Writers, if you don’t already assess your writing habits at the end of the year, you should consider doing it. Many companies require employees to complete year-end assessments to help them set work goals for the coming year. You are your own employer. Do you assess your work and set goals as a writer? Do you take stock of your current work habits and output at the end of the year in order to decide how you want to proceed with your work?
Take a few minutes to evaluate yourself.
While it’s true that employee year-end assessments can be pointless hassles, the goal of the assessments is valid. People have to know where they stand before they can set goals for where they want to be. This kind of self-knowledge is likely more important to writers than to employees in large businesses. Most employees have no control over their workload and typically can make only minor changes to processes and procedures. Writers, on the other hand, control their own schedule and output, so self-assessment should have more value to writers than to the average company employee.
What should you take into consideration as you assess your work?
Authors may use multiple measures of productivity: words written in a year, manuscripts completed, number of times manuscripts were submitted somewhere, or pieces published. Knowing these benchmarks for the current year can help authors set goals for the next year.
Do you want to increase your word-count output? Then, tally your output for this year and set a reasonable goal for the next year, something that will be a challenge, but not an impossibility. Are you writing constantly, but not submitting things for publication or, if self-publishing, only publishing rarely? Review your submissions or look at your publication schedule and challenge yourself to do more.
Why take stock and set goals when everything changes as you go?
Even when the world turns upside down and a new reality inflicts itself upon everyone, having goals can keep writers on track. Goals allow them to see the way forward and adapt when the world obscures the view. The plan might need adapting along the way, but that’s true of most things in life.
If you have no set plans, you’ll have nothing to turn to as a guide when the world or life-in-general throws you a curveball. Set goals to help you focus.
Last January, before the pandemic set in, I set a goal to write more short stories, aiming for at least one per month. I set another goal to submit my short stories to markets at least once a month. In spite of the pandemic, I mostly accomplished those goals. The upheaval and turmoil threw me off-course for March, but because I had goals in place, I got back on track in April. I ended up with 10.5 short stories (December’s isn’t quite done yet) and one novella-length manuscript. My Excel spreadsheet of submissions shows I exceeded my submission goal with 20 short stories submitted to markets this past year.
I had hoped to start a new novel this year, but that goal fell by the wayside. In spite of that and the distraction of the pandemic, I still managed to produce about 71,000 words of new fiction and almost 6000 words in blog posts. With that knowledge, I can set my output goals for the coming year.
The first week of January, I plan to set my goals for 2021. Because I know where I stand, I can see ways to stretch and improve. How about you? Will you do year-end assessments and set goals for the coming year?
N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.
When the holidays come around, I can’t help it. Sometimes I get so stressed I just wanna kill somebody. (On paper, of course!) It can be very cathartic.
But if my murderous muse isn’t singing, I turn to my favorite holiday crime novel, Holiday in Death, by the supreme, futuristic murder writer, J.D. Robb. (It irks me that some industry aficionados refer to this series as “romantic suspense.” Sure, it has a romance in it, BUT, this is a crime novel in every sense!)
Holiday in Death is the seventh in the now fifty-one book series about New York murder cop Eve Dallas and her devastatingly rich, handsome and techno-wizard husband, Roarke. Did you catch that? There are fifty-one books in this series, with the next, Faithless in Death, coming February 9, 2021.
But I digress. Here’s the scoop on my favorite Christmas mystery taken from its Publisher’s Weekly review 6/01/1998.
The year is 2058. Guns are banned and medical science has learned how to prolong life to well beyond the century mark. And man has yet to stop killing man. At Cop Central, it’s Lieutenant Eve Dallas’s job to stand up for the dead. So begins the seventh riveting installment in Robb’s (aka Nora Roberts) futuristic romantic suspense series (following Vengeance in Death). With Christmas only weeks away, Eve is stressing out trying to find the right gift for her new husband, Rourke, who “”not only had everything, but owned most of the plants and factories that made it.”” More to her concern is the latest serial killer who is using “”The Twelve Days of Christmas”” as a theme for his heinous rape and murder spree. The case touches Eve on a personal level, and while flash-backs from her abusive childhood are flinchingly repetitious, it defines Eve’s gritty, hard-boiled character and validates her obsessive determination to bring down the killer any way she can.
