11

Most of your life, you’ve probably been told you need to set goals. Whether professionally or personally, the “experts” tell you that you’ll never accomplish anything if you don’t set clear goals for yourself and work toward them. Well, that’s not entirely true. I mean, it can help, and it can be true, but setting goals can actually be detrimental, too.

One of the big problems with goal setting is that human brains are dumb, easily-fooled creatures. When you imagine some dazzling future where all your dreams have come true, and you’re really able to see it, taste it, and feel it, it’s not a good thing. When we visualize something, strongly and in detail, we get a happy rush, and a sense of fulfillment–that’s because our dumb brain thinks it actually happened! This can lead to loss of motivation, rather than pushing us forward. Our brain is all “Why should we keep struggling? That’s no fun–we already got it!” It’s definitely okay to think about the future, but thinking about it too hard leads to just that: a lot of thinking and no doing.

Here are a few other ways goals can actually trip you up:

  • Keeping us single-minded. When we create a goal, and focus solely upon it, this doesn’t allow us to notice anything else in our field of vision. If your goal is to one day become a bestselling author, that’s a big goal, but it dismisses all the other possibilities. Even if you never become a bestseller, you could still make a respectable career out of writing, or even pay the bills with it. The best kind of goals are broad, not singular: I want to be a bestseller vs. I want to have a fulfilling writing career and attain a base of readers who enjoy my work. Detailed goals put intense pressure on us to get things exactly right, when there’s plenty of other like-minded things that would make us just as happy.
  • Not exploring other paths. This is an important lesson I learned recently. When we set goals, we tend to construct the path that leads to them, as well. “I’ll do this, and then this, and this, and then I’ll get what I want!” Except, if you’ve spent any time on this planet, you know what happens to the best laid plans. It’s important to stay open to possibilities that aren’t on your path. Instead of rigidly sticking to a game plan, you should keep your eyes open for surprises and unusual opportunities. These are the things that open doors for us, doors we weren’t even aware were there for us to walk through. For me, I started writing a book with a clear intention of where I’d send it when it was done–until a different kind of opportunity popped up out of nowhere. Instead of saying “no, that wasn’t the plan,” I’m giving it a shot. I’ll keep myself open to possibilities, instead of refusing to bend. Will it work out? Only time will tell.
  • Dismissing reality. When we set goals, we sometimes don’t think about our abilities. We want to achieve things that we don’t actually have all the skills or tools for. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn those skills or gain those tools, but fooling ourselves and being overly optimistic doesn’t do us any favors. Setting a lofty goal you’re not actually equipped to reach, and then refusing to confront that reality and put in the groundwork will make sure you never get anywhere near that goal. Ambition is good, but practicality is better. You have to set up the poles before you erect a tent.
  • Crushing us with defeat. When we set a goal, and it’s unmovable, unshakable, and we’re not willing to compromise on it, and then we don’t achieve it, what happens? We think we’re a failure, a loser, that we fooled ourselves and wasted time. Even if we got somewhere and learned a few things, because we didn’t take the whole kit and kaboodle, we consider it a disaster. This leads to depression, frustration, and self-hatred. It makes us not want to try again. Having broader goals and still celebrating the small victories is important–so is constantly changing your plan, when the world alters things for you. And trust me, it will. Single-mindedness leads to nothing but unhappiness when things don’t work out.

None of this means we shouldn’t have goals and strive for things we want. But clinging too hard, making the rules unbreakable, and only staring straight ahead is sure to sink you into a hole in the road you didn’t see coming. The best way to set goals, the way that won’t fool your dumb brain into thinking you already did it, is:

  • Keep them broad, instead of specific.
  • Be open to alterations in your plan and explore unexpected opportunities when they appear.
  • Enjoy and live in the satisfaction of progress instead of only staring at the goal posts.
  • Understand your limitations, and decide how much work you want to put in to break them.
  • Don’t turn failures into catastrophes.

Everyone has goals. It’s part of human nature, setting something up for ourselves. However, it’s important to remember that goals dwell in the uncertain future. The present is where you have to build the foundation you’ll need to stand on when you have that goal in hand–and we don’t have a blueprint for that foundation, but it’s okay. Just get to work. It will form, against all odds.

