Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The 5 Worst Goals for New Writers

Today’s “Tool of the Trade” is helpful goals.

I used to go camping with a friend of mine that lived out of state.  We'd talk about how much fun we were going to have, toss a couple of dates around, and then watch life pass us by without a camping trip.  Our problem, we eventually discovered, was that while dreaming up the big event, we never bothered with setting a date - saying, "April sounds good" or "Let's shoot for the end of August" just doesn't provide the precision necessary for success.

Writing is like that too.  (So are many other things but this blog isn't about manufacturing 'O' rings for NASA's now retired shuttle fleet.)  If you set a goal (and you should) then it should be chosen with care.  Don’t go with the first one that comes to mind, don’t pick some nebulous moving target.  To make things easier I’ve written another “top 5” list so you’ll be able to avoid wasting your life.  Pretty helpful, hunh?

Here is my list of The 5 Worst Goals for New Writers -- feel free to sound off in the comments if I’ve missed something even more important.

5.  I will get published.  This is a terrible goal.  Unfortunately it is also more common than congressional gridlock.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to get published but too often this goal ends without the needed follow-up details.  You must be more specific or this goal becomes nothing more than a will-o-the-wisp that you chase sporadically.  You may take this one in a couple of different directions – I will get published in Analog/Smithsonian/The New Yorker or I will always have a manuscript in the mail to a publisher – but you must be clear about exactly what "published" means so you aren’t thrashing about aimlessly.

4. I will make industry contacts.  I have industry contacts - I know people who sell cars, repair leaking pipes, and build houses.  You know how much good that does me most days?  Not much.  The only time I need the industry contact is when I need to buy a new car, get a pipe repaired, or I've sold my Great American Novel and can afford to build a new house.  When you have a completed body of work (a single manuscript does not count) you will have no problem getting your contacts.  Seriously, when was the last time you walked into a car dealership ready to buy and were ignored?  A better expression of this goal to specify the type of industry contact and the purpose you are seeking that contact for, something like “I will develop a professional relationship with the editors of XYZ so that they will contact me for freelance work” or “I will develop contacts that will be able to provide professional guidance to help me advance my career.”

3. Any goal with the word 'try' in it.  Do not "try to finish the draft by Thanksgiving."  Do not "try to find a market for your short story about a 10 foot tall dwarf with a rabbit that lays Cadbury eggs."  To quote someone who died a long time ago in a galaxy far away, "Do or do not.  There is no try."  There’s no commitment in ‘try’.  Don’t believe me?  Ask someone if they want to try being a parent with you.  ‘Try’ is what you do to Aunt Edna’s squash and brussel sprout casserole, not skydiving.  Goals are about commitment and if you put the word ‘try’ into them you are suddenly giving permission for a "quick" game of Plants vs. Zombies and, guess what?  You fail.

2.  I will make every page perfect.  You already know better than this.  You're probably still stuck on page one.  You can't make it perfect.  If I look at this blog post six months from now I'm going to cringe because "I can't believe I wrote that!  It's terrible.  I should have..."  That's how we are as writers.  Remember that you are writing a story, not a page.  So write the story, not the page!  When you finish writing the story, go back and edit it.  Then do it again.  When it’s good and tight all that worry you put into the first pages will seem silly because you've completely changed the ending anyway.  You might win a Pulitzer or Hugo but I assure you that, upon a reread, you will be horrified by what you wrote.  Forget perfect, focus on story.

1.  Someday I will... whatever.  Great dream, but it’s not a goal.  Keep your dream.  Cherish your dream.  Protect your dream.  But when you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and achieve it, you need to set goals.  I dream of becoming a commercially successful writer someday, of being able to retire and write.  From my yacht.  But that’s not a goal.  Writing a blog six days a week every week for a year?  That’s a goal.  Finishing Nano?   That’s a goal.

Don’t tread water or spin your wheels.  If you’re serious about something, be serious about it.

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