, instead of thinking about how I wanted to start. Similarly, I’d never end on a chapter or scene break. I’ve found that brings my writing momentum to a halt. If I finish a chapter or scene, I usually know what comes immediately after, and will start writing the next chapter or scene. Depending on how many words I’ve got, or how much time I have left in my writing day, usually a paragraph is enough to ensure I can start up quickly again the next time I sit down to write. Once I hit a bit of a critical mass on the book (this usually happens in one of two places—10,000 words or 30,000 words, momentum takes over, and I start racking up more serious word counts. I tried writing on the road, during my book tour, but wasn’t able to keep the pace I’d hoped for, so I still needed a 7000 word weekend to finish of the book. Which is where publically stating my goals helped. There was no way I was going to bow out that close to success.

You’ve turned in the final book in your trilogy, but what now, Chadwick? What now?

Since submitting Too Far Gone to Ravenstone Books, I’ve mostly been working on short stories, and clearing out the to-do list of things that I abandoned as my contract deadline started to loom. I have the first book a new potentially on-going series drafted, and am revising it for submission to editors and agents. I have another first book in a different series drafted, but have not begun to tackle any of its edits. Both of those books will feature different takes on contemporary fantasy than the Thunder Road Trilogy, and while both will be influenced by myth and folklore (because that’s what I love to write about), they’ll have less of a direct line to one specific myth cycle.

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