5

Imagine there was no escape from real life. Imagine we had no ability to make up things in our heads, or write them down, or read or watch stories that transport us from the stresses of life and let us enjoy the impossible or improbable for a while. Imagine this is all there is. No dragons, zombies, princesses, aliens, intergalactic wars, or dashing international spies. Just work, bills, our own successes and failures, the constraints of reality and law and physics, and everyday life grinding on and on.

The thought makes me shudder.

As long as humans have been around, we’ve been making up stories. Probably because life is always hard in its own ways, whether you sheltered in a cave hundreds of thousands of years ago or you’re living modern life today. We can’t fly or teleport, and we probably won’t win the lottery or meet an alien race, but submerging ourselves for a while in world where those things are possible is a nice breather. Imaginations are wonderful things, and there’s plenty of studies that show immersing ourselves in fiction and daydreams is good for our mental health. If you’re sitting in a room with nothing but noisy pounding on the walls, putting on a pair of headphones and listening to music isn’t really getting you out of the room, but it can feel like you’ve escaped for a time.

This is why I love being a writer, and you should too–we get to save the world! From mediocrity, that is. From constant, never-ending strife. We get to be the ones to douse the rags with cool water to press to feverish brows. We get to be the ones to bring the rain to parched fields. I consider it a real honor and privilege that this chose me. I never lose sight of the fact when someone says “I really enjoyed your story” they’re saying “thank you for pulling me out of the pit for a while.” You don’t even have to write happy, fluffy stuff. Just like being scared on a rollercoaster is a fake dose of fear, experiencing the pain, anguish, anger, and desperation of fake people is cathartic because we know the danger isn’t real, but it’s still fun. Also, sometimes seeing exactly what we’re going through written out in black and white is a huge help.

Writing also gets us out of this rat race for a while. You often hear writers talk about being “zoned out” or so absorbed in their writing they forget the rest of the world. Everything disappears for a short time and the only thing that exists is the story. That’s one of the best feelings in the world, and I want my readers to feel it too. Sometimes, a distraction gives someone the power they need to tackle the real world crap, and sometimes it inspires them in ways they never imagined. As writers, we need to celebrate the stories of others too, because we need the distraction just as much as anyone.

If you’re a writer, you’re an important part of keeping this world from going over the edge–congratulations, and good job! The world will never have enough stories because people will always need them. So keep creating. You’re an important part of keeping people as happy as they can manage to be. Give yourself a gold star!

Have a great weekend!

7

I spend a lot of time on this blog warning new and up-and-coming writers about all the things that writing isn’t. I’ve told you that you probably won’t get rich and famous, you might not even make enough money to pay one bill, let alone all the bills. I’ve told you that you’re far more likely to get rejected than accepted. I’ve told you that even with multiple books published, you still have to do a lot of jumping up and down and waving your arms to get noticed. I’ve told you how hard, and frustrating, and depressing it can be.

And all those things are true, but perhaps I’ve been a bit of a Negative Nancy, too. If writing is so AWFUL, why on earth do so many of us continue to do it? It can’t be all bad, right? No, it’s not.

I remember when I was pregnant with my son. As I got bigger and bigger and it drew closer to time for his arrival, I became more and more anxious and terrified about what it would be like to have him. One hears so many birth horror stories, and it’s hard not to focus on the bad things when you’re scared. My female relatives were morbidly happy to tell me throughout my pregnancy the awful things they’d experienced during labor. It started to feel like a sense of impending doom, something dreadful looming on the horizon that I couldn’t escape.

Then, at a family gathering, I sat beside my grandmother–well, she was only sorta my grandmother, as my family tree is quite tangled–and this was a woman who had four children of her own. I don’t even remember how the subject came up, but she took my hand and said, “Listen, if childbirth was really that bad, no woman would ever have a second child, now would they? Let alone more than that!”

This was the most comforting thing I could hear at the time, and it calmed my nerves considerably.

