Back in December 2019, we set #WriterGoals for 2020.
We had no idea. This week, we go back in and revisit—which goals still stand? Which do we have to let go, and which just don’t feel right any more? Was there any point in setting these goals in the first place?
In the end, we decide (not very cheerfully, it has to be admitted) that while our goals are necessarily changing, they’re always worth setting and revisiting. We’ll all be settling down to think differently about what we hope for in what’s left of 2020.
Are you revising your 2020 goals, or sticking to plan A? Head over to the #AmWriting Facebook group and tell us about it.
KJ: Undercover Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams
The Body in the Garden by Katharine Schellman
Sarina: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
Jess: Audible Original: David Sedaris, Themes and Variations
Rat by Stephen King (found in the If It Bleeds novella collection)
Hey—now is a great time to check out our sponsor, Author Accelerator, where you can launch a career as a book coach or get paired with the right coach to get your project moving.
And if you’d like to support the creation of #AmWriting, we’d appreciate your help! Supporters get weekly Minisodes or Writer Top Fives—and our undying gratitude. Want in? Click the button.
Hey everyone. KJ. Here we are talking writer goals again this week. It's our midyear review - pandemic style. If you're setting your own goals for the rest of 2020 our sponsor Author Accelerator can help you start a new side gig as a book coach or match you with a coach who can help you work through challenges both on the page and in the calendar for getting your current project done. Find out more at authoraccelerator.com/amwriting. Is It recording?
Now it's recording. Go ahead.
This is the part where I stare blankly at the microphone like I don't remember what I was supposed to be doing.
Alright, let's start over.
Awkward pause. I'm going to rustle some papers. Okay. Now one, two, three. Hey, I'm KJ Dell'Antonia and this is #AmWriting. #AmWriting is the podcast about writing all the things, short things, long things, fiction, nonfiction, essays, pitches, proposals, and as we say every week, this is the podcast about sitting down and getting your work done.
I'm Jess Lahey. I'm the author of The Gift of Failure and a forthcoming book about preventing substance abuse in kids called The Addiction Inoculation. And you can find my writing at places like the Atlantic and the New York Times and the Washington Post.
And I'm Sarina Bowen, the author of some romance novels. My most recent USA Today bestseller was Heartland, which came out in early 2020.
And I am KJ Dell'Antonia, the author of the novel, The Chicken Sisters, which is coming out in June of this year as well as How To Be a Happier Parent already long out in hardback, but coming out in paperback this summer. And actually that's still happening, which I'm pretty pleased about. And the former editor of the Motherlode blog at the New York Times where I am still a reasonably regular contributor. And that's who we are. And where we are is in our houses, which is actually where we all are. But you know, it bears mentioning on this the 9th of May, 2020. Yeah.
Which contributes to our topic today. You want to tell everybody what we want to talk about today?
Oh sure. So we're gonna revisit our goals. Every year around this time we like to take a little mid-year review. We usually do it in June, so I guess we're doing it a touch early, but it has occurred to us that perhaps some of our goals are not going to be the same for the rest of the year. So it seemed like it was a good time to sit down and take a look at what we thought we were going to achieve, what we have achieved and what we're still hoping to achieve. So we've all got them lined up right here in front of us and away we go.
Who wants to go first?
I would love to open.
Oh, please do.
Well, you know, we all are fans of Dan Blank who has been a guest on this podcast and also has his own terrific podcast as well. And Dan Blank's podcast is called The Creative Shift. So he sends out a weekly newsletter that is pure gold and you should subscribe.
It really is, it's one of the best ones I know of.
So, two Fridays ago, he sent one out that began with sharing a New Yorker cartoon that really speaks to what it's like to be a writer right now. And it's a picture of a guy in a rowboat in the middle of a choppy body of water. And you can see there's a shark, and there's a ship sinking behind him, and there's lightning, and it's raining. And the caption says, 'This is it - the time to finish your novel.' And I love it desperately because, you know, remember back in March when we were all like, Hey, what are we going to accomplish while we're stuck at home? Or how about when the three of us (and I'm so happy we did this, I wouldn't change a thing), but we sat and recorded an episode in December right before our office party where we go out together for lunch and we very cheerfully made a list of goals for 2020. Not having any clue that 2020 would shape up to be quite unlike most of the other years that we've sat around planning things together. So I think we should revisit those goals and see what is capable on here. And what have we learned about goal making from our lists.
