Dreams, Goals, and “Getting Published”

by Pari

Even though we’re entering our second full week of 2010, many of us are still thinking about what we hope to accomplish during the New Year. Whether we set resolutions or frame our year in the context of goals met, it’s this initial push that shapes our experience of the next 350+ days.

. . . And I want to save some of you a bit of heartbreak.

During the recent holidays, I met many people who told me their goal for this year is to “get published.”

That, along with a series of blogs on motivation (read all of them from 12/23 on) at Dean Wesley Smith’s site – and my time at the Master Class – make me think we should discuss the distinction between dreams and goals here.

To me, dreams are hopes and wishes. They should be grand, marvelous, BIG. They should make you feel good when you think of them, smiling with the giddiness of magnificent possibility.

Do me a favor. Right now, before I continue, I want you to think of some of your dreams. Go on. Knock yourself out. I’ll watch the following video while I’m waiting.

Goals, on the other hand, are the nuts and bolts. They are the steps that help you walk toward your dreams. The key here is that YOU have total control over whether you achieve your goals or not. No one else does.

So . . . I have a real problem with the idea of “Getting published” as a tangible goal. At least when it comes to traditional publishers (paying markets: novels, magazines, ezines) because, basically, it’s out of your control.

Someone else judges your work and decides.

I can hear you now: “Pari, you’re being a real downer here. Are you saying I don’t have control over my own writing career?”

Not at all. In fact, you’re totally responsible for your career. Yep. It’s all you.

But “getting published” as a goal is setting yourself up for incredible disappointment for all the wrong reasons. We’ve all read enough really crappy books to know that just about anything has a chance of publication no matter how awful.

So getting published isn’t necessarily a measure of your work, your effort, or your abilities.

NOT getting published doesn’t tell you anything either, except that you’re not getting published.

The problem is that we humans spend a lot of our time inferring. Writers are particularly bad about it. We parse rejections for hidden innuendos. We take book reviews to heart. And we’re prone to embrace the negative far more quickly than the positive.

So why set yourself up for that kind of pain? It’ll just shut you down or make you angry or bitter (when you read one of those shitty books). And, I bet, it’ll hinder your productivity and the quality of your writing, too.

Why not formulate real goals instead?

JT gave us a helluva primer on that last Friday.

Even though it scares me to go public, I want to share my professional goals for this year with you too:

  1. Write at least two pages of fiction daily.
  2. Write and mail at least one short story/month.
  3. Write (and market) at least two new novels this year.
  4. Reach 10 items in the mail/email simultaneously at least once this year.

Right now, those don’t seem particularly difficult. By the end of the year when, I hope, I have a full-time job AND am working intensely on Left Coast Crime 2011 (why don’t you register while you’re checking out the website? Then I can work on my own goals a little more easily.), they’re going to be doozies.

So, what do you think?

Have you mistaken dreams for goals?
Is my framework useful to you or did you already know it?
Am I overreacting to the “getting published” meme as a goal?

As always, I look forward to our conversation.

46 thoughts on “Dreams, Goals, and “Getting Published”

  1. BJ Muntain

    Good point. Resolutions can only be things under one’s own control, and getting published relies on so many other people.

    The parts of ‘getting’ published’ that *are* under one’s own control: become a better writer, join a writer’s group, shop manuscript around, learn more about the business, and… oh yeah. Write.

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    Achievable goals for a writer could be…
    – Hiring an agent
    – Sending out X amount of submission letters
    – Attending a writing seminar
    – Create a marketing plan
    – Write X amount every day…
    In order to achieve the dream of being a traditionally published author.

    I used to want to be a writer (started writing my first book when I was 9 on blue paper with an airplane in the corner that dad had brought home from work) and then came to realize in my 20s that what I really wanted was to *have written* rather than to write — big difference. And that I loved reading more than writing – I would have to give up a lot of reading time to do the other and I don’t want to do that. These were two reality checks that make me appreciate what writers do but I don’t want to be one.

