Photo by Angèle Kamp / Unsplash

Happy Birthday to Me

Today is my 30th birthday, so I might be expected to feel like some sort of phase transition is occurring. In a way, that's true. I'm looking to buy my first house, I'll likely be married before my 31st, the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing (although the end appears to be in sight, at least in the United States). And of course, I'll be releasing my first book before next year's review. There's a lot going on right now.

On the other hand, it doesn't really feel like anything has changed as I move into a new decade of life. Time ticks on, and I wake up one day with a new number attached to me. Since this is my 30th birthday, my girlfriend and I have a grand vacation to Zion National Park in Utah planned, but most birthdays pass nearly without my noticing.

I've decided to change that. A day only has as much meaning as we grant it, so I've decided to make my birthday more meaningful. Each year for as long as I keep up with this blog (and I sincerely hope there are many years to come!) I'll be posting a Goals & Projects update on my birthday.

In these posts, I'll take a look back at last year's goals, then set goals for the next year. The next year will be either more realistic or more optimistic depending on how well I performed in the prior year. The meta-goal is simply to improve year over year, meaning I continually make the goals harder to achieve yet still meet them. There are limits, of course, to how hard these goals can become, but there's no way to determine your limits other than by trying to break through them.

Looking back on Year 29

This is the first of these Goals & Projects posts, so there were no goals set on my 29th birthday. However, I have been tracking metrics on my writing since February 2020, so I should be able to create a baseline set of goals from the data.

There is a regrettable chunk of time missing from my metrics between May 6, 2020 and July 6, 2020, during which I was working on my second draft revision guide for An Ocean of Others. Until February 1, 2021 I only ever tracked time spent writing and editing. Later, I added categories as they were needed, including outlining, working on blog posts, reading (not just any book, but my own and writing groups' work), and working on the business side of things.

I hope you like pivot tables, because here's the data:

Data for time spent working on writing and drafting
Data for time spent working on editing
Data for time spent outlining the sequel to An Ocean of Others
Data for time spent working on blog posts (wasn't tracked in Feb)

I'll spare you from the rest – those are the categories which ate up the most of my time. To summarize, even though I never explicitly set any goals, Year 29 proceeded as if I did.

  • May 2020 - July 2020: Second draft revision guide for An Ocean of Others.
  • July 2020 - January 2021: Wrote and edited second draft of An Ocean of Others.
  • February 2021 - early-March 2021: Outlined sequel to An Ocean of Others.
  • late-March 2021: Worldbuilding that will also be needed for the sequel.
  • April 2021: Wrote and posted three short stories for Camp NaNoWriMo.
  • May 2021: Third draft revision guide for An Ocean of Others.

There have also been blog posts sprinkled in throughout, which took up more time than I anticipated since I was trying to publish them weekly. June, so far, has been spent preparing for vacation. When I come back next week I'll kick off the beginning of Year 30 by jumping into the third draft of the book, but we'll get to this year's goals later in the post.

First, a bit more reflection on last year. Here's my overall words written each month of Year 29:

Includes words written in all four categories: writing, editing, outlining, and blog posts

That big spike there in November? That's NaNoWriMo. I didn't get 50,000 words done that month, but 30,000 was a huge improvement over the average of ~12,000 words per month up to that point. The momentum continued in December and January as well – without it, I doubt I could have finished the second draft so quickly.

I was worried that writing that quickly would make the chapters noticeably more sloppy, but when re-reading my second draft I didn't notice any drop in quality. If anything, the early chapters I finished in July and August had more problems. Maybe that's just because beginnings are hard. At any rate, I'm definitely planning on participating in NaNoWriMo again this year. Not only did I get a lot of work done, but the writing group I joined for it has been a continuous source of inspiration and encouragement!

In addition to that writing, I made the decision to self-publish An Ocean of Others (and the entire Dance of the Sibling Suns series it belongs to). I took a self-publishing course online at Rosemont College, which taught me much more about the process than I expected when going in to the course. I also registered Archefire Publishing LLC with Pennsylvania, under which I'll publish my work. The website is still a little rough, but I'll be working more on it as I get closer to the publication date of An Ocean of Others.

Finally, I also created this blog in 2021. So far, I've been working hard to populate this site with content – in these 17 weeks, I've written 18 posts. Looking back, I'm spending a lot of time on this blog. More than I expected to.

In April and May 2021, I spent an average of 16.5 hours per month on the blog. That may not sound like much, but from July 2020 to January 2021 I spent an average of 26.5 hours per month writing the second draft of my book. If I kept up this rate, I'd be spending more time on the blog than on my book. I don't think that's the right priority order.

The book needs to come first, which means I'm going to have to cut these blog posts back to once per month rather than once per week. While talking to some other writers online, they told me that they wouldn't want weekly newsletters anyway. That's kind of a win-win – I get to spend less time on this blog and more on my book, and anyone subscribed doesn't feel like I'm spamming their inboxes. That's the first change to this blog, but I think there's going to be an even bigger one later this year.

So, let's jump into my goals for this year.

Goals and Projects for Year 30

This year, I want to focus on three things, each more challenging than the last. They all dovetail into one another, so I think my time and energy will be well-spent in each area. Given all of the metrics I track, one might think I'm likely to set daily word count goals, or monthly time goals, or something like that. Oh no, no.

If there's one thing I know about metrics, it's that they're easily gamed. If I set word count goals, I'll end up writing a whole bunch of garbage and not deleting it from my works in progress just so that it counts toward my word score. If I set monthly time goals, I'll start finding justifications to include all kinds of crap in my time logs. I'd only be hurting myself, I know, but human psychology is a weird thing. It's all about setting the right incentives, so I'm setting mine with milestones that won't be so easily gamed. First...

