Goals: catalyst or kryptonite? (a post about NaNoWriMo)

Goals are the perfectionist’s kryptonite.

Yeah, I know, quite a statement. But it’s true – at least for me. Some writers thrive on goals, others choke on them. And since NaNoWriMo is all about goals, this might be a good time to assess in what category you belong.

So writers, check in with yourself: goals, catalyst or kryptonite?


First of all: what is NaNoWriMo?

Says Wikipedia:

National Novel Writing Month (also known asNaNoWriMo /ˌnænˈrm/na-noh-RY-moh) is an annual internet-based creative writing project which challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and 30.

The first of November was this last Sunday, so as we speak aspiring writers all across the globe are popping their finger joints and stacking up on coffee and playing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ on repeat. An uplifting notion.

Goalgetters, rejoice!
So why would you participate in this or any other writing challenge? In other words: what’s the use of writing goals*?

*= in this context, I mean quantitative goals, like ‘a 1000 words a day’ or ‘finishing my manuscript three months from now’.

Well, most of us flawed humans are, on a day-to-day basis, lazy and scared and set in our trusted ways. We’re conservatives by nature. We’ll do anything to keep scary, uprooting change from happening. Therefore, for a lot of people, setting a writing goal can be a much-needed kick in the butt. It can tip the scales from ‘boy, I wish I could find the discipline to write every day’ to ‘okay, since I HAVE to have a 1000 words by tomorrow I’ll set my alarm at six and do my writing in the morning’. Dandy! Suddenly you’re an achiever!

So in this case, and that’s important, THE GOAL LOWERS THE PRESSURE. It doesn’t matterwhat you write, just that you are writing. Here’s a handy checklist to see if writing goals can be a catalyst for you:

  • You spend a lot of time on concepts, thoughts and ideas, but little time behind your keyboard.
  • For years, you’ve been toying with the idea of writing, but something else always takes priority.
  • You feel like you never get anything done, or at least, not as much as you would like.
  • You have a hard time finishing stories or manuscripts.
  • You get hung up on writing THE MOST ORIGINAL THING, like, EVER, and you end up weighing every word thrice and getting stuck on page one.
  • You know you’re a slacker by nature.

Goalgetters, beware!
Writing goals are a two-handed sword: setting a goal automatically means that you can fail. No biggie though, right?

Well, here’s the thing. To a perfectionist, at least the kind of perfectionist I am, failure IS a biggie. It’s a huge-ie. It’s a laying-awake-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-becoming-self-destructive-with-blame-and-guilt-ie. In general, a perfectionist is someone who’s mortally afraid to fail, and pins their entire sense of self-worth on completing (self-set) tasks successfully – and the standard for ‘success’ is usually impossibly high.

(here’s a cool post that explains it perfectly)

So yeah, to me setting a strict and rather far-fetched goal – finish a whole novel in a month, why dontcha? – is really like kryptonite. To me, THE GOAL HEIGHTENS THE PRESSURE. Here’s a checklist to see if this goes for you, too:

  • Once you’ve set a goal, you start feeling nervous and unpleasant, like ‘OMG the clock is ticking!!’. The goal becomes paramount in your thoughts, like a giant roadblock.
  • You always make your to-do-lists too long, telling yourself you’ll feel good if you do half; but you still end up feeling like you should have done it all.
  • Your day is filled with purposeful activities from dawn till dusk.
  • As a writer, you push and push yourself. You don’t let up or ‘go with the flow’.
  • You’re a hard worker by nature. You are super competitive.
  • You feel easily stressed, threatened and/or under pressure.

Finding balance
It’s cool though (to quote Eminem (’cause why not)). I’ve learned to find ways around my choking perfectionism (such as creating an alter ego). I’ve also learned – and am learning – TO BE KIND TO MYSELF. And if I can do it, so can you.

My ‘goal’ for NaNoWriMo
What I want right now is to finish this version of my novel. What I want is to trust that this version is going to be good enough to show to agents. And, most importantly: what I want is to keep my writing as organic and, well, FUN as it is right now.

