From Good to Great: Starting With “Why”

I’ve been working on getting better at building good habits and cultivating greater discipline. It’s been far too easy to fall into lazy habits recently. While my doctor did up some meds, and that will surely help me stay on task, I’ve realized that my lack of purposeful habit has a lot to do with one simple issue.

In book after book, article after article, they say good discipline and good habits rely on having a clear, passionate goal that you’re striving toward. For most of my life, that goal was to publish a book. Then to publish a series. Then to make a living writing. And while I can’t quit my day job because I need health insurance, if I wanted to live bare bones and never travel, I could probably survive on my writing money (mainly because of Patreon). So when I gaze into the abyss of the future, I find myself casting about for goals that will inspire me to action.

While I look a lot like my mother, as I get older I notice that I have a lot of my dad’s traits. My dad’s goal in life was to have a family, to be a good dad, and to be able to support them. Once he achieved that and all of his kids were employed and (mostly) out of the house, he confessed to not feeling very motivated any more. He achieved everything he wanted out of life.

Perhaps my goals were too modest. After all, I’ve noted before that I not only want to make a living writing, but to change the world and people’s perceptions of it. I want to have a place in shaping what comes next. But a goal like that is a bit wishy washy, like saying you want to win a bunch of awards or sell a million copies. A lot of achieving those kinds of goals are out of your control.

The goals I succeed at are the ones where I have the most control. I wanted to be a better person, less selfish. I wanted to write a lot of books. I wanted to make a living writing. As I’ve gotten older, things I thought were super important to me became less so.

While I would love to go back to taking boxing classes, and learn how to fly a plane, I don’t find myself overcome by a passionate drive to do so.

As noted, this may simply be a brain chemistry issue. Maybe I’m just depressed? My anxiety is pretty much under control now, which is fabulous. I’m clunking away at various writing projects – slowly, because this is fucking 2017 – but I’m getting in words every day, and that’s something. That said, my inability to be disciplined in my fiction writing has been wearing on me. It’s this part of my life I want to focus on, because I’ve become incredibly undisciplined about it. Writing happens when it happens.

This is the thing with goals. You have to set up a plan to reach them. If I want to produce more work, better quality work, then I need to have a better writing regime. And I need to understand my “Why.” Why do I want to write more? Why do I want to be the best writer? Why do I want to excel? “Just because” or “why not?” don’t seem to be the sorts of answers that generate a lot of momentum on my part.

I’m at that middle-aged crossroads in life where you have had your adventures, slain your dragons, and achieved a measure of small-town success, and now you look out at your dogs running around in your yard and you go, “This is great, but I’m going to try and be around at least another 30 years or so and… what am I passionate about, now?”

It’s easy to stay motivated when you’re crushing yourself against a system. I loved being a young, scrappy writer in my 20’s, speaking truth to “the establishment,” and coming up through the slings and arrows of SFF publishing to claim my space within it. But what happens when you become the establishment? Do you just head off to do the movie deals, to expand your work to a new audience? Do you spend your time mentoring new writers? Do you just blurb a lot of books?

Accepting that I was an established author has been a hard road, for me. There are young people coming into SFF now who don’t know of an SFF without me in it. I’ve been publishing novels for seven years, which feels like a blink compared to my hard road to get here, but plenty of readers have come of age during those seven years, and for some that’s half or a third or a quarter of their lives. I know I have a long way to go, still. A huge career ahead. But I need to find my passion again for why I’m doing this. I have to find the why, or the road just stops here.

And, you know, I realize this sounds like, “Wah, wah, I got everything I wanted!” but I’ve seen how many people get stuck at “good” on the way to great. And I don’t want to just be good. I want to be great. To get to great requires continuous learning, interrogation of what you want, and leveling up again and again. So while I may not have all the steps mapped out to get me to “great” yet… at least that seems to be the place I want to reach. I don’t want to stop at good. I’ve gotten to good.

There are fewer resources for you, to get from good to great. Everyone puts out work and advice for newer writers, but less for old pros. It’s assumed you’ve gotten to the mountain; and of course from a marketing perspective, there are also simply fewer people who get to this place. That means a smaller audience for all that writing advice.

This, then, is my new journey: the one from good to great. The acknowledgement that I am good at what I do, but that there’s a level I need to get to that requires this better discipline, these better habits. Going from good to great takes more time, and the wins are far smaller, almost imperceptible. It’s taken me years to begin to figure out structure, and I still fall into bad habits the vast majority of the time while trying to build new works.

I never understood the whole “life is a journey, not a destination” thing until now, when I realize that you can’t always give yourself a single mountain to climb. For some, that mountain is the right height. For others, they need more mountains, higher mountains, a whole mountain range. They need to be at base camp on another climb, right when death claims them. To stop is to lose momentum. To stop, for me, means to lose my will to be great.

Instead, we go up. We go onward.

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