New Goal: Stop Making Goals

Growing up, I kept my goals mostly to myself. Even in my mind, they didn’t seem like goals.

“I want to be the lead in the musical.”

“I want to crochet a blanket over Christmas break.”

“I want to graduate with a 3.5 GPA.”

I don’t think I realized that I was actually setting goals. I saw it as simply evaluating what I wanted to. I don’t remember making to-do lists until my first job after college when the mass of small responsibilities became too much for my brain to hold.

Now? I’d panic if I ever accidentally deleted my to-do list. I’ve made countless pages of long-term and short-term goals. Part of me gets near-sexual satisfaction checking off a goal as completed. Oh, what’s that? Too much information? Soooooorry. 🙂

Almost exactly a year ago, I realized that I might be too far on the pendulum swing toward my Type-A tendencies. I was born an extremely Type-B girl and learned to function as a Type-A thanks to difficult and stressful jobs in my 20s. When I looked back on my teenage years and early 20s, I realized I had been juggling a *lot* of different hobbies, jobs, school, and obligations with little or no stress. But in adulthood, stress and anxiety seems to follow me everywhere I go, no matter how few my responsibilities at any given time.

A major component of my more recently developed stress and anxiety comes from, surprisingly, making goals. I have an almost militant reserve to complete every item on the to-do list, make sure every goal written down manifests. I’ll write down the smallest items on my to-do list, like “Text Stephan back” or “Research if wrapping paper is recyclable,” all the way to the biggest, like, “Edit book.” (You know, just edit a book. No problemo. I’ll do it after I clean out the litter box.) Clearly, there are big jumps in my goals and to-do actions which can, and more often than not, becomes overwhelming. I can knock off two or three things on the to-do list while that big task simply looms, bothering me and holding me hostage to its size and long-term commitment.

Watching a big goal hover over you every day, I’d argue, can incite a negative reaction instead of a positive one. While completing one’s goals usually makes people feel great, not being able to check a time-consuming one off the list for months or even years can make a person grow apathetic toward it. Which was exactly what was happening to me.

So, last year around this time, I made one goal. Stop making goals.

It forced me to live in the moment instead of in the future. “What do I want to do today?” replaced the question, “What do I have to do today?” Instead of beating myself up for not taking steps toward a big goal, I enjoyed focusing on what was in front of me that needed attention, time, and care.

I wasn’t able to cut loose my to-do list. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully let go of it (my preciousssss). But at least now, I’m able to split my goals into smaller, easier to-do items that don’t intimidate me nearly as much as those big, looming goals did.

If you’re finding that setting goals is sapping your energy and leaving you apathetic, try taking a break from it. Enjoy what’s in front of you at the moment, take care of the immediate things that need your attention. When you’re ready, you’ll come back to some of those long-term goals with new enthusiasm.

“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.”
-Greg Anderson

Quitting – A Guest Post by Nicholas Ruva

A guest post by Nicholas Ruva.

When I was asked to write a guest post on quitting, I wasn’t exactly sure how to react. I am a journeyman writer. I’ve completed several shorts, and two novels, but nothing has seen the light of day outside of writing groups and Editor’s slush piles. As someone who has tried my hand at this craft for the past decade, after finally giving in and finishing a minor in Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, I should probably take a hint and throw in the towel. After a decade, if you’re still toiling away, trying to form writer groups, and producing content that gets polite, but definite, rejection letters, well… Shouldn’t I quit?

It’s been a topic on my mind for the last year. After a hellish turn of personal events, a sick dog, stress at work, the dog sick again, bills piling up, and the internal thrumming of a voice that says, “Make this happen, or move on,” yeah, I feel this topic through and through.

However, I don’t think that’s exactly the point of this series, and this topic, and let’s be honest, the majority of you reading this are probably wearing similar pants, and have also been rut-writing for nearly a decade with little to show. It comes with the territory, and eventually you get to this point and you say, “This is who I am. There is no real quitting this.”

So, Okay, fair enough. Let’s not all collectively quit writing for the new year. Let’s bury our nose into that old manuscript. Let’s hammer out that short that’s been sitting unwritten for a long time. Let’s send that submission out to Clarkesworld, Glimmer Train, the Atlantic, the New Yorker. Let’s put butt in seat and fingers on keys and finish that opus!

