Not So SMART Goals

SMART Goals: The holy grail of getting things done. Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Timely goals. It’s a corporate mantra, spoken at every HR review. We want to set goals which can be achieved – vague language is for mission statements.

For writing, a SMART goal sounds like this:

  • Complete second draft of three (3), 5000-word short stories by November 28, 2019
  • Submit three (3) short stories to top markets by December 31, 2019
  • Finish planning revision structure for novel by January 31, 2020

Each is very specific and measurable. They are achievable and realistic (notice it says nothing about getting any of the works published) and it does have a timely deadline. That’s great. But it’s also about the mechanics of the process. Deadlines. What to get done when. None of it touches on the why.

This is where writing deviates from other businesses in quite a few ways. One of my favorite YouTube channels features a carpenter who demonstrates different Chinese, Japanese, and Western style joinery. You can see the how behind it all right there – you watch him measure and mark the wood, scoring and penciling in every cut. And then he picks out specific tools to build the joints – chisels, drills, planes so sharp they create long wispy films of shaved wood when run down the length of a plank.

I’ve never seen him address why he does it – why does he take so much time and effort to do what some would do with machine tools and CAD programs? I can only imagine, but I think it would lie between “I do this because I enjoy creating something from a simple blank of wood” or “I enjoy the process, the use of the plane and saw to build something” or “I get a great deal of satisfaction from a job well done.”

Right now, I’m having trouble finding reconnecting with what gave me joy in writing before now. Once upon a time, I’d sit behind a word processor and just type away, picturing the story, following the characters through and imagining how people would react while reading the tale. My goals were big hairy ambitions:

  • “I want my reader to feel something after reading my story.”
  • “I want folks who read my stories to think about creating their own, in a positive way! Fanfic or art or deciding they want to write.”
  • “I want my readers to want to read more stories with the characters.”

Those aren’t SMART goals. They’re impossible goals. At no point can I assure some invisible authority that I’ve made an emotional impact on a reader or create milestones to I can meet while getting someone to make fan art. I have to follow another path. A different way of seeing my work.

I have to stop seeing this a well-planned hike, where you know the end point and know the exact paths to get there. There are no GPS markers, or well-maintained paths with signs saying, “Next bathroom, 20 yards.”

This is a rough trek. A wander. This is navigation by trail signs and the sun alone. You walk in the general direction of your destination, work on becoming a better hiker, glean what you can from the folks along the way (and learn when to ignore the ‘ya kant get dere from here’ guys’). All goals you can set are to try and make you a better hiker, a better navigator, and a better trail reader.

You can still fail. You cannot reach the end of your trip. You can be amazing as a hiker, great as a navigator, and yet still run into an obstacle you can’t cross. You can burn out, too, getting sick of the sweat and bugs and people constantly telling you how awful the road is up ahead. Oh, and that town you wanted to visit? Yeah, filled with the worst kind of people.

What do you do, then? When SMART goals don’t get you where you want to be, and the end goal seems so distant, you’re wondering why you’re hiking?

You stop, and take a breath. You try to enjoy just being in the moment. You reconnect with what got you hiking in the first place.

And that’s what I need to do. I need to sit down, close my eyes, and listen to the wind in the trees. Because I’m having a hard time walking any further, and I’m feeling lost.

One Step from The Horror

Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” One of my media professors used to talk about this as dramatic distance. The closer you are to an event, emotionally, the impact of an event changes. Or, put it another way, it’s funny when a moose in heat humps someone else’s car to pieces. But when it happens to you? That’s a $30,000 car that’s been totaled – and who’s betting their insurance covers paint damage from moose semen?

I think that distance is what will help me crack horror writing. Comedy and horror are brothers, after all. They know the value of timing, of setup, and making sure you have just enough skin in the game to make you want to get the punchline.

This all started when I was listening to one of the best weird/horror authors out there, Gemma Files, on the “This is Horror” podcast.

Two things hit me. The first was a sponsorship ad for a book where a deep-voiced narrator described walking on the beach, alone, as darkness sets and seeing a woman in the surf. But when she turns around, she has razor sharp claws and shark teeth and runs at you, looking to devour you! I’ll let you hear it for yourself in the episode.

The second was a weird story idea Gemma threw out there of a man who sticks his hand under his pillow and finds a mouth there, in his bed, in the mattress.

Both cases had me thinking that most of the folks I write about would have had non-standard reactions to both scenarios. The guy on the beach, confronted by the shark mermaid? If he’s alone, wandering at night, he’s probably depressed. Most likely thinking about returning to a soul-crushing corporate job, thinking about his ruined dreams, when he sees something out of myth charging him. His first thought, and likely last, would be how beautiful it was, and how he wouldn’t have to deal with Toby demanding an update on his QBR numbers the next Tuesday…

Or, with the mouth, after yanking the pillows away, our protagonist would stare at the lips and teeth sprouting from the bed and she’d say, “Can you talk? Are there ears anywhere?” After the shock, there would be communications attempt. If it spoke weird languages, she’d try to figure it out so she could speak its language and figure out how it got merged with her mattress, and how to get it home.

That’s not how normal people react. That’s not how horror protagonists react. And part of the horror is the fact it’s a normal person in abnormal situations.

So, I have to step away. My protagonist isn’t the guy smiling as a shark woman rakes her teeth across his naked skin, devouring him. It’s the beach patrol officer, reassigned there after putting seven bullets into a pregnant black lady in her own home, and still believes it was the right thing to do. And the only way to make his beach safe is to take the same attitude to those things coming out of the water.

My protagonist isn’t the lady who finds the mouth, it’s the husband, horrified at the foul thing spouting unwholesome words, seducing his wife to Satan’s bedside. He’d need to get a crucifix, of course, and sharpen it into a knife to cut out it’s foul tongue before his wife went too far astray. The local Baptist pastor is right, after all.

Will be trying this out and seeing how it goes. Wish me luck.