So if the holidays stress you out, grab a peppermint-schnapps-laced, hot chocolate, get in that comfy chair in front of the fireplace, turn on that Tiffany lamp that casts just enough light for you to read by, settle your animal on your lap, and crack open this great read.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
P.S. There is one story I like better at this time of year, just for the record. You’ll find it in the Bible’s new Testament. I usually start at Luke, chapter one.
“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.” – Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings
In 2000, I wrote a story I titled, “Stop Signs.”
That was in the Dark Ages. Ancient desktop, probably Windows 3.1 and WordPerfect. Hard drives. Floppy disks that didn’t flop.
I composed in cursive—sat on the bed with a pencil and a tablet, wrote a couple of pages, crossed the room to type the fragment into a document and make some edits, moved back to the bed to pencil two or three more pages, went back to the computer to transcribe and edit, moved back to the bed . . . And reaching “The End,” printed and penciled in more edits, then went back to the keyboard to type the changes, then printed and penciled more edits, then back to the keyboard . . .
It was my second foray into fiction. I rather liked the result, and as a naive newbie, I submitted it to a contest. A month later the North Texas Professional Writers Association notified me the story had placed first in its fiction division. They enclosed a check for $50 (real money!) and a copy of the chapbook in which winners’ work was published.
Later I became comfortable composing at the keyboard. I printed, marked the manuscript, revised and edited the document, went through that process several times, stored the file, ripped up the paper.
Down the road apiece, “hard copies” became unnecessary—just attach a file and email it off to contests or zines. Easy peasy.
And then came another desktop, and laptops, and new versions of Windows, one after the other, and CD-ROMS (writable!), and external backups, and online backup services, and cloud backups, and a whole raft of things I’ve never heard of.
The paperless society. Everything on record, available at the touch of a fingertip, no document or image ever lost.
First, a flash drive disappeared. Several years later, during one of my 3:00 a.m. housecleaning binges, I moved the refrigerator and found it lying beneath, stashed there by a cat with her own method of digital storage. But it was no big deal; most of the documents were safe on the hard drive.
Then there was the crash. I’d been thinking about subscribing to an online backup service but just hadn’t gotten around to it. Still, no big deal. I’d hidden all the flash drives from the cat. And, quite frankly, there were a few files I was relieved to lose.
But last week I realized I’d lost something that matters: “Stop Signs.” My award-winning story. The first story that I was paid for. In money.
But more important than awards or money—my words were missing.
The file isn’t on my hard drive. Or in the cloud. Or in Drop Box. And I can’t find the chapbook.
Oh, it isn’t really lost. The chapbook is here. Somewhere. When we moved last year, I packed it. I just don’t know where it landed. Saturday, I went hunting.
I didn’t find it. I found something better: a draft of an interview I did in the early 1980s with my Great-aunt Bettie Pittman Waller, who was married to my grandfather’s older brother Maurice. It’s a mess, pages unnumbered–it was typed on a typewriter, probably directly from the cassette tape–with scribbled directions for moving this paragraph here and that paragraph there, to make it into a coherent whole.
Aunt Bettie and Uncle Maurice grew up in the Cottonwood Community in Guadalupe County, across the San Marcos River from the town of Fentress, Texas, where they lived for most of the nearly sixty-five years they were married. They were pillars of both Presbyterian and Methodist Churches—in the back pew of the Methodist Church on first and third Sundays, the back pew of the Presbyterian on second and fourth. What other people did was none of their business. They didn’t judge. They also didn’t sit down front because Uncle Maurice had no intention of being noticed and possibly asked to take up collection.
When they married, all she knew how to cook was pancakes. Three months later, Uncle Maurice told her she was simply going to have to learn to make something else.
She was born in 1886 and died in 1987; for most of that time, her mind was sharp and her memory impeccable. She moved from Cottonwood to Fentress in 1901, was the youngest resident, when her widowed mother built a boarding house there. She remembered names and dates. She held the history of the town.
She told stories about their marriage and the town and the people, and Uncle Maurice, who was known for not talking, sat there shaking with silent laughter. There was so much to laugh about.
Why does all this matter? Because I was a listening child. Because my roots are deep in the town she was so much a part of. A small, insignificant place, except to the few who remember.
Because that’s where my imagination lives.
Because my work in progress is set in a little town named Cottonwood, whose history is very like that of the small, insignificant place.
Because “Stop Signs” begins, My grandfather thinks stop signs cause wrecks—a statement my grandfather made while I was listening.