If writing was so bad, no one would continue to do it. These are the good things about writing:

  • It gives me a sense of purpose. Writing has been my ‘calling’ for as long as I can remember. It gives me direction and focus, even when life is rough or difficult. When I write, I feel the most like myself. I feel like I’m not wasting time or should be doing something else. Writing gives me peace, and happiness, and calm, and it doesn’t matter if it gets published or not, because that feeling will still be there when I write. Writing makes all the negative stuff in my brain shut off.
  • It’s something all my own. No one can take writing away from me. Being a writer is such an integral part of my personality that you couldn’t remove it and still have the same person. But that’s the good part–no one can remove it. Yes, I know there’s lots of horrific accidents that could physically prevent me from writing again, but let’s pray those things stay in the realm of the improbable.
  • It gives others happiness. We don’t just write stories for ourselves–we write them to share with others, and to evoke an emotional response in them. Humans need stories. They need a distraction from reality. We writers are the people who get the privilege of providing that, even if it’s only to a few. Every story you write is a gift to others, as well as to yourself.
  • Community. Writers are solitary creatures, as the act of writing is a pretty lonely one. We sit by ourselves over our keyboards for hours, typing out our hallucinations. But when the writing stops, we like to connect with each other. Writers like to share their joys and sorrows, their triumphs and defeats. There’s nothing like talking to another writer and nodding in agreement as you commiserate. There’s lots of places to talk to other writers, from blogs and online communities, to offline writer’s groups and conferences. We’re all an anxious, fragile, but brave bunch.
  • The joy of holding my own work in my hands, even if no one else reads it. Here’s something very important to remember: it doesn’t matter how many people hold a copy of your book, as long as you get to. Whether it’s a hardcover/paperback or just a Kindle screen, there’s something powerful and satisfying about seeing the physical manifestation of your hard work. And it doesn’t matter who else reads it because you DID it, and it exists forever now.

There’s a lot of joy in writing. Don’t be frightened when you see more seasoned writers griping about the pain and pitfalls, because we’re just venting. We wouldn’t keep doing this if we didn’t get some real reward from it. What’s your writing joy?

9

Back when I started this whole writing thing in my teens, I just couldn’t wait to be rich and famous. I knew someday I’d be an international bestseller, penning books from the deck of my luxury yacht or my special writing room in my mansion with a glorious cliffside view of the ocean. Everyone would know my name! Celebrities would want to hang out with me! All I had to do was write a book so beloved by millions that they would literally mail me their paychecks, begging me to write the sequel.

Well, here I am about twenty-five years later, and…I have my own place, anyway? I also have Netflix and a cat, so I guess that’s pretty good overall, right? Granted, my day job pays for all those things, but hey, with my last royalty check I bought some groceries! I mean, not like a whole WEEK’S worth of groceries, let’s not get crazy here, but I picked up some pretty tasty ice cream.

You probably know by now that most writers are not, and never will be, magnificently rich and famous. Even making enough to sustain a living is far-fetched. Making decent money off writing depends on a lot of different factors, including your productivity levels–how many books you can produce, because it’s your backlist that makes you money–trends, your publisher, your readership, publicity, luck, and just a smidge of black magic. To have a bestseller you probably need all that but a more advanced level of black magic, but I couldn’t tell you.

So why are we still doing this? If not for money, fame, recognition, or even the light bill, why do it?

For the love of the writing itself, of course.

If you’re feeling like you’ll never make it, and you’re just more than a tad frustrated, and you’re thinking about throwing in the towel, maybe I can give you some inspiration to keep going. Here are the reasons–the real, attainable reasons–that I write.

  • Because I like telling stories. I don’t know if I was born with this urge or it came from something in my life, but I just like telling a story. I like putting together the elements that make up a story. I like snapping together all the pieces and making something whole. There’s a real satisfaction and delight in it. It’s like making something that’s broken work again, or organizing everything just so. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and victory.
  • Because I’m good at telling stories. I’ve been doing this for a long time and so now I’m very good–or at least skilled–at putting all the technical aspects of writing into motion. I know how to construct a plot and characters, I know how to work toward a conclusion, build theme, and shape tone. I like playing with language, and I like using imagery and subtext to create a message. I like the arty side of writing, but I also like the technical side of it. I learn more and more as I continue, and it’s always fascinating.
  • Because some of the stories I want to read haven’t been written. Some stories just don’t exist, but I would like them to, and when I realize I have the power to make that happen, it’s both thrilling and humbling at the same time. Just think about it. If I want a story in the world, I can create it! Me! I can do that! That’s amazing.
  • Because when I write, my head shuts up. Only when I’m writing does the rest of the world fade away. Everything else on my mind gets shoved aside for a time and I feel calm. Writing helps me focus. Writing helps me forget. Writing gives me a chance to breathe and it’s incredibly cathartic. All the noise quiets down when I get to the page.
  • Because storytelling is important. From books to TV shows to movies, to comic books, to plays, to songs–the world wants and needs stories. We need an escape, we need something to distract us, to make us feel, laugh, cry, smile, remember, and dance. The world is often harsh and bleak and terrifying, but having stories helps us cope with all that. And though I may not be famous, and I might never be, if only a few people read my stories, at least I’m still doing my part to help humans get some enjoyment out of life. If I can’t fix things, I can at least help soothe.