Goal 1 – Publish my first novel, An Ocean of Others

This is my first priority for Year 30 and there is still a ton of work to be done, but in some respects the hardest part is behind me. Like I said above, I'll be starting the third draft when I return from vacation next week. Based on my revision guide this draft is going to require far fewer rewrites than the last, which was almost an entire rewrite of the novel. This time, I have to insert some scenes here and there, remove a couple of half-baked themes, and fix some other things that aren't quite working. I'm not planning on throwing out entire chapters though – the big pieces are all in the right places.

After that, I'll have to put the manuscript through another revision process to get it in proper shape for an editor to look at. Then another draft with the editor's feedback in hand. I also need to commission some cover art, handle all the legal stuff (copyright, ISBNs, etc.). I've got my eye on an audiobook as well, but I'm not yet sure whether I'll be reading it myself or hiring a professional. I've got to get it formatted for print, for eBook, create marketing materials... Okay, so maybe the hardest days are still ahead. Also, at some point I should probably name the setting of this world... That's been on my to-do list for an embarrassingly long time.

Still, I'm confident I'll be able to get this out before my next birthday. Ideally, I'd like to do it in March, before everyone puts their Kindles away to enjoy the summer sun. That gives me roughly 9 months to put the finishing touches on everything. I'd also like the book to, you know, actually sell some copies. That's not an easy task. There's a lot of competition out there, and most self-published books don't sell well at all – usually to friends and family, and that's about it. So my second goal is related to marketing...

Goal 2 – Reach 50 subscribers to this blog

I'm convinced that in order for a self-published author's book to do well, they need to have some sort of online following before the book is published. This is especially true because most forums that readers gather (such as Facebook groups and subreddits) have No Self-Promo rules in place. That's a good thing, since it stops every Tom, Dick, and Harry from spamming the place and making it unusable. But how, then, does a first-time author get their name out there so they can sell their book?

If I knew the answer to that, it wouldn't be one of this year's goals. I have ideas, but I'm not sure how effective any of them will be. It's going to take a lot of experimentation and effort to market myself as an author, and effort that I'm not entirely comfortable with as an introvert. But if I want to sell my work, I'm going to have to break out of my comfort zone and get my name out there.

I'm using subscribers to this blog as a proxy for how well I'm doing in the marketing division. I'm currently sitting at... 8. Six of those are friends and family (and I love each and every one of you), and two of those are my own email accounts, to ensure that posts are actually being sent to paid and free subscribers alike. 44 more subscribers in a year may sound like a modest goal, and that's true. But I'd rather set an achievable but modest goal than to set my expectations too high. I'm not expecting this book to be the next Harry Potter after all. I'd be happy if I can recoup the costs of publishing it (and that's far from certain).

The biggest hurdle in my mind is this question: How do you market a product that doesn't exist? Translating this: How can I get anyone interested in subscribing to my blog if I don't have anything worth subscribing for? I have a few short stories up, sure, but most of these posts are pretty niche behind-the-scenes essays about a book that doesn't yet exist. That's where the third goal comes in...

Goal 3 – Begin publishing a serial on the blog

I'm not yet convinced that this is a good idea, but I've been leaning toward doing it sometime since earlier this year. I have some hesitations, which I'll share.

My first thought is that publishing a serial is... kind of scary. As I talked about in the Camp NaNo retrospective, I'm far on the outliner side of the continuum. While I would definitely have an outline before I started publishing, I'd essentially be publishing a first draft. If my first draft of An Ocean of Others is anything to go by, that may be a bad move.

However, for the same reason I'm looking forward to challenging myself to improve as a writer and to make sure that my first drafts are in pretty good shape before revisions. I'm sure I'd make some mistakes, there'd be continuity errors, grammar issues, and whatnot. I'd certainly do my best to minimize those occurrences, but in the spirit of my first post, I Don't Know What I'm Doing, I think it'd be okay to show my flaws. If you show your flaws and keep going anyway, you also show your growth.

My second hesitation is that this is going to take a lot of my time – time that might be better spent the Dance of the Sibling Suns series. However, I'm already spending a lot of time on blog posts, and this solves two problems at once. 1) It could potentially result in more subscribers, since a serial story is inherently more interesting and likely to hook people than niche essays. 2) It would mean that time spent on this blog, which is important to me, is also more directly helping me improve in the craft of storytelling.

My feeling is that I should push myself to do it. I have a standalone sci-fi horror story that I think would be suitable for serialization. The half-baked synopsis is something like:

Grave World - In the near future, a rogue planet from deep space is captured by the sun's gravity and settles into orbit among the outer planets of the solar system. As the thick ice that covers the planet begins to thaw, a signal is detected on Earth. When a band of five eccentric volunteers travels to the planet to investigate the anomaly, memories of their haunted pasts aren't the only things to awaken...

That's all subject to change, of course. And it may be I decide to do a different story altogether. I'm a bit worried about writing a sci-fi serial, then releasing an epic fantasy trilogy. That might not be the best marketing move, but I think it is more honest – I'd like to write both sci-fi and fantasy in the long run.

So, that's the plan for the first year of my fourth decade on Earth. Publish a novel, get some more subscribers, and begin releasing a serial story. Leave a comment below letting me know if you'd be interested in reading a serial like I've described, or if you think I should stick to fantasy instead of venturing into the sci-fi realm.

I'll be back with another update next month (expect it to be a big one!) – until then, it's time for a much-needed vacation.