Wednesday, April 4, 2012

law of success #1: definite chief aim

Unlike other milestones in my life, the decision to self-publish wasn't a "eureka" moment for me. I'd waffled for months before finally deciding that I had enough networking skills to get Faking It into the hands of readers other than my friends and family (almost a year before ebooks were the hot new thing). Even greater than my faith in my networking skills was faith in Faking It. Despite having once believed that I wasn't a fiction writer and not knowing who would want to read this story other than my rhet-comp friends, I had come to believe that I had told a good story, and told it well. And I believed with all of my heart that there was indeed an audience waiting for it. If the publishers didn't want it, then I'd take it to the streets myself.

So I did some research and decided on I learned how to format a Word document to make it look like a professional book, and edited the manuscript to the best of my ability. I learned how to find stock photos, and used the primitive cover design tools at the time to make a cover. I went through several incarnations and mistakes until I came up with the "official" book.

And, with no working capital, I put all this expense on an already well-worn credit card.

Next, I went to work on getting the word out. I had recently gotten a Facebook page as well as a Twitter account. I blogged about my new novel (although by then it was four years old). I followed the lead of others who were finding success with self-publishing, and learned what I could about book promotion. I approached bookstores and tried to set up readings. It wasn't an organized plan, per se, but every attempt served the same purpose: get Faking It into the hands of readers.

I did something else at this time as well. I kept a vision board. (For those who don't know, a vision board is a tool to help manifest an intention. Want to re-do your kitchen? Tack pictures of your dream kitchen onto a corkboard. Want a house on the beach someday? A new job? A relationship? You get the idea.) My vision board included, among other things, a collage of writers I admired (including a photo of Andre Dubus III and me at Quail Ridge Books), slogans like "Go for it," and two strategically juxtaposed cutouts of "New York Times Bestseller" and my book cover. At night, before going to sleep, I would visualize Faking It on displays in bookstores, customers bringing them up to the cashwrap, sitting in coffeeshops and in airports reading.

Little did I know that that vision was going to be actualized, only the "bookshelf" was virtual, and the bestseller list was Amazon rather than the New York Times. And "getting my book into the hands of readers" surpassed my intention and imagination by leaps and bounds.

When I heard about self-publishing on the Kindle and saw Stacey Cochran's success, I thought, "Why not?" It was one more way to get my novel into the hands of readers. You know the rest of the story. All the pieces fell into place after that.

Here's what I'm getting at: The road to success of any kind begins with what Napoleon Hill calls the Definite Chief Aim, a central purpose or intention. But accompanying that must be "organized effort," a plan to actualize this aim or manifest your intention.

The key word in definite chief aim is definite. There can be no second-guessing when it comes to a DCA, no waffling or hemming or hawing. And without organized effort, the aim becomes aimless. Says Hill:
The habit of working with a definite chief aim [italics his] will breed in you the habit of prompt decision, and this habit will come to your aid in all that you do. Moreover, the habit of working with a definite chief aim will help you to concentrate all your attention on any given task until you have mastered it.
It took approximately two years from the time I made the decision to self-publish to the actualization of that vision board. Around that same time I had also made the decision to make writing my primary source of income (a story I will save for a follow-up post). That took even longer. There's no law that says your goals must be actualized in a manner of days or weeks. In fact, persistence is key. And the picture of what you want might morph over time, as mine did. Circumstances or events might cause you to alter the game plan, and that's ok. But your definite chief aim must remain intact.

A nonfiction book proposal is a great example of definite chief aim and organized effort in motion. An author gets an idea for a book. She then systematically presents the idea, the need, the audience, the market, and the plan of completion to an agent or editor. In addition, she provides an outline and sample chapters. In essence, she has just completed a blueprint of her brainchild, and a plan to manifest it. She has set the universal wheels in motion. Some fiction writers work in a similar manner, extensively outlining their novel before beginning to write it.

When I am asked how an aspiring author decides whether to traditionally or self-publish, my first response is, "Know what you want."As an author, set your intention: Do you want to supplement your income? Do you want the prestige of a traditional publisher? (Although some will challenge that such a thing no longer exists, or that the playing field has leveled.) Do you want to be the next Stephen King, or Amanda Hocking? Do you want to simply write your books and not get caught up in all that online social networking and promotion? Are you willing to wear so many hats of a self-publisher? Do you want writing to be your only source of income? Et cetera.