What are your reasons for writing? Your real reasons? At the end of the day, what is it that keeps you coming back, even when you get very little out of it?

2

It’s that time of year again when we make resolutions and promises to ourselves. The problem with resolutions is that we break them so easily, and the truth is we could choose to improve ourselves and our lives at any time of the year. However, the start of a new year seems to give us a clean slate, at least mentally. I think the reason a lot of resolutions fail is because it’s such an abrupt change. It’s hard to suddenly stop a bad habit and never pick it up again. Some people can, I’m sure, but for most of us it’s extraordinarily difficult. We would do well to start prepping for the change months in advance–that is, start doing little things and eliminating little behaviors that will ultimately set you up for success when you attempt to change altogether on January 1st.

For myself, I’m planning on making some personal changes, and I was thinking how best to make them stick. I haven’t done any ‘prepping,’ so what’s the second best solution? Of course, it’s the opposite of prepping–committing to the changes slowly over time. We see this a lot in people who want to lose weight. If you crash diet, you’re going to put the weight back on. If you lose it slowly over time and gradually change your eating habits and your lifestyle, it sticks much better.

Since this is a writing blog, I’ll address some writing resolutions that you may have, and talk about how to make them stick if you haven’t been gradually building up to your goal already.

Resolutions:

  • I want to write every day. If you don’t write every day now (I’m guilty of this, by quite a lot) you’re probably not going to start writing on January 1st and keep it up every single day of 2017. However, if you start in little increments: say, writing 200 words a day instead of 2000 when you first start, you might stick to it better. You may quickly find you don’t have time in your life to write every single day, but surely you can find the time to write 100 words? 50? It still counts as ‘writing every day,’ and the days you do have more time, you can write a lot more.
  • I want to finish X amount of stories/books in 2017. If you haven’t started on these stories/books, now is the time to start planning them. Project how long you want these works to be and how long it will take you to write them. You can perhaps schedule time frames, even. Also, pick a number that you know is realistic for you, or else you’re going to disappoint yourself and run out of steam. Even just one is better than none!
  • I want to get published. Whether going the traditional route or self-publishing, this takes work and research, and you need to do that first. Learn how to perfect a query letter, compile a list of agents or publishers, or research self-publishing services. With knowledge in hand you’re much more likely to reach your goal. Publishing isn’t just about writing, it’s a business too.
  • I want to be more active on social media/my blog. I’m terrible at social media. I hardly ever post on FB or Twitter unless it’s something promotional. However, I’m not going to be able to just jump in and become the belle of the ball. Start out making Tweets or posts a few times a week, then move up to once a day, and then if you’re really starting to feel comfortable with it, you can start posting multiple times a day and engaging your readers. Some people are just never going to get the hang of social media, and that’s okay, but remember as a writer making personal connections with your audience is important.
  • I want to get myself out there more. You can buy virtual tours, or approach bloggers yourself. Make a list of where you want to promote yourself and start finding ways to get in. Talk to people and seek out who is taking on guests. I’ve found that I can actually schedule tons of promotion without spending a dime this way.

It’s my opinion that resolutions shouldn’t be all or nothing, but should be a commitment to working toward improvement. Giving or picking something up all at once is hard, and will probably fail. However, a dedication to change over time lays a foundation for you to stand steady on.

What are your resolutions for 2017, and how do you plan to implement them?