Why Writers Should Stop Torturing Their Goals… and Fail Better

I was thinking about goals recently, Blog knows why. I mean, why would anyone start thinking about life goals around the time a year changes its end digit, let alone TWO end digits? It’s a mystery.

It’s possible that I started thinking about forward intentions in 2020 because I spent most of 2019 looking either back, under, behind, into, or arseways. (I’d stick more prepositions in there, but it reminds me too much of studying German grammar, and I can’t remember whether arseways takes the dative or the accusative case… if you know whether an arse is a direct or an indirect object, you might like to leave the answer in the comments, thanks.)

It’s also possible that I was thinking about this stuff because someone actually asked me this year what my new year’s resolutions were.

I was shocked. I mean, most people only tell you what their own resolutions are. What kind of monster would ask you what yours were? (A monster I live with. That’s who.)

Anyway, it occurred to me that the problem with goals is not that they’re unattainable, or that we fail: but that we keep changing them.

And when you’re talking about writing, and writers, who have the constitution of a Mayfly with a narcolepsy, this is a very dangerous pastime. Because changing goals can result in chronic writing paralysis.

The Bloggy Bit Where It’s All Me Me Me

Case in point: this time last year, without consciously nailing it down as a goal, I aimed to finish the novel I was working on at the time. That was fairly significant for someone who had a day job which ate her life, refused to leave a tip, and then asked for seconds.

Had I been consciously thinking about it, I would have realised that I was going to have a uphill battle. And I most probably wouldn’t have articulated the aim of finishing that novel enough to make it a real goal, because I probably would have been afraid of failing. Finishing a half-written novel is bloody hard, and I knew it.

But do you know what happened? I actually did it. I decided in February that I wanted to finish it in order to send it to somebody who had asked for it. And I did. I finished the whole novel only about a month after I’d hoped to get it done.

Goal accomplished, right? Well done me – right?

Wrong.

Because do you know what happened then? I succumbed to the Writer’s Curse, and moved the bloody goalposts.

I wanted people to love my novel. I wanted everyone, including the people I sent it to, to love it hard. And I wanted to be published and I wanted to have something to show for all the novels I’ve worked on over the years whilst doing the day job and all the other stuff that life is when you’re not writing.

Superblogger Selfie Gold

The very moment I finished the first draft of that book, I dismissed the original goal as though I’d had a different goal all along. All of a sudden, the goal wasn’t finishing the novel any more. It was getting it published.

And then lots of life happened. My Dad passed away, and being level-headed got harder, and the day job got harder, and I discovered that not only had those I’d sent the novel not loved it, they hadn’t even read the bloody thing. But in the meantime the door had closed, and my new goal was on the other side.

In the process, I’d forgotten that finishing a novel doesn’t mean writing ‘The End’. An epic rookie mistake. My writing hadn’t failed. I’d failed.

At failing.

By August, I realised that I did indeed have a good idea and the makings of a good story. However, I also had two characters without a motive, and a mystery without any intrigue. They needed a rewrite, and I needed a bit of cop on.

How can anyone achieve anything if we keep discounting what’s actually done, and focusing on what isn’t?

How The Writer’s Curse Works

I’m only small-time stuff, but I’ve seen this happen so much too in the writing world, when writers start comparing themselves to other people and re-setting their goals all the time. And the unhappiness is rife. It’s crippling. And social media does NOT help.

  • Say you’re an unpublished writer, and you want to get an agent.

Congratulations – you got an agent!

  • But wait – your two best mates are already published.

Congratulations! You got a book deal!

  • But So-and-So got a better book deal, with a request for another book, and a better advance.

Congratulations! You got a 3-book deal with a stonking advance! So you quit your day job!

  • But your publisher is starting to make noises about recouping the advance, and now you need the book to sell. A lot. And every time you hear the word ‘marketing’, you cry a little.

Congratulations! You made back your advance!

  • But So-and-So made the Sunday Times Bestseller List.

