Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Are Your Dreams Getting in the Way of Your Writing Goals?

By Anne R. Allen

What’s the difference between a dream and a goal?

Short answer: reality.

A dream is a creature of the imagination, full of sparkles and rainbows. It’s our magic castle where we live our fantasy lives. We all need them. But we also need to recognize them for what they are.

A goal is something doable. Like getting a college degree, saving money to go to a writers' conference, or finishing that novel.

"I want to be a rich and famous writer" is a dream.

"I want to write a novel and get it published" is a goal.

Here are some common writers' dreams that can stand in the way of writing success.

1) The Travel-Adventure Dream

You know the one—most writers have it at some point. We're going to travel around the country in a camper/sports car/motorcycle—writing our own version of On the Road.

Or we're going to go live in Paris and become the next Hemingway.

I plead guilty to this one. When I was a kid, I always pictured myself traveling the world, having adventures and turning them into lovely novels.

Thing is, I got the traveling and adventures part right, but until I was nearly forty, I’d never actually produced one of those novels.

I didn't realize writers don't need adventures. We need imaginations.

2) The Award-Winner Dream

When you were twelve, you probably rehearsed your Oscar acceptance speech in front of your mirror and thanked your hairbrush for the great honor you knew you deserved. A lot of us have been there.

But that dream can hold us back. Whether it’s winning an Oscar, Tony, Pulitzer, or making it to the top of the NYT bestseller list—picturing that kind of rare occurrence as your sole image of success can freeze you at square one.

Real success comes in baby steps.

You need to consider yourself a success when you finish your first novel, send your first query, self-publish your first book, write your first blogpost, get your first royalty check, etc.

Otherwise, you’re going to be overwhelmed by the huge gap between where you are now to where you want to be and you'll be defeated before you start.

3) The Literary Kudos Dream

This was one of mine, too. In my dream I made a lovely income from my books (somebody had to pay those Paris cafe bills.)

But I didn’t have a clue how to write stuff that could make money.

I mostly read literary fiction, so I wrote Alice Munro-wannabe stories and poems.

Yes, I loved reading romantic suspense and mysteries, but I didn’t want to be a genre writer. Oh, no: I wanted to be reviewed in the New Yorker!

I didn’t take into account that pretty much everybody who's published in the New Yorker has tons of academic credentials and teaches at a prestigious university.

I didn't want to teach. I wanted to write. So now I write mysteries.

4) The Rich Writer-of-Leisure Dream

Richard Castle has a lot to answer for.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the TV show Castle.

But do you ever see that guy writing books?

Movies and books are full of characters rolling in money they've earned from writing fiction. But the truth is, even successful, bestselling authors don’t make as much as the average lawyer, professor, doctor, or accountant (and they don't get benefits.)

The vast majority of writers have day jobs. Either we teach or edit or work at something entirely separate from writing. And we don't have much spare time to go solve crimes for the NYPD.

5) The “I Never Interfere with my Genius” Dream

There’s a quote sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde: "I never rewrite. Who am I to interfere with genius?"

Some writers believe talent is all they need, so they never subject their tender feelings to the editor's red pencil.

But writing is like any other skill: you have to learn the rules and practice, practice, practice.

No matter how great your natural golf swing, you have to learn the rules of the game, or you won’t win any tournaments. Writing's the same.

But I often meet writers who refuse to edit or learn about POV, story arc, or pacing. Then they're devastated by rejections or dismal sales and scathing reviews.

Here's the thing: real genius is learning to rewrite well.


What are your writing goals? Can you clear your brain of the misty fantasies and figure out what you really want—and then map out a step-by-step path to reach it? Have you been snagged by any of these dreams the way I was?


Anne R. Allen is the author of seven comic mysteries and co-author of the bestselling How to be a Writer in the E-Age: a Self-Help Guide, written with Catherine Ryan Hyde. She blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog…with Ruth Harris,, which Writer's Digest named to their Best 101 Websites for Writers in 2013. She has an article coming out in the November issue of Writer's Digest on the renaissance of the short story.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks, Anne!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

My dream was to see my name on a book and once I started on this journey, it was to inspire others.