There's nothing wrong with aspiring to have the success of Suzanne Collins or Stephanie Meyer or Stephen King. There's nothing wrong with saying "I want to make a ton of money from my books. I want to be a mega-bestselling author." There's nothing wrong with a definite chief aim of joining the Kindle Million Club (selling one million Kindle copies). All too often writers are discouraged from having such lofty goals. They're immediately shut down by being told that such successes are the exception, not the norm (not to say that that's not true, but that shouldn't be a reason not to pursue it for yourself), and that wanting that kind of success somehow defiles the art and craft of literature ("real writers aren't rich"). And while I absolutely encourage writers to write what they love rather than what they think is a bestseller, there's no reason that they can't aspire for their book to be one and the same. And although there's always an X-factor to why books become successful, persistence and a plan (as well as creative visualization) go a long way.

I can hear skeptics tell me that I'm selling false hope to my readers right now. But I have too many examples of these practices in my own life (a definite chief aim backed by organized effort) to know that success happens on any scale. The trick is not to attach yourself to the picture as much as to the process.

Other tips:
Make a decision. There's nothing worse than waffling. I know. I've done it. Waffling is the result of fear--fear of failing, fear of poverty, you name it. Sometimes you just have to take the risk and make the leap. And sometimes that's easier said than done. I know that, too. But the very act of deciding brings with it its own special kind of power and energy.

And while you're at it, know why you want what you want.

Make a plan. This is something I'm learning to do in a more specific way, instead of making it up as I go along. Lately I've been really into the idea of the proposal. Write your own proposal, be it for a house or a book or to meet someone you admire. Write it for you, and show no one else, but keep it somewhere you'll see it, and read it often. It's ok if you don't follow the plan precisely, and it doesn't need to be so uber-organized that every moment is accounted for, but it should have some focus.

Tell as few people as possible. I am very secretive when it comes to novel ideas and works in progress. I also keep my vision boards private, and don't share my affirmations or talk a lot about my DCAs of any kind. I find that when I inadvertently announce my plans for something, I'm met with some kind of negative response (also inadvertent sometimes), be it laughing or discouragement or skepticism. Nothing will sap your momentum quicker. No one needs to know. The definite chief aim is yours and yours alone.

Be persistent, yet flexible. Your DCA may take years to actualize. That's ok. Stephen King got countless rejections before he sold Carrie (and were it not for his wife fishing it out of the trash, it wouldn't have been published at all!) The Help got something like 200 rejections. A Pixar film is years in the making. Setbacks happen along the way. Make adjustments, but don't give up, and don't let anyone sway you. If you believe in your book, or your business idea, or your Beetle, you'll find a way to birth it.

Be responsible. Mortgaging your house or going further into credit card debt probably isn't a good plan, especially if you have a family (yes, this is the "do as I say, not as I did" part of the program; but in my defense, I was willing to take the risk -- and responsibility for my actions -- given that I only had myself to support). And competition is a good thing, but unethically sabotaging someone in the process (like stealing someone's great idea) will only bring you trouble.

Know what you want and why you want it, make a plan to get it, and rather than adopting the attitude of "I won't believe it until I see it," make it a practice to "see it when I believe it."

Happy writing.


Elspeth Antonelli said...

This is excellent, Elisa. It's getting off the waffling road that's the hardest for me, but I'm learning that eating waffles (work with me here) is feeding the fear monster.

RJ Keller said...

This used to be me:

"All too often writers are discouraged from having such lofty goals. They're immediately shut down by being told that such successes are the exception, not the norm."

Then I figured, Frig it. Someone's gotta be successful. Why not me? And who knows, maybe one day it will be. Now I just have to work on this one:

"Tell as few people as possible. I am very secretive when it comes to novel ideas and works in progress."

I think that's a big reason of why I've been so stymied with writing book #2. I posted way too much way too publicly about it before I was even halfway through. Live and learn.

Great post, Elisa!

~Sia McKye~ said...

What a wonderful article, Elisa. Encouraging and practical. I do believe in the power of visualization goals. I've taken some notes. I do like your tips.


Elisa said...

Thanks, all!

(Oddly enough, I'm craving waffles...)

Fenny said...

Right, tomorrow when I get home from work, I'm writing down my DCA and I'm going to sort out my vision board. Can't tell you what my plan is, but it may ultimately involve moving to California!

Elisa said...

Oooh Fenny, sounds intriguing! (Be sure to include a photo of BW on your vision board... like I have to tell you that...)

MissYates said...

I love your positive, constructive, and practical blog posts, Elisa! Enjoying reading these...