I’ve always struggled a bit with setting realistic goals. I’m an “everything, and the kitchen sink!” type dreamer. However, I’m realizing that in order to get things done, I need to scale back my ambitions and focus on the essentials.
Writing a novel is a massive project, and through this process I’m accountable only to myself. I feel incredibly lucky to have the luxury of creating my own work schedule and deadlines, but with this power of autonomy comes the responsibility of making the best use of my time and energy.
Many people are familiar with the Norman Vincent Peale quote “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Although I love the intended meaning, I’ve always thought the quote was ironic—it sounds like an astronaut’s suicide mission! Throughout this post, as I outline my goals for writing, I’m also hoping to make a case that shooting for the moon is not always the best approach.
Step 1: Define your vision
The first step to goal setting is thinking about the end result you hope to achieve. For me, this goal is to complete a first draft, a fully revised second draft, and a polished third draft of my manuscript. I’m not trying to get this book published, but I want to prove to myself that I am capable of writing a book that brings to life the story in my head.
I know that sounds both arrogantly ambitious and strangely underwhelming. Isn’t the goal of writing to get published? Not necessarily. Goals are deeply personal things. I don’t want to commit to putting my writing out in the world before I know what it’s going to become. (Full disclosure: I don’t know exactly how my book will end yet!) Even as I’m writing my character’s story, I’m asking her in every page to prove to me why her story needs to be told. I know it’s a story I have to write for myself, but I’m not convinced it’s one that needs to be shared.
I have other stories in mind, big stories that will take months of research and years of hard work to create, and before I start those I want to tackle this smaller, more personal story first.
So that’s my vision. I might not be shooting for the moon, but I’ve set my course and am excited about my destination.
Step 2: Analyze your constraints
Just as NASA would never launch a rocket without first doing careful calculations, it’s good to think about the constraints you’re working against as you plan your goals. Time, money, and energy are three of the biggest ones, although there are certainly others.
I have a lot of free time now, but I know my days are numbered. By the end of March, I’ll be back in the United States and devoting my energy to pursuing the next step in my career. In January and February, family visits and travel plans will disrupt my current writing schedule. If I’m going to finish this thing, I need to continue writing at a reasonable pace.
Money is less of a factor in writing, so let’s skip to energy. I think of energy of what I can reasonably demand from myself physically and mentally in a given day. How many hours a day can I devote to writing before my brain quits in protest? How many words, paragraphs, or pages should I demand? I’ve started from the NaNoWriMo benchmark of 1,667 words per day, and extended the goal upward as I hit my stride.
The danger here is that setting goals that are too cautious holds you back, while setting goals that are too strenuous can be discouraging and derail the entire project. I tend to start with modest goals, then use those results to set more ambitious goals later on. Think of all the tests NASA ran before the first moon mission, and how they built the way for later success.
Step 3: Identify your obstacles
Writing is fun. I’m exploring the terrain of my story and getting to know my characters in ways that surprise and delight me. However, I know that editing time is around the corner, and that it’s going to be rough. I’ve chosen to take the advice of experienced writers and delay editing my work or engaging with my “inner critic” until the first draft is complete. I know I can be my own worst enemy when evaluating my own work, and I’m not looking forward to inviting my inner critic back to look over my creation. To make sure I can clear this obstacle, I’m going to make sure I finish my first draft with plenty of time to edit before work gets in the way. And I’m going to psych myself up a lot! And I’m going to keep reminding myself of my goal and of all I’ve accomplished already. And I’m going to post Kanter’s Law (“Everything looks like a failure in the middle”) on my wall to remind myself to keep going. Knowing your obstacles in advance can keep you from getting off-course as you aim toward your goal.
Step 4: Failure is NOT an option!
The good thing about writing a book is that it’s not rocket science. Lives aren’t going to depend on a successful book launch. Also, fortunately, you get more than one shot to get it right. Even the best plans can get off track, but that doesn’t mean that you failed. Re-evaluate your goal, your resources, and your setbacks. What can you do differently? What mini-goals can help you get closer to your intended destination?
I know that there’s a chance that I won’t have my first draft completed by February and a head-start on revisions by March. If that happens, I’ll have to find a way to work writing into my schedule, even if the pace slows to a crawl, so that I can finish this project. This isn’t a one-time attempt at something I’m making just so I can say, “Oh well, I tried!” I’m in this for the long-haul, maintaining the course toward my destination, and don’t intend to spend the rest of my life lost in space.
Do agree or disagree with my approach toward goal setting? Am I missing out by not being more ambitious and going for broke? What strategies do you use when setting goals for yourself?