Monday, September 11, 2017

Writing Goals and the Clarity that Comes From Having Them



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.


"When you set goals for your writing, do you write those down anywhere?" my husband asked as we drove to Colorado last week.

The conversation that ensued is one that I've been thinking about ever since, because it reshaped the way I've thought about goals for years.





When Ben asked me this question about goals, I started talking to him about plans. I rambled about how I used to make elaborate outlines for how I intended to spend my year, but something always came up that I didn't anticipate, so now I focus more on daily and weekly tasks to accomplish my goals.

To offer him an example, I said, "I have a goal to get my manuscript turned in on time, but I don't have that written down anywhere. I just have a daily and weekly plan for how I'll get that done."

Ben said, "No, I'm talking about big goals. Like, 'I want to be on the New York Times bestseller list by the time I'm thirty-five,' or whatever your goal is. Those kinds of goals."

I told him I didn't believe in making those kinds of goals. My philosophy has been that a good goal is something I can do on my own. I've even talked about that on Go Teen Writers a few times, including here:



(Two Ways To Make Effective Writing Goals, January 5, 2015)

When talking to my husband, I even cited the widely used "SMART" goal system to back up my beliefs. In case you aren't familiar with SMART goals, it means you should create goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-Focused (in a lot of places they say Relevant, but I like results-focused better), and Time-Bound. But even as I was saying this to Ben, I could see that there was nothing in any of those words that specified, "And you must be able to accomplish this with your own human strength."

Huh.

The more I've reflected on this, the more I've realized the flaws in my thinking. As Ben said to me, "Just because JFK couldn't put a man on the moon by himself, should he not have had that goal for our country?"

I thought about when I was a writer longing to be published. My goal was to be a traditionally published young adult author. I made choices about how to spend my time, energy, and money based on that goal. I plugged away at that goal every weekday, and sometimes on weekends too. I read books, I took classes, I networked with people, I told those around me that I wanted to be a published writer. And I wrote. I wrote every day as if it was a job I was being paid to do.

I worked as though becoming a published author was entirely up to me, even though I was acutely aware that it was not.

I knew I couldn't control industry trends, or if an agent would like my writing voice, or what kind of mood the editor was in when my manuscript landed on their desk. I knew I needed many other people's approval if I wanted to achieve my goal, but I worked daily as though only my efforts mattered.

I know that's why I achieved my goal of becoming a traditionally published young adult author. Because when the right circumstances presented themselvesan agent who loved my voice, an editor who was looking for hopeful but realistic YA fiction, and a flourishing YA marketI had done the work and was ready.

When I knew what my goal was, my daily decisions became obvious. Not easy, but obvious:
  • Should I watch this Gilmore Girls rerun, or should I write my next chapter?
  • I'm frustrated that a few agents and editors have rejected this book. Should I try self-publishing it, or should I try to rework the first chapters and see if that helps me get more requests?
  • I have an idea for an adult book. Should I write that?
And yet somehow after my initial accomplishment of being published, I got it in my head that it was stupid to have goals about bestseller lists, awards, or publishing houses because there were factors I couldn't control.

When I told myself that I shouldn't have goals like that, what I unintentionally did was let myself off the hook because I didn't want to face disappointment. If I haven't allowed myself to have Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-Focused, and Time-Bound goals about how much money I make or what kind of bestseller lists I hit, then it's easier to shrug and pretend like I don't care if those things happen or not.

I'm still mulling over what my goals are, and maybe you are too. That's fine. If you know yours, and you're comfortable with it, share them in the comments. 

If you don't know yours, I encourage you to spend some time thinking about them like I will be in preparation for next week. Next week we're going to talk about personal writing guidelines and how to build them. Which is something I've been working on, but hitting a wall each time. Not until my conversation with Ben did I realize my struggle came because I'd failed to do the first step. I'd failed to make big goals.



31 comments:

  1. Great post, Stephanie! So inspiring :) My goal is to, someday, hit a bestseller list. And hit 4 1/2 stars on the RT review site. And final in a major contest. And...a lot of other things. (Overachiever alert!) But those are my main ones. Thanks for the encouragement!

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    1. Those are great ones, Taylor. I'm working on mine and hadn't yet thought about reviews. Good one!

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    2. Another one of my "goals"--have a book turned into a movie. Hey, ya never know... 😉

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  2. I haven't actually thought about my goals in these terms. Dreams, certainly. Hit NYT bestsellers list, win some awards, get interviewed on television or radio, get invited to schools and whatnot to speak, etc. But I've kept those things under the dream category because yeah, I can write some fantastic books and market crazy well, but beyond that, everything is out of my hands.

    Definitely some food for thought here! Looking forward to that follow-up post!

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    1. Tracey, that had always been my philosophy too. I think our conversation convinced me that even if I couldn't make those dreams happen, there were steps I could take to increase my chances. For me, o was letting myself off to easy by not thinking of my dreams as goals.

