Six impossible things

Annual Writing Goals

New year, new year’s resolutions. There are recommendations all over the web about how to make resolutions, which ones to make, and how to keep them for longer than a week. Googling “new year’s resolutions for fiction writers” got me four million hits. So I took a look at some of them. I was not impressed.

Most of them were generic, like “Read more.” More than what? “Try something new.” So all I have to do is taste that new hot dish my niece made, and I’m done for the year? “Embrace my personal writing style.” What does that even mean?

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, at least not the kind most people seem to. I set myself goals for the year. There’s a difference, and the main one is in how I think about what I intend to do in the next year. My initial list might look something like this:

  • Write that story about the goblins
  • Write something every day
  • Read more broadly
  • Continue improving my writing
  • Finish the first draft of my WIP by the end of April

Only the last one is something I would call a goal; the others are a bucket list item, a habit to be established, a vision of what I’d like to have done, and a practice that I want to maintain, respectively.

Goals are things I can check off as “done” at some point. Goals are specific; they have clear edges and end points. They’re things I can do, that I want to do, and when I’ve done them, they’ll stay done (unlike, say, laundry). And they have a time frame – I’m committed to finishing that first draft by the end of April.

Bucket list items are a lot vaguer than goals. They don’t have a deadline, and they need clarification – to “Write that story about the goblins,” for instance, I’d need to develop that hazy story idea far enough to start writing; I’d have to figure out whether it’ll be a novel, a short story, or something in between. And does “Write that story” just mean getting the first draft done, or would I have to have a final, ready-to-submit version finished before I can check it off? Does it include writing a submission outline for a novel or sending out a short story? Bucket list items need me to make a bunch more decisions before they turn into goals.

Visions, practices and habits can never be checked off as “done.” They seldom have clear end points. They’re results I want to get to, or something that I want to start doing and/or keep doing forever, like breathing. If I really want any of these things to be a part of my life in 2017, I need to find specific goals with deadlines that will get me to those results. So what goes on my list isn’t the vision item “Read more broadly,” it’s “Read twelve books by the end of the year on a topic or by a writer I know nothing about.” Twelve books is one a month if I spread them out, but I’m choosing not to commit to that specifically. It’s an annual goal; I can read all twelve by the end of January if I want, and check this off as done, or I can stall until next December and cram twelve new titles into the week before Christmas.

“Continue improving my writing” is a maintenance/practice item. To make it a goal, I’d have to pick exactly which part of my writing I want to focus on improving this year, and how I want to do it. I could look for some exercises I can stand, or experiment with some new techniques for plot construction or characterization, or do a stretchy experimental short piece. It needs enough developing that at the moment, my goal for this one would be “By the end of January, look through my how-to-write books to find six new exercises or techniques to experiment with in the rest of the year.”

Habits are a bit different. “Write every day” is not an annual goal (it might be a daily one, but that’s too micro-level for me). The annual goal would be “Establish the habit of writing every day,” and even that is hard to check off as “done.” “Write every day” fails the minute you skip a day, but “establish the habit” doesn’t necessarily. I occasionally miss brushing my teeth because it’s too late and I’m tired, but I still consider it an established habit. The exact point where something becomes established and installed as a habit, though, is a large gray fuzzy area, not a clear point in time. So I track behavior and work at getting to the point where not writing in a day makes me twitchy. I’ve been there; it’s possible. It just takes maintenance.

My final list of writing goals for 2017 would look like this:

  • Establish the habit of writing every day
  • Read twelve books by the end of the year on a topic or by a writer I know nothing about
  • Find six new writing techniques or exercises by the end of January and experiment with them for the rest of the year
  • Finish the first draft of my WIP by the end of April

This isn’t my actual 2017 goals list – I try to limit my annual list to a maximum of ten items at a time, and the list covers all the aspects of my life, so there usually isn’t room for more than one or two writing goals. When I finish the WIP (by April 30!), it’ll drop off the list and I’ll pick up something else.

6 Comments
  1. I hope to finish the first draft of my WIP by February, so that’s a goal that won’t really take me through the year. Writing is often hard for me to quantify (I can’t really anticipate how long edits will take until I start diving in, etc.) so my goals usually center around establishing good habits and saying no to Netflix when I’m tempted…

  2. I also prefer goals to resolutions. My writing-related ones for 2017 are to bring back my monthly word-count quotas (and if the novel gets stuck, to remember that short stories exist), and, by the end of January, to have set up and tested a new (more reliable) email account so I can get back to querying and submitting.

    Once January’s goal is completed, obviously there will be querying and submitting goals. 😉 But that’s something to finalize then, not now.

  3. I usually hate these sorts of things, but the SMART system of evaluating whether a goal is worthwhile pursuing works pretty well. Goals should be

    Simple – Complex goals are difficult to pursue or quantify
    Measurable – Progress toward achieving the goal should be quantifiable
    Actionable – What you do makes a difference
    Realistic – Aim high, but don’t expect to hit the Moon
    Time-based – “I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.” ―Duke Ellington (1899–1974)

    Some versions use Specific rather than Simple, but it breaks down to the same thing.

    “I will write a best-selling novel” is not an actionable goal because the market is not something you have any control over.

  4. My writing goal for 2017 is to finish the first draft of my WIP by the end of the year. I’ve been working on it (slowly) for two years; I think it’s somewhere in the vicinity of half-done, so I’m going to try to put more sustained effort into it and get to the end of the first draft.

  5. Good luck with achieving your actual goals, whatever they may be!

    Have you heard of 101 in 1001? (101 things in 1001 days) My fondness of to-do lists led me to try it, and while I lasted over a year and wasn’t doing half bad, really, I reached a point where I yearned so much to be free that I scrapped the whole thing. The habit-forming stuff was the hardest, because instead of just saying “I will floss my teeth more,” I had to set a goal of so many times per week and actually track my progress that way on another chart, and so on. It really wore me out, mentally. This was maybe 8 or 9 years ago and I still can’t stomach the thought of making a to-do list, sadly 🙁

  6. This is as usual, timely. 😉

    Goals- finish the story and outline for the third book in my series (est. ~90-120K words) by the end of the year
    – finishing revising the first book (121K words) by December
    – finish an incomplete novel during July (50,000 words)
    – write the second novel in a new series in November
    Lofty, but I think it’s doable. I’m planning out what I need to do and when in order to get it done.

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