I was going to say the first thing I've learned is to be flexible, and to shift, and to adjust to your surroundings. Cause clearly that's the theme of the day. Alright. So what'd you have on there, Ms. Sarina?
Well, you know, many of my goals could really stand up in terms of getting the same things done. Especially where I had goals about helping other people, and helping other authors, and helping other women. And those things are all still true and I've been trying to do more of that. But of course I had some goals about like how much I was going to accomplish in terms of writing. And, you know, I'm not teaching anybody to read right now because my kids are old enough to handle this stuff by themselves. But, I didn't count account for my own potential anxiety and the difficulties of making career decisions when the whole world seems to be shifting. So goal I'm having the most trouble with is the one where I was writing an entire book to give to my agent to sell in a new genre for me and that suddenly feels insurmountable even though my work day could look the same because I don't know if that part of publishing is going to be there for me when I'm done. And that's like a mental obstacle to doing that.
You mean the YA genre?
Yeah. Well, you know, unfortunately I have a lot of knowledge of economics and I'm watching businesses fail around me. And I have like a mental block about writing into a publishing world that might not exist when I'm done.
Yeah, I hear that. Absolutely.
I am still plowing through, my top number one goal was to finish a book that has now got a different title than it had in my list of goals, but that is fine. Who knows what the title is going to be, but that was my top number one goal was to finish it, and then hopefully get it out, and pitch it to editors. And that is still my top goal despite the obvious changes in the publishing market. I'm not struggling with that as much, but it's probably because I don't have the alternative that you have. Like you could put your time into stuff that you can independently publish and you know you will be there, and readers will be there, and digital book sales will be there. So, it's different, you've got a different choice there.
I was just going to say that the fact that most of my publishing is digital is such a blessing and I just don't discount it at all. And also my fear about that other project is not entirely rational, but part of me is in that rowboat with the guy in the thunder storm. And I'm not sure what to do about that. Like how to disembark.
Well, it was interesting, someone asked a question in the #AmWriting Facebook group this week about this question and said, 'You know, what's everyone doing? Like are we pitching? Are we querying? Are agents picking up new clients? And are people buying books?' And so I went ahead and asked our agent and I said, 'I don't have to quote you or anything.' And she said, 'Hell yes, people are buying.' She said, she's had a couple of auctions. She said, you can totally quote me that people are buying, people are looking, that things are still chugging along in book sale world. I think a lot of people are scared about releasing right now, which is a really scary, new world sort of situation. But people are still buying books. People are still picking up new writers. So there was that sort of gut check of, Oh, there is some normalcy happening out there and our agent is not the kind of person to be you know, to be blindly optimistic. She's the kind of person to give it to you like it is.
Yeah. Or even worse than it is. My fiction agent says the same thing and my editor says she's acquiring. So people are acquiring of course, whether they're like whistling Dixie and a thunderstorm is another question. But, they're trying, everybody wants to keep going. And I would like to have a book to sell them. I would very much like to have a book to sell them. What I am finding is that the speed at which I can complete this is totally different than it used to be. Even when I'm sitting down to work, I can't work as fast. Both because I think my focus is off and because my house is full of people. People everywhere, everywhere I look, there's another person and they eat. They just won't stop eating.
Yeah. I'm the place of, Oh my gosh, dinner really does happen every single day. Like everyone's on their own for breakfast and lunch. But that dinner thing, that's our sort of reconnect with each other. We're still doing dinner. Dinner is important to us. And because I have big eaters, they tend to start asking at like 4:45. I'll get these texts. So what's the thought for dinner? So dinner happens every day, shockingly. And that's actually been, if anything, a positive for our family. So having something, you know, to eat evening and sit down and even if it's just like last night I threw together a soup. It's been a good thing, but it is shocking to me how much they can eat. But on the other hand, like our grocery bills are freaking me out. But on the other hand we are not eating out at all. So we don't even do takeout. But KJ, did you finish? Can I start talking about mine? Because mine go in a weird direction.