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    2. Very true about letting ourselves off easy! I guess it comes down to balancing an attitude of contentment with the ambition to go for it, to do everything within our power to realize those dreams.

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  3. Thank you, Mrs. Morrill, for stepping on my toes. I've never set time-oriented long-term goals before because it would require harder work to achieve them. I also didn't want to have to grapple the unexpected challenges and in-between steps on a deadline. One goal I subconsciously made is to be traditionally published before I graduate from high school. I've never written it down because it feels impossible, and if I don't establish it officially, I can breeze right through and decide that's okay.
    I just started my junior year in high school, so it looks as if I'm running out of time. Eek!

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    1. Olivia, I had the same goal when I was in high school. It meant that I often chose writing instead of hanging out with friends, and that I embraced the discomfort of sending out query letters and attending writers conferences at a young age.

      Even though I was not traditionally published in high school, all of that investment is what led to me getting published in my early twenties. I don't think you will ever regret going for your goal :)

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    2. Go for it, Olivia! I know several people who have gotten traditional publishing contracts in high school. And just because you're a junior...you still have time!

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    3. Thank you both for your encouragement! I'm going to go for it!

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    4. Olivia! That's such a great goal! It's one of my personal goals, too - and I just entered my junior year as well. Best of luck to you!

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    5. Best of luck to you as well, Emily! It's such a pleasant surprise to hear your goal is so similar to mine. I'll pray we both make it to the finish line. :)

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  4. It is SO DIFFICULT to make BIG GOALS, because, yes, like you, I don't want to disappoint myself. I've said this before and I genuinely believe this: I will be most happy when I have books coming out on a consistent basis. I think then, perhaps, I will feel like I have turned this thing into a career that can last.

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    1. I think consistency is a great goal. Adding that to my list too :)

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  5. My big goal: Get published by the end of 2018. :)

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    1. Your Go Teen Writers community is cheering you on!

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  6. I've always believed in and been pretty good at setting big goals, but for some reason I have never applied that to writing very much--the only writing goal of mine that's really set in stone is to be published by Houghton Mifflin. That's a fairly good one itself, but I suppose there is more I could be striving for...

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    1. That is a good one! Maybe seeing the goals of others will inspire more. I know it is for me!

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    2. Ooh, a publishing company goal...mine is to get published by Bethany House and/or Blink (sigh...)

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    3. That sounds great, Taylor. Just curious, why do you want to get published by Bethany or Blink? I want Houghton Mifflin because they've published two of my favorite authors (Tolkien and Gerald Morris) and also because they seem to take the kind of material I write. If I can't get in with them, my secondary goal is to get a book published with Firebird Fantasy, who also take some stuff I write and have published more good authors (Lloyd Alexander and Brian Jacques).

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  7. I'm not huge on goals, but part of that is I'm such an overachiever I set goals I can't possibly complete. But here are a few that kind of lurk in the back of my mind some of the time. Get published as a teen, not have to submit to more than about 5 agents before I get accepted (really overachiever) and write a really great book I can be proud of in that limit. Now I will probably forget about those by tomorrow morning. Oh well.

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    1. Maggie, why do you say you will probably forget about those by tomorrow morning?

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    2. Becuase I can't seem to remember my goals very long.

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    3. At least that's an easy problem to fix! You can designate a special place to write them down :) Though sometimes I'll think something is a goal ("I want to learn to play the violin!" and then discover it's more of a whim.

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  8. This is such an amazing post. I've carried this mindset, too. And not just with my writing, but with my whole life. Everyone thinks I'm super optimistic because I'm hardly ever let down by something that happens, but in reality it's because I don't set high expectations for things. I get ready for the worst so I don't get disappointed. I don't dream big. Dreaming big ... that takes courage. And courage isn't easy. But maybe it's time to stop playing it easy and be a bit brave.

    Thank you for this challenge <3

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    1. I have a lot of tendencies to self-protect, Hannah. I didn't even realize that goals was one of them until Ben and I had that conversation. We will help each other dream big, okay?

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  9. Wow... this is good. I admit I'm more of the "make goals I can achieve in my own strength" person. Not that I don't do huge and crazy things... I just like to make sure my goals are in my hands... but this is good. I do need to make other goals. My goals have been growing... such as at one point it was just having a blog and trying to write everyday so I can finish a novel. Then it was posting EVERY Wednesday and finishing a book in a set amount of time. Now I'm working on all sorts of books and stories with "deadlines" plus waning to write 5 novellas during NaNo 😂 but the real goal... publication. I'm not sure how to even start that one...

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    1. I think you already have started it, Keturah! Just from what you said in your comment, it's clear that you've pushed yourself to take writing more and more seriously. That's huge for getting closer to publication.

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    2. I think you may be right.. I just didn't realize it yet. These last couple weeks have had some exciting writing milestones! I can't wait to see where they may actually lead :)

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