Reality is a big difference between the two. I've always heard that a goal is a dream with a deadline.

Christine Rains said...

Fantastic post. I was lost to my dreams when I started out too. I was going to be the next Stephen King. Now my goals are broken down into much smaller and doable ones.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure my mom imagined going through the phone when I told her I was quitting my job and that I'd finish my novel to make money. HA!

4 years later, still revising. Fortunately, I had enough sense back then to know to get a job.

Unknown said...

Awesome post! I must admit... I fall to my dreams sometimes as I drag my feet into the day job every week and wish I could be home writing all day instead. But in reality, most of us need fulltime income to support our dreams, even if they take forever to make a reality. I have two brands, adult blogging and a children's book business. So far, I'm making my dream come true of being an author who stands in front of hundreds of children during assemblies and library time. If I can inspire even just one child during each one of my visits, then part of the dream has come true... the author part.
Becoming rich is never a goal. I write to the best of my ability and see how far it will take me. I guess that is all we can do, eh?
I'm off to check out your Shelfie!

Anne R. Allen said...

Alex--Thanks for inviting me!

Diane--Congrats on fulfilling that goal. The "goal with a deadline" can work, but sometimes leads to despair. I planned to be published by a Big 5 house by some birthday or other and all it meant was I had a miserable birthday.

Christine--It's those baby steps that help make the journey fun instead of an unclimbable mountain.

Debra--I quit several jobs along the way hoping to make it "big" as a writer within months. I probably needed to quit those particular jobs, but I always had to find another one, even after I was published.

Gina--Inspiring others is a doable goal. How wonderful that you can speak to children and inspire them. That is a real "dream come true".

Suzanne Furness said...

Never really thought about the difference between goals and dreams but you are so right, they are very different things! Thanks for an interesting post.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Anne - what a great sensible down to earth post - goals and achievements in short achievable steps are way better than dreaming .... to where?! Cheers Hilary

Pat Hatt said...

So what? I won't become a trillionaire writing books? Damn, better quit now lol goals are much better any way, as my ocd can get them done.

Dean K Miller said...

I guess I got in later in life, and maybe 26 years of gov't work has tainted the hope of big dreams coming true. Goals, certainly. But I know my current place on the tall ladder of the writing world. It's a climb, a rung at a time.

It's fun to dream, and maybe, someday . . .

Anonymous said...

Hi, Anne. Great post. I guess my dream and goal are the same: writing the book I'm writing now. No dreams of anything after. I'm happy just to write the book and have my publisher accept it. After that, it's on to the next book, with a little promotion of the last one. Make sense?

Loved this line of yours: "Real success comes in baby steps." Yep, that's me. Wawwww! Paul

Unknown said...

I guess my dream is to fulfil my goal of begin published. The goal involves the putting in the hours, the dream involves sniffing the ink of the printed pages. Thanks Anne, I loved this.

Anne R. Allen said...

Suzanne--I think writers are fed such unrealistic stories that we don't always recognize success when we see it.

Hilary--Right! Dreams are only doable if we can see all the stepping stones in between.

Pat--It sounds funny, but I know an awful lot of aspiring writers who think that way. "I got my first story rejected by the New Yorker, so I'm going to give up writing." So sad.

Dean--There's a place for dreams, for sure. Otherwise we wouldn't start climbing the ladder. But we need to know the ladder is long.

Paul--Congrats on all your success. You've approached it in the best way possible: with gratitude and realistic goals.

Janie Junebug said...

I have goals, but I still like to dream . . . dream . . . and dream some more. Like Willy Dunne Wooters will join me in trying to become more fit and healthy, which we'll do while I watch news clips of people standing in line to buy something I wrote.


Anne R. Allen said...

