Setting and meeting your goals for your life as a career author doesn’t have to be a SMART formula that smacks of the Human Resources Department. If SMART works for you, then great. But if such a linear, corporate approach leaves you cold (as it does me), here are some looser, livelier ways to map out a career strategy for you as a writer.


The easiest thing to do—and the ploy that makes the most of every writer’s superpower—is wildly simple: Just write down what you want out of the writer’s life. Use a pen and paper.

And then forget about it. I was reminded of this in a dramatic way this week when I grabbed an old notebook for my new permaculture course. I was late, so I didn’t look inside. I just stuffed it in my messenger bag and hoped there would be enough blank pages for whatever notes I took during the three-hour class.

I knew there would be, because like most writers, I’m a sucker for a nice blank book—and I have dozens of them. I always begin each year determined to keep a journal: I find a lovely new notebook, I write a few entries outlining my hopes and dreams…and then over the next weeks and months the pages devolve into random notes to self, grocery lists, and other miscellanea.

This means I have a lot of pretty journals with a lot of empty pages. Like the one I took to class. Which turned out to be from January 2013. As I was flipping through it, I came across this list I’d written and promptly forgotten. I’d titled it Things I Really Want (how’s that for on the nose). It was mostly wishful thinking, and there were some personal things on the list—“become a vegetarian”—that I will spare you, but I’d jotted down several about writing:

  • Write a mystery
  • Sell The Lightning Flower Girls
  • 3-book contract
  • Make a living telling and selling stories

In January 2013, I was in transition. Nine months earlier, I’d turned to agenting after being laid off from my acquisitions editor job, and was struggling to establish my business telling and selling stories. After beginning and then abandoning a couple of mysteries, I’d written a young adult novel called The Lightning Flower Girls. My agent was just getting ready to shop it.

I wrote that list and promptly forgot about it until I came across it last week in class. Ten years later, I’m a literary agent with Talcott Notch Literary with a full stable of talented, successful author clients whose wonderful stories are now out in the world entertaining and enlightening readers. We never did sell The Lightning Flower Girls, but I finally finished a mystery—and my agent got me a 3-book contract. Now I’m the USA TODAY bestselling author of the Mercy Carr mystery series, revising Book 5 as we speak. And no, I’m not a vegetarian. Maybe I’ll try again this year.

Write your own list—and then forget about it.


You can do this with real materials—poster board, markers, glue, photos and postcards and newspaper clippings—or you can use a digital collage app. I’m a huge fan of Pinterest—I have a board for everything from Potager Gardens and Deck Reno to Yoga and Nature Walks.

I also have boards for Writing and Writers, It’s a Mystery, and Nature Writing. Someday I want to write a story with nature at its core, and so the Nature Writing board holds anything and everything that could inspire that effort. I haven’t hit on the right idea for such a story yet, but having the board helps feed my sub-conscious, in the hope that the right idea for the right story will come to me, sooner or later.

Create a board for the project you’d love to write someday. Even if you feel like you’re not ready to write it yet. Because if you prime the pump, you could be ready sooner than you think.


I often ask aspiring writers who they want to be when they grow up. Ask yourself: Which authors writing in your genre do you most admire, whose careers would you most like to emulate? Study those writers—they’re your role models—not only in terms of craft but in terms of career path as well.

When I finally sat down determined to write—and finish!—a mystery, I knew I wanted to write a his-and-her mystery in the tradition of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series and Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series, and Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Rev. Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series.

Truth be told, I wanted to be Julia Spencer-Fleming when I grew up. I knew I couldn’t really be Julia Spencer-Fleming—there’s only one Julia!—but I could study her work and her career. I read all her books in her series in order at least three times, I read her blogs, her reviews, her interviews, I even met her at a writer’s conference. (I’m happy to report that she’s lovely inside and out.)

Inspired by her writing and her writer’s journey, I decided I wanted to grow up to be Julia Spencer-Fleming—with dogs. So I wrote a his-and-her mystery featuring Afghanistan war vet Mercy Carr and Vermont Game Warden Troy Warner and their working dogs Elvis and Susie Bear. That first book, A Borrowing of Bones, hit the USA TODAY Bestseller’s List, was short-listed for a Mary Higgins Clark Award, and won the Dogwise Book of the Year.

Knowing who I wanted to be when I grew up helped me figure out the kind of writer I wanted to be, the kind of story I wanted to write, and, ultimately, how to write my own stories my own way. And it can help you, too.


Go ahead, set your goals. Don’t be afraid to dream big. Wishful thinking can pay off—just write it down, collage it, role model it. Then forget about it.

And keep on writing.

This post was originally published at Career Authors.

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