The importance of goal-setting dominates a lot of the conversation when it comes to having a productive and meaningful writing life. There’s lots of (good and bad) advice out there about how to set the right goals for you, including SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Timely), goals that challenge you, goals that inspire you, etc. And goal-setting is a hugely important part of writing, or anything else, because it’s hard to know the direction to head in if you don’t know where you want to end up.

But what happens when the goal itself stops you from doing the work?

There’s this excellent writing contest called Pitch Wars that I’ve entered once but usually miss the deadline for, and this year it came up on my radar right after Thrillerfest. Thrillerfest happened in mid-July, and the submission window for Pitch Wars begins August 2 and goes until August 6. Perfect, I thought. I was full of motivation and excitement from the conference, and this would give me a great deadline to get my WIP whipped into shape to send off.

The problem is that Pitch Wars is for completed manuscripts that have been polished and are ready to submit, and to say my WIP is not quite there yet would be a kind understatement. But that’s okay, I told myself. I have a whole two weeks. To quote my soul sister, Leslie Knope:


Guess how much work I got done in the last two weeks after setting this outrageous goal for myself? Drum roll please…

Um, I wrote a scene. And I did a little outlining.

In two weeks.

The goal I set for myself was so nuts that it just freaked me out, and I basically stopped doing anything at all. And that was after making some pretty good headway a few weeks before. Realizing that I would have to devote every second of time I had to make this a reality meant that I just put off even really starting because I was so anxious about the amount of work I had made for myself.

Guys, I like writing!

So yesterday, after wringing my hands over my scary to-do list, I was like, wait a minute. I don’t have to enter this contest. I can just… write.

This is not the first time I’ve done this to myself. Deadlines can be incredibly helpful tools, but with writing in particular, I have a tendency to set huge goals without figuring out realistic daily and weekly steps so that I can meet those goals. And as those goals get closer and less attainable, the less I want to work on them.

I have some deadlines in the future it would be nice to hit. I’d love to enter #PitMad, a Twitter contest I have a better chance of being ready for that happens the first week of September. The Zebulon Contest from Pikes Peak Writers is open September 1 through November 1.

But more importantly, my goal is to write 750 words every day on my WIP. Because some of my big plot points are still in flux, some of that can be outlining and brainstorming. And those words will get me where I need to go. I see my goal — a completed manuscript, the basic shape of which I recognize. But more importantly, I have realistic steps to get there.

What about you? What are your big, crazy dreams, and what small steps today and this week can you take to get there? How will you keep yourself motivated by the challenge without convincing yourself it’s all impossible, so it’s better not to start? And make sure those are your answers to those questions — not mine or anyone else’s.

A favorite saying of mine has always been, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” But nobody in their right mind would shoot for the moon without any plan of how to get there — at worst, you’ll burn up, and at best, you’ll never get off the ground.

So, go ahead and shoot for the moon. But build a rocket first.