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Business Planning for the Golden Heart and Beyond

Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail.

It’s a simple but harsh concept embraced in the business arena but too often neglected by writers.  Why is that when the book industry is a business?  Would you construct an office building without a blueprint?  Spend millions of capital on equipment without a plan for how to use it? Produce a zillion widgets without determining who, if anyone, would buy them?

I believe successful career authors aren’t just incredibly creative people.  They are small business owners.  If you plan to sell your work, try thinking of yourself as a small business; your product is your writing.  Whether you’re next step is the Golden Heart or the submission process, or both, business planning offers a roadmap to take your product successfully to market.

Consider the following statements:

“I write when inspiration strikes.  I can’t plan for that.”

“Too much planning stunts my creativity / scares away the muse.”

“I don’t have enough time in the day.”

“The story isn’t working.  I’ll get back to it when it starts working again.”

Do they sound familiar?  Writing them down here was like having a party with a group of old boyfriends, and then realizing why I stopped seeing them, because they weren’t good for me.  I’ve said every one of those statements.  Sometimes they still tempt me!  But those statements led me to spin my wheels for months, even years.  Until I started writing business plans as a freelance writer.  A light bulb went off.  I have used business planning to take control of my career, or at least the parts I can control.  And sometimes it still seems like a work in progress.  But the key word is progress.  I’m actually making it happen now as opposed to just thinking about it.

I recommend starting the planning process with a notepad and pencil or a blank word document that you can maintain and tweak as your career progresses.  I also like to use spreadsheets for the more detailed planning stages.  Use the tools that work for you.  The key is to create a tangible business plan that will form the bedrock of your career.  It’s not set in stone, but it’s something you can refer back to the moment you get off track.  Personally, I like to create a folder on the computer called “Business Planning” and keep everything related to this process in one place.

Step 1 – Concept, Mission, & Vision.  Every business needs a concept, mission, and / or vision, usually an idea for a product or service that will add value to society.

What kind of books are you writing?  What kind of books would you like to write in the future?  What are you known for / what is your brand?  It might be helpful here to brainstorm a tagline that represents your unique brand.  This is something you do in all your books that sets you apart from every other writer.  Think voice and style.  Here is an example of concept, mission, and vision:

It is the mission of AUTHOR NAME to publish 4 to 6 contemporary romance novels per year targeted to the single title and category markets.  Every novel will deliver a spicy read with a generous dose of sensuality and spellbinding espionage.

It’s a little off the cuff, but you get the idea.

Step 2 – Goals.  Now, it’s time to boil your big picture down to some big goals.  Working with the above statement, I would break it down into the following:

  1. Land a multi-book publishing contract with Harlequin / Silhouette.
  2. Sell a single title, sensual romantic suspense trilogy to a major publishing house.
  3. Develop an author website that supports and promotes the overall author brand.
  4. Make the NYT Bestseller List within 10 years.
  5. Become a household name in romantic suspense within 10 years.

Step 3 – Your Target Market.  If you haven’t done research into your target market, now’s the time.  Read in your chosen subgenre(s) and / or series lines; study the leading authors in your market(s); define your target readers (age range, sex, demographic, etc); and figure out what makes the audience keep buying these products over and over again.

The first three pieces are pretty easy to accomplish.  What might take a little more study and time is what drives the target audience.  Start with yourself.  What draws you in to this type of book?  Next, hunt for articles and read newsletters specific to the subgenre.  Conferences and workshops specific to the subgenre also offer excellent tidbits of information.  Create a mosaic and you will begin to see what makes this particular market tick.

Let’s take the target market for romantic suspense as an example.  Why do you think readers of these books love them so much?  A few things come immediately to mind:

  1. A fast-paced, impossible-to-put-down read
  2. An intricate, suspenseful plot
  3. The thrill or adrenaline rush of a dangerous situation
  4. Kick-butt protagonists
  5. Romance amid an intense, frightening situation

These are just a few ideas.  But I hope you can see how defining your market can help you focus the stories you write and help you figure out how to position your voice.  What strengths in your work could press these hot buttons to your advantage?  How could you twist the conventions and differentiate yourself?

Step 4 – Execution Strategy.  This part is all about accountability.  I know, it’s a scary word, but if you haven’t yet held yourself accountable for your goals, you’re in for a tremendous boost of self-confidence when you push yourself to make things happen rather than let them happen.