Ruth--I'm with you sniffing the pages. I just got the proof of the paper version of Ghostwriters in the Sky yesterday--and even though the book has been a bestseller as an ebook, I got such a thrill from seeing it in paper. And yes, I sniffed it!

Janie--We all need those dreams. I still worry about what I'll wear when I get nominated for my Academy Award. :-) We just need those goals to keep the dream alive.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree. If someone had told me how much work this profession takes, I would have become something easier, like a rocket scientist!

Anonymous said...

Great post! Every word rings true.

Kinley Dane said...

This line, "I didn't realize writers don't need adventures. We need imaginations." is what struck me the most. This is so true and something important to remember when I'm bemoaning that I need a trip to get my creative juices flowing!

Fundy Blue said...

Awesome post, Anne! I've written throughout my life, but I've never had the chance to get serious about writing that book I've been carrying around in my heart until now. Life, the day job, and other goals came first. Now I'm retired and working on my manuscript at least four days a week. It's overwhelming at times (How the heck do you write a book?), but I keep tackling a bite at a time. I'll get there! Thanks for posting this!

Anne R. Allen said...

Megan--I'm with you on that! I'm sure it would be easier to run a bar featuring an all-Ayatollah drag show in the heart of Tehran...


Kinley--Yeah. Hemingway has a lot to answer for!

Fundy--It's hard getting the time to write and it's even harder getting that muse off her butt! But you can do it!

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I dreamed of leaving the day job when my career took off. I did leave the day job but only because I put in the years until I could retire.

Anne R. Allen said...

Susan--So many writers have to wait until retirement. It takes so long to start making money in this business.

SittieCates said...

I agree. It's the process of rewriting that makes a story become a special tale for its targeted readers. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Hi Anne,

This one hit home with me. Well done. I am guilty of daydreaming about my fame and fortune even though I hadn't finished writing my first novel yet. It seems so out of reach but so much fun to fantasize about. Now, reality has set in. The book is just about done and I'll be happy if I can sell five copies. ;p


Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Great post. And a great reminder. I always love hearing the story about Jim Carrey writing himself a 10 million dollar cheque, dated it, then eventually being able to cash it. Dreams and goals, I don't know anyone who doesn't have them. Thanks, Anne.

Unknown said...

I've always (and still do) dream of living as a recluse somewhere remote but breathtaking and unique like in a treehouse designed with heat and plumbing and the forest creatures as my only neighbors and nothing to do but write and read all day long.

dolorah said...

Castle had a couple episodes that he was actually writing in.

I still have the rich-and-famous dream, and here I am blogging instead of writing . . .

Michelle Wallace said...

Loved this line: real genius is learning to rewrite well!
Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

J.L. Campbell said...

This hit the nail on the head. A lot of dreaming and no action equates to a whole lot of nothing on the writing front.

J.L. Campbell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anne R. Allen said...

Sittie--Yes, we should probably say we aspire to be "great rewriters" not just writers.

Elsie--We all need that fantasy, or we'd probably never finish that first novel. Now you need to jump into the second and not worry too much about publishing or sales. I recommend not publishing until you have two books in the hopper.

Joylene--That Jim Carey story can be inspirational, but it can also be destructive. Defining success by a large unrealistic number can make you feel like a failure when you have succeeded at a lot of things.

Peggy Ann--I have that dream every time I see one of those "tiny houses" videos. I'd love to have a tiny house that didn't require a lot of maintenance in some gorgeous part of the world. But I realize I'm actually pretty close to that in my scruffy little cottage by the sea. Having quiet neighbors is mostly a matter of luck, not money, and I'm grateful for mine.

dolorah--I did see him writing in an episode recently. Still, I dont' know any writers who have that much leisure time. Keep dreaming as long as it keeps you writing.

Michelle--You're right! Great writing is great re-writing!

JL--Dreams plus goals plus action results in success. But if you skip the second two, not much is going to happen.