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Process, Project, or Career Success?
On taking a 70/20/10 approach to writing.
I’m staring down a self-imposed deadline to send the first 50 pages of a new novel to my agent, meanwhile doing a lot of exciting, time-intensive projects for the April 25 launch of The Skin and Its Girl. I’m prepping for a panel at the AWP Conference in Seattle, pitching book reviews, and trying to schedule more editorial work. Meanwhile, I still want to be a good friend, spouse, daughter, and pet mom, and to generally not feel like the top of my head is unlatched and spilling stray thoughts wherever I go. I really wish I didn’t have a bad habit of dropping my phone in the park on rainy mornings and then jogging home. So far it’s only cost me a few soggy scavenger hunts and a reboot.
All this to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much gets done in a day, a week, and a few months and give myself some grace. While I put together next month’s longer Substack on book covers, I thought I’d share something practical. This post is about how to allocate energy to activities that feel rewarding in both the short and the long term. It’s been supporting an overall positive mindset while I ride the steep learning curve of getting a first novel into the world.
Writing Success, Defined
To me, writing success is being able to flip back through the calendar and say, “Yeah, I feel good about what I gave to my writing this year.” To counteract all the negative junk that clutters a writing life—e.g., rejections, silence, delays, discarding 100 pages that just don’t work—I’ve found it helpful to check in with myself every couple of weeks and be honest about how I’m spending my time. Frankly, it’s a loose standard. And the looser the standards, the better writing I seem to do. Whatever it takes to stay out of your own way, right?
I think of this as the 70/20/10 rule. Life gets busy and schedules have to bend, but generally, I spend 70 percent of my time doing things to finish a draft, 20 percent of my time making sure the project works as a whole, and 10 percent of my time getting myself out in the world, going to readings, submitting work, applying for things, and taking classes.
This method directs the most energy to the activities I have control over. I made some graphics to share examples of what those activities are, below. Quick housekeeping note: This message will look prettier and be more informative if you choose “Display Graphics” in your email program.
Process success is where the magic happens. I'm only being a little bit figurative here. When I think about the books I've loved, they do seem a little bit magical. Writing a book means holding on to whatever sparkle of inspiration got you started. Over the course of years, you find a way to transform it into a story that allows the reader to experience that same glimmer, whatever it is. It is vital, and when you stay in touch with it, it is your "zone." It also needs nurturing: free time, freewriting, artist dates, and the constant light and fresh air of new ideas. By taking good care of yourself, you can do this roll-up-your-sleeves, make-time-every-day, have-a-plan sort of work.
Project success is where the navigation happens. Eventually, a novel-in-progress needs to be coherent, have a vision, flow well, and deliver on its promises. Great beta readers or a freelance editor can help keep it on track. Most of the time, though, you will be charting these waters on your own.
I've seen writers spend years trying to create writing career success before realizing that it is mostly out of their control. If you don't find an editor, agent, and publisher who firmly understand your goals and vision, you might be setting yourself up for failure (both real and perceived). In any case, it's a common mistake to focus too much on career success instead of the other kinds of success that ARE in your control.
I hope you'll share this with your writing group or keep it in mind as you set your 2023 writing goals!