Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Month in Australia: 6 Steps to Achieving Your Biggest Goals (Like Writing a Novel!)

Australia is known for some big things, like an enormous, ancient rock formation, a wonder-of-the-world reef, and massive (and dangerous) wildlife.*

Uluru, via digitalreflections / Great Barrier Reef, via Wikimedia Commons /
Crocodile, via fvanrenterghem
Traveling throughout Australia has been one of my biggest life goals. And this December, my husband and I will be spending a month there.

A little backstory.

In 2006, when I was 19, I studied abroad in Australia on a college student's limited budget, and I fell in love. I promised myself that, before I turned 30, I'd return — for at least 3 weeks — and do everything that I couldn't afford to do the first time around.

Little did I know that I wouldn't be traveling alone.

When I left for my semester abroad, I had a boyfriend, Steve. We'd been together for just over a year, so a 4-month separation was quite a test of the relationship. He wanted to come visit me, but he was a poor, hardworking college student, too, so it wasn't possible.

At the time, I joked that, if he was willing to spend over $2,000 to see me for one week (including two days of flights and a nasty case of jetlag), then he should save it for a ring.

Against the odds, our relationship survived and thrived during that semester apart, and five years later, we were married.

From the moment he proposed, we started planning that epic, once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia. We spent a lovely, relaxing week in the Bahamas after the wedding, but our true honeymoon would happen over two years later.

After three years of planning, the trip has finally arrived.**

Via Wikimedia Commons
How it's possible.

Whenever I tell people of our dream honeymoon trip, the first question they ask is, "How is that even possible?" — with the same incredulity I often hear when I tell people I write novels.

Both writing a novel (or two or three) and taking a monthlong trip on the other side of the world seem like impossibilities to many people, simply because they're "big" goals. They take months upon months of dedication, planning, and sacrifice, so they seem out of reach — and travel especially seems so for people like us, with full-time jobs and middle-class incomes.

But achieving both goals requires surprisingly similar steps.

(1) Set your goal.

Location, duration, budget! Because of the length and cost of flying, I wanted a minimum of three weeks, and I wanted to travel to about 3-4 different locations — without being part of a tour.

Genre, plot, completion date. The key is to give yourself a completion date for the first draft. Even if you change it, a deadline is how you get from starting a novel to finishing one. Also, interim goals help keep you on track and make the process less daunting.

(2) Research.

Look into your preferred destinations, and approximate costs for transportation, lodging, food, and activities. Don't forget to calculate in a spending cushion. Consider whether your traveling in the off-season or at the most popular time of year, because prices can differ drastically. (My husband and I could only finagle a month off from our jobs*** if we went during the most expensive time of year — December-January.) Once you have all the pricing, you can set a budget.

What's the average/recommended length of a novel in your genre? (That's a good word count gauge.) Is there anything in your genre that's published or soon-to-be-published that's similar to your idea? (Make sure yours stands out.) And even if a novel is set in your present-day hometown, it inevitably requires research — of locations, policies or laws, slang/language, technology, occupations, even weather and geography. Authenticity is in the details ... but don't feel compelled to include everything you've learned!

(3) Prioritize.

Research casts a wide net, but now it's time to decide what's most important to you. I was tempted to go to New Zealand, but I decided to stick with Cairns/the Great Barrier Reef; the Outback; the Great Ocean Road/Melbourne; and Sydney (for New Year's Eve!). Luxury was the least of my concerns, so I booked hostels the whole way. But I spent a bit more on my flight by choosing Qantas over a budget airline because my previous trip made me love love love Qantas planes and customer service! (And honestly, the flight to/from LAX is about 14 hours, so it's well worth the money!)

What does your character want? Having rock solid interior and exterior motivations for your main character (and, if applicable, the villain/antagonist) is key in focusing your novel. Everything your character does, every choice he/she makes, must reflect that motivation. And every obstacle has to be in direct opposition to your main character's goal. This way, no scenes are wasted, and you can create a tighter first draft more quickly.

(4) Buckle down & sacrifice.

Buckle down: Traveling without tour groups is liberating and can save money, but it also requires work. Figuring out logistics of traveling to and from airports, researching & booking excursions, and getting to know the layout of foreign cities takes time.
Sacrifice: In the past three years, I've lost count of how many times I've said, "Sorry, I can't — I'm saving for Australia." Every time I wanted to order take-out or buy a new pair of shoes, I said no. I chose to sacrifice the little things so that, during my epic dream trip, I didn't have to have any regrets. And the little things added up to a budget that I'm proud of!

Sit down and write. Repeat, repeat, repeat. You've set yourself up for success, but it's still hard to write a novel. (And we haven't even gotten to revision!) Some days, it seems impossibly hard. The process is a rollercoaster, but if you want to finish a novel, it takes time and sacrifice. You can't add hours to the day, so you'll inevitably be giving up something to pursue this dream. (And some days, that "something" feels like sanity.) It'll be worth it.

(5) Be flexible.

Something will inevitably go wrong. A flight will be delayed; a reservation will be lost; an outdoor trip will be rained out. Something else will inevitably go much better than you planned. Hour-by-hour itineraries are evil. If you follow them to the letter, you'll be exhausted and (likely) miserable, and if you skip things, you may feel guilty. Leave room for the unexpected, and have some adventures.

If a secondary character is hopping around in the background, waving her hand and begging to be your main character, don't ignore her. If a subplot changes the way you see your novel, follow that. Don't be afraid to throw out thousands of words if something isn't working. Starting from scratch is not failure. If it derails your plan, make a new plan. It's much harder to finish the wrong novel than it is to begin the right one.

(6) Have fun.

Otherwise, what's the point? 



What's your biggest goal?  Leave it in the comments!

* Australia's also known for epic spiders, but I didn't want to give everyone nightmares with that photo.
** I can't tell you how excited our friends and family are to FINALLY stop hearing about us planning this trip. 
*** And we were very, very lucky to work for companies willing to let us pull vacation time from two consecutive years and take four weeks off.

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