Well I didn't. I mean, the goal of finishing that book is the only one that stays the same. I have essay goals on here and I am just not feeling the essays right now cause it feels like the only essays I can write would be about this. And I don't want to write about this. I really don't. I know a lot of people do, but I really, really, really, really, really don't. So you know, I had humor on here. I wanted to do some of that. Does it have to be covid humor? I don't know. So there's that. My promotion goals around The Chicken Sisters, the ones that are on here are still the same because... Podcast goals. Yeah. Well the shift is in how, but I didn't really write how into my goals.
No, I mean the real fact for you is that some of the things that you were counting on, some of them in there are not happening.
So, no, but it's not like everybody else is out there hawking their books face to face and I'm not, so I am not as bothered by that as as I might be. You know, the advantage to it (as an introvert who's not super into travel) I really wanted to do these things, but not doing them is okay too. In some ways.
Can I just offer another silver lining to this though, is that it's unbelievable to me how generous other writers are being with each other right now. I know you and I have both bought a bunch of books that we may or may not ever read just because we're supporting our fellow authors out there. And I think it's a fantastic thing. And I mentioned in another podcast that I'm a new devotee of this long form podcast and on that they're talking to a lot of writers right now who are trying to release books during this and they're talking about the generosity of other authors. So that's been really lovely to see. So hopefully some of that will kick in for you too, KJ.
I think it will. I feel pretty good and I'm having a really good time. One thing I'm having a good time with is that when this all started someone mentioned to me that the warehouse might not be able to send out advanced copies anymore. And I went, 'Oh, so wait, they're just sitting there? So would they just put them in a box and send them to me?' So they did. I basically have all the remaining advanced reader copies. And so I'm sending the Good Reads giveaway winner copies and I'm sending all the bookstagrammers and I ultimately spent a lot of time sort of going, which would be the very best bookstagrammers. And last week I was just like, you know, I'm just going to send these to the bookstagrammers that I follow and that follow me and that are sort of in my universe and that'll be happy and excited to get it. And I've been doing that and it feels really fun. So that's entertaining.
That's a very cool thing. Plus, you know, there's the whole decorating of them. But Sarina, you had something you wanted to mention to KJ.
I did because when she was talking about essays, it made me realize that how much of the news I'm reading is all focused on the same thing. So that means that relevancy is suddenly like a little bit of a wrench in our goals because you could still write essays, you still have the time, and you still have the voice, but the relevancy of the things that you were probably going to work on is just gone. And I'm struggling with some relevancy, too. It takes a whole lot of optimism to write romance and you know, I'm a little bit stuck on that. And even just literally, I looked at the epilogue of one of my hockey books and I had my team winning the cup in June of 2020 and guess what? There isn't even going to be a cup in June of 2020 and it never occurred to me. Like I try not to paint myself into a corner. I do it all the time anyway, but it never in my wildest dreams occurred to me that there would not be a champion.
It takes an extra layer of imagination, too. I mean, you're already constructing new worlds for your books and now suddenly you're having to like construct a whole world for your own world so that you can construct those. I mean, you have to have a certain level of optimism. You have to have a certain level of ability to envision a world in which your characters are not going through this, not touching each other thing. And I mean, look at that. You are trying to write about people who are so much touching each other in a world where no one's allowed to touch each other. I mean, it's a really weird thing.
It is. And I saw a really funny tweet from a narrator who was doing a book and he, without naming the book said, 'You know, this book really confused me. I was telling my friend because it not a lot happens. There's not a lot of conflict. They go to Ikea and buy some furniture and I was just waiting for the conflict.' And the friend said to this narrator, 'Dude, what you just described is like science fiction at this point.'