Well, maybe. I’m guilty of that too. The albatross. The chain wrapped so taut, and so heavy around the neck that it is hard to even make it to my desk. Maybe, just maybe, this is the year you put that old manuscript down. Maybe this is the year you say to yourself that the story in your head will never make it to the page, and you free yourself to do something new, something amazing. Maybe.

That’s hard advice. I have a book, two in fact, that I’ve lugged around for the past decade. The first is complete, but it’s terrible. It’s woefully bad on a level that I wouldn’t share even with my closest friends, though I was giddy to submit it to my writing class at USC. I was so sure they would recognize the brilliance that lay untapped. I was shocked when only one person in the class could even follow my magnificent work.

It was horrible. Going back to it now it’s painful to read, but there’s a glimmer there. The story idea is still strong, and sticks with me to this day. I know, given ten years of experience and a hell of a lot less ego, I could really do it justice. I want to do it justice, but sitting down to it is hard, so it sits.

The second work I should quit is more recent. I started a novel three years ago, and it was a fever-pitch writing session. I tore through fifty thousand words in a little under three days. I brought the rough story to workshops, and it gathered praise from students and instructors alike. It isn’t a big idea story, and probably won’t sell worth a damn, but it is a good story and it deserves to be finished. Still, the longer it sits, the harder it is to bring myself to conclusion.

I know how the story ends. I know exactly where I’m going from here, but sitting down to it is complete brain paralysis. All of that fever and excitement is gone, and it sinks into my creative conscious like a cork, bottling up any desire to move forward, and keeping me from tackling other larger works.

I’ve completed several short stories during the time I’ve been working on this novel, and come up with a few great ideas for other full length works. One idea in waiting I am almost certain will become a series of books, and that excites me completely, but when I go to sit-down and work on it, my WiP haunts me and taunts me from the depth of my creative consciousness.

In my head, I hear the advice Brandon Sanderson gave us at the Out of Excuses retreat in 2013. He warned of the same exact problem I suffer from today, that if you have this great work you’ve been trying to tell for a number of years, a story that you’ve carried with you afraid to finish due to not having the skill, or wanting to perfect over and over until it’s paralysis. If you have such a story… Kill it. It’s better to put that one in the ground then to allow it to weigh on your writing.

It’s solid advice that I can’t take. I feel invested. I feel so close to finishing, but I know it’s the right advice. I know the power spontaneity can bring. Over the past year, I’ve released three full albums of new music, most of the tracks completely improvised and then reworked, not unlike how I approach my writing. The experience is exciting, and I am often shocked at the results. Even my current work in progress novel was a completely spontaneous writing session that turned into a blistering paced seed of a novel. Allowing myself to remove the shackles of my previous work would free me to be more creative.

I am a computer programmer by trade. An odd one that specializes in automation, and removing manual steps from mission critical processes to optimize and standardize work. That’s a really long and drawn out way to say I am successful at my day job if I am able to remove myself from the process. To me, nothing is more satisfying than letting the gears move freely and getting out of the way of the collective machines so they can run at their best.

Although writing is, of course, wholly different in approach, the idea of clearing away obstacles and creating an environment where things run optimally is basically in my genes. I have no problem excessing legacy routines, rewriting bad code, or completely throwing away an entire way of thinking in order to ask, “What am I really trying to solve here?”

If I was to take that same approach to my writing, I’d have pulled the plug on this novel years ago, but it’s a part of me, more so than the code I write, or the job I do every day. The characters speak to me, and through me, and demand to have their story told. These darlings are damn hard to kill.

My monitor is rimmed with sticky notes for daily tasks, a product of the Agile development method. I use various colors for various tasks, but pink is set for personal goals. In all capital letters, stuck to the left side of my monitor, directly at eye level, a pink sticky note reads, “WORK ON THE NOVEL.” It is joined with other pink items with less urgent capitalization, but it’s there to be a constant reminder, a constant goading. It’s tough to quit on something so personal, especially when you know where it goes from here, and how freaking awesome that payoff of an ending will be. So, the novel sits, and I try and convince myself that this is the year things move forward with the work.