I like to break down the big goals into little goals.  How detailed you get is up to you, and the plan itself can conform to a pantser or plotter’s needs.  Let’s break down our first goal from Step 2 – Land a multi-book publishing contract with Harlequin / Silhouette.  We’re going to use next year’s RWA National as our end date.  Here is a sample roadmap:

  1. Brainstorm a Harlequin Blaze idea and write a draft synopsis / outline by December 1, 2009.
  2. Write 1,000 words per day, 5 days per week, and finish a first draft by February 23, 2010.
  3. Revise 1,000 words per day, 5 days per week, and finish a second draft by May 4, 2010.
  4. Complete final revisions and proofreading on 3,000 words per day, 5 days per week, and finish the full manuscript by June 1, 2010.
  5. Revise the synopsis and craft a pitch and query letter by July 1, 2010.
  6. Pitch to target editor at RWA National July 28-31.

Remember, this is only an example.  You can break down your goal into as many steps as you like, and make the timeline as aggressive or conservative as you prefer.  Either way, this kind of planning can help you streamline your process and produce more in less time.

Step 5 – Sales & Marketing.  Never forget that you are creating a product.  If said product never reaches the market, the sale never happens.  For this step, I like to use spreadsheets to organize and track, but use whatever tool works best for you.

Ready.  Research your target editors and agents.  Make a separate list for each.  I like to design a page for editors and a page for agents, listing them in order of interest, making notes of likes and dislikes and any other relevant information about them.

Aim.  Create a submission planning and tracking tool for each manuscript.  This page usually lists the names of target editors and agents on the left and the following headings across the top: submission date, submission contents, response date, response and result, final response, details. If you do contests, add a section to track contest entries, finals, wins, and requests.

Fire.  Start sending that baby out!  Hit your agent list in groups of 5 or 10, send directly to editors if appropriate, and target editors and agents through contests.  Lather, rinse, repeat for each manuscript.  Using your submission management system, review the status of each project at any point in the submission process.  Never again will weeks or months go by during which your work is sitting idle when it could be circulating in the market.

While not critical before you sell that first book, you may want to brainstorm some general ideas for published book marketing.  These can include market positioning (which you probably already know from the target market section), marketing strategies (website, bookmarks, book trailers, etc), and bookseller networking strategies.  That’s a whole different post, but it can’t hurt to get educated and start developing this piece of your business plan so you are in the know when you get The Call.

Step 6 – About You. In a formal business plan, one of the most important pieces of the proposal is the management section.  You, the author, are the fearless leader of your small business.  So take some time and put together a thoughtful bio that is a reflection of who you are as a person, a professional, and a writer.  Keep it up to date as you add new credits.  Review it from time to time and never lose sight of the fact that you are in the driver’s seat.

It’s up to you to plan for success and make your career happen.

How much planning do you do for your career?  Do you set concrete goals?  How do you keep track and hold yourself accountable?

59 responses to “Business Planning for the Golden Heart and Beyond”

  1. Such a useful post, Laurie. Writing ultimately is a business. For a long time, I was a pantser in terms of my writing process and career planning. My methods are changing as I grow more organised and methodical. I’m not as scattered anymore and I think that’s beginning to show in the work I produce.

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Hey Vanessa,

      Good for you! I was the same way. Then I realized I was getting nowhere fast and learned that I am a person that needs deadlines and very detailed plans or I get lost. Isn’t it a great feeling when you see the results of the system you are using?

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  2. Diana Layne says:

    Hi, Laurie! All that hard work was worth it, some really great ideas here. In the last couple of years I’ve started a more formal business plan process, but you’ve given me some ideas here that I haven’t thought of. Thanks!

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    • Diana Layne says:

      oh, p.s. yes, I write down my plans now and break them down into do-able bites so I can cross them off and feel like I’ve accomplished something. (I also decluttered my house using this method)

      As for being accountable, I have a writing friend who I state my daily goals in a morning email and then check in when they are done. It works better for me knowing I’m going to have to answer to someone whether I “did or did not”.

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      • Laurie DeSalvo says:

        Hey Di! Thanks, I am glad it was worth it ;o) That is great that you can report in to a friend. I do that with one of my CPs. Another thing I use is a dry erase board. Actually, 2 of them, for weekly and daily goal tracking. I use one to list the week’s goals. And the other to list daily goals. It feels SO great to erase something when it’s done. And I keep those boards in my face all day, every day.

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  3. Ronempress says:

    Ouch. I think you just slapped my hand. It’s good. I’m okay. I’ll just go think about brands and plans and … stuff. LOL
    Seriously, this was very helpful. I’ll see what I come up with! Thanks!

