January, of course, is the month for setting goals. Many of us have plans for ‘getting that novel published’ or ‘acquiring an agent’ or ‘finally doing something about that poetry pamphlet’ in the year ahead. Goals are good. Dreaming big is good. They are both incredibly useful since they enable you to make good decisions about which publishing path to take. However, sometimes goals are illusive, or shifty. And some people are better at goal setting than others.
Through the freelance mentoring work and workshops I’ve been doing recently, I’ve had the chance to talk to a fair few writers about their goals. It’s been great to listen to their (sometimes roundabout) thoughts on where they want to go with their writing. What I concluded from these conversations was this: most writers know what their goals are, but for some there are barriers to them even articulating their goals.
So, what are the barriers to clarifying your goals? Let’s have a ponder.
Confidence and time
Part of the issue is confidence. When you’ve only been writing for a short period of time and don’t have a huge list of publication credits to your name it can genuinely feel as though you’ll never make it. That to even dream of having a poem or short story accepted by a well-known magazine, or getting published by a respected indie press, or gaining a big-name agent, is simply ridiculous. You couldn’t possibly deserve this kind of success.
Confidence in one’s own abilities takes time to grow and unfold. Indeed, even well-respected authors with many acclaimed books to their name can still struggle with this. As far as I can see there isn’t a quick fix solution, but there is a solution: writing. Keeping to a regular habit of writing and sending out submissions is the one surefire way to a) keep improving your craft, as well as b) gaining publication credits, which will boost your confidence. Keep this up for long enough and you’ll start to genuinely believe – and know – that you have something of worth to offer readers and publishers.
From school days we may have memories of being encouraged to compete, get top marks and win prizes. Yet, no doubt, we were also told to be humble and self-effacing when we did achieve any kind of success. That’s quite a contradiction to take on board! For children or young adults, who don’t have the necessary maturity to understand and accept the complexities of this contradiction, this is a difficult thing to do. And if you went to a British school no doubt you picked up on the idea that vocalising a desire for success was most uncouth, much too Del Boy – ‘This time next year, Rodney, we’ll be millionaires!’
Yet how can we achieve our goals if we can’t even admit them to ourselves? If you really want a big-name agent, but say that you’ll settle for whoever will have you, then you’re potentially binding yourself to a disappointing agent-author relationship. If you want your poetry pamphlet to be published by a respected poetry press but say that you’re okay with self-publishing it, again, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Be honest with yourself about what your true goals are. Because only then can you start along the right career path – the path that is most likely to effectively take you to your true goals.
Commitment and shifting goals
When you’ve honestly articulated what your goals are (writing them down or telling a supportive friend or family member can help), then you’ll need a plan of how to go about reaching those goals. I’ve written before about smart goal setting, and I’d definitely recommend breaking down a large task, such as writing a novel, into manageable chunks – e.g. writing 15 000 words per month – and then further breaking that down into a week by week, day by day kind of schedule. Looked at in the cold, harsh light of January this may seem a rather soulless and creativity-sapping kind of thing to do, but novels are built word by word, sentence by sentence. And since novels contain a LOT of sentences they ask a great deal from their author. This slow and steady approach is the way to go for those of us who don’t have the necessary stretches of free time to more quickly get a first draft down.
At some point fatigue may set in; your novel may seem like a drag. Or complete and utter rubbish. Shiny new writing projects may distract you from your previous goals. These are the crux points – the moments that your commitment to the project is being tested, the moments when you have the chance to shine or crumple under the pressure. But before you do either of these things, take a moment to reflect on your goals (a cup of tea nearly always helps me with this). Remember when you set them all those months back and committed them to paper. Ask yourself some questions. Do you still want to finish that novel/get that big-name agent/get that indie press book deal? Often, the answer is still a genuine and wholehearted ‘yes’, and if so, then recommit yourself to the project. Burn fiercely and brightly in your commitment to ACHIEVING YOUR GOALS. Yet if your goals have shifted for whatever reason, then sit with those new goals for a bit. Take a week or two or month or two to reassess what you want from your writing career. And when you’ve done a full evaluation it’s time to commit to your new goals.
As ever, us Book Stewards want you to get the writing success you want. We’re cheering you on! But it all starts with honesty. And deep reflection. Something we think you writers are rather good at.