Small Goals, Big Results
Back in the late 1990s, before I had published my first novel, I had pocketful
of literary aspirations and a heart filled with dreams. I also had two small
children and a budget that precluded the hiring of a baby sitter or nanny.
Although I had the idea for a novel rumbling around inside me, I despaired of
having the time and emotional space in which to write it. The uninterrupted
days, those blissful periods, kind of like swoons or trances, when I could sink
deep into my work and not emerge for hours, were like a mirage from another
time; I could not imagine having them back until the youngest child was
and off to college.
My reaction to these restrictions ranged from brooding resentment to Zen-like
acceptance. But neither strategy was particular helpful. And I certainly
wasnâ€™t getting any work done. Then I had an epiphany: I would not tell myself I
was writing a novel, a concept that made me feel like an ant balancing a
grapefruit on its back. No, I broke down the task at hand into much more
manageable chunks or bits. I told myself that I was writing a scene. A
conversation. A description. And I gave myself a small, manageable goal: two
pages a day, five days a week.
There was such a sense of liberation in this: I was no longer plagued by the
enormous task I had set before myself and instead had a concrete goal that
be checked off on my â€śto doâ€ť list. I wrote those two pages during endless
re-runs of Barney, the oversized (and under-endowed, at least mentally)
purple dinosaur, Dora the Explorer and episodes of Arthur. I
wrote them during naps, play dates (at someone elseâ€™s house) trips with their
father to the zoo/park/playground. I was not overwhelmed, guilty, angst-ridden
or despairing. I was just writing, two pages a day, five days a week.
And it worked. By weekâ€™s end, I had ten pages, by monthâ€™s end, forty.
Sometimes I was even able to exceed my limit. The pages piled up and less than
a year, I had a draft of a novel. And even though a draft is a far cry from a
finished book, it still beats that blank computer screen with the cursor
pulsating like a small, frantic heart.
Once the draft was completed, I switched my mantra slightly to editing, and
revising. The magic of my self-deception still worked, and I could polish and
refine the draft into one submittable first to an agent and then an editor. My
first novel, THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS, was published by Doubleday in 2002,
hard proof that even the smallest increments can one day turn into solid
Now my children are older and my time is much less constrained. But I still
the two pages a day mantra; it gets me over so many humps, blocks and dead
In my fifth novel, TWO OF A KIND, one of the protagonists, Christina Connelly,
eluded my grasp for the longest time. Even though she was at the center of the
story, she was nut I could not crack, the consciousness I could not penetrate.
was first frustrated, then disgusted, then despairing. How would I bring her
life? I wondered. How would I make it all work?
Once again, I was saved by my two-pages-a-day strategy. I did not attempt to
tackle Christina overall; I focused on her scene-by-scene,
conversation-by-conversation, description-by-description. Who was she, want
she need and want? How did she go about getting it? What happened when she did
not? Two pages at a time, I broke her code, unlocked her secrets and brought
her forth. By staying small in my immediate goals, I was able achieve the
Right now, Iâ€™m looking forward to the publication of my seventh novel, THE HOUSE ON
PRIMROSE POND. And even though you would think I am a seasoned veteran at
this point, the two-pages-a-day rule was still my governing principle for
writing it. The novel presented new challenges: a new location, New Hampshire,
as well the shuttling back and forth between a present-day story and one set in
late 18th and early 19th centuries. Each time I felt overwhelmed, confused or
stuck, I remembered my mantra. All I had to do was hammer out those two pages,
and the rest would take care of itself. It was a great lesson, not only for
writing, but also for the larger task of living my life.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of six novels; her seventh, The
on Primrose Pond, will be out from New American Library in February, 2016. In
addition, she is the editor of the essay collections The Barbie Chronicles: A
Living Doll Turns Forty and All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader.
Her short fiction, articles and essays have been published in anthologies as
well as in numerous national magazines and newspapers. She is also the
award-winning author of twenty-six books for children, including the highly
acclaimed chapter books, The Doll Shop Downstairs and The Cats in the Doll
Yona lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, two children and two noisy
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A compelling novel about one womanâ€™s search for the truth from the author
of YOU WERE MEANT FOR ME.
After suffering a sudden, traumatic loss, historical novelist Susannah Gilmore
decides to uproot her lifeâ€”and the lives of her two childrenâ€”and leave their
beloved Brooklyn for the little town of Eastwood, New Hampshire.
While the trio adjusts to their new surroundings, Susannah is captivated by an
unexpected find in her late parentsâ€™ home: an unsigned love note addressed to
her mother, in handwriting that is most definitely not her fatherâ€™s.
Reeling from the thought that she never really knew her mother, Susannah finds
mysteries everywhere she looks: in her daughterâ€™s friendship with an older
neighbor, in a charismatic local man to whom sheâ€™s powerfully drawn, and in an
eighteenth century crime sheâ€™s researching for her next book. Compelled to dig
into her motherâ€™s past, Susannah discovers even more secrets, ones that surpass
any fiction she could ever put to paper...
3 comments posted.
Anew to me author and a lovely introduction. What an excellent philosophy...all tasks are easier when taken in manageable bits.
(Kathleen Bylsma 12:35pm November 10, 2015)
Thank you for writing, Kathleen and Peggy; I loved hearing from both of you! Kathleen you are right: this philosophy works in other areas as well. Peggy, the process is different for each of us, and the trick is figuring out one that works for you, so you can stick with it.
(Yona Zeldis McDonough 1:22pm November 16, 2015)