That's true. That's absolutely true. Yeah. Alright, well I wanted to talk about the fact that so I actually did finish the edits on my manuscript. That was my number one goal, finish the edits on the manuscript and you know, it wasn't anything like Gift of Failure but there was still some heavy lifting to do. And I got them done. I'm looking at the date actually I got them done well before the date that I was hoping to get them done by. And the reason I wanted to get them done by that date was that I wanted to have a new proposal or at least the shortened version to show my agent cause she has no idea still what I'm thinking about. And I wanted to have that to her by April 15th and of course that was smack in the middle of just trying to wrap my head around all of this stuff. And you know, for me also personally, it's been anxiety provoking. Like I can sit here in my house, in the woods. I was telling my husband, this is a really weird paradoxical thing. I don't go out very often, obviously, but when I do go out, I get pretty depressed because here in my home I can ignore it and I can kind of forget about it for short periods of time. But going out in the world has been just scary and weird and anyway, so the worst of this stuff has come right at a time when I was hoping to get a new proposal done. And so what I've decided to do is give myself a break and I'm doing a lot of my research through audio. And while I'm listening, I keep a notebook near me, but I am outside. Because for the first time since I started a speaking career that runs on an academic schedule, I've never been home in time to get really good gardens ready for the growing season. And I definitely never got gardens in my new house. And I've always felt a little adrift without my gardens. So I've been giving myself a big fat break. And I leave the house as soon as I'm done with my stuff in the morning and I go outside and I don't come in until I have to get that infernal daily dinner thing going again. I walk in at the end of the day and I look at my husband and I say, 'I am just so happy outside.' And the other thing was because of all this anxiety, I wasn't sleeping very well and just exhausting myself during the day outside, and just being sore, and tired, and drained has been much better for my sleep. So I'm giving myself a big fat break right now, in terms of the writing part. Definitely still researching, loving listening to all the audio, but giving myself a big fat break, thinking of it as a little vacation has been really important to me. And I have gardens now. I have the bare bones gardens down and it makes me so happy and I finally feel like this house is mine again. You know, it finally is a place where I live. And and that's been fantastic. So yeah. And then the rest of my goals were things like, so finish the edits, got those done on time, finish the new proposal, totally didn't happen on time. But that was my own internal schedule and that's okay. And then back with you on the essay thing, cause I had complete five essays for collection by the end of the year. I've definitely thought about them. And for me that's a big thing cause I do a lot of the thinking, the writing internally first, and then I just of get it down. But yeah, I'm not writing about covid and these essays are about things that are so unrelated to that. And so it's just been close to impossible to get that essay writing done. But I'm feeling better now and I feel like that's going to come back online really soon. Our friend Mary Laura Philpott has sold a new essay collection and I happen to know that she's trying to get down to work on that. And so, I'm sort of mentally trying to partner with Mary Laura and be thinking about those essays. Spanish was a big one and I haven't done that. I just absolutely 100% failed at that. We had some goals around Spanish that were going to culminate with some big Spanish speaking for a trip that got canceled. Well and now my thoughts have shifted also to things like I'm starting to freak out about some of the spring speaking events. You know, a big source of my anxiety around an inability to stay focused for a few minutes at a time has to do with money stuff because my non-writing income went poof. And that's the majority of my income. So that's been challenging. And my husband works for a hospital that just announced that all of the top level people will all take pay cuts. And so my husband's taking a pay cut in the midst of this as well. And then if anyone's been following my social media, they know we just spent the equivalent of a small used car on our dog who almost died. So that's a stressful thing, too. And yet we're so fortunate, I'm not scared about paying our rent, but I am just anxious. If I had to rewrite my goals now, it would be do more of what's making me feel really good right now. And that's making me feel really good right now.
Well that's a good question. Are we going to rewrite our goals? I think it might be worth sitting down and doing. Because one of the other reason that some of this stuff happened - I've got some goals here around the podcast, and the email list, and marketing with other podcasts. There's no reason I can't do those things other than that I've got about three hours of brain power in me every day and I use it up on writing the book and then I just have so much less steam than I used to have. I don't know. I guess it's the anxiety, I guess it's that. But you know, I used to be able to sort of write in the morning and then go back to do all the other stuff in the afternoon. And it's also all the household stuff. It's all this stuff, all this stuff. And some of these are just like we were saying, I just don't necessarily want to focus on that as much anymore.
Okay, well then put a line through it. I'm putting a line through the Spanish one. I'm letting myself off the hook for that. You know what, I was just looking at number five, which was one email a month for my email list. And my email list has gone up a lot this year because of some high visibility podcasting I've done. But I'm really glad we're doing this today because that is a good kick in the pants for me. But you know what I've done that's been also really wonderful. I think I'm just missing teaching so much that I've been doing this thing on Twitter where I teach about rhetorical devices and I do a long thread and you could see the smile on my face while I'm doing them. It makes me so happy. I'm like pulling all these books off the shelves and it's teaching and I'm having so much fun. So I'm going to keep doing that. And you know, doing more of that I think would be really super fun for me. So I may even stick that in instead.
