Friday, February 5, 2010

Setting Goals in the Land of the Unknown

One of the frustrating things about writing – or any area of the arts – is the difficulty of being concrete about achieving success. There are any amount of motivational gurus who can fire you up with your unlimited potential and assure you that anything is possible – Anthony Robbins or Christopher Howard to name two. These fellows will happily sell you CD sets that include short hand instructions on how to rewire your brain and change your belief systems (so they claim) and also include various sessions in the way of Goal-Setting Workshops or ‘Strategic Visioning’ exercises. But this is where things get tricky.

When it comes to setting out goals for something like making a business more profitable, or to say learn a new language, there are concrete steps to take that will get you to the chosen goal. They contain elements that are quantifiable. For example, having decided you want to increase profit by a certain percentage, you can go in search of new customers using a range of media. Letter drop-off and business cards might net a 1% response, other forms of advertising might be more effective. But you can quantify all that. Advertising costs a certain amount, you know you need a certain amount of time to write the add etc.

Switch this to writing. If your goal is to get published by GoYouGoodThing Publications, the elements might run as follows: 1)plan book, 2)write book, 3)get feedback on book, 4) re-write book, 5)send book to publisher and 6) get GoYouGoodThing to accept it. Now you can use any goal-setting process on the planet for steps 1) to 5) (lets forget for one moment you spend two years repeating 3)&4)), but once you hit step number 6) – IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO PLAN.

People like Anthony Robbins or Christopher Howard might waffle on about ‘putting energies out there’ or ‘manifest futures’ or perhaps it’s the attraction principle of The Secret. It seems to me that these people have a lot to gain (i.e book and CD sales) in whipping people up into a state of belief, but in the end the hopeful aspirant is left to pick themselves up of the floor. The fact is getting to the far off future called ‘Publication’ or ‘Successful Publication’ involves the judgement of other people which most writers do not have the ability to influence. This last step – is the land of the Unknown.

Slinging your best efforts into this mysterious zone may yield sporadic success, years of stony silence, or a sudden spectacular success. The result remains unknown. I guess the only thing you can really say for sure is that the likelihood of success goes up the more you sling, and that if you sling nothing into this strange Unknown zone then you can be absolutely sure NOTHING will come back.

So – have I got this all wrong? Can someone give me the formula for 6)? Failing that – how do you cope with the Great Unknown.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

As they say in 'Galaxy Quest', Chris:-

'Never give up, never surrender!'

Chris McMahon said...

Ah, Galaxy Quest. What a great film! It was nice to Sigourney Weaver as a blonde:) I love that guy from Monk in that. He's a very versatile actor (plays a very chilling bad guy as well).

Anonymous said...

Ignore it?

Really. Just send your babies out and forget about it until the rejection letter comes in the mail. Or email, in the case of Baen.

I mean, I work for Baen, and it's no use begging. I'll admit to nagging, but that just quickens the process. Toni still called my babies ugly.

It may, depending on how everything falls out, become advisable to self epub, and then go to Black Box Publisher with sales figures. But we're not there yet.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, I can't believe you'd ever nag anyone. ;-)

I try to send my babies out and ignore them and even manage it -- for a short while. But once they've been at a publisher's a bit longer than what the average response time is, I start angsting -- hush, Sarah. I can hear you snickering. I appreciate the Baen format where you can find out where you are in the process. There are a couple of magazines like that as well.

However, I do think there are going to be more and more of us going the self-pub or established e-book publisher route. At least until the Big 6 and their ilk adjust their business model into something that will survive more than the next couple of years. All you have to do is look at the Amazon best seller list for e-books to see that buyers are willing to look at self-published and small press e-books if the price is right.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. Our poor abandoned children!

Either way I think you're right, you need to just keep the whole process going and not focus too much on what comes back.

I guess at least with self-publishing you do at least have some direct control.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. There are a lot more options out there now in terms of epublishing.

I guess some super-smart person would be able to see some incredible opportunities in the market right now. There must be. The big revolutions have all happened out of a time of flux.

It will be exciting to see what happens.

PS: If you figure out the Big Idea, be sure to let me in on it.

Kate said...

The recommended method is to try to forget it ever existed. Naturally, this means writers are expected to be borderline psychotic.

Anyone wanna go scare the rest of the world?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. I'm starting to think thats the way to go.

How exactly were you planning to scare the world? You're not going to go all Dr Evil on us are you?

Mike said...

I'm not sure how to say this without it seeming argumentative, but I'm not sure there is anything worthwhile that we do in life that doesn't involve this kind of goal setting in the land of the unknown (I do like that phrase, incidentally). For example, I teach project management -- which some people seem to think involves being able to control everything magically. But the truth is that there are at least three parts to project management -- planning, risk management, and improvisation. Planning for the parts we expect and know how to deal with, risk management for the expected unexpected -- the stuff that we can think of that might happen, and improvisation for the days when something else happens. Or take my friend who works for Sun. Big company, solid, etc. -- except they've been bought by Oracle, and the world is changing. Or the folks who work at Toyota, and are wondering whether or not their company will weather those shocks. Or...

The point is that in almost any field, there are some things that we can control and drive, and then there are those places where we can do some things, but control is out of our hands. And that often involves the final acceptance or publication or whatever. Especially when other people are involved -- and there really aren't many things that don't involve some other people at some point.

At which point you can play probability games -- if you know that 1 in 10 papers gets accepted, guess how many papers you should be submitting? Right! At least 10, and the more the better. Or whatever you think maximizes your chances.

Hum. The other thought that comes up is fishing. I enjoy fishing when I can. And it's a strange sport, because you get equipment, bait, all the stuff you can, learn about the fish and the location, and you know... sometimes they're going to bite, and sometimes they won't. Still, you can enjoy the water, the nature, the fishing. And when they bite, that's great. But a day of fishing without a single bite can also be a lot of fun, really.

Interesting question. How do you deal with the parts of your life and work that aren't under your control? How do you identify them, do what you can to improve the odds, and then let go and work on what you can control?

Maybe I'll get to go fishing soon, and I can contemplate this. Thanks!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Mike. Interesting perspective. Its given me some food for thought as well. Maybe there is more I can do to understand the territory around the land of the unknown and help control and reduce the risks.

Chris MC