Wednesday, September 5, 2018

When goal-setting becomes counterproductive

I used to be a huge goal-setter and plan-maker. Once, during a 16-week technical writing contract that turned out to be pure agony -- I had to physically clock in and wear pantyhose, for the love of everything holy! -- I hand-drew a calendar and gleefully X'd out each completed day. So satisfying! Later, when I managed a department, I had to-do lists and calendars running for twenty or more projects at a time and felt like I was queen of the freakin universe. My personal planning during college was a thing of beauty.

But becoming a writer broke something inside my brain. (At least one thing, you might say.) I don't make plans anymore. I can't. It hurts too much.

As much as folks say you can't take anything personally in this business -- because it's, well, a business -- the near-constant barrage of failure can be traumatic. I've heard of writers making plans to have X number of releases or hit certain lists or write X number of words each day or earn enough to quit the day job, and I'm not saying don't ever do those things. What I'm saying is be prepared for your meticulously laid plans to go sideways with no warning and through no fault of your own. And be prepared for that to happen a lot.

Writing for publishers is notoriously out of writers' control. I've experienced publishers that went out of business, lines that were discontinued immediately after my story was released, publishers that spontaneously decided not to pay out royalties, one series that just stopped abruptly, crap sales, snarky reviews, and anthologies that languished sometimes for years after the contracts were signed.

At the beginning of this writing adventure, of course I made short-term, medium-term, and long-term career plans. I was the queen, remember? I wrote my goals down, affirmed them, created calendars and lists and committed myself whole-heartedly to gettin shit done.

And each time the industry spasmed and one of my stories -- one of my goals -- was affected, I would look at all those intricate plans and see only lists of failures. Irrationally but inevitably I decided these were my failures, and I owned them.

It's not easy to admit, but there were times when the failures became too much, too many, and depression crept in. My critique partner and I went through a lot of similar experiences and took to calling the big D "the pit." We'd text things like "Pit's deep today," and the other would reply with something like, "Yeah, but you're still good. I still believe in you."

So, I don't make goals anymore. I don't have plans in the detailed sense, save one:

I plan to write stories for as long as I am able and
make them available to whomever wants to read them. 

How precisely this master plan goes down is a wide open who-knows. And that's okay.


  1. Having to wear pantyhose! *shudder*

    Things go sideways, yes, yes they do. Which is why I keep my goals a bit looser than I used to.

  2. Damn, Vivien. I'm just gonna put up a pointer to your post for my day, cause yeah. This.

  3. Oh, some of these sound familiar. Goals used to motivate me too. I love that you are going to write and tell stories because you want to and not because of reaching goals--unless that goal is to write the words the end so we all can have more of your words to read.