Write It Sideways

Dreamers Vs. Goalers: Writers Need to Be Both

Today’s post is written by Sarah Callender, a semi-finalist in the Write It Sideways regular contributor search. Unfortunately, Sarah must pull out of the search for personal reasons, but we can look forward to the occasional guest post from her in the future. Wishing you all the best, Sarah!

We writers are a funny bunch. And when I say ‘funny,’ I mean ‘a little crazy.’

Let’s face it: we willingly hole up by ourselves, for months (or years) on end, putting words and stories on the page, believing that someone will enjoy those very words and stories enough to publish us…perhaps even pay us.

If we are lucky enough to find someone who does indeed want to pay us, and if we are nutters enough to calculate the hour-to-dollar ratio, we realize we have earned roughly $.37/hour writing that novel. That’s 37 cents an hour.

See? That’s a little crazy. And when I say ‘a little crazy,’ I mean ‘totally insane.’

Yet we press on, partly because we are genetically compelled to do so. We feel crabby and itchy and constipated if we go too long without putting words on the page. Most of us can’t not write for more than a few days or weeks without feeling prickly and irritable.

But many of us also write because we are dreamers. We dream of publication. We dream of sharing our words and stories with someone other than our mothers and our cats. We dream of getting published in The Paris Review, of winning Pen-Faulkners and Man Bookers and Pulitzers.

Some of us even dream of getting rich. Can you believe it? we imagine others saying. She got paid a million dollars for that novel.
Of course there are plenty of writers who care nothing about publication or awards or wealth. I just don’t know any of them. They must live in North Dakota or Russia or some island off the coast of Lilliput.

Are You a Dreamer or a Goaler?

All the writers I know write because they dream of sharing their stories, their discoveries, their truths with the world. Or at least with several thousand people. Certainly more than their mothers and their cats.

And gosh, it is good to dream. If we are to be writers, especially if we are to be fiction writers, we must be Dreamers. It’s part of the job description. There is no fiction without a willingness to dream.

Yet we must also be Setters of Goals. Goalers. Yes, I know. It’s not nearly as sexy to be a Goaler as it is to be a Dreamer. Take Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Had he shared an ‘I Have a Goal’ speech, I don’t think it would be considered one of the finest pieces of American rhetoric today.

Goal setting is right up there with reorganizing the linen closet or cleaning grout. Perhaps vacuuming out the minivan.

But sometimes it’s the least sexy things that keep us in the game. And don’t you desperately want to stay in the game? Don’t you want to be much more than a bench warmer or a water boy?

If so, then here’s a bit of advice, some of the best I have ever received about staying in the game of writing: writers must constantly be setting goals. However, these goals must be the right kind of goals. Specifically, SMART goals.

Setting SMART Writing Goals

SMART is an acronym that stands for:

For example, let’s say you set this goal: Get published in The New Yorker.

Sorry, but that’s totally unhelpful. It’s Specific, and it’s Measurable, but there’s nothing Time-Specific about such an open-ended desire. Plus, unless you happen to be the guy who puts the Yes! stamp on submissions to The New Yorker, you don’t have a say about what goes into an issue. Therefore it doesn’t meet the Realistic/Relevant qualification.

So please move Get published in The New Yorker over to the Dreams column. Where it belongs.

A dream is shiny and pretty and probably quite heavy. Like a coconut cream pie. Or an ocean at sunset. Dreams sit on our shoulder and whisper things like, But what about me? Don’t forget about me!. Dreams are essential so please, don’t stop dreaming.

But if you dream of getting published in a prestigious publication, in any publication at all, then create a SMART goal, something over which you have total control.

Perhaps this: Submit one short story to five publications (two top-tier and three others) during the month of December.

If you are someone who cares about publication, then it is your job, nutty writer-friend, to get your writing into the hands of readers or editors or agents. And you can do that. You can’t control whether those folks like it, certainly not whether they accept it for publication, but you can get it into their hands.

Here’s another. Take Get an agent (that’s a dream), and create this goal: Find twenty agents who represent work similar to mine. Organize this list from most to least appealing, then query the seven most appealing by February 28, 2012.

If all goes well, by February 28, you will have sent your query to seven agents. Your goal cannot hinge on the approval or acceptance of others, but it can (and should) hinge on getting it into the hands of others.

Here’s another: Get a grant. Hmm, that smells like a dream.

But create this goal: Apply for five grant opportunities in 2012, and you’re in great shape.

Dreams are often beyond our control. Goals, the right kind of goals, are totally doable. And I, for one, feel a little better about my day when I have accomplished at least one writing goal, which is sometimes as simple as this goal: Write Every Day.

A friend of mine taught me that one. It doesn’t matter if what I write is good or brilliant or worthy of Pulitzers. If I have written, then I have accomplished my goal, which inches me closer to my dream.

Your turn now! Are you naturally a Dreamer or a Goaler in your writing life? Are there ways you can shift your dreams into SMART goals? Please, be brave and share.

In fact, how about setting this SMART goal: Comment on at least one Write It Sideways post this month. Now that’s a SMART goal.

Editor’s note: I couldn’t agree more with that goal, Sarah!

Sarah Callender is represented by Rebecca Oliver at William Morris Endeavor, and her novel is currently undergoing a round of revisions. She received a 2010 King County Arts Commission grant for an interdisciplinary art/poetry project in the Seattle Public Schools, and the first chapter of her novel, BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES, received Honorable Mention in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. Sarah blogs regularly at Inside-Out Underpants. She lives with her husband and two children in Seattle where she is hard at work on her second novel.