Because history isn’t a list of presidents and kings, wars and laws and dates. It’s ordinary people, who they were, what they did, day after ordinary day.
And because those ordinary people and places should not be forgotten.
The following is an excerpt of the interview with Aunt Bettie–her first date with Uncle Maurice, and two events that happened early in their marriage, while they were still living on the farm. “Pat” was Uncle Maurice’s pet name for Aunt Bettie. Barney and Frank are Uncle Maurice’s brothers. Tishie is Aunt Bettie’s older sister, Letitia. Old Fritz is a horse.
Maurice and I married in 1905. I remember our first date; we didn’t know the word “date,” we called it “having company.”
Mama wouldn’t let me go with boys. That was my sixteenth birthday, and I slipped off to go. I wasn’t proud of it, bit I did.
Ollie Hudgens was my best friend and Maurice’s cousin, and Pent Gregg was Maurice’s best friend and my cousin. Mr. Hudgens didn’t like Pent, but Ollie went with him anyway. Ollie was going to spend the night with me on my birthday, and Pent was going out with Ollie, and he didn’t want me along, so he made Maurice go along, too. I left home with Pent and Ollie, and later Maurice caught up with us. He had borrowed a buggy.
We were going to a protracted meeting at the Baptist Church at Prairie Lea. It was very dusty, the 19th of June, and watermelons were in. The 19th was always the biggest part of the melon season. Maurice had access to the icebox at the [family] store, and he put a melon in for us to eat after church.
Maurice had never had a date either, and we didn’t know what to say. Going down, I said, “It’s sure dusty, isn’t it?” and he said, “Surely is.” That’s all we said all the way to Prairie Lea. But on the way home, we got better acquainted.
It was the brightest moonlight I ever saw. We had to cross the river, and there was a gravel bar there. When we got home, Maurice got the melon, and it was cold and nice, and we four went down on the gravel bar and ate the melon. We had such a nice time. I called it my sixteenth birthday party—it was the first party I’d ever had.
But then I couldn’t get Mama to let me go out again. I cried and begged Mama to let me go. Tishie had a different way with Mama—she got mad and talked back, and then she didn’t get to go anywhere either. But I knew better.
So I had to slip around to see Maurice. I wasn’t proud, but that was the only way I could see him.
To Maurice, this was the funniest thing that ever happened. Ward Lane got muddy when it rained much. If you kept in the ruts, you did all right and didn’t stick. But it wasn’t wide enough for two to pass. You could probably squeeze by if it was dry, but not if there was mud.
There was a show in Fentress that night—we lived on the farm that year—and we went early, before dark. On the way home, about ten o’clock, it was bright moonlight. We had to go very slow because it was so muddy.
Our buggy didn’t have a top—it was a trap, a popular kind for youngsters then. I don’t know whose it was; well, I guess it was ours, because we were married then. Before we married, Maurice shared a buggy, but Frank didn’t go out with girls till he started going with Vida, so he didn’t need it much.
That night Maurice didn’t hold to the reins tight. The wheel hub on his side hit a fence post and knocked the car around. I fell perfectly flat on my back in the mudhole. It was so bright you could see very well.
I said, “Oh, I’m killed!”
Maurice didn’t say anything, and then I realized he was laughing as hard as he could. I thought, He doesn’t care if I am killed. That crossed my mind.
When he finally could talk, he said, “I’m just getting even with you.”
I wasn’t fit to get back in the buggy; I sat on the edge of the seat all the way home. I was wearing a white linen dress I had made, and I thought it was so pretty, and that stain never did come out. Boiling didn’t take it out. It was a fine woven cloth, and it was ruined.
But Maurice had a lot of fun out of it. Whenever it was mentioned, he would say, “Well, I just got even—I always wanted to.”
What he was getting even for happened soon after Barney and Hallie married. Maurice and I had been married a while, but I wasn’t a housewife, and I didn’t know anything about entertaining. It was Sunday morning, very cold, and we had a fire in one room, the only room where we could have a fire. Maurice was taking a bath in there, just inside the kitchen door to the dining room.
We heard a knock at the door, and I went to answer it, and Maurice said, “Pat, don’t ask them in here.”
But it was Barney and Hallie—he had come to introduce his new wife to us—and I didn’t know what else to do, so I said, “Won’t you come in?”
