It’s a new year already. Can you believe it? Let’s jump right into it: No matter how many think pieces you’ve read on how New Year’s resolutions don’t work and how it’s pointless to set big ones, you probably have some goals in mind for 2021.
Maybe you’re even thinking of doing something like starting a publication or writing a new book or essay. Guess what? I have some tips for you that will work no matter the size of the shiny new thing you’re contemplating. In the last half of 2020, I started a platform designed to help highlight marginalized voices, made and began to roll out a workbook designed for better inclusivity among membership organizations, and was part of a team that created a new website designed for women.
Along the way, I learned a few things. These tips are meant to help you to lay the groundwork for a clean and happy launch, no matter what you’re hoping to start, and to help even out any big bumps you might otherwise encounter. And yes – they apply to any kind of work.
1. Try not to go it alone.
Even if you’re planning on a one-woman show, like my new literary food newsletter Reads & Eats, try to gather trusted people you can talk to about your idea. My team for Reads & Eats was, at the beginning, a trusted friend I could talk to about the finances and structure of the thing and another trusted friend who provided content for the first issue. Without these two, I’m not sure I’d have had the confidence I did in rolling out the project. If you’re considering starting something like a website, even if it’s your own, the same rule should follow: Just like you seek out beta readers for your written work, you want to consult with people on your new project. For bigger undertakings, you definitely want a team in place. And you should approach people with whom you can be your whole self, feel comfortable expressing the opinions you need to express. Without that kind of trust, a startup can be dead in the water even before it starts.
I try not to do anything without some idea of the support network I’m going to leverage. When I sit down to write an essay or a book, I already know who I’m going to ask to be my beta readers. For the inclusivity workbook, I ultimately had a team of 14 beta readers, and I already knew who I’d approach to talk about test runs of the workbook.
Don’t work alone. That’s the territory of the martyr, and martyrs are boring.
2. Draft vision and mission statements.
In a class I teach at Southern New Hampshire University, students are asked to come up with mission and vision statements for their author brand. One of my students broke it down this way: “Vision is where I’d like to get to; mission is how I’m going to get there.” Having a clear idea of both your vision and your mission will help you to ensure both short- and long-term success for your project, whatever it is. In the short term, it’ll provide you with motivation and a solid idea of the kind of content you want to provide. In the long term, it’ll keep you on track. Remember that mission statements and visions can change over the course of any venture’s lifetime. For Undomesticated, the website that some friends and I put together, our vision to provide content for women who were interested in respectful, life-broadening international travel never wavered, but our mission evolved in the early planning stages as we looked at the types of articles we were commissioning and the overall aesthetic of the site.
For Pin Ups, my memoir that launched in September, I was very clear about what I wanted to provide: I wanted to get people pointing at representation in the great outdoors, and noticing what a problem it is. And I wanted people who don’t usually read literary nonfiction to understand what a terrific tool it could be to see a new perspective. Everything fell into place after that, from the marketing effort to crafting the actual memoir itself.
3. Pay attention to your budget.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but it is a piece of advice you should print out and paste onto your wall someplace. Why? Because, friends, it is very, very easy to let yourself get swept away in the excitement of a new project, in the joy of providing something new and creative for the world to see. Be responsible. Money is a living thing, and lack of it will turn around and bite you in the butt if you ignore it. Reads & Eats has both a free version and a paid version. The latter helps to defray costs, obviously, and I build those costs into my personal budget. We’re currently paying out of pocket for Undomesticated, but we have plans to run workshops and advertising that will help us with our bottom line.
So much of what we do in the creative world is labeled a “labor of love” or a “passion project.” Love and passion burn out, friends, and volunteer fatigue is a very real thing. If you don’t have any plans for recompense for the hard work you put in, you might find yourself shutting down your project sooner rather than later.
At the very least, track your time, so you know how much you’re spending on your scheme. It’ll help you to value it when the time comes to make the decision to go on or shut it all down.
4. Draft a plan.
We’ve just addressed budgets, but this is a whole new thing altogether. If you want your bright idea to have any kind of longevity, you’ll need some kind of strategy. Go over your mission and vision statements. Ask yourself where you want to be in a year, three years. Figure out how you can get there and what needs to happen.
5. Always be learning.
I’ve addressed growth mindset several times before in this column – it’s the idea that no one is born being a great editor, a great writer, a great project manager. We can always learn more from someone else who has more experience than we do. So wherever you can, seek out learning opportunities and mentors. And don’t believe for a second that your mentor has to be older than you are or even more experienced in the field than you are. (In rule 2, above, I quote my own student, for instance. Someone’s inexperience in one field may only mean they have a lot of experience in another field. And that experience might ultimately prove useful to you. My student was an MBA candidate before he decided to pursue writing, and you know what? They write a lot of mission statements in MBA Land.)
The legendary editor Alan Rinzler, whose list of authors includes Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, and Claude Brown, once said to a class I was in, “There’s never been a better time to be a writer.” What he meant was that there are so many places to show off our skills. And a former client of mine, Fernando Gros, wrote in his book, No Missing Tools, that he believes there is no better time to be a learner. Gros reminds us that in centuries past, you’d have to apply to a guild to learn how to be a blacksmith, a carpenter, a writer. But now, YouTube videos and tutorials abound for everything from coding and leather tanning to editing and embroidery. Honestly, there’s no reason you can’t keep learning – and you should, even when you’re mid-project.
It is a cliché that a new year should kick off a new goal, a new pipe dream. But if you pick even one of five tenets to try out in your own life, your resolution might just escape the fate of that other cliché, the project that fails after a couple of weeks.
—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.