I’m participating as a faculty member in a local program this year that involves matching writers up with mentors for nine months and other good things like that. I volunteered to give the first talk, on goal setting, and thought I’d put up a few excerpts here in case any of this is helpful.
Get to Know Your Process
What your process is: how you typically work best — speed (sprinter or daily plug-along), do deadlines help or hurt, with an outline or without, how much time do you need to bake an idea, how much time to get distance, everything everything. Do you write a mess and then fix it? Do you go slow and come out with something fairly polished? Do you struggle with procrastination? Is that actually part of your process? Music, museums, walks, naps. Whatever is part of your writing rhythm.
What it isn’t: How you wish you wrote, how the person next to you writes, how insert famous dead author here writes. Perfect and easy.
The best goals come from an honest understanding of your process. It’s the most important thing in your toolkit. Learn it, make peace with it (forgive it and yourself for not being perfect), and be prepared for it to change over time and between projects. If your process is working for you, there’s no reason to try to change it. If your process isn’t working, then maybe one of your goals is trying some different approaches to figure out what will help you do your work.
Because at the end of the day, when it’s you and the page, learning to trust your process will save you.
What challenges get in the way of your writing? Family? Work? Jobs? General inertia? Health issues? Mental health issues? Beating yourself up about not writing more or well enough? p.s. Brains can be jerks! Most every writer I know feels guilty about not working more or that they are only producing crap, even when they’ve done a lot of good work.
Challenges are important to identify, because sometimes we have to adapt our processes to work around those things; it’s not ideal, but it’s possible. And it may majorly affect the kind of goals you can set. I was never an early riser, but I had a day job for 17 years and so I learned how to write first thing in the morning. I sacrificed most every weekend. I don’t necessarily recommend this approach, but sometimes it’s necessary.
Let go of any guilt you feel about treating your work as important.
Set yourself up to succeed, not fail. One of the reasons I wanted to talk about process first is to make the point that goals are so specific and that what works for you is the important part of setting them.
Some good rules of thumb:
Don’t set goals that are outside your own control. We will talk about dreams and career milestones later — those things that of course it’s perfectly cool to want, but which are almost completely out of our direct control. So, for example: getting an agent or selling a first book (these two things are not the same, by the way) — those are not goals within your control. What is in your control? Finishing a manuscript and polishing it then researching and querying agents.
Jealousy in small doses can be motivating, but taken to an extreme it’s a soul killer. Keep your eyes on your own paper. Cheer for your community, be genuinely happy for and excited about other people’s achievements. Other people’s success is not your failure. Period.
Jedi mind tricks and process hacks: Find the ones that work to trick your brain into cooperating. If you are someone with a lot of process challenges or a tendency to procrastinate, one way to approach goals so that you get the double encouragement of meeting and sometimes exceeding them (and retrain your brain that this is a reward!) is to set a minimum goal. Rather than saying: “I’m going to revise 30 pages in the next two weeks,” if that’s an extreme amount for you, say, “I’m going to revise at least 10 pages this week.” Or it can mean giving yourself permission not to write that day/week/whatever; you’ll be ten times more likely to do it. For me, because I’m a weirdo with a jerk brain, setting an extreme goal can often motivate me to push through to prove to myself I can do it. BUT.
Figuring out your limits is important. Limits are often framed in a negative way, as something we have to push to exceed. But unless the goal is burnout, it’s much healthier to respect them. It’s also a lot harder for most of us. These may change depending on what’s going on in your life too. There’s no right answer: can you write 500 words a day? Two thousand a week? What’s your cruising altitude?
Sometimes — most times — it takes longer to write anything than we want or estimate. We forgive our process, remember? Life can get in the way. Sometimes you may need to set aside a work for a month or three to be able to get a fresh enough perspective on it to revise it. (Sometimes that may not be possible.)
Where a lot of writers run into trouble is not with larger goals. We’re pretty good at saying, “I’m going to finish a novel and revise it by next May.” Where we run into trouble is in the smaller goals that actually get us to the big one. Sometimes getting to a polished revision means tossing out a hundred pages; if it’s the right thing for the story, it’s the right thing for the story. Your hard work is never wasted. The danger is in focusing on the destination instead of the process. Holy overwhelm, Batman!
Monthly, weekly, and maybe daily micro goals can help keep you on track. So…what is a micro goal? It can be so micro, friends. Or it can be bigger. But the bottomline is: This is where your process actually happens.
Examples of microgoals:
- Make an outline or revision plan.
- Make an outline or revision plan of a scene.
- Write 500 or whatever number of words a day. It will probably help if you give some thought to what these words will be — unless you’re a pantser and then just sit down and give yourself the time and internet break to write them.
- Write X number of words a week.
- Revise 10 pages a week.
- Rewrite a tough scene and get it where you want it to be.
- Read a book that will inform the craft of what you’re working on and jot down some notes.
- Finish 40 pages of a draft this month.
- Day off.
If you sit down on any given day and it is or feels impossible — set a new microgoal. What can you accomplish that day? Maybe it’s just 10 minutes to plan what scene you will write tomorrow when you don’t have a sick kid or an emergency or a hundred words. And, hey, if it’s a day when you can’t even manage that — then give yourself permission to come back to the page the next day anyway. You do not have to write every day! Your process, remember. Nowhere is it more important than in setting microgoals. This is where dreams and best intentions meet reality.
Knowing When to Move On – Rejection/Failure
The stories we tell ourselves about our lives and our writing matter. Don’t be afraid to celebrate even tiny victories. CELEBRATE every achievement.
While most of you will probably be focusing on one main project at a time, it’s important to remember that no one project is your entire writing life.
So let’s talk for a second about what happens when we fail to meet a goal or when we face rejection.
I prefer to think of these in the context of: Failure and rejection means you were brave enough to try. It means you can try again. It doesn’t mean anything about your long-term prospects or even necessarily anything about the prospects of a specific project. But if you’re in writing for the long haul, there will be times something doesn’t happen or come together. The only real success is in moving forward. Great failure? You write through it. Great success? You write through it.
You are the only person who can bring your voice and perspective to the page.
Also, changing a goal to match reality is not failing to meet it.
Dreams or Career Milestones/Professional Goals
There are some things that are career milestones or professional goals outside your control, but that may be on a list you keep:
- Getting an Agent
- Selling a Book
- Publishing Another Book
And then there are dreams.
This is where those fantasies about the front page of the New York Times Book Review come in.
I encourage you to embrace your big dreams, the things that seem impossible. There’s a retreat I go to some years where we set one-year goals, five-year goals, and then pie-in-the-sky dreams. We write them down and revisit them the next time we gather. It’s remarkable how owning your desire for something can help you achieve it. Just putting it out into the universe. So write these down — again, you don’t have to show these to anyone. For yourself. Dream big. The three things that might happen in your secret heart of hearts: the bestseller list, the movie adaptation starring your favorite actor, the IP you would love to do.
But know that most of those dreams are outside your direct control and that’s okay. The important thing is to have them, but not to get hung up on them. That can keep you from appreciating the real progress you make through your dedication and hard work. Every writer’s journey is a fingerprint, unique, and an iceberg, largely beneath the surface.
We have to have egos to create, but we can’t let them be in the driver’s seat or we get nowhere fast. The work is what it all comes back to.
But, always remember, the work is not all that we are.
Go forth and meet your goals. Then have cake.
Related post: 10 Reasons to Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Paper
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