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Very wise words, my friend. I admire your productivity goals, but speaking as someone who, for years set daily/weekly/annual goals I didn’t have a hope of achieving, I would urge you to be gentle on yourself, too. Who was it who said that this business is a series of small sustained efforts, rather than a major splurge. You’re in this for the long haul (I hope!) and especially with LCC 2011 coming up, you need to keep some elasticity in your stress absorbancy levels, or things may become stretched to breaking point.

    I was intrigued by goal #4 "Reach 10 items in the mail/email simultaneously at least once this year." What did you mean by that? (Sorry, probably me being dumb, but I’m full of cold at the moment, so my brain is semi-curdled.)

    And equally, PK, ‘hiring an agent’ may well be something that’s beyond a writer’s control. Agents are sent a huge number of unsolicited typescripts, and they choose you, rather than the other way round ;-] But best of luck to anyone who’s looking for an agent this year, and I hope very much that you not only achieve your goal, but that when you do, you come and share the news with us here!

  4. pari noskin taichert

    You’re right.
    And the way to achieve many of those others is by writing, writing, writing. Reading good writing helps too. And having the courage to send your work out again and again and again.

    Boy, with all that repetition, I sound like I must be channeling Eloise’s Nanny.

  5. pari noskin taichert

    "Hiring an agent," as Zoe points out, is often out of a writer’s control — at least at the beginning — if the writer uses the traditional model of querying an agent and expecting that person to rep their works to editors/publishing houses.

    If, on the other hand, the writer sends out his or her own work and only needs an agent for foreign rights negotiations, you’re absolutely correct.

    PK, I also loved your distinction between being a writer and having written. That’s a huge reality check and I think there are several people who dream of getting published who really fall into the second category. If they don’t realize what you did, they’re in for a difficult and, ultimately, unsatisfying journey.

  6. Alafair Burke

    Terrific advice. I have to admit that I still sometimes set my goals too broadly without breaking it into actual steps that must be completed to reach my objectives. You’ve inspired me.

  7. pari noskin taichert

    Of course you’re right about goals. My originals were 4 pp/day and 3 novels . . . so from my perspective, I’m being gentle on myself already <g>. But I’ve already missed the two-page goal one day — however, I DID write on that day even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to grab enough time for the whole thing — so I’ve started the year well enough.

    #4 has to do with keeping things in the loop — out in the world — and having enough inventory that 10 pieces of my work have a chance of being published rather than languishing in a drawer at home because they’re not yet perfect.

    The concept of a stress breaking point is very important. Thank you for bringing it up. I want my goals to make me feel better rather than bringing me down or becoming sources of misery. I do think I can make these goals and enjoy them. If they don’t work . . . well, I’m not going to slave myself to them.

    Family and health are always my first priorities. Period.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great advice, Pari. I haven’t sat down to formulate my goals for 2010. Although "getting out of my day job" is number one and has been number one for a couple years. Or, more to the point, "get a day job that means something to me." Something that moves my heart. Like, you know, work with zoo animals. Doesn’t quite hit the six figure income, however.
    I’ve always been a dreamer. Dreams tend to mature over twenty years. Hopefully I can tackle some GOALS this year.

  9. Louise Ure

    Agreed, agreed, agreed Pari. But even what you consider a "realistic" list of goals seems mammoth to me!

    My version: "Write some fiction every day, even if it’s just a lie I’m telling myself."

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    I used to set a ‘so-many-words-a-day’ goal, but I found that writing fiction is not something you can churn out with that kind of metronomic efficiency. (OK, it’s not something I could turn out with any kind of efficiency!)

