By Sarah Kuiken

At the beginning of each year, Kevin Tumlinson and Mark Leslie Lefevbre set down their writerly goals for the year. It’s an effective process if you take your author career seriously, because you’re setting down specific goals that you hope to achieve. None of this vague “write a novel someday” nonsense—this is a real writer’s game.

At the beginning of 2021, Kevin and Mark shared a peek behind the curtain at their respective goal-planning processes and shared tips on how you can do it, too.

If you don’t have an author planning strategy—or if you do, but haven’t looked at your plans since January—summer is a great time to reassess and make sure you’re still tracking toward your goals for the year.

By now, you might even need to recalibrate those goals. After all, as even the most diligent plotter knows, sometimes things can just go off the rails a bit.

Whether it’s your first time creating an author plan or you’re an old pro, don’t neglect these 6 things.

#1: Flexibility

Mark thinks of goals as similar to outlines for a book. You create the outline as a plan—but as you’re writing it, sometimes your characters demand a different course of action and the plot changes. “So you can actually be flexible with your goals,” says Mark, “which is at least something that I like to tell myself, so that I don’t go, ‘Oh, wow, I never did this thing.’”

In other words, even the best-laid plans sometimes veer off course. So don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t gotten halfway toward completing all the goals you set.

Besides, there’s still another half of 2021 left to go. And there are probably lots of things you did do, even if you didn’t manage to check off everything on your to-do list.

Kevin is a proud pantser, and as such, he recommends creating room in his annual author plan for the unexpected. Case in point? At the end of 2020, he was invited to participate in a box set he wasn’t expecting. In that instance, he had to scramble to write a lengthy novella in time for the box set publish date. 

His “do as I say, not as I do” advice is this: leave room in your yearly plan for opportunities you don’t expect. 

#2: Production

Kevin’s book 30-Day Author makes his stance on production pretty clear: it’s all about the math.

When Kevin sits down to plan his author year, he makes a specific production goal. His preferred target is a daily word count, but you can use page counts, hour counts, or whatever works for you. 

The important thing is to set a count goal that helps you achieve your big-picture objectives. 

If you want to write three books this year, and you know each book will be about 50,000 words long, you need to write 150,000 words. If you write every day for 365 days, that’s about 411 words a day. (You could even round up to 500 if you’re feeling energetic.) Or, take weekends out of the equation and calculate your daily target using a 5-day workweek.

Either way, do the math and figure out what you need to produce each day to achieve your author goals. A mid-year check-in is also a great time to recalibrate these targets.

If you’re not sure how long it takes you to write 500 words, Mark recommends setting a timer. “You may need to do this multiple times, because there will be times when you’re really going to town and the words are flowing, and other times when they’re not flowing. So you kind of get an average.” 

Calculate how many words you write per hour on average. That way, when you’re scheduling your daily work, you know exactly how much time you’ll need to dedicate to writing—not research, not marketing, but actual honest-to-goodness writing—to hit your goal.

#3: Sharpening the saw

One element Kevin always includes in his annual author plan is time for what he calls “sharpening the saw.” In other words: how are you working to improve your craft? What steps are you taking to level up your skills as a writer?

Decide ahead of time when you’ll set aside blocks dedicated to improvement. Will you read books, take courses, or watch videos? Will you connect with other authors or seek out a writing group? 

“That stuff is just as important as deciding how many books you’re going to write and how many words you’re going to put down,” Kevin says. “If you’re only doing 500 words a week, and you want to write five books in a year, I would put more emphasis on figuring out how to improve your productivity than I would on your word count.”

Kevin also competes with himself to see how far he can go. He once wrote an entire book in a single day. “I’m not going to ever try that again,” he says—but it helped him figure out that about 15 days of writing daily is enough to put down a book. 

Your mileage will vary, but at the end of the day, you aren’t racing other authors. The only meaningful comparison you can make is with yourself. So if it takes you three years to write your first book, see if you can write the next book in one year. Then six months. Then one month. 

In Kevin’s words, “So long as you keep pushing yourself, you’ll grow.”

#4: Marketing

If the word marketing is enough to create a pit in your stomach, you’re not alone—but it doesn’t have to be a source of dread. Kevin’s method is to come up with three to five ideas for how to market his work. “I just make myself come up with three ways to do it. That’s always been a good strategy for me.” 

Identify three marketing tactics that fit into your budget. If your budget is zero, come up with three free ways to market your work.

Mark takes a different approach. “My marketing thinking is not necessarily the strategies or tactics I’m going to use. It’s more about who the people are that are going to enjoy this. So while I’m writing, I’m thinking about what kind of reader would resonate with this scene, with this character, with this thing that happens. And when that comes to me, I write down comp authors or comp titles.”

If something in the book he’s writing feels similar to something else people like, he’ll make a note of it. That way, he has something to refer to when it’s time to attract readers. “There may be elements of your book that you forget, when you’re standing back and looking at the big thing. But they resonated in the moment. If they resonated with you while you were writing them, chances are they’re going to resonate with the right reader. Often, when I’m looking at marketing, I try to go back to those touchpoints.”

Also, Kevin says, you can draw marketing inspiration everywhere—not just from other authors. “I collect marketing ideas like collecting rare stamps. As I’m moving around in the world, someone will tell me something or I’ll read something … I tell you, I get more marketing ideas from reading autobiographies than from any other source.”

#5: Newsletters

“You’re gonna hear us and everyone else tell you a million times between now and the day you die that newsletter-building is still the number one way to market your work. I don’t think that’s ever gonna go away,” says Kevin.

If you’re serious about building a career around your writing, the best way to do it is to focus on building a newsletter with as large a readership as you possibly can. 

“If you do no other marketing this year, but focus on building a newsletter, I think you can end the year in the black and make a profit from your books,” says Kevin. No guarantees, of course, but it’s your best marketing strategy—and for most authors who are just starting out, it’s even free.

Don’t worry if your readership starts small, says Mark. “I would rather have 10 of the right people who really resonate with my writing and want to hear from me than 100 people who only signed up because maybe they got something for free, but they don’t really care.”

This doesn’t have to take up a lot of time. Some authors write their newsletter content in batches, knocking out six months or a year all at once. Schedule them to go out automatically so that you don’t have to think about them after you write them. You can go back and update them later with information about promos or anything else topical to share.

Aim for an 80/20 balance: 80% of your email content should be entertaining, informative, and drive connection. The other 20% can be direct promotion and promo ad copy.

#6: Inspiration

Inspiration gets put on the back burner a lot, but it really shouldn’t. “Inspiration is about filling your tank. How are you going to give yourself a break from the stress of writing? But also, how are you going to give yourself a source of new ideas?” says Kevin. 

Books, films, travel, and connecting with other authors are all great ways to find inspiration and reconnect with your “why” for writing.

Mark takes a more physical approach. “I find the mind/body connection really, really valuable. So going for a run, going for a walk, occupying a different part of my body so that my mind can be free.” If you can’t leave the house, Mark recommends meditation as an alternative. 

“Even if it’s only for five minutes, I find that really clears the mind. And I find oftentimes, when I take that pause, I come out of it with some new idea for my writing that’s beneficial.”

There you have it—6 components you should make sure to include in your annual author planning. Did we neglect anything that you usually include? Let us know in the comments below!