I believe it’s healthy to have goals. After all, having something to aim for can give us a sense of purpose, and can help us keep our efforts focused. We often hear of “the writer’s journey,” and I think it’s an apt metaphor, because this can turn into a VERY long trip. For those who manage to stay on the path, there are many milestones along the way – along with many hurdles.
While a writer might start out with a single goal (e.g., write the damn book), if that writer is serious about getting published, she might soon find herself adding multiple items to her to-do list. Armed with this list, off she goes on her journey!
And then, reality sets in.
For most – if not all – of us, it soon becomes apparent that this whole writing-and-publishing-a-book thing can take a while. Sometimes quite a while. Given how long it can take to get a writing career off the ground, a writer’s to-do list can start to resemble another list that has become popular in recent years: the “bucket list.”
Note: For those not familiar with the idiom, this is a list of things you want to accomplish before you kick the bucket. (And for those of you not familiar with what “kick the bucket” means, it’s a reference to an ancient – and anatomically challenging – romantic ritual involving a large bucket, three pairs of oversized steel-toed boots, 12 gallons of tapioca pudding, and 23 well-trained riverdancers, preferably double-jointed. Honest.)
For today’s post, I’ve attempted to assemble a typical bucket list for an aspiring writer, based on a combination of my own initial plans, accomplishments to date, and ongoing goals. As my journey has progressed, the items on this list have tended to shift and evolve – if you ask me next week, my list might look quite different. But for today at least, here’s my first stab at a bucket list for writers:
1. Finishing your manuscript
This is huge. Seriously, this could be the only item on your list, and it would still be a MAJOR accomplishment. By completing a manuscript, you’ve done something 99.999999% of the population hasn’t done.
Even more impressive, you’ve done something that probably 98% of the people who ever said “I should write a book” have never gotten around to actually doing. So if you have done it, you should congratulate yourself on a significant accomplishment, and celebrate it in whatever way you see fit. (Caveat: you might want to avoid celebratory activities that require a large bucket, three pairs of oversized steel-toed boots, 12 gallons of tapioca pudding, and 23 well-trained riverdancers – even if they’re double-jointed. I’m just looking out for your safety here.)
2. Signing with an agent
Okay, if you’re self-publishing, this won’t be on your list. But since I started my journey back when stone tablets were still more common than e-books, this represented a well-established rite of passage that I was eager and determined to complete. I will say, the process definitely helped thicken my skin (not that I wasn’t already pretty thick), by getting me accustomed – and hardened – to the inevitable and repeated rejections that every author eventually will encounter.
As a big upside to what can be a grueling and traumatic ordeal, it really is incredibly validating to have a recognized industry professional tell you that you’ve written something they believe they can sell. Starved for such validation, we writers often interpret an agent’s interest something like this:
3. Selling your book
This is when stuff really starts to get real. (Two variations of real in one sentence, Keith? Perhaps it’s time to invest in that thesaurus you’re always talking about purchasing. But I digress…) Why is this such a big deal? Because once somebody offers you actual money for your writing, you can finally tell your family that yes, you ARE a professional writer, thank you very much.
Do not underestimate the importance of this milestone, even if it’s more psychologically than economically life-changing (to set your expectations: with shrinking advances being the norm, a book deal lucrative enough to allow you to quit your day job has become increasingly elusive). But even if it’s not a high-dollar deal, this is still big news.
4. Getting a blurb from a famous author
We’ve all seen them: those gushing blurbs from uber-successful authors, promising that the latest book from some lesser-known writer is the greatest thing since sliced bread. It must be an incredible thrill to receive such effusive praise – surely these giants of the literary pantheon wouldn’t endorse just anybody, would they?
Over my years in the business, I’ve become aware that sometimes there might be a wee bit of editing here and there – but just to keep the blurb concise, of course. But that’s okay, because it’s just EDITING, right? That’s something all professional authors do, right?
My point is that you can take something like this…
…put on your editing shoes (or hat, or whatever the hell one puts on to edit) and pull out your red pen…
…and with a little craft, you could end up with something like this:
Note: I’m not saying that’s what happens. I’m just saying that’s what could happen.
5. Holding the book in your hands for the first time
This is another “Go ahead, you earned this” moment. Savor it. Whether you’re publishing conventionally or on your own, there really is nothing like holding the finished product in your hands and being able to say, “I wrote this.” Even if you’re only saying it to yourself.