That is so funny because I said one of the things we could talk about today is changing our approach to social media. And you said, 'Oh, I didn't change anything.' I was like, 'Yes, you did.' That's what I was thinking of. You know, we're filling in some gaps of things that we used to do in real life with social media. And I feel like that is one for you. And if you could or wanted a new teaching job, you certainly couldn't get it now. So you have found that. I've been connecting a lot more on Instagram. I've been going back into Twitter, which I had been out of for literally years. Trying to find ways to use Facebook that don't involve getting sucked in. And actually I'm on Instagram way too much. I need to stop. But also feeling like it really is providing a connection and a place to talk about books and things that are important to me. Like these are the conversations I might normally be having, like at a hockey game or in line at the grocery store or at the bookstore over coffee or whatever. And now they're taking place online in different ways. So that was what I was thinking of, but I was also thinking about you. How about you, Sarina, have you changed your social media at all?
Well yeah, but it's not all sunny around here. I've had to take some breaks, some like multi-day breaks from social media just because it feeds my anxiety when I can see people sort of emoting about the same things that I'm worried about. I have to walk away because sometimes it just amplifies all the things I'm worried about. So I think taking some steps back has really helped me. And plus I don't want to amplify my own...I feel very brittle right now and I don't really want to be brittle on social media, so I've just had to sort of back away.
It's funny you say that because now thinking back, just about every time you text that you're freaking out about something, it's because you saw something on social media that just triggered you. So I think that's fantastic.
I mean, I'm more caught up on news right now than I've ever been in my entire life, but it's not such a great thing because the reason I can't walk away from Washington Post and the New York Times is that I'm looking for someone to tell me what's going to happen. And of course they can't really do that, but that's why I keep going back. So I've had to kind of step away from that, too. Not because news is bad, but because it can't serve what I'm really searching for.
Didn't you say that you were on Google for something and you realize that there was a commonly searched for question on Google, which was what's going to happen? I don't think Google can even do that.
I love to see what other people are searching on Google. And I will stop and screenshot them if they're particularly wonderful.
Oh, can I tell you something really cool? At Google headquarters in California I got to speak there after Gift of Failure came out and they took me through and I got a really cool tour and one of the things they have as a staircase and on the riser for each step of the staircase are the most Googled things so you can watch in real time on the staircase as all the things that people are Googling changes. And it was really cool while I was there looking at other stuff. They also have this room you can stand in and it screens all around you like floor to ceiling screens all around you and you can enter any search term you want. It could be you, for example. So I entered Jessica Lahey to see sort of what the world sees when they look at me across all platforms. And it allows you to see like does your website match up? You know, do you have a brand that has unifying themes, blah blah blah. And it was just really interesting to see how does my website match up with what's going on on Twitter and what's going on on all these different platforms. It was really kind of cool. That was kind of fun. But I'm sorry I totally took things off the rails because you were talking about what's going to happen and no one being able to tell you that.
Yep. And they still can't so it doesn't really matter.
Well what has been interesting is from, and I know you're looking a lot at a lot of this through an economic lens, cause that's who you are. But my son is studying economics and can you imagine - this is when my kid is getting his introduction to the world of economics, like this is such a weird and bizarre time and he has a summer job that is (and I don't think I'm allowed to say where it is yet because I don't think anything's been signed) but it's at the epicenter of what's going on economically. And so we've been talking about it a lot, but from a very academic perspective, which has been interesting. I guess it allows me to sort of set it over there and have a bit of a reserve around it. But I mean it's not like it's good news. It's just academic instead of about like our personal economic situation. Can I interject one tiny thing? Can you all look at your word? I have them all in front of me right now. How are you feeling about your words?
I still like my word.
I hate my words.
Okay. Well my word was practice and I'm actually still feeling good about that because it's a good reminder to me that it's not about having these huge breakthroughs. It's about the daily practice of either thinking about structuring, blah, blah, blah. So I'm still happy with that. Sarina, your word was, do you remember?
How are you feeling about that?
Well, honestly, I should still tape it up into every room I walk through because the truth is it's pretty abundant around here. Ebooks are still performing. My life is fine. It's just a little more anxious than it used to be.