When I was approached to write about quitting, I didn’t know it would trigger such a response from my collective writer subconscious. I thought, maybe I will talk about buckling down and getting through it, but I’d be a phony if I did. I know how hard this can be, and maybe you are in a similar situation. If you are, I can’t offer you any advice other than you should probably quit on the work. I know I should have quit on this story last year, or even the year before, but I didn’t, and I likely won’t this year either.

Maybe, eventually, the guilt of it will spill over into another three-day-binge-session that sees me through to the story’s conclusion. Maybe it will be wholly mediocre, but cathartic in all the right ways to finally free myself. If this hasn’t happened to you. If you are the type that finishes everything they start, I envy you. I’ve met folks like you before, and their productivity was nothing short of awe-inspiring. I hope that’s you. Me, I’ll offer myself the advice I know I won’t take: Sometimes it’s alright to move on. You can quit and still be successful. Sometimes quitting is exactly what you need.

I wish I could take that advice, but, then again maybe this is the year I finally finish that novel.

 

About Nicholas Ruva

Nicholas Ruva is a writer, musician, and DevOps Engineer living in Los Angeles, California. When he’s not creating, he’s likely in the kitchen working on a new recipe, or in front of a keyboard trying to complete a catering job in Cook, Serve, Delicious. If you’d like to follow him on his publishing journey, you can find him on Facebook, Instagram, or toss a few fractions of a penny his direction by listening to his music under the name of Lake Onondaga on Spotify or pretty much anywhere music is streamed.

We Always Need a Goal

Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.

We all want something. It could be a new car, paying the rent on time, having a family, writing a novel, being a politician, or simply enjoying a nice cup of tea at 3 o’clock. It doesn’t matter if the want can be achieved quickly or if it takes several years to realize. Without the want, and without the conscious desire to reach it, there is no goal and nothing will happen.

Having a goal involves choice. We can choose to work toward or do something, or we can choose not to do anything. Either way, there will be an outcome, a goal achieved. Whether that goal is personally fulfilling or productive, whether it enriches or sabotages your life, that is another matter,. No matter the outcome, we all have goals.

These atatements may seem rather philosophical, but it’s important to understand that we always have a goal, whether we’re actively or inactively achieving it. Knowing that we have free agency to determine outcomes, frees us to set goals which are not only achievable but also fulfilling. And no, setting unrealistic goals in which one doesn’t participate to achieve the final outcome, doesn’t count. Unrealistic goals are simply fights of fancy or dreams. A goal should be something which spurs us into action (or inaction, but arguably, that is an action in and of itself).

A dream becomes a goal when action is taken toward its achievement.
Bo Bennett

Reaching the target may or may not always happen in the way it was envisioned. That’s okay. Without a goal you can’t get close to the target. For example, in high school and university, I always strived for 100% on exams. Did I achieve that? Sometimes but if not, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. I figured out early on that I always made mistakes, or forgot something. That wasn’t the point. When I strived for the highest mark, my grades were higher than when I didn’t. Having a goal meant caring. If I cared a lot, the results were better becasue I rose to the challenge. If my goal was low, my grades were lower. It was that simple.

So, what does this mean for me as a writer?

I want to write a best seller. So I read best sellers. I study them. I study as well as practice the craft. Will I ever write a book that has the potential to be a best seller. Yes. After writing the book, will my goals include all the promotion and marketing needed? Yes. How hard will I work to realize this goal? That is always the question. But my point here is is that without the goal, I can’t do the work. The goal is my motivation for writing what I deem to be a good novel. I don’t want to self publish messy first drafts. It’s about doing it the best I can. The added benefit is that having a goal and working toward it makes me happy.

People work better when they know what the goal is and why. It is important that people look forward to coming to work in the morning and enjoy working.
Elon Musk

We all have goals. We all need goals. Goals give us direction, purpose and ultimately the process of achieving them should make us happy. Achieving them should elate us but I’ve always found it important to understand that goals change and the art of moving toward the goal can influence and change the outcome.

In many ways, our goals are not that much different from a story or character goal. Like the characters we write, we have desires, passions, and needs. We strive to fulfill those passions. There are ups and downs, set-backs and rewards. We get more information, something interrupts our progress, we persevere, we fight, and ultimately, we come out the other side to laugh, celebrate, or cry.