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Ronempress,

      LOL, glad it was helpful. It’s a lot to think about. But it can be fun too! I think when you sit down and have a good think about where you fit i the marketplace, you might be surprised at the possibilities you come up with.

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  4. Tina Canon says:

    Hi Laurie–

    I create long-term and short-term goals for my writing, and I have a CP that I check in with for accountiblity purposes. But I love the idea of creating a business plan for my writing. As an unpublished, aspiring writer–sometimes it’s hard to “feel” like writing is my “real” job, which it is. I’m a stay-at-home mom but my career is writing. I think creating a business plan will add another dimension to my writing as well as validate the goals I have for my writing.

    Thanks,
    tina

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Hi Tina!

      That is exactly what I was going for. I think too often, we just don’t think of it that way and it can become frustrating. A plan can give you something to hang on to when the going gets tough. It’s like a picture of your future ;o) And it’s something you can play with and tweak as you grow and change.

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  5. Amanda Little says:

    This is fabulous!
    As a small business owner who handles accounting for other small businesses, lack of planning is what gets most of them in trouble. In the business of BUSINESS, being a panster is not an option, even if that IS our writing style.

    Laying out a plan ahead of time may help after you get “the call” (guessing here, as I haven’t gotten it yet) – I understand there’s an emotional rollercoaster from the euphoric “I DID IT” to the panicked “Now what do I do?”

    Thanks for the great post!

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  6. Laurie DeSalvo says:

    Thanks, Amanda! That is so true. Many of the start-ups I work with haven’t done the planning necessary to write a business plan and they are shocked at the amount of thought and time they need to take to do their diligence. It can be a rude awakening, but I always tell them they will make many fewer mistakes and have a much higher chance of success if they do the homework now. Another advanced piece is figuring out what you need to write, how many books and what kind, to make whatever income it is you need or desire. Stephanie Bond did a great workshop at nationals along those lines. I have done this analysis and it really put some numbers around my business plan. I could have included it but that is a lengthy discussion in of itself. Figured I would save it for another post ;o)

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  7. Karen Steele says:

    Hi Laurie,
    these are great points. Treating your career like a business is so important!

    I’m a spreadsheet geek, so I’ve got one that manages my writing a year at a time. Submissions, sales, royalties, writing progress, contests, marketing, agent tracking, it’s all in one spreadsheet. If I ever”just don’t feel like it today” all I’ve got to do is open that up to remind me that the words aren’t going to appear on paper all by themselves.

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Thanks, Karen! I LOVE Excel too, lol. I have a multi-tab sheet with all the info plus analyses of how much I can produce per hour, per day, per year, etc. There is something about hard numbers that puts it back in perspective. Every time I think, oh maybe I’ll just do double time tomorrow, I think to myself, well wait a minute, I know I can do 4 to 5 pages in an hour and surely I can work for one more hour today. Or surely I can find 4 increments of 15 minutes.

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  8. rita says:

    okay Karen and Laurie what can we do to get you to share those worksheets?
    And Laurie 4-5 pages an hour? heavy sigh I guess I’m going to have to learn to type one of these days.

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Rita, let me clean mine up a bit today and I will send it to you.

      That’s an average ;o) When things are flowing like water, it can come out faster, when it’s flowing like molasses it can be 1 to 2.

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  9. June says:

    Laurie, I can tell you put a lot of work into this and I needed every word of it. This year I decided it was time to move into the business side of writing. That was my first step…and sadly, my only step. I knew I needed a business plan, but the thought of writing one terrified me. Why? Because I had no idea what I was doing. Thank you for giving me direction.

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Hi June!

      I’m glad this helped! It can be daunting, but fun too. You can start to see yourself doing what you love and stay excited about it. You could do it in digestible chunks, and then you have time to ponder each step as you go.

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  10. Elise Hayes says:

    Thanks, Laurie–this was hugely helpful! I’ve been writing since 1998, but as a “pantser” who traditionally took 4 years to write a first draft, plus a couple of years for the revisions(which means I only have two completed manuscripts at this point). And I realized that if I ever do sell a book, I won’t be able to take 6 years before the next one comes out…so I needed a plan. I asked myself what it would take to write a book every 9-12 months and then started gathering some plotting/character tools to make it happen.

    I now do a lot or pre-plotting and characterdevelopment, set short and long-term writing goals for myself, and try to write 5 days a week. It’s still a work in progress, but right now I’m on track to have completed the first draft of my next book in four months–and that’s a heck of a let better than 4 years!

    It was thinking about writing as a business that really made me seek this shift. And your post has helped push me into thinking even more concretely about my “business”!