So what about you??
Any writing goals for November? Feel inspired, or just plain scared? Don’t let NaNoWriMo be your kryptonite, okay? Writing goals can be inspiring and freeing (not to mention a swift kick in the butt) as long as you keep track of why you’re setting the goal in the first place (TO HELP YOURSELF).

So, go forth and be proliferous…and HAVE FUN EVERYONE!!

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Scared to get real


photo: Alvaro Barrientos

All my life I’ve been unbeatable at fantasizing. Day-dreamer is my middle name. If I was bullied on the way home from school, I’d fantasize about sweeping back in as a warrior queen, striking down the bullies from high up on my horse. If someone was harassed on the bus, I’d go away in my head to a parallel universe where I was stronger and more sure of myself and not too scared to say something. I used to dream up the image of myself as a good person, because to be one in real life seemed so far-fetched.

All my life I’ve been unbeatable at being scared. Maybe that’s a better, more honest way of putting it. And dreaming up the image of myself as a good person was my comeback, my outlet, in a world too overwhelming to take up arms – for it or against it.

I’ve gotten better. The world has gotten smaller and more comprehensible, and years of hard work have taught me my rightful place in it; whether I’m a hero or not, I belong.
But that tendency to go away inside my head is still there. The shores of fantasy land are always beckoning, ESPECIALLY when in the real world there’s a risk of running things into the ground.

This is why I started writing in English. Under a barely functional pseudonym. And – at first – about stuff that barely mattered. Why? Because I was scared. In order to be able to write AT ALL I needed to make my book like a fantasy in my head. Something that couldn’t possibly be real. Something that couldn’t possibly rock anyone’s boat or disturb anyone’s peace. A real book, that people can actually dislike, or worse, ignore? Ha! Never.
I need my space, I need my peace.
I need this fantasy.

And now…yeah. You guessed it. Now the fantasy is starting to get real.

I haven’t quite finished the manuscript yet. I’m waiting to revisit my finished draft, and tinker with it some more. But there’s only so much tinkering you can do, you know?
At some point you have to stop tinkering.

Heidi-Montag‘Cause why? ‘Cause that’s why.

And when I finally finish, then…I’ll have a finished manuscript.
See, this is not something I threw together one rainy Tuesday afternoon. This is the one place where I let my dreams take the shape of reality. This is an actual thing that actually matters to me. Hello world. This is my best offer.

What if it sucks? What if I can’t sell it? What if I can sell it but nobody buys it? What if I can sell it and a few people buy it but nobody likes it?

I have to laugh at myself at this point. It’s the only thing I can do, really – but I’m also laughing because out of this great, absurd mess something beautiful could come. And I don’t mean a best-seller.

What I mean is that this fear gives me an opportunity to feel a connection with all the writers in the world, and all the people who ever dared to create something out of nothing. This fear allows me to understand all the people who ever dreamed of something and then made that thing a reality, even though they were scared. This whole blood curdling roller coaster ride is an opportunity for me to see that I’m not alone, that I can be a real person in the world and do real things, even if they fail. And that failing won’t mean that I’m a bad person. Only that I’m part of this world.

So I think that’s where this tunnel of fear is leading me. This book is helping me become part of the world. And I’m ready to step out on the other side into the light and say hello.

And I’m also scared shitless.

It’s a glorious experience.

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How to construct a writing life

It’s been nine years since I graduated from writing school. Eight since I first began working as a writing coach and copywriter; six since I decided I wanted to write novels.

All this time, I’ve been trying to find the balance between (financial) success and sheer passion, between professional praise and light-hearted hobbyism. All this time I’ve been asking the same question. How can I live a writing life?

For me, this is a life in which I
– have enough time and financial stability for writing;
– am in touch with the fulfilling qualities writing holds for me;
– enjoy a certain amount of ‘success’ and validation.

It took me quite some time, but I think I’m getting there. And you can, too!
All you need to do is ask yourself these two essential questions:
Why do I write? And what do I want to get out of it?