When we got into the kitchen, Maurice had disappeared.
Well, I was so tickled that I know Barn and Hallie thought something was wrong with me. They sat down and we visited and in a minute Barney said, “Bettie, when we drove around back, old Fritz had his head in the crib and was eating corn.” We had just a little corn out there to feed him, so I was going out to shut the door, even if it was cold.
When I passed through the dining room, there was Maurice, plastered up against the wall, wet and without a stitch on, just freezing to death. He said, “Bettie, get me some clothes.”
I just walked out and laid my head up against the corn crib and laughed till I cried.
Maurice was furious; that was the first time he’d got mad at me like that.
He never did get over it till he knocked me in the mud.
In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice, December 21, 2020, will happen at the same instant for all of us, ushering in the longest night of the year. Therefore, it is appropriate that December celebrates so many festivals and religious holidays, using lights and candles in their traditions to illuminate the darkness. Depending on where one looks, there are many festivals in various cultures. Still, the three most recognized December celebrations in North America are Kwanzaa, Hannakuh, and Christmas. Each of them lights the cold, dark days of December with warmth, love, unity, family, and spirituality.
Kwanzaa was introduced in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga for African-Americans. This holiday’s seven principles are self-determination, collective work, responsibility, unity, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Candles are lit to represent each of these principles, and gifts are exchanged on December 31, with banquets of food, often from various African countries. May peace, love, and unity bring a happy Kwanzaa to all and blessings on your families.
The oldest of these three holidays is the eight-day celebration of Hannukah, the Festival of Lights. It will begin on December 10 and end on December 18, commemorating the rededication in Jerusalem of the second Temple, which was fought for and won back from Greek-Syrian oppressors. Historically, Israel’s land fell to Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria. He permitted the Jews to continue practicing their religion, but his son Antiochus IV was not as benevolent. He ordered Jews to worship the Greek gods, and when they resisted, Antiochus IV massacred thousands of them and desecrated the city’s holy Second Temple by building an altar to Zeus, upon which they sacrificed pigs.
According to the Talmud, it was the Maccabee Revolt, in 168 B.C. that won back the temple. Following a three-year war and eventual victory, they cleaned the Temple, destroyed the defiled altar and built a new one. When the Maccabees held the rededication celebration and rekindled the menorah, they found they only had and enough untainted oil to light the menorah for one night. Miraculously, the flickering flames continued to burn for eight nights, giving them enough time to find a fresh supply.
There are other interpretations of the Hannukah story. Still, no matter which one a person ascribes to, Hannukah is celebrated for eight nights, with ritual blessings recited upon lighting each candle of the prominently displayed menorah. There are particular foods prepared to celebrate the Hannukah tradition including potato latkes and jam-filled donuts, and children delight in playing with the four-sided spinning tops called Dreidels—Chag Hannukah Sameach or Happy Hannukah to all, and blessings on your families.
Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that after Herod Archelaus, a Roman client king, converted his territory, Judea, into a Roman province, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, the newly-appointed governor, was assigned to carry out a tax census.
According to Christian scripture, Joseph and his wife, Maryam, devout Jews, went from Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because Joseph was descended from the house of David. When they arrived, Maryam began her labor and there was no room for them at the inns. Without lodgings, they found shelter in a nearby cave, which was also stable, and there Jesus was born. Mary placed her sleeping baby in an animal trough filled with clean hay.
Out in the cold, dark night, in the countryside near Bethlehem, angels appeared and announced the good news to the shepherds, watching their flocks. The Messiah had been born. The shepherds listened to the angels and found the baby Jesus, sleeping in the manger in Bethlehem.
Traveling for days, following a brilliant star shining over the stable where Jesus was born, the Magi, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar came from distant eastern countries, arriving days after the birth with gifts for the newborn king. Gold to honor his kingship, Frankincense to recognize his deity, and Myrrh a particular anointing oil.
Over centuries, the gift-giving ritual commemorating the gifts brought by the three wise men devolved into a fully commercialized event. It pays less attention to the significance of Christ’s birth but is still a celebration of light and joy. Whether celebrating Christmas as a gift-giving holiday tradition or commemorating it as the birth of Jesus, it is a time of joy, hope, and love.
And so, the dark days and long nights of December are lit by traditions and celebrations of light, love, and the blessings of family and friends.
Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hannukah, and Happy Christmas!