And my word was magic and I'm not feeling very magical right now. Although honestly, I am up and down every day. I don't want to be Pollyanna about this. Nobody is happy about what is happening, but I suppose it is a little magical that my family has not killed each other in the 67 days that we have been largely cooped up together. That is kind of magical. And I was thinking that I might put some magic in a next book draft, after this one. I don't know, maybe that will happen. Yeah, magic did not turn out to be a super helpful for this time.
Speaking of magical thinking and inhabiting fantasy lands that don't exist. Should we talk a little bit about what we've been reading? Alright. Sarina you want to lead off again since you went first last time?
Well, I'm reading something that KJ gave me. The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix. This was a book that spotted before KJ bought it and I thought, I'm just happy that book exists. The writing is terrific. His writing game is super strong from the first paragraph of the prologue and I am intrigued.
Oh, good. Cool. What about you KJ?
Well, I'm reading a book, Sarina gave me. I am reading Undercover Bromance by Alyssa Kay Adams. We need to book club on this one, Sarina. We need to have a discussion, but like her previous book in this series, The Bromance Book Club. It is fun, satisfying, fast paced, and distracting. And that's about everything I ask of a book right now. And I also am reading The Body in the Garden by Catherine Schellman. This is a historical mystery and I have not read very much in the mystery genre for many, many years. And it's kind of fun to see that in a same way that historical romances have taken a real turn for having a modern way of thinking within the historical romance as opposed to trying to keep people thinking as they might have in the time. This mystery also sort of falls into that category. It has a modern attitude within a historical time and space and that makes it fun. And that's by Catherine Schellman. So again, fun, distracting, light. Just what we need.
Yeah, I I have a book I want to talk about today cause there's something really interesting in it and it's not something that you guys normally read is two things. Number one for the audio listeners out there David Sedaris released an Audible original. It's not a huge deal. Don't get too excited. It's only 30 minutes long. It's called Themes and Variations, but it's essentially him just riffing about the people he talks to on book tour and the things they talk about. I think it was like $1.89 or something like that. But I got so excited when I saw it and I've already listened to it three times just because I needed a little David Sedaris back in my life. But the thing I went and listened to is I saw that there was a new Stephen King coming out and a former guest on our podcast, Ruth Franklin, wrote the review of Stephen King's new book in the New York Times and it's a wonderful review. She's such a great writer. I was like, 'Okay, well if she has a nice things to say, I'll get it.' And it's a collection of novellas and short stories and I'm not going to talk about all of them. I want to talk about just one and there's one called The Rat and I'm not going to do any spoilers here, but if you are a writer who has ever felt blocked in your writing, this story is a truly delightful, dark, dastardly view into the writer's head when they're trying to wrestle with their demons and why they can't get the words on the page.
Speaker 3 (36:26):
And I was working out in the woods while I was listening to it and there was a giant smile on my face. I was cackling. I'm like, this is so mean. And it's similar to when he channels the writer in Misery, when anytime he's ever talked about sort of what it's like for him to write and to go through that trap door into his basement. And all of that good stuff is in there. All of that stuff from On Writing that we love so much about his reading, about his process that's all in there, channeled through this writer in this story called The Rat. And it's delightful. It really truly is. It would be worth getting the book if you can afford to do it. It would be worth getting the book just to listen to this story really quick. I mean, I've also been comfort listening and I was scrolling through my Audible books that I've been listening to and they've all been books about sort of overcoming hardship. I realized I relistened to Jenny Finney Boylan's She's Not There. And I relistened to Diana Niad's Find a Way, which is about swimming from Florida to Cuba.
I think you're the only person who's still listening. Audio has just dropped cause nobody's in their cars, nobody is commuting.
I'm glad we did this cause I actually feel refocused in a couple of different ways and I'm feel good about drawing a line through one of my goals and just saying nope. By the way, go check out the #AmWriting Facebook group if you want some interesting reading about how other writers are handling this time, because that's what really most of the conversation is about right now. Like, how do you handle stuff? Are people still pitching here? What do you think about this? It's a really reassuring and supportive place to be, but until next time, everyone keep your button, the chair and your head in the game. This episode of #AmWriting with Jess and KJ was produced by Andrew Parilla. Our music, aptly titled unemployed Monday was written and performed by Max Cohen. Andrew and Max were paid for their services because everyone, even creatives should be paid.