    So, instead I now break the whole thing down into a monthly or even a whole-book total. I want to have this current book finished by mid-March. With what I’ve written so far, that gives me around 60 days at 1100-ish words a day. If I have a good day, the amount for the remaining days comes down a little. Equally, if I have a nonexistant day, it only goes up by a little across the remaining time. I’ve tried other ways of keeping myself on track, and this is the only one that works for me without driving me crazy. (Relatively speaking, of course …)

  11. toni mcgee causey

    I think Zoë and I are twins, in the goal-setting-method. I can’t do the day-by-day breakdown, because life here is just going to derail that and then I feel bad about it, and enough of that in a row, and I feel like a failure and can’t appreciate the good days, and before you know it, I’m scrabbling around, howling at the moon. Well, almost.

    I do like having definitive goals and a general date of accomplishment in mind. Then I work backward to see what I need to do to accomplish that and I’ll see if it’s realistic. I like the flexibility of being able to change the how or the when something happens on the fly. Then again, I’m from the construction field where everything is subject to change, and yet, the jobs still have to get done, so a lot of that flexibility is ingrained from years of being at the mercy or weather or other contractors or owners who couldn’t make up their minds.

  12. Tammy Cravit

    Someone once told me that a goal is what you get when you take a dream and attach a schedule to it. That is, I think, a useful way to think about goals, but it’s not a complete understanding because, as you note, the way you frame the goal has to be realistic and achievable. Otherwise, you’re only setting yourself up for failure and disappointment.

    This topic has been very much on my mind of late, because the past two years have been one of extreme goal fulfillment for me. In 2009, I completed my paralegal certificate and landed my dream paralegal job (working with attorneys who represent kids in foster care). Without saying too much until things are a done deal, 2010 may well be the year I start down the road to becoming an attorney. And, I’ve decided, 2010 will also be the year the novel in progress gets finished. I’m not worrying about publishing yet, but I want to finish the book.

  13. Darlene Ryan

    Last year my daughter and I–okay my mostly my daughter–decided that we should do the 5K Run for the Cure. I was not a runner, unless they were giving away free chocolate somewhere. I trained for four and a half months and learned that a twelve year-old can be meaner that Jillian from the Biggest Loser. It didn’t matter what the weather was or what else was going on in our lives, as far as she was concerned I still had to run. The day of the run it was cold and raining. Hard. And did I mention I had a cold? But we finished the run in excellent time.

    I learned the difference between dreams and goals is putting in the miles. And that’s helped the writing a lot. Now the munchkin wants to do 10K!

  14. pari noskin taichert

    I’m glad I inspired you; it’s mutual.

    Last night I was thinking about Homer Simpson (yes, I watched the special) and how he lives entirely in the present. Homer is the epitome of a DREAMER. He’s never had a goal he’s worked toward in his entire life (at least not for long),

  15. pari noskin taichert

    Yeah, Stephen,
    I know what you mean.

    I’m lucky that goals have always been an easy framework for me — but they’ve become more refined and, certainly, more effective as I’ve aged.

    And I want that kind of job too. It’s weird to think that I’m going in the opposite direction of many on the ‘Rati in that I’ll have to find a 8- 5 job this year. But our financial circumstances have changed and the kids come first. C’est tout.

  16. pari noskin taichert

    Zoe and Toni,
    The great thing about people is that we’re different and can learn from each other. I need the day-to-day discipline in order to keep moving forward, otherwise I tend to work to the lowest point possible and have to cram at the end. You’re right that life can change in a flash and that unforeseen complications — wrenches — can come in at any time. Right now, I still think these goals are gentle, for me, where I’m at right now. But if they become too much of a burden, I’ll reassess.

    After all, I’m my own boss when it comes to these things.

    And . . . Zoe, I didn’t say that my fiction had to brilliant. It just has to be written daily.

  17. pari noskin taichert

    That idea of a dream with a schedule is interesting. I’ll have to sit with it for a few days. Some of my dreams might never get broken down into goals either . . . I just like thinking them.

    Congratulations on all of your accomplishments so far. It’s such a pleasure to read about them.

  18. pari noskin taichert

    You could make some serious money loaning out your daughter!

