On Goals and “Failing” to Reach Them

I’m at the Dreamspinner author workshop in Portland today. The previous two workshops have been packed with great information and a lot of fun, and I’m sure this one will be the same. One of the best discussions last year, led by Andrew Grey, was about setting goals for our writing.

Now, it’s worth saying here that Andrew is probably not the best example for most of us. Last year, he reported that in the previous year, he had written 1.1 million words. He was still working a full-time office job then, and he’d write a thousand words on his lunch hour every day. The man is a thousand times more dedicated than I will ever be!

One of Andrew’s biggest points is that goals should be things over which authors have complete control. Writing a novel is a good goal; signing a contract with a publisher for that novel isn’t. (But self-publishing that novel would be.) It’s fine to have wish lists (signing with an agent, getting a contract for that series, hitting a bestseller list), but those should be separate from goal setting.

As part of Andrew’s presentation, each of us set down a goal or two for our writing for the coming year. When my turn came, I went for something I considered midrange: 250,000 words, and two novels. I’ve written more words than that in a single year before, and I had two novels fairly well laid out and partially written, so it didn’t seem too much of a stretch.

Shows what I know.

I don’t want to make it sound like I flopped entirely. I did finish one novel, which is huge because that’s only my second one. I also completed a novella and three short stories. So it wasn’t like I sat around doing nothing. Technically, though, I fell far short of my goals. Counting all the stories I finished between last year’s DSP workshop and this year’s, I wrote approximately 114,000 words.

But the exercise was a good one because it taught me a big lesson: I needed to stop tracking word counts on a daily basis. When I do that, I pay more attention to counts than to story. I abandoned that practice early this year, and since then, I’ve written one complete short story (in less than a week) and wrote something over 40,000 words to finish a novel that’s been languishing for nearly two years. I’d call that a success.

What I’m doing now is counting words only in a general sense of accomplishment (“I’m over 55k on my novel!” “Got in 3,500 words today, wow!”) until I have a complete draft of the story. That 114,000 word count includes the three stories I’ve published in the past year, the one that’s on submission now, and the novel I just finished. I worked on several other projects, so my total word count is higher, but I don’t know how much higher, because I’m not tracking it.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about what my goals for the coming year should be. Finishing another novel, definitely. But I might skip listing a word count goal and focus on story count instead. I wrote five stories this year; for next year, I might go for five again, but try to make at least two of them novels.

At any rate, the last thing I’m going to do is kick myself for not hitting my goals. Setting those goals taught me lessons that will help me as a writer, and that’s the most important goal of all.

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One response to “On Goals and “Failing” to Reach Them

  1. Sarah_Madison

    I really like the distinction between setting goals that are under your control and those that are not. Excellent advice!