Congratulations! You made the Bestseller List too!

  • But So-and-So made the New York Times List. And USA Today.
  • And now they’ve been sold into 5 further territories, with deals in progress for translation rights in another 9.
  • And now they’ve been nominated for an award.
  • And now they’ve won the award.
  • And your publisher is looking for the 2nd novel in the book deal.
  • And your editor doesn’t like the idea you came up with.
  • And you’re starting to get up later and later.
  • And you wear pyjamas to the cinema.

Anyone else got a headache?

The Bit Where I Attempt to Tie It All Together

I spent so much of 2019 bemoaning the goals I’d changed when all the time I should have been trying to (in the words of Samuel Beckett) fail better.

With that in mind, this year I am going to try and finish this novel PROPERLY.

At the end of the year, there will still be things wrong with it. But you know what? It’ll be less wrong than it is today, and that’s an admirable goal (in my book).

Anyone out there got some writing goals they can actually stick to?

  24 comments for “Why Writers Should Stop Torturing Their Goals… and Fail Better

  1. January 14, 2020 at 8:12 am

    I might be able to manage half a sentence a day.
    I am a shocker for changing goal posts, flinging them in the air [yes I am very strong], and generally being focussed on everything but the goal posts.
    2019 was a shocker – I’m going to try to be kinder to myself in 2020.
    Sx

    Liked by 2 people

    • January 14, 2020 at 8:53 am

      Sounds like a string of excellent ideas to me, Scarlet. I’m going to take all the leaves out of your book, mix my metaphors, and use those leaves to cement in some shorter goalposts 😂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. January 14, 2020 at 9:19 am

    We must learn to fail better… what a brilliant idea!
    Seriously, if all we manage to accomplish in 2020 is to stop moving those damned goalposts, we will winning!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. January 14, 2020 at 11:27 am

    There’s always somebody doing better, but then there’s always somebody else who has ballsed it up. The trick is to stop worrying about what other people are doing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • January 14, 2020 at 10:26 pm

      Amen to that, Stevie. This goes for pretty much everything in life now – especially anything which lands on social media, and I include blogging in that!! Comparison seems to end in unhappiness for everyone, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. January 14, 2020 at 1:10 pm

    I’m sure this will touch a nerve with a lot of people, Tara – especially at this time of year. (As it happens, I always review my annual goals to coincide with the tax year, but that’s a hangover from having my own business!) The main thing is to write. I’m so far behind with the writing goals I set myself nearly three years ago that it’s tempting at times to knock it all on the head, but I write because I enjoy it (most of the time), so I just keep plugging away. Who knows what’ll happen? But whatever it is, it’s better than not moving forward. Enjoy the writing. And don’t worry too much about the goals…

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 14, 2020 at 10:27 pm

      I’m certainly not going to worry about goals now that I’ve touched a few nerves, Graeme. That was, after all, goals # 6, 11, and 341.

      And you’re so right – there’s nothing righter than ‘the main thing is to write’. We’ll only ever get there if we do.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. January 14, 2020 at 1:56 pm

    I think the directness of arse depends on whose arse it is and how familiar you are with said arse. Yours or one you know well, it’s fine to be direct, otherwise the indirect is best. You can’t be too careful these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 14, 2020 at 10:30 pm

      This is genius, Armen, I can’t thank you enough.
      Of course, you may have written the book on arse grammar, which would suggest I should have asked you directly in the first place – but if you haven’t, might I suggest that you do?

      Liked by 1 person

      • January 14, 2020 at 10:36 pm

        An interesting idea, it would probably sell better than most of my other books – based on the cover if nothing else.

