But I WANT to be A New York Times Bestseller

The biggest cause of misery for writers who have not succeeded (and one of the biggest causes of writers giving up in despair and quitting altogether) is this:

Most writers think they have set goals when in fact they have embraced expectations.

Goals are NOTHING like expectations. The former will get you where you want to go. The latter will break your heart.

You set goals when you:

  • decide you’re going to finish the first draft of your first novel in one year
  • determine that you’ll revise the whole thing in less than one year
  • select five appropriate publishers to whom you will submit,
  • and nail the card to the wall that says “I will keep submitting stories until I have accumulated a thousand rejection slips”

You embrace expectations when you:

  • imagine that you’ll get glowing letters from editors
  • dream that you’ll sell your first novel in a cut-throat auction between your two most cherished publishing houses for an ungodly amount of money
  • write the fantasy review of your yet-unwritten novel that uses the words “ground-breaking,” “brilliant,” and “mind-blowing genius” all in the same sentence
  • and when, lying in bed staring at the ceiling at night, you’re picking out the wardrobe for you Pulitzer acceptance speech

Most people create expectations and never bother to build the goals that could make them happen.

But even folks who are very good at goal-setting and goal-fulfilling can get tangled up in their own expectations, and mistake them for goals.

You have to be able to tell the difference.

Those things that you control are your goals. Those things that depend on ANYONE else but you are hopes, dreams, fantasies, or expectations, and it’s important that you realize that they can never become goals, no matter what you do.

If you do not control the means for creating and defining your own success, you are embracing fantasy.

“I’m going to write a book” is a goal, because you are the only person who has to do the job right to make it happen.

“I’m going to indie publish my book” is a goal, because again, you have or can get everything you need to do this, and do it entirely by yourself if need be.

“I’m going to sell a book” is an expectation. You cannot control the outcome, no matter how hard you wish it or will it or desire it.

“I’m going to submit work until I get 1000 professional rejection slips” is a goal. Mine was, I think 250. I started selling shortly after I’d passed the 100 mark, though.

YOU control that goal. You do the work, you get the reward. And yes, 100+ rejection slips is a badge of honor, because most writers who think they’re serious about publishing, but who have mistaken their expectations for goals, will never even come close before they give up and walk away.

“I’m going to submit work until I sell five stories,” is an expectation. You might hope this will happen, but you can’t MAKE an editor buy from you.

And “I’m going to become a New York Times bestselling novelist” is not just an expectation, but one that will lead you to misery and self-loathing. You can’t control this any more than you can decide you’re going to make the sky green.

What if you sell a ton of books but never hit that NYT bestseller mark? Are you a failure? No, but you will be in your own mind.

What if you succeed in hitting the NYT list, but you hate the books you did it with—while the books you love languish unlauded by the masses? Are you a failure. Hell, no.

But you will be in your own mind. You mistook an expectation for a goal, and it poisoned the joy you could have had from all the successes you could control.

Right now, sit down and look at what you’ve been calling your goals.

Dig through them, and mercilessly rip away anything that you cannot achieve on your own.

What are you left with? If it’s nothing, you need to start building goals.

If you have goals, start working toward them with more intensity, with your mind uncluttered by the chains of expectation.

Love the work.

It’s what you own, it’s what you control, and the joy you find in it is what no one can take away from you.

All the rest is fairy dust.

Write with joy,

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Holly Lisle


Tell A Writer
Holly Lisle

Novelist, writing-nerd, dissector of thought processes, writing course creator and site owner here, Holly Lisle has a cat that plays fetch and a whole lotta stuff on HollyLisle.com for both readers and writers.