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Thanks, Elise!

      I so hear you. It took me a few years to finish the first manuscript and then another few to finish #2. I had the same kind of epiphany you did and knew I had to do something. Sounds like you are on the right track! 4 months is great!!!

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  11. Liz Talley says:

    Okay, I can admit to not being the most organized person on the planet. I don’t write down stuff or use a spreadsheet. I know. Some of you are appalled. I have found my own balance. I set hours for writing – 7:30-11:30 every morning, but I always keep in mind that though it is my new career, the process is a creative one. Which means sometimes I’m more creative than others.

    I set goals for the first time this year (with my GIAM group) Those really help me to be focused and give me accountability.

    Great post. One I want to ignore, but likely shouldn’t.

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Hey Liz! (I must get used to that lol) If you’ve found a system that works, that’s great. Good for you for setting goals with a group. That can be hugely motivating when you have to check in ;o)

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  12. Kim Law says:

    Great post, Laurie. Very nice and detailed. The only way it could have been better was to include those spreadsheets you talked about above – LOL.

    This got me to thinking, too. I already do some of those things, think about my writing as a business, and set my goals and plans. But I don’t know that I’ve ever written them down! I know…good grief! But the thing is, when you don’t write them down you can always say I’ll finish whatever in X months or I’ll accomplish whatever in X years, but X months and X years keeps stretching out farther and farther because I don’t have when I originally started and when I should have accomplished it. That probably made no sense, but it does to me so now I get to go create a brand new spreadsheet to store my writing business plans in!!! 🙂

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Hi Kim,

      I so could have kept going, lol, but I figured everyone’s eyes might start to glaze over That’s so true about writing them down. When you see it in black and white it seems so much more official and real. I said above I use dry erase boards that sit in front of my face all day long and I can’t tell you how much that has improved my productivity across everything I do.

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  13. rita says:

    I give a little talk about GMC. Not story GMC, but writer GMC.
    Be a plotter for a moment. A plotter of your writing career.
    What are your writing goals? What’s your motivation? What’s the conflict? Inner and outer conflict. How is the writer -you- going to overcome the conflict to reach the HEA?
    Funny how it actually can apply to our lives. Try it.

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  14. Laurie,
    I do this already, but the way you have it laid out here *still* sparked ways I can improve my plan. It really hasn’t been working like I’d like it to, so it’s time to tweak. Thanks so much for the step by step 🙂

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  15. Jeannie Lin says:

    I like your no-nonsense approach Laurie! This is a business and the writers who succeed are usually the ones who treat it like such.

    I was laughing with my husband once about how rock stars probably have managers who make sure they get to their gigs and don’t smash up their hotel rooms too much. It’s hard to be both the tempermental artist and your own business manager at the same time, but I guess that’s what we have to be.

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Jeannie that’s so funny. It’s hard to wear both hats! And yeah, I am pretty no nonsense. That’s the finance background coming out in me ;o)

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  16. Laurie, what a fabulous post! I’m not a planner. It’s a definite weakness of mine, but you’ve laid out such a clear way of going about it, that I really think I can finally succeed in creating a plan that will work for me. Off to get to work! 🙂

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Thanks, Cynthia! The great news is once you do the groundwork you have something concrete you can just tweak and adjust as needed.

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  17. Elisa Beatty says:

    Awesome post, Laurie (though part of me is cowering and saying “eep! I thought being a writer meant I’d escaped the corporate world!!”)

    One of the main things I’ve learned in this “Golden Heart year” is that you have to move aggressively to get anywhere in this business. As many people have been saying of their first books, mine took me YEARS, with big stalls in the middle while I was taking care of infants (not to mention the demands of the day job). It was always a vague dream of “someday”….

    After finaling in the GH last year, I started Book 2, and now have daily goals to finish a draft for this year’s Golden Heart. That’s really the only deadline I have right now, but it’s working for me. For the first time, I’m keeping track of word count, and grabbing those little 15-minute increments Heather blogged about a few days ago. It truly is amazing how quickly the manuscript starts to take substantial form.

    I love your hypothetical timeline for finishing a book between now and Nationals (regardless of Golden Heart)!! It can be done!! (Oh, sorry, Yoda: it WILL be done!)

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Thanks, Elisa!

      Yes, it can and will be done! At least with this, you are the boss of your time and your plan, whereas in corporate it sometimes feels like you are working your tail off at the whim of someone else. At least that’s how I felt a lot of the time. Now you’re in charge ;o)

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    • Diana Layne says:

      The Force is strong with this one.

