A Goal + A Deadline = Magic

A goal without a deadline is like a ship without a captain.

If you’ve done National Novel Writing Month — the writing festival that challenges people to write 50,000 words of a novel in just 30 days each November — and learned just one thing, it’s the power of setting a goal and having a deadline to keep yourself accountable. A goal and a deadline serve as creative midwives, NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty wrote in No Plot? No Problem!

The words goal and deadline might not ring with any poetic allure, but these two words are perhaps the most important concepts in living the artistic life, ranking right up there with inspiration and imagination. Creativity is one part anticipation, one part commitment.

Here’s the rub, though. I think NaNoWriMo has spoiled some of us. It’s just a month — a short, condensed period of time — so despite achieving the gargantuan task of writing 50,000 words in a month, it’s only 30 days, a fiery burst, less than 10 percent of the year.

Many people awake on December 1, thrilled with their November achievement, and in their gasping breaths they determinedly make a pledge, “I’m going to finish this novel,” only to find themselves drifting aimlessly in a state of abeyance, and then making a vague promise to finish it someday (which we know is unlikely to come).

I’ve been one of those people. I’m an expert at fake productivity. I get trapped in an infinite task loop where I’m consistently accomplishing little actions, but making dubious progress toward completing a novel. I do research. I tinker with the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first chapter. I go back and do more research. Or I get distracted by the glistening sheen of an entirely different writing project. (New novel ideas are always at their brightest before the writing begins.)

I’ve concocted these writing evasions — which feel like productive writing — because I don’t truly want to deal with the mess of the whole thing. My rough draft is like a toddler, just out of diapers, cavorting in glee, with crumbs of Pirate’s Booty on its lips and juice dripping onto its shirt. It’s knocking over things all over the place and yelling too loudly. I love my story’s exuberance, but I’m fatigued by the thought of teaching it to grow up.

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress,” Philip Roth said. I want to get out of this hell.

So how to finish? The lessons of NaNoWriMo apply to creative projects year-round: Make a goal, set a deadline, and devise a plan of accountability.

Goals give us direction, but a goal without a deadline is like a class of students without a teacher — full of potential, but lacking structure. If I don’t give myself a deadline and track my progress, my novel will exist in a perpetual state of questionable movement. (I know because one of my novels took 10 years to finish.)

You don’t need to write 50,000 words each month, of course, but think about what you can do each day on a regular basis. Can you revise your novel for an hour each day? Okay, then set a goal of 30 hours of revision in a month and track yourself each day. Can you write 250 words a day? Okay, then set a goal of 7,500 words in a month. (Funny how 250 words each day can add up; if you write 7,500 words a month, you’ll write 80,000 words in a year, which is a good-sized novel.)

Even a snail can travel a great distance if it moves forward each day.

The key thing is that you can’t set a vague goal. Without a clear goal, you’re likely to find a million ways of talking yourself out of committing to achievement. I think of this scene in Lewis Carrols’s Alice in Wonderland.

CAT: Where are you going?

ALICE: Which way should I go?

CAT: That depends on where you are going.

ALICE: I don’t know.

CAT: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.

Goals are the lighthouse that guides the boat to shore. They’re the north star we follow.

Even with such a system, however, lapses are inevitable. I make a list of obstacles that I will likely face, whether it’s an onerous work deadline, self-doubt, or outright boredom with my novel, and I think about how to overcome them. After a lapse, it’s important to forgive yourself, readjust your goals, and give yourself a fresh start so that a bad week of writing doesn’t lead to a bad month of writing, which then turns into a bad year.

It’s all about designing your life around the things you rationally want to achieve instead of sinking into the powerful claws of more impulsive needs. We tend to be myopic creatures, preferring positive outcomes in the present at the expense of future outcomes. But our present self is doing a disservice to our future self, who will scream back into the dark hallows of the past: “Why didn’t you work on our novel?” Think about how your present self can better serve your future self.

I look forward to seeing my novel finished, as if watching it like a proud parent at graduation. It will be polished, finely woven together, ready to be read by others. Hopefully, it will find a nice cover to wrap itself in, a bookshelf to live on, and will wish me luck on my next novel. There’s always another story waiting.

Try This: Set a Goal. Set a Deadline.

This is the big moment. Map out your writing goals — big goals and all the milestones that lead up to them. Pin a piece of paper with your goals over your writing desk. Tattoo them on your arm if need be. Set deadlines on your online calendar — with reminders. Form a strategy of accountability and enact it.

Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.

For more, go to grantfaulkner.com, or follow him on Twitter at @grantfaulkner.

Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, co-founder of 100 Word Story, writer, tap dancer, alchemist, contortionist, numbskull, preacher.

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