On Broken Goals (and how to fix them)
Ah, it's the #Pitchwars showcase season. A time where ~115 promising writers put their words on the internet for all the world to judge. Or so it feels. If it’s anything like the last few years, about 35 Pitch Wars mentees will receive offers of representation from agents within a few weeks of the showcase, while the other 80+ will be frozen in time, refreshing their inboxes. Over the next year, another ~20 mentees or so will eventually receive offers of representation, while the other ~60 will continue to refresh, watching their dreams slip away.
Or so it feels.
As a two-time Pitch Wars alum, I’ve been in both camps. Back in 2018 (which showcased three years ago, in February 2019), I set a goal of receiving at least 10 agent requests during the showcase. I was aiming for double digits, though deep down, I expected much more than that. Like the other mentees, I’d spent weeks agonizing over every word in that pitch and sample, and months learning and revising, then revising some more. My manuscript was the shit. All I needed was someone to read it, and I’d surely be in the half of Pitch Wars mentees who typically receive offers of representation within one year of the showcase. And then editors would fight over it, and the film deal would be MIND BLOWING, because this was really like YA Star Wars with a lotta romance, and who wouldn’t want that?
You see, I made a BIG mistake, one that it took me nearly a year’s worth of tissues and sad emo songs and therapy to fully comprehend.
I set a broken goal—broken, not because there was no chance of it happening, but because I had no control over its achievement. And then I pinned all of my happiness and worth as a writer upon that broken goal.
Agent requests depend on agents’ idiosyncratic likes/dislikes, market trends, sales connections, other books they represent, moods, zodiac signs, opinions on mayonnaise, bones/no bones, and so forth. While agent requests do take your skill as a writer into consideration, it's far from the only factor. Agent requests, therefore, are NOT a reliable measure for Pitch Wars success.
The truth of this stretches far beyond Pitch Wars.
If you can’t control whether or not you reach your writing goal, it is a broken goal. And it will suck the happiness out of you and your writing. It will rob you of all the reasons you started writing in the first place.
With this in mind, your worth as a writer isn’t measured by:
Getting into a mentoring program
How many full requests you receive
Having an agent
Having a book deal
Small press vs Big 4
Who blurbs your book
Week 1 sales
“Best of” lists
The NY Time’s “curated” bestseller list
Book box selections
Film & TV deals
Making more money than Terfs Who Shall Not Be Named
Now, you may be reading this thinking, But I want all of these things. As you damn should—you deserve ALL THE THINGS. I want all of these things to happen for me, too, and the ones that have already happened feel pretty damn amazing. Think of these as dreams, not goals. We want them with all of our hearts, and we’d be lying if we pretended otherwise. These external validations could change our lives.
As writers, we should dream. But—
We should NOT measure our worth by WHEN we reach our dreams.
During the ’18 showcase, as my few requests trickled in, I began to fall apart. In the weeks and months afterward, I hit my writer rock bottom, the specifics of which I won’t bore you with here. So many of my friends had their dreams come true while I could hardly get myself to open my email without feeling like a failure. A fraud. I was so, so frustrated with the lackluster response to my manuscript. It won an award, which was even more frustrating, because not a single agent cared that it won an award. As it sunk deeper into its pile of rejections, I was insecure and completely miserable.
But many of my agented and published friends were miserable and insecure, too.
The thrill of getting that dream email, that dream phone call, that dream book deal—if we’re not careful, it’s short-lived, because the goal posts of publishing jump further away. You got a book deal? Great, but so-and-so got a six-figure book deal. You got a six-figure book deal? Wonderful, but your imprint just offered so-and-so lead title. You’ve got it all? Well, your book didn’t receive this award, but these OTHER books did. This reviewer hates it. This film producer thinks it’s trash. This book box chose the OTHER one, not yours. Your last book did better. And these are only the privileged disappointments accessible to me as a white cis person. The layers of awful are unfathomably worse when we add in racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, and other forms of hate and prejudice.
I fell in love with writing years before I’d ever even heard of Pitch Wars, and it’s too precious to me to let it be ruined by publishing. More than that, writing is too damn time-consuming to make us miserable. So, like the psychologist I am, I turned to the research. On happiness, on the pursuit of dreams, on finding meaning and purpose in what we do when we're shooting for the stars. That’s when I realized I needed to measure my success by something only I can control. Not agents. Not the publishing gods. Me.
So how SHOULD we set goals, you ask?
By making them within our control.
By making the measure of success something you and only you can decide.
By making the PURSUIT of this goal something that excites you.
With this in mind, my goal is:
I want to be as talented as my favorite author, Laini Fucking Taylor (whom I lovingly call LFT).
Notice it’s not, I want to be a #1 NYT bestseller like LFT, or I want to sell as many copies as LFT because those things aren’t within my control. My goal is about my skill as a writer, which I can control.
How will I reach my goal? By doing what I love, which is studying craft. Poring over prose. Dissecting books that punch me in the heart and figuring out how the authors did it. Reading every craft book I can, then trying to apply that magic to my own work. Driving my partner mad by pausing movies and shows to break down the character arcs so I can learn from them. THIS is my journey as a writer, and I love it. Again, it's steeped in privilege--some battles, we have no choice but to fight, but I hope you don't measure your worth by your success in these battles.
How will I know when I’ve gotten there? When I read my words and get the same sort of chills that I get from LFT’s words, both at the line level and the brilliant, thoughtful plots. I get to decide when I hit this goal, not anyone else. And then I’ll set a new one.
You see how much fun pursuing this goal is going to be? I get to do what I love—read and write and analyze the shit out of everything. Your mileage may vary, which is why we each need to identify goals that work for us. Focusing on craft may be a delight for me but a tedious assignment for another writer.
My goal in applying to Pitch Wars again was to become a better writer; specifically, I needed to figure out how to stop over-writing, lower my word count, and smooth out my prose, because I wasn’t able to fix those things out on my own. When I was in Pitch Wars for the second time, in 2020 (which showcased last year, in February 2021), I told my mentor not to tell me my showcase requests until the first (and busiest) day was over. I’d already accomplished my goals, courtesy of my brilliant mentor. So on showcase day, I did yoga, went for a long walk, and celebrated the end of the tight deadlines and revising inherent in Pitch Wars. Don’t get me wrong, I was still buzzing with anxiety all day. But when I got good news, it was the icing on the cake—a wonderful dream, but one that I know wasn’t simply based on my skill level, but on luck, timing, market trends, mercury’s retrograde, what agents ate for lunch, and the moon phase. I loved it, but it didn’t define me as a writer.
I hope you’ve read this and realized that YOU are in the driver’s seat of your own journey, my friend. You set the destination. You map out the course. You choose the playlist. And you decide when you’ve arrived.
If you find yourself being sucked dry by the many joy thieves of publishing, and you can’t figure out how to get yourself unstuck, my DMs are open (@Lsmittywrites on IG, Twitter, and everywhere). And if you’re curious about the escapist YA fantasy I penned while falling back in love with writing, you can add it on GoodReads here.
Good luck, fellow writers. Watch out for those joy thieves. No matter what comes next in your journey, I’m rooting for you.