6. Getting your first “industry” review
Here’s another big rite of passage – and it can be a bumpy ride. While Amazon reviews are a whole ‘nother animal to contend with, a serious test of both your nerves and the thickness of your skin occurs when your work is submitted to people who criticize stuff for a living. This could be a newspaper, magazine, or one of the industry’s influential literary criticism vehicles such as Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, or Kirkus Reviews, all of which were crushing artistic souls LONG before shows like American Idol or The Voice became popular.
Some of these reviewers (I’m looking at you, Kirkus) are historically pretty tough, and tend to be rather… sparing with their praise.
Believe it or not, this experience usually ends up being good for you, even if it seems awful at the time (it’s rather like kale in that respect). After all, getting crucified by Kirkus and the like is a time-honored tradition that some of the most famous authors on Earth have endured, so if your book gets raked over the coals, fear not: you’re in good company. And if you’re creative, you can usually carve out a quote you can use from even the most excoriating review, much like the author blurb in item #4.
7. Speaking at a literary event
I have to admit, this is one of my absolute favorite bucket-list activities. And even though I can technically cross this off my list, it’s something I want to keep doing again and again, whether it’s a big event or something more… intimate.
There’s just something so powerful about connecting with people face-to-face to talk about the shared passions that make you kindred spirits: stories and writing. Seriously, I love everything about these events:
- I love getting to know other authors and aspiring writers, and having mind-expanding discussions with them.
- I love getting to know the publishing professionals who have such a powerful influence on the industry – and on writers’ careers. And a major benefit is how this can result in collegial relationships, actual friendships, or simply the filed-away knowledge of whom to avoid.
- I love talking with non-writers and witnessing firsthand their amazing passion about the stories they read. Note: this can be another situation where a thick skin is helpful, particularly for an author fortunate (and brave) enough to participate in a book club meeting about her own book. This is not for the faint of heart, but it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.
8. Seeing your book on the shelf
This is another feel-good moment. Going to a library or bookstore and seeing your own book next to other books by real live authors (and okay, maybe some real dead authors, too) is another big milestone in terms of making it all seem real.
It can also be interesting to see whose books appear on the same shelf – or nearby shelves. For example, I love seeing my book on the same shelf as Jennifer Crusie  – a wonderful author and all-around cool person. And lo and behold, I sometimes find myself within spitting distance of my arch-nemesis!
9. Selling the film rights to your book
Admit it: most of us have dreamed at some point about having one (or more) of our books made into a movie. And while the massive differences we often see between movies and the books they are based on make me worry about the loss of artistic control I could experience, it’s a risk I’m willing to take. (Hollywood, are you listening?)
Taking this dream a step further, I’ve got to believe I’m not the only writer who has spent some time fantasizing about who would play the roles of the main characters in my book. For example, for my autobiographical epic, I’m figuring I’ll need a cross between Vin Diesel and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man  to play my part.
Yeah, good luck getting that image out of your head.
10. Vanquishing the competition
I know, I know – the polite thing to say and think is that there’s room for everybody in this business, and that we’re not really competing against each other. And that’s probably all true… in theory.
But would it be SO bad if maybe your book sold just a little better than that other author’s book? You know the one I’m talking about. And following that logic, would it be SO bad if maybe your book sold a LOT better than that other author’s book? I mean, it’s not like you actually want anything bad to happen to that other author, right? Right?
Okay, maybe that’s not the most noble of sentiments to share. But I’m being honest here. And hey – somebody’s gotta have the biggest-selling books. So what’s the harm if at some point that somebody just happens to be YOU? I’m just sayin’.
Oh, but here’s the thing…
I’m well aware that I am VERY fortunate to have already crossed a fair number of these items off my bucket list. But even if I eventually cross them all off, I have learned one thing:
You’re never done.
Whether you’re a seasoned best-seller or a first-time author, once you publish a book, you can count on only one thing: somebody is inevitably going to ask you, “So, when’s your next book coming out?”
And that brings you back to…
So, what’s on YOUR bucket list?
How about you? I’ve already pointed out that this bucket list focuses primarily on conventional publishing, but there’s no reason why authors pursuing a different path couldn’t come up with their own lists. So regardless of which direction(s) your journey may be taking you, what’s on your writer’s bucket list? Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!
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