Most of our goals are active goals. We need them. Through them, we find meaning in our lives and pass down that meaning through our characters, Incidentally, that meaning is also called theme and it makes sense when you remember the addage that we shoul dwrite what we know best. Story is about goals both achieved and thwarted. When we recognize our goals and work toward them, we compel ourselves to actively participate in their achievement. We give meaning, not only to our lives, but also to our characters.

Goals are important. Striving to reach them is important. Whether they are reached as initially dreamed of, may not be as important as having a dream and striving to fulfill that dream.

It’s not an accident that musicians become musicians and engineers become engineers: it’s what they’re born to do. If you can tune into your purpose and really align with it, setting goals so that your vision is an expression of that purpose, then life flows much more easily.
Jack Canfield

The Stories that Just Don’t Sell

What do you do with your “dog stories”–the ones that just don’t sell?

I have a few of those. There’s the story that was written the day of the deadline, because I really wanted to submit something but I had too many other deadlines due first. There’s the story that was written for a very specific anthology call that feels as though it will be hard to place. And there’s the story that just wasn’t a good fit anywhere.

These three stories ended up meeting different fates.

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Day-of-Deadline story ended up being okay. That’s it. Just “okay.” It’s a passable action-adventure story, but when I reread it, I don’t see anything special about it. The characters aren’t that unique. Their world feels like a generic steampunk-ish setting. When I finish the story, I don’t feel that I have anything to “take away” from it other than “well, that was 15 minutes of entertainment.”

There are enough good stories out there that editors are unlikely to buy a story that’s merely “okay.”

I have this story on hold until I can give it a more unique identity. Maybe that’ll be by developing the setting, which in turn will give the characters new challenges. Maybe that’ll be by making those characters more complex. I might be able to rework the story I have, or I might have to rewrite it almost entirely.

The moral of this story is that this tale needed more time than the 24 hours before deadline to be refined into something memorable. Without a heavy rewrite, this story isn’t good enough to sell.

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Specific-Anthology-Call is a Weird Western with horror and fantasy elements. I wrote it for a horror-themed anthology, but it quite fit the “feel” that the editors wanted for the book. Now I’m stuck with this bizarre story that’s struggling to find a home. I don’t think it has enough classic horror elements for most horror calls, but it’s too scary and gory for kid lit, and there’s no steampunk elements in it.

This story’s got a unique identity…it’s just that the identity is so quirky. I’ve shopped this one around to one Weird Western call since, and I’m waiting to see another before submitting it again. It’s going to take patience to find it a home.

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Finally, there’s a short story I wrote that I liked very much. I didn’t write it for a call–I wrote it because this was a specific kind of tale I wanted to tell. I gave it to some beta readers, all of whom said they found it confusing. They missed the in-text hints that suggested the true reasons behind the characters’ motivations.

I rewrote it, and received the same feedback. I didn’t want to write down to my audience, or explain the obvious, but with feedback like this it was clear to me that my subtle suggestions were too subtle. My readers were missing them, and therefore didn’t understand what was going on.

I rewrote it again, in a clearer form, and when I thought I’d gotten a good balance between “make sure the reader doesn’t have to guess too much” and “beat the reader over the head with the clue-by-four,” I submitted the story. And submitted it. And submitted it.

Over three years, I received five rejections.

After each rejection I reviewed and revised. I got two “this is a serviceable story, it’s just not our kind of story” replies.

Unlike Day-of-Deadline Story, Specific Anthology Call, and my rejected flash fiction, every time I reviewed this story, I felt more faith in it. I believed that this was a good story, not just an okay one. I believed that it was unique and interesting. I felt that there was something to take away from it. I believed in this story–for logical reasons, not just because of ego-driven reasons. I knew I could, and have, written crap; I just didn’t believe this one was crap. And so I kept cleaning it up and sending it out.

Then.

A call for submissions, to a magazine where I felt the story might be a good fit–but the story had to be 1000K shorter than its current state. I wasn’t sure I could make the story clear enough to follow, without cutting out any critical plot points, and also pare 1000 words. I decided to try. I focused on wordy sentences, repetitive descriptions, non-crucial detail. Any word that wasn’t essential had to go.

I got the story under maximum length…barely. I submitted it.

It sold.

There’s an art in knowing which of your stories are fundamentally flawed–the ones where you’re better off chalking them up as learning experiences and starting fresh–and which of your stories are good stories that just need to find a place to fit.