Listmaking and Letting Go

New Year’s is coming soon, and it’s a time when a lot of people think about how they’re going to improve themselves in the following year. Sometimes the lists have really nebulous goals, like “go to the gym more often” and sometimes they’re really concrete and specific like “run a marathon.”

Usually making lists and goal-setting are pretty helpful things to do. They help you focus on what you want out of life, and help you on the path to becoming a better version of you. But sometimes, if the things you want to achieve are too far out of your reach, those lists can be destructive. And when I say “too far out of your reach” I don’t mean writing down that you’re going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro when you have a hard time making it up a hill. I mean the things that are literally beyond your reach, beyond your control.

For my writing career, I have lists of things I want to have happen. You know, the usual: land a seven-figure contract, write a novel series, cross one thousand followers on twitter, et cetera. And you might think, career goals, that’s one list, right? But no. There’s two.

My two lists are “Things I Want That Are Wholly Within My Control” and “Things I Want That Are Not Wholly Within My Control.” (Well actually they’re “career goal things” and “career squee things” but you don’t need to know the sordid details of my doc filing system.) If there’s something I want to do or have happen, I note it on one of these lists. Then, when that thing does happen, I get to write down a date next to it, of when I actually pulled it off.

The thing is, the two lists are important. Obviously one of the list items is “sell a novel.” That would be pretty sweet. And if I were just casually making a list of stuff I want to have happen, I’d write that one down on the list and leave it there. Staring at me. Accusingly.

The problem with writing something like “sell a novel” on your list of goals is that it implies you can sell a novel if you just try hard enough. Unfortunately, that’s simply not true. There are so many factors that play into selling a novel that are completely beyond your control and speak nothing to the quality of your book. Maybe an editor just acquired another book just like yours and can’t have two competing books in their catalogue right now. Maybe you’re too late on a trend, or too early, or something’s just not clicking right, or your book is great but they don’t know where to put it. A lot of things stand between you as an author and that contract and they can’t simply be overcome by sheer force of determination.

And the thing is, if you think “sell a novel” is something you should be able to do and something that’s in your control, you’re just setting yourself up for madness. You need to look at exactly what goes into your goal, and exactly how many parts of that process you can directly control. You cannot control how or when or if someone will read your work, but you can control having a work for them to read in the first place. Hold on to the things you can control, and the things you can’t control, well, just let them go.

So. “Write a novel”? That goes on the career-goal-list. I can write a novel. I can write another one, and another one, and another one. I have no shortage of novel ideas. But “sell a novel”? That goes on career-squee-things. And if that day comes, you can be sure I will squee about it!

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  • http://twitter.com/davisac1 Amanda C. Davis

    It’s been useful for me, though, to list goals out of my control, because that reminds me to take the necessary steps. It takes it from an idle “wouldn’t it be nice?” to something I’m actively working toward. For instance, back in 2009 or so I had an idle eye on getting Active SFWA status…but when I looked back on my submissions for that year, barely 10% of them were to qualifying markets. How was that going to get me anywhere? Articulating the goal made the necessary steps clearer for me.

    (This comment brought to you by the “2013 Goals” list I was just remaking this morning…) ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/triciaballad Tricia Ballad

    I agree with you – kind of. You’re right in that actually selling your novel is out of your hands. BUT…that doesn’t imply that it’s totally up to the whims of the publishing fairy! You can write a great novel, but there are also a lot of things you can do to stack the odds in your favor for selling it too. I’ve met so many fellow writers who have half a dozen finished novels sitting on their hard drives, unsold. And too many of them honestly believe it’s because selling them is a magical process that either happens, or it doesn’t. So while you can’t necessarily make an editor buy your novel, you CAN put things like “Research ten publishers” and “hire an editor” and “follow up on submissions” and “re-send MS to 6 publishers this year” on your career goals list. And if you’ve really done your homework and your novel still doesn’t sell, you can either stick it back on the hard drive and move on, or you can take a brutal look at WHY it didn’t sell and make the necessary changes, or decide to move onto another story that is more salable.