    I think your point about "putting in the miles" is exactly what I’m doing by demanding the daily schedule for myself. For me, it’s about shunning excuses. Sure, if I end up in a coma . . . I won’t be able to meet the goal . . .but if a kid is sick or I’m feeling discouraged, those AREN’T reasons not to write — not to TRY to find moments to nurture my own creativity in spite of it all.

  19. billie

    I’ve been reading Dean W.S’s blog posts and I think he and you are right about the difference between dreams and goals. I always have a 5-year plan that incorporates both together, b/c I like to think ‘in the affirmative" and I actually draw little sketches all over the page with the list.

    The funny thing was that I had originally linked many things to "selling the books" and it kind of took me by surprise when my dream sketches started coming true but the books hadn’t sold!

    I think I need to draw some sketches that involve editors holding my ms with big smiles and signed contracts and dollar signs floating above their heads… 🙂

    Or not, because the joy of writing, and the completion of the books is always on my list and those goals get met consistently. And if the other things (that I thought depended on the dollar signs generated by the book sales) are happening w/o the books selling, I’m not sure exactly what it is about "the book selling" that I need… but it might be fun to try that this year.

    I especially liked Dean’s post about dreaming big and then working backwards to develop the daily goals that will actually put you in a position to get to the big dream.

  20. Eika

    I think I have my goals down for this year. I hope ‘finish editing my completed novel and send it to my critiquers again’ and ‘write a critique-approved query letter’ are tangible things. I can’t control if they get it back to me in the two month time limit I give out- in fact, most of them won’t, if I remember correctly- but editing it again I can do. And improving a query letter so it doesn’t make eyes cross from confusion, I can (hopefully) do. I have one dependent on getting it back from the critiquers, which is to do more major (or, hopefully, just minor) changes as necessary (and start actually querying if they’re only minor).

    Sure, I’d like to get published, but that takes a lot of time and a lot of luck. And, while I would love for a book contract to pay for, say, one semester of college, I’m in no rush. Haste makes waste and all.

  21. Darlene Ryan

    Toni, I’d be happy to loan you the munchkin–she’s fierce when she has a goal–but be warned; she’s tiny but she eats like a longshoreman.

  22. pari noskin taichert

    I love the sketches and visualization. How about seeing yourself getting those nice big checks out of the mail box and having a big fat smile on your own face? <G>

    And Dean’s post about working your way back blew me away. I thought about using those as my goals but felt sure that that would be too much to keep up given the year I anticipate . . .

  23. pari noskin taichert

    Those sound like excellent goals, especially if you really trust your critique group. That’s key. Later this year, I might use mine to develop some proposal packages for novels that aren’t mysteries. We’ll see.

    To me, it sounds like you’re moving forward and that’s always a good feeling.

  24. pari noskin taichert

    Even though you won’t rent her to me, I know your daughter because I was very much like her for years. Being able to set goals and attain them is a huge advantage at her age.

    I ended up going too far though, got in an academic situation that nearly stressed me out completely — third year intensive Chinese in the summer at the University of Michigan. That one nearly did me in. What I learned from that experience though was tremendously important.

    Sometimes we can’t meet our goals — through no obvious fault of our own — and when that happens, it’s all right. Life goes on.

  25. Allison Brennan

    Fantastic post, Pari, and something that we often forget.

    When I got serious about writing, my GOAL was to finish one of the over 100 books I started but put aside. (I actually didn’t do that–I started a completely new book and finished it, LOL.) THEN my goal was to send the book out to as many agents as I thought might like it and write another book. Repeat.

    I do believe in writing daily. I took nearly 2 weeks off at Christmas and felt completely out of sorts, plus it took me too long to get back into my book. Now I’m burning the midnight oil to get done on time . . .

    Family comes first, but writing comes second. And sometimes, family understands when writing has to come first for a few days.

