Thursday, September 3, 2009

L5 Goals Can Kill You

Growing up in central Florida in the late fifties and through the sixties I was all about the space program. I witnessed every Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launch first hand. I designed space suits or space stations or multigenerational interstellar colony vessels or lunar habitats for my science project every single year I was in school. And I was determined, resolved beyond any shadow of doubt, that by age fifty I'd be living in an L5 space colony. (Look here and here for a quick primer on L5.)(Some quick research has revealed that the L5 colony was not advocated until after I was out of college, but I do remember as a child imagining living in an orbital city with a panoramic view of both Luna and Earth.)

Well, age fifty happened a while ago. In fact, on September 2 I became old enough to get cheap coffee at McDonalds and legally drive slowly in the left lane with my right turn signal flashing. I never did achieve my goal of living in L5. Given the amount of effort I put into that goal you might expect me to be a little bitter about that. And maybe I would be bitter if I didn't understand there had never really been a chance of my living in L5. Because L5 never happened; and nothing I did had any bearing on whether or not I lived there.

What has this to do with writing? A lot, actually. Because I see writers setting themselves L5 goals all the time. I set myself L5 goals for most of my 'prepublished' writing career (and I still sometimes make them). Some L5 goals are easy to spot: "I'll win the lottery by the time I'm 30." Others are a bit more covert: "I'll publish my first novel by the time I'm 30."

"How is making a commitment to publish my first novel like planning to win the lottery or to live on a nonexistent space station?" you ask. (Okay, you're probably not asking, because you're all much more clever than I and already know where this is going, but I need the rhetorical device to pull this thing forward, so bear with me.)

The common denominator in these goals is other people. Whether or not you win the lottery or have a space station to live on or get your book published depends on other people. You can do what you can to influence events -- buy forty-two million lottery tickets, earn every science degree you can, write a drop dead perfect manuscript -- but nothing you do will guarantee the final outcome.

Too often writers set L5 goals -- to sell a short story a month, or a novel a year -- then become frustrated and discouraged when they don't attain their objective. What they overlook is the fact it's the editor, not the writer, who makes the "buy" decision. There is nothing a writer can do to get a manuscript published beyond write well and employ a little marketing savvy (more on that another time).

A writer needs goals, but they need to be real goals; meaningful, useful, and attainable.
You cannot control whether or not someone buys your story; to sell a story is a meaningless goal. You can control whether or not you write the story; writing a story is a meaningful goal.

But writing the story as a whole may still be a bit too broad to be useful -- particularly if the story is a novel and we're talking about months of commitment. A useful goal would be to write a certain number of words each day -- it breaks the big job into smaller steps. (Because I edit as I write, my goals are always for words I keep. Usually something around one to two thirds of the words I write end up being words I keep. If you're of the get-it-all-out-and-shape-it-up-later school, count every word you write.)

However if the number of words per day is unrealistic then the potentially useful daily word-count goal becomes unattainable and you do yourself more harm than good. Case in point: me.

When I was a crisis intervention counselor I worked about thirty hours a week. My goal was 1000 words of keepable quality every weekday and 2000 on weekends. On average I wrote 1600 words and 2400 words respectively, but I did not sleep until I'd hit my set goal. Now I'm a case manager. I work fifty hours on a good week; fifty-five most. And my writing has suffered. I spent nearly a year beating myself up for not making my standard 1000 words a day before I realized what I was doing to myself. I stopped and took a hard look at my life and my abilities and reset my expectations. Now my goals are 200 words a weekday and 600 on the weekend (real life I'm running about 300/800). It now takes me a lot longer to finish what I start. but by sticking to my program of meaningful, useful, and attainable goals I do finish.


Jewel Amethyst said...

Thanks for the timely insight. Many times when I get frustrated is because I set unrealistic goals and plan to do more than I realistically can accomplish.

Katrina Spencer said...

You hit the nail on the head. Writers have no control over what sells but do control what they can write. Nice Post!

Farrah Rochon said...

Very wise words, Kevin. I only found peace with my writing once I stopped setting those goals I had no control over.

Phyllis Bourne said...

Good post!

Nowadays when I set goals, they're all things I can control. Then I try hard not to worry the things I can't.

Liane Spicer said...

Excellent advice, KeVin. So many of us set ourselves up for frustration with goals we can't possibly attain, and outcomes that we can't control. This is a timely reminder for me as I'm struggling right now to regain focus on writing my stories.

Liane Spicer said...

...and belated birthday greetings, KeVin!

Shauna Roberts said...

Excellent post, KeVin! I see some of my friends setting L5 goals, and despite knowing better, sometimes I set them for myself! This is important info to keep in the front of one's mind in all areas of life.