      LOL

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  18. Elizabeth Langston says:

    What a practical post! I love the idea of writing myself a mission statement.

    I’ve only had two loose goals over the last couple of years: write a good book and find an agent. One subjective. One measurable. I had 5 queries out at a time for agents. Whenever one would reject, out went another. Fortunately, I found her. Yay! Persistence and structure work.

    Beth

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Hey Beth! It’s so great when you see results and know it was because you made it happen. I think an agent can be such a helpful part of the business planning process. Thanks for commenting!

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  19. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Having been an administrative assistant and run my own business in the past, even thinking about the “business” end of writing makes me nauseous. The constant oversite of every tiny detail is just another annoyance. That said, however, those details are an unavoidable consequence of becoming a professional writer.

    How I wish it weren’t so.

    Maybe, someday, there will be an accountant in my future, but for now, all those planning, maintaining, and sustaining bits fall on me, and your post helps put them, and their import, into perspective.

    This post can count as either warning or road map to those who choose to pursue their passion for prose.

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Thanks, Gwynlyn!

      It would be lovely if we could just hand off some of the more time consuming stuff to someone else wouldn’t it? Maybe one day you will be the one hiring an assistant!

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  20. Katrina C says:

    This is fantastically helpful, Laurie. Thanks so much. I started writing just because I wanted to, but now I’m thinking much longer term.

    This reminds me of when I decided to change careers a few years ago (from being an English teacher to working for a humanitarian organization). It wasn’t just something I could jump into. I couldn’t call up a charity and say, “Hey, I think it’d be great fun to work for you, so you should hire me.” I had to really plan, figure out what kind of skills I’d need to develop, go back to school for a year, and then send out hundreds of applications before anyone gave me a chance.

    Anyone who thinks getting published is a lark is kidding themselves.

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Katrina, I am so glad you found this useful. I agree, business planning, getting published, and changing careers have much in common. I think that’s why many, many people never take the leap to start a business, write a book, or change careers. And many who try don’t go the distance. It’s just plain hard. That’s why I tackled this subject because I believe taking a methodical, thoughtful approach to a writing career makes it a lot less difficult. I wish I had done it years ago but I guess that’s called a learning curve ;o)

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  21. Addison Fox says:

    Laurie:

    What an awesome post! I love how you broke down the various steps. While writing is a creative endeavor, publishing is a business. Sometimes it’s too easy to let the creative side of our minds allow us to forget that!

    Addison

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Thanks, Addison! Indeed, it’s easy to get lost in the creativity. I have to give my brain permission to switch back and forth ;o)

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  22. Great ideas, all. I like the idea of an author mission statement, too … and the examples are great.

    If I want to make it as an author, it’s time to take more control.

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Arlene, glad you liked the examples. Taking control is so empowering. When I feel frustrated or lost, I can’t create. And the opposite is true. So while it is a business approach, I think it can vastly help with creativity.

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  23. Anne Barton says:

    “Writing [the excuses] down here was like having a party with a group of old boyfriends, and then realizing why I stopped seeing them, because they weren’t good for me.”

    LOL, Laurie! What a great post. Thanks.

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  24. Kate Parker says:

    You’re right, Laurie. This is a part of our career, besides the writing, that we can control. Great post.

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  25. Tina Joyce says:

    Laurie, what a great post. I plot my stories…I should pay as much attention to plotting the business side of my writing! Thanks for the reminder!

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  26. Laurie, It’s so wonderful of you to share your expertise with us. You did a lot of work on this plan and it shows!

    Thanks,
    Autumn

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  27. Darynda Jones says:

    I love this, Laurie!!! This is something I’ve really had to overcome. I used to think along similar lines about writing only when the muse was talking. Yeah, right. Not if you want to succeed.

    Wonderful post!!!
    ~D~

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  28. Shea Berkley says:

    Argh! I know I’ve got to get more organized, but … argh! It’s so hard (said in a whiny voice). It’s also why I have an agent. She cracks the whip. I write.

    It’s a great post, Laurie. It makes me realize I’ve got to pay more attention to details that have nothing to do with my characters. I’m gonna try. Seriously.

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    • Laurie DeSalvo says:

      Hey Shea, Thanks for commenting. I know, it is so hard, and none of us are perfect all the time. It’s always a work in progress ;o) But then so is life, isn’t it?

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  29. Four to six novels in a year? Wow, you are ambitious. I’m doing good if I can crank out one to two. You are so right about those little goals. It takes a lot of short-term planning to get to the end. Great blog.

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