  26. Catherine Shipton

    Pari, I find this an interesting idea that some people disguise dreams for goals. Because I’m a recovering, beat myself up with too many goals type of person I’ve developed a whole slew of subversive ways to get stuff done. I currently reframe a lot of my methodology. Some days, to do lists ,are too future based. I’d rather create a ‘get it done’ list on a back of an envelope or post it.

    I do get that there is a whole slew of things that I can aim for, but sometimes that they need someone else’s intervention…and while I can present myself, and or my work to the best of my ability, attracting their notice and getting them to act favourably is beyond my control. Some days there are only so many variables we can influence. Sometimes I also need to remember to make room for happy accidents that propel me in unexpected ways to places I have only dreamed about.

    I’m happy for the moment feeling as though I’m moving forward in a positive fashion. Looking back on last year I achieved more of what I like than dislike. For me the difference between dreams and goals is sifting through imagined possibilities and working on which one I would most likely move towards…and then doing it. Yes the internal framing is important, but to me a list is just another possibility, it’s what I enact that is vital.

  27. pari noskin taichert

    Great process there — write book, send out, repeat. Pretty straightforward. Mighty effective.

    My family has been very supportive but that’s starting to wane as our financial situation has changed. It’s going to be an interesting year. I hope I can keep at least this pace up — if not mor — while attending to these new demands.

  28. pari noskin taichert

    Almost every time you post, I learn something.

    Like you, I’m a recovering major goals kind-of-gal. You’re absolutely right about chance and unpredictable possibilities. That’s why I don’t have very many "goals" this year and am leaving a lot of other things quite vague.

    But I do agree with the author who said (and I’m paraphrasing here since I can’t find my source right now),: "I’m lucky. And the more I work, the luckier I get." You’ve got to put the energy out there in the first place.

  29. Catherine Shipton

    Pari, totally agree it’s about balance and putting the energy out there.

    I had a talk this weekend with my daughter’s boyfriend when he was telling me he was thinking of leaving University because he didn’t love it.

    I think I’m officially old now as I just looked at him and went, ‘The only people I come across that think they need to love University study are the ones that leave it early.’

    My advice( hey he paused to breathe there was an opening) was that for most things you achieve in life there is not some all encompassing love of every moment. That to achieve something it is often the act of turning up and getting done what needs to get done that creates the moments where you feel some love. That in the act of doing you learn to look for the joy in the midst of what earlier felt like work. That love can come out of the absurdly hard I didn’t know I was able to do that things. Yes Pari I agree, working creates luck as you open yourself up to more possibilities with each new interaction.

  30. Dana King

    Great post. There are distinct and finite limits on the control anyone can exercise over their career, regardless of their line of work. It’s not sexy to say that, but it’s true: too many things are beyond your control. You have a lot of say in how good your work is, but I won’t say its quality has no bearing on your success, but it has limited bearing due to factors no one fully understands, let alone can control.

    Keep working. Finish what you start. Set your sights for a minimum number of submissions. All the kinds of things you listed, and more. Those are goals. Everything beyond your control is a dream.

  31. Darlene Ryan


    I think you and the munchkin are kindred souls. She came home from school today having made the conclusion she can’t do the project she wanted to do for the science fair–it’s just too complex. She warned me she was sulking and would let me know when she was done, at which time she wanted to hear how the outline for the new book is going. Just because she was mad didn’t mean I was off the hook, she told me.

    If you can figure out how to keep her fed I’ll rent her to you for a week. 🙂

  32. Catherine Shipton

    Pari, I just remembered the his reply was his concern that he wasn’t good at what he was doing.

    Again I feel like I’m channelling some ancient crone, here, when I went, ‘Why would you be? You haven’t given yourself enough time, you haven’t put in enough work to be good at it yet…and sometimes you have to accept on the way to being good at something that you totally suck at it…it’s if you care enough about it you put that work in.’

    Poor kid, I was on a roll.

  33. pari noskin taichert

    I was thinking about that today when I called someplace to tell them I’m beginning the job search. They didn’t have anything open, but the act propelled the process a little further. Each time, it does.