        Liked by 1 person

        • January 14, 2020 at 10:56 pm

          Absolutely. If I can offer some advice on the cover, I’d suggest you put it out to tender.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. January 14, 2020 at 2:01 pm

    I’m going to finish that novel that I was going to finish in August and then kind of finally did finish, poorly, in November, and then more or less forgot about while working toward a different book launch, and now am a little bit terrified to return to because I’m pretty sure it’s truly terrible. I’m actually not really looking all that forward to 2020 at this moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 14, 2020 at 10:32 pm

      Have to say I like terror, Sarah. It keeps me on my toes, when I’m not cringing in the corner, hiding from it. I hope your 2020 is more toesy, less cringy, and not terrible at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. January 14, 2020 at 3:40 pm

    There are no concrete plans in life as life keeps changing the goal posts.
    I think everyday is a school day and you only fail if you give up. Losing your Dad was so huge that you should congratulate yourself for every day you got up, showered and went to work, no talk of even getting into a writing headspace.
    However, whatever you will write will now be infinitely better than what you did write, so be glad. I don’t see any of your year as failure, except perhaps ‘failing’ to hear that hidden voice telling you so. Just imagine your Dad clapping you on and you’ll smile and feel ten feet taller. Feck the world, remember you have a story to tell, so go tell it. Get that shitty first, second or third draft out of the way and hey presto. You can’t clean out a cupboard without that moment where you go, ‘oh why did I start this?’
    BTW my motivational fees are reduced after Christmas. 🙂 🙂
    Happy New Year Tara. Looking forward to one day reading this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 14, 2020 at 10:55 pm

      I can certainly imagine my Dad throwing his eyes up to heaven at me trying to make a motivational argument in a blog post, Tric! You’re so right. Every day is a school day. And some nights too. And the odd time when you haven’t a clue what time of the day, month or year it is.
      Wishing you every good thing in 2020 and beyond too – 2019 wasn’t easy on either of us in many ways.
      By the way I’ll send you the motivational fee cheque by carrier pigeon. I assume your roof is the same?

      Like

  8. January 14, 2020 at 5:26 pm

    I admit I find it a little intimidating when some author friends and colleagues put work out much faster than I do. But with age comes wisdom, or perhaps acceptance in one’s limitations. Looking back, I realize I’ve achieved two of my goals and have actually accomplished quite a bit.
    Best wishes with your novel. I hope I get to read it soon. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 14, 2020 at 10:34 pm

      I hope so too, Jennifer! I think we all suffer from comparing ourselves with others. It doesn’t matter who it is or what they’ve done. We appear to be hard-wired to criticise ourselves and identify success in others. Well, those of us not in politics, anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. January 15, 2020 at 9:18 pm

    My last year’s goal was to publish one of my three books in May. It is January and it is sitting unpublished on my desk. I think I forgot to put in the year I was aiming for. Anyway, it’s a little scary getting published. Congratulations on getting your book done “properly” this year and realizing this. I’d certainly be interested in reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 17, 2020 at 8:30 am

      Thank you, Stanley. Why not pretend you meant this year all along? It’ll satisfy if not shut up your inner critic. And it’s rare we ever get to do that!!

      Like

  10. January 16, 2020 at 6:33 pm

    Yes and yes. Having failed for several years to finish my fourth novel, I read through some partial drafts and decided that it was a hopeless project and that I was too busy, too old, enjoying grandparenthood and garden projects too much to sweat through that nightmare again – farewell writing! Two days ago driving back on a bleak motorway, after a day with toddler grandson, I began to ferment a new perspective on the story I had been trying to tell… now I am itching to write, but owe an article here and many other deeds there, yet I know that I will attempt to fail better in due course. Good luck with the re-write, it can be very satisfying.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 17, 2020 at 8:32 am

      And the very best of luck with your own juggling, Hilary. Sometimes I think we give ourselves no credit at all for correctly deciding which priorities are actually priorities, while we end up focusing on the things we’d actually relegated to the bottom of the list. We’re quite harsh aren’t we?

      Liked by 1 person

  11. January 18, 2020 at 12:34 pm

    I needed to read this! I started writing a novel in the summer last year and I’ve definitely made some progress, but it’s completely fallen off my radar. This year I want to complete a first draft!

    Like

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