Merriam-Webster Online defines the word goal as “the end toward which effort is directed.”


For my purposes here, I would like to modify that definition a bit for writers. My definition, then, would go something like this: The quantifiable end which effort within a writer’s control is directed.


With that definition in mind, would something like I want to be on the New York Times bestseller list ever be considered a valid goal?


Sorry, but it would not.

 

For one thing, getting your name and the title of your book on that list is far beyond your control as a writer. You can do everything humanly possible, starting with writing what you consider to be a commercially-viable story and ending with promotion out the ying yang, and
99.9% of the time you’re still not going to make the coveted list.

 

Why?

 

Because it’s not within your control. There are many factors that come into play (timing for the market, co-op placement, orders from major chains and big box stores, reviews, etc.). It’s just not a valid goal. It’s not within your control, and it’s not quantifiable. There’s no way to measure your efforts to insure that it happens.

 

But…but…but…you might say, if I land a top New York agent, and s/he submits to all the major publishers, and one of them agrees to publish my book…

 

Hold on thar, Bob-a-looey. Landing a top New York agent is not within your control, either, nor is it quantifiable. It’s the same thing as saying that your goal is to be a NYT bestseller. You can say it all you want, but nothing you do is necessarily going to make it happen.

 

Try to keep your goals quantifiable, and within your control. Here are a few examples for aspiring authors:

 

I will write X number of words per day (week, month, or whatever time frame you can manage).

 

I will improve my craft by reading more, writing more, attending classes and workshops, communicating with online groups and forums, etc.

 

When my book is finished (that is, when several drafts have been completed, and when comments and suggestions from beta readers and critique group members and possibly even a freelance editor or two have been incorporated to the best of my ability) I will submit X number of queries to agents I have researched, and to whom I feel would be a good match for my project and myself.

 

I will research and submit to X number of legitimate presses that accept unagented submissions, presses with the resources, memberships in professional trade associations, distribution channels, etc., commensurate with where I see myself as a published author.

 

While I’m pitching book #1 and hoping for the best, I will start book #2 and give it the attention it deserves, knowing I’m a better writer now than I was when I started book #1…

 

Realistic goals depend on quantification and control.

 

Keep it real, and you’ll be a better and happier writer for it.


 


 

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Replies to This Discussion

I think setting goals is good, but having a dream is what's kept me writing for 45 years. :-)
That's actually a good point, Jack. Dreams are important as well. They just shouldn't be mistaken for goals, IMO.
Definitely two different things.
I think dreams, or ambition, or whatever you want to call it, are absolutely essential. When I was in grad school I decided I wanted to out-write and out-publish my entire cohort. I wrote well and published my ass off (look Ma, no ass!), but ultimately failed at one-upping everyone in our group of poets. No fair letting geniuses like Larissa Szporluck in, or giant talents like Jimmy Kimbrell. Still, that competitive drive carried me for a long time. I got good advice once on this subject from the now very famous poet Mark Doty, who I first met right after he'd won the National Poetry Series with his third book. I told him I was ambitious--wanted the big prizes, the 2/2 teaching gigs, the whole deal. He said "be ambitious about the work." Easy for him to say, I thought, but he was absolutely right. I try to follow that advice--try not to not get too caught up in the business end of things--because that way lies bitterness and defeat. And damn if some good things haven't grown out of keeping the focus (mostly) on the work.
Regarding dreams, someone posted this from Margaret Atwood at another writers' forum - I think it says it all:

"Anybody who writes a book is an optimist," the much-honored writer says, with a dry impishness, in a phone interview. "First of all, they think they're going to finish it. Second, they think somebody's going to publish it. Third, they think somebody's going to read it. Fourth, they think somebody's going to like it. How optimistic is that?"

Regarding goals, I'm working on my third novel. The first two were/are being published in mass market paperback by Berkley, and have had reasonable success - a couple of the foreign rights sold, and my first novel just came out this week in audio from Audible.com with a fabulous endorsement from James Rollins. (I love it! He uses the words "hate" and "crap" in his comments about Freezing Point, but it's all good!) :)

I'd like my third novel to go hardcover. Based on the premise, my agent thinks it can - IF - I do an absolutely glorious job of writing it. So that's my goal: write the best dang blow-everybody-out-of-the-water third novel that I can.
Good luck, Karen!
Seems reasonable, Jude. Here's a true story about my old skeet-shooting buddy Padgett Powell, who teaches in the MFA writing program at the University of Florida. A student buttonholed him one evening after workshop and launched into a long disquisition about his frustration with rejections--the kid had been sending stories out to all the top journals and they kept getting rejected, again and again. Nothing but form rejections, in fact--insult to injury. Could these idiots not appreciate the subtlety of his art, the brilliance of his characters, the carefully crafted nuance of his story-lines? What did a guy have to do, he finally asked, to get published? Padgett looked at him, nodded, thought for a minute, and said "Write better stories."

That's really what it comes down to. Write the absolute best stories/books you can write. Pretty much everything else is luck. That said, it doesn't hurt to keep a little shrine to the publishing gods.
I was in Gainesville a couple of weeks ago, Jon, and went to the movies with the budget coordinator for the School of Arts and Sciences at UF. Your pal Padgett probably knows her.

Write better stories. Good advice.
He may, Jude--though he's a bit detached from the nuts and bolts business of running A&S, I'm guessing.

How'd you like Gainesville? Sort of a surreal place, for me.
It basically seems to be a college campus with a town attached to it.
I agree with all of the above. If you don't have a dream, then you probably won't have the determination to keep writing and revising for the length of time that it takes most of us to produce something publishable.

Jon -- You travel in good company. Your old friend Padgett Powell is quite a writer. I thought Edisto was a fine book. I hear his latest one is a novel made up entirely of questions. That one sounded a little high-concept for me, but interesting.
I'm proud to be able to say that I was once shot, but not seriously wounded, by Padgett Powell. He's a terrific writer, and a strange dude. I like him a lot.

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