Earlier, I came across an old, but very beautiful post by author C.S. Lakin. She writes:

I think it’s a good thing to take a look at why you write. […] Why? Because once you understand your need to write and what is driving it, you can honestly and practically both assess and plan how you will handle your writing life. 


I believe the problem most authors have (and this applies to numerous multipublished authors who have enjoyed good sales of their novels) is they have a standard or measure of success that they’ve set on the finish line and they’re running toward that, eyes focused on that alone, and until they get “there,” they can’t really feel any deep or lasting satisfaction, sense of fulfillment or accomplishment, or self-worth.


If you have moments like this, I want to encourage you, because I think there are ways we can readjust our thinking and truly find joy in whatever place we’re in, as far as our career goes.

I think Lakin touches on the full depth of what I mean with ‘writing life’.

First up is motivation (=why do you write): is it enough for you to simply ‘write for the desk drawer’, or are you motivated by a measure of ‘success’? And then of course we have the second component: how do you define success (=what do you want out of writing)?

Once you know these two things, you can build your writing life around them, so that you will not only stay motivated, but also be successful. At least in your own eyes.

(and really, that’s all that matters)


Life-saving hobbyism
For me, the ‘motivation’ part has been obscured for a long time by what I thought the world was expecting of me. When I finished writing school, I couldn’t think of any way to be a ‘successful’ fiction writer, other than to be a professional one – that is, to make a living out of it. I felt that my education ‘framed’ me to be this: a successful professional writer…or a failure.

Needless to say, this put a lot of pressure on me (all my own projection, I blame no one). So much that it choked me until I couldn’t write at all. ‘Writing’ had become ‘trying not to fail’.

Then I found a surprisingly simple way around this; I made writing a hobby. I took all prestige and need out of it, until I was left with the pure writing itself. Specifically I did this by creating an English alter ego, someone who had nothing to do with me…or with myego:). This freed up my creativity and allowed me to simply ENJOY myself.

Finally I was in touch with my true motivation: I write because I feel alive when I do it. I feel useful, happy and fulfilled. No amount of ‘outward’ success could compete with that.

Framing the writing
So. What does a person with an important, life-saving hobby need?

Time. Space. Means.

Once I knew I wanted to write merely ‘for myself’, AND spend a lot of time doing it, I was able to organize my life around that. I chose to work freelance as a writing coach and copywriter, so that I was my own boss and could generate an appropriate income for myself. I also chose to work relatively few hours, leaving a lot of hours to write. To feel alive. This does mean that I’m sacrificing being rich and having a whirl-wind career. But c’mon – compared to building a framework around feeling alive…what does it matter?

Projecting ambition elsewhere
Of course, like everyone else, I still crave recognition for what I do. I need to feel validated in my work. If I write fiction purely for myself…where is the recognition going to come from?

For me, the solution was to project that ambition elsewhere. I’m pretty successful as a writing coach and copywriter. Almost every week I get told by clients that I’ve helped them, that my writing talent has made a difference in their lives. Because I’m getting a lot of recognition for my professional writing (/coaching) work, I’m able to sustain myself with little or no outside approval in my fiction writing.

I don’t think this balance will be the same forever. Once I finish my novel, I’m sure the frame will need some adjustment, and, like all debuting authors, I will experience new insecurities and motivation crises.
But for now, this keeps me happy. And, not unimportantly – sane.

How to construct your own frame
I think the most important thing is to be really, really honest with yourself. There is nothing wrong with being very ambitious and wanting the ‘classic’ definition of success: fame, money, praise from literary critics. But, as Lakin puts it:

Is it wrong to want that? Of course not. But like wanting anything that is difficult to attain—the question is, how obsessed with this dream are you? What will happen if you don’t attain it? Will you be satisfied ever with less, and what does that place look like for you?

‘Constructing your writing life’ does not mean settling for less. It does mean getting real. Taking responsibility for the things you love most and the way you make room for them. Becoming authentic in the way you frame your life, the way you define ‘successful writing’.

And finally, it means finding the inner strength to navigate with that compass, no matter what other people think. You have that power to define whether or not you think you’re a success – don’t let anyone take it from you.


