Every 1st January, like many other people – like you perhaps – I used to sit myself down and make a list of New Year Resolutions. In the coming year I’m going to read more. I’m going to lose weight. I’m going to get published. But for years those resolutions lasted for little more than a few weeks. Often they did make it to the end of January.
That didn’t bother me very much at the time. But towards the end of the year, when I found myself looking back as I sat to plan my next New Year’s Resolutions, that was when my capital failure to keep any resolution suddenly became plain. And failure is not a great note on which to end the year.
To hell with resolutions!
I can see that one solution was always to say, To hell with resolutions! And not to think about them ever again. But obviously, I wasn’t happy with the way things were in my life. Obviously I’d identified three things that I wanted to change. Because those three resolutions – read more, lose weight, get published – came back year after year.
So, somewhere at the back of my mind, I must have had a feeling that there had to be a way to keep a New Year Resolution. If only I could put my finger on it. And so I never said, to hell with it, but carried on resolving. And failing.
But four or five years ago, instead of saying “read more”, I set myself the task to read 50 books in the year. In the year prior to this I’d noticed that I was indeed reading more. And that I was enjoying reading. (An enjoyment I’d lost for a longer time.) That December, looking back, I estimated I’d read about 30 books during the year. It seemed like aiming to read 50 in the coming year wasn’t an unrealistic target.
Make specific resolutions, track progress
What I discovered was, giving myself a number of books to read was more specific than just “read more”. After all, there are 52 weeks in the year so if I was going to read 50 books I was going to have to read approximately one book a week. It was a very straightforward concept, and it broke down the task and the year nicely.
To help myself along, I started keeping a notebook. I recorded daily the books I was reading and in some cases how many pages I’d read. The very fact of doing this kept reminding me of my resolution and, by giving me something to look back on, the notes I’d made showed me the progress I was making.
I kept it up and when December came around I found I was well on course to keeping my resolution. It was such a profound relief, to finish the year on a moderately successful note. One resolution out of three kept.
I’ve had the same goal now for each subsequent year, and I’m getting more comfortable with it all the time.
Achievable, interim targets
With the success of my reading resolution to build on, started to think about my other resolutions. Could I similarly reword them? Could I break them down into smaller, more achievable targets on a monthly, or a weekly, or even a daily basis? If I could, surely I might then have a chance of achieving them as well.
The “lose weight” resolution was a possibility, but the “get published” one was more difficult. If it was just down to me publishing myself (as here on this blog) that would be one possibility. But in my mind, getting published means seeing my work chosen for publication by other people. It does not depend on me alone. No reorganising of my own life is going to guarantee publication for anything I write.
I turned this puzzle box over and over, looking for a way in. Finally I came to the realisation that I could only do what it was in my power to do. The rest I had to leave to chance.
What’s in my power?
So what was in my power?
Last year, 2019, I set myself three goals within my writing resolution. The first was to write an average of a thousand words a day. The second was to do something every week to help myself become a better writer. And the third was to submit some writing to a magazine or anthology.
I have a realistic enough grasp of my own shortcomings to know that I’m not going to write a thousand words a day every day. In fact I’m very likely to miss writing on some (many) days. But I also know that when I get going it’s possible for me to write 2000, and sometimes up towards 3000 words a day. I decided to include in the count the copy-writing I do every Monday during the school term. (Never less than about 2000 words.) In this way I was able to come within touching distance of my target. I think last year I managed an average of about 750 words a day, 365 days in the year. I’m not sure how it looks this year, but it’s better than that, although I don’t think I’ve quite reached the daily 1000 word target in 2020 either. Maybe next year.
Being systematic – inspiration and feedback
Helping myself to become a better writer meant being systematic about getting inspiration from other sources and getting feedback.
My go-to solutions for inspiration are books about writing techniques and story structure, leavened with interviews with authors and How to videos published on YouTube. Last year, 2019, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft was my standout volume for writing technique. It’s got lots of writing exercises too. This year my standout has been John Yorke’s Into the Woods. An excellent book about story, which I read quite early 2020 and have found myself going back to frequently during the year.
On the leavening side, this year has me subscribed to the Masterclass website where I’ve got a lot of encouragement and inspiration from listening to the likes of Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates et al.
As for the getting feedback, in September of last year I joined an online writer’s circle, Writers Abroad. It was encouragement from this peer group that gave me the confidence to start submitting pieces of writing for the first time in many years. And, of course, the beginning of 2020 my poem “September the Diva” won a prize and was chosen as the first poem for the 2019/2020 winter edition of The Poet.
In other words, I kept my resolution and got published.
Cracked the code
It is a very good feeling to reach the end of 2020 knowing that I have finally cracked the code. That I can set myself resolutions for 2021 with a degree of confidence that I will manage to keep them. Not that I am going to be adventurous and reach for more and newer resolutions. I’m very happy with the ones I have and keen to pursue them again next year. The only changes I’m going to engage in are more to do with tweaking how I work on the resolutions through the year.
For example, I’m going to aim to submit at least one piece of writing somewhere every month of 2021 in the hope, by the end of the year, of having at least three pieces published.
I’ve achieved my resolutions, but I can do better. Two other books that I read during 2020 give me inspiration. They are Ryder Carroll’s The Bullet Journal Method and Antony Johnston’s The Organised Writer. And I’ll write about them in next week’s blog post.