    Loved your last paragraph. It says it all. Thank you.

  34. Judy Wirzberger

    Pari, my hopes for you abound. Great plan, I think to set the discipline now. When I decided to walk the treadmill, I said, I will walk 5 days a week. I will not walk Mondays. So I feel like I am being really good to myself when I walk on Monday and most weeks, I walk at least 6 days and quite often 7. For me, knowing I have an option- choices – helps. Walk Monday because I’m seeing a friend on Saturday and out of town on Sunday.- (If you saw this body I am in, you wouldn’t think I walk at all.) I believe in setting myself the minimum so I can feel good when I accomplish the maximum.
    I, too, work full time, but don’t have a family at home. You have to like what you do and do what you like. — Wish you lived next door. You are an inspiration! Keep writing every day, even if it’s on a napkin….orthe back of an envelope ….or the dust on top of the buffet server. BTW I signed up and made a room reservation!

  35. Jemi Fraser

    I’m another one with a crazy busy life. I don’t set resolutions because of it. I’m just happy to be making forward progress most of the time – or at the very least, not negative progress 🙂

  36. toni mcgee causey

    Catherine, those two pieces of advice are the best I’ve seen on the subject. Especially this part:

    ‘Why would you be? You haven’t given yourself enough time, you haven’t put in enough work to be good at it yet…and sometimes you have to accept on the way to being good at something that you totally suck at it…it’s if you care enough about it you put that work in.’

  37. BCB

    You know, I might be weird (stop laughing) but "getting published" has never really been either a goal or a dream of mine. I want my words to be read by, and to touch, as many people as possible. It seems sensible that writing a book and getting it published is the best way to do that. [Well, for now, anyway. Publishing seems to be changing almost daily.] Of course, the more I learn about the business end of it, the more I realize how difficult that is.

    Reading this post, I’ve decided to turn it around: It is the GOAL of several people out there to a) find a writer like me they want to represent as an agent and b) find the kind of work I’m writing so they can publish it. I just have to do my best to be that writer someone is looking for, writing the kind of work someone wants to publish. So they can meet their goals.

    Without sounding too much like a Disney soundtrack, someone out there is looking for me — I just need to put on my party dress ahem, write the best book I can and keep throwing myself in front of the bus until they find me.

    And Pari, I too am in awe of your stated goals. You are an incredibly productive writer if that’s the scaled down version. Best wishes for meeting them all. I have a terrible time setting goals or deadlines for myself. Because I know darn well I can talk myself into an extension or manufacture believable excuses for myself or convince myself they weren’t really worthy or realistic goals to start with, so… But I am very good at meeting other people’s deadlines. Frankly, I’m enjoying this time in my writing career — my apprenticeship, if you will — when I don’t have any specific goals or deadlines. I have a feeling that will change soon enough.

  38. JT Ellison

    Pari, such an excellent post. I agree completely – dreams and goals are such different beasts. And the only way to achieve your dreams is set goals, work hard, and pray for the tiniest bit of providence to smile down upon you. Some dreams are easier to realize than others, but with determination, almost anything is possible. I KNOW you’ll achieve both this year.

  39. pari noskin taichert

    Yippeee! I’m so glad you’re coming to Santa Fe!

    And I know what you mean about giving yourself options. Since I’d secretly had much higher expectations of myself for the new year, meeting my goals should be manageable and exceeding them . . . quite possible.

  40. pari noskin taichert

    Yes. Forward motion is important. Sometimes goals help me see that I’m making progress. So they’re not so much restrictions or shackles as affirmations of that same motion.

    You are SO right.

    I laughed when you turned those goals around. What a great way to frame it! I think it’s the "throwing" yourself at the bus that is the key to letting those people find your work. And your perspective seems, to me, to be marvelous. Working on being the best writer you can is always essential. I don’t know a single "successful" writer who isn’t still striving to become better.

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