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With a little help from my friends the internet

Okay guys, I’m going to share some big news: I have all the answers.

That sounds amazing, right? Let’s do that again. I HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.

Before you think I’ve gone off my rocker and become the power-hungry megalomaniac I’ve been in danger of becoming since killing all my Little Pony soldiers in the Sisterly Playroom Wars of ’88* – let me explain.
I do not know your bank account number. Also, I do not have the answers to life, the universe and everything (though 42 and we apologize for the inconvenience still sound pretty spiffy). What I have are all the answers I needed to finish chapter two. This makes me incredibly happy – and I have a bunch of strangers on the internet to thank for it.

*= I love my sister now and I loved her back then. But she had Barbie dolls, yo. ARMED Barbie dolls.


The limits of Google
Research is great, and I’m a big fan of doing your homework. But if you’re in Holland, writing a book set in the USA, you’re still bound to run into a few problems you can’t fix on your own.

To give you an example: In chapter two, my protagonist goes to an exclusive Art Festival hosted on the property of a ranch.
My problem was that I couldn’t decide on a location. I combed through Google maps and population density maps, but it’s really hard to tell if that empty green spot on the map is a) a poverty stricken area, b) privately owned land or c) a tourist hotspot with hot dog stands. Not only that – if all the provinces in Holland are considered to have their own personalities, I bet that’s true x 10 for states in the USA. And unfortunately, couleur locale is not indicated on Google maps, so I needed a general direction if I didn’t want to comb through a million regions at random.

Or: it’s the internet, stupid!

‘Ask a friend’ is one of the helplines gameshows offer in these cases. But I have almost no friends overseas, and even if I did, the information I’d receive that way would be highly limited and subjective. What I needed was a diverse group of people willing to answer the random research questions of a stranger. In short, I needed some incredibly nice folks.

This is where I had a good idea: I posted my questions in the forum of an advice website. Did that ever turn out brilliantly! Nearly 20 different commenters from different parts of the US reacted to my questions and came up – among other things – with some great suggestions for the right location.  And the great thing is, now that I’ve settled on a location, I can research the details online by myself. I just needed a few choice pieces of information – and asking the internet was just the way to get them.

In fact, I’m writing this post for two reasons: a) because I want to pass this tip on to you as a writer, but b) also because I continue to be baffled by the power of the internet and the immense potential for good-heartedness –next to the trolling and nasty – that’s out there. THANK YOU, all the people who reacted to my post!


Ask the right way
There are a few last remarks I have to add. First of all: The forum I posted in is part of a website I follow religiously and admire the general tone of voice of. I feel very much at home with its community, even if I don’t participate often, and had a good sense of how to formulate my questions and what kind of answers to expect, even before I posted.

I think this is important. Not just because you don’t want to feel like randomly milking people for information – that’s something I’d feel uncomfortable with, but you might not – but also because you want to set yourself up to receive the answers that will benefit you most. So a few extra pointers:

* don’t ask a question you can easily research another way. People are taking the time to reply to you; the least you can do is take them seriously.
* take yourself seriously, too. No question is too silly to ask, if you really want to know the answer. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.
* be specific. Make sure you narrow down what you want to know sufficiently. The more concrete your questions, the more concrete the answers will be.
* know who you’re asking. Of course, you can’t know a 100%, but at least know the website and the tone of voice of the comments. You don’t want to be bombarded by a load of cynicism or be made fun of, so protect yourself where you can.
* show some restraint. Don’t get over-excited and put stuff up for discussion that you kind of already know, like ‘do you guys think this is a good motivation for my protagonist?’ Someone might say no, and interfere with what you thought you knew. Be respectful of your story and believe in it; don’t use a bunch of strangers to validate your story choices.

That’s it, you’re good to go! So now whenever you really really want the answer to something (and you don’t have any friends (or they are dumb people (or they are annoyed because you ask them stuff all the time))): ask the internet!

Oh, and last but not least…
Don’t forget to give back

A wonderful advice website where Wendy Atterberry tells it like it is – speaking from the heart and shooting from the hip.
Go visit!!

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