Setting Realistic Goals

I started trying to write my first novel seven years ago. I was fresh out of college with a Bachelor of Science degree in Dietetics. I had moved to Illinois and was working at a long-term acute care facility. I was dating someone (now husband) and we got to talking about it. He was trying his hand at a story, and I mentioned that I’d always wanted to be an author, and his response was, essentially, why not? I don’t remember the exact conversation, but he encouraged me to give it a shot if I truly wanted to do it.

So, I started a novel. I didn’t make it very far. I didn’t plan anything out, just had a basic idea, and I soon hit a wall. I thought a little about getting published, but at the time it caused me significant stress and panic. It was too big. If I was going to start this journey, I needed to think smaller.

Going smaller goes against conventional wisdom, I know. In a world of “reach for the stars” and “go big or go home”, we’re encouraged to set goals as big as we can imagine. Maybe that’s okay for some people. It wasn’t okay for me.

I decided to set a stepping-stone goal, something realistic for me. I wanted to write a novel. That’s it. No plans to publish, absolutely no thought to the future.  I didn’t allow myself to consider anything more. I wanted to write a novel to prove to myself that I could do it. If I did, then I’d consider taking the next step.

I had a few false starts. The first one I already mentioned. I gave up on that story quickly and started a new one. I tanked the new one too. I didn’t plan well for either of those stories. I had very few characters, a limited plot, and no idea how to expand them into a full-length book. They just needed…more.

I started my third story, and Origins was born. It wasn’t easy. I was working full-time, and finding the time to write was tough. I also struggled with working from a computer. I still don’t like writing into a Word document, and I use Scrivener instead (which I love, but that’s a topic for a different day). The entirety of Origins was written by hand in a series of notebooks, then transcribed into Word. It took a long time. I got discouraged often, and would set the whole project aside for months at a time.

When I finally finished, the whole thing had taken me about 3 years to complete. That’s a major reason I had to set it aside and couldn’t bear to work on it further (more about that in this post, Letting Go).

But, I achieved my goal. I wrote a novel. No matter how hard it had been, or how many mistakes I made getting there, or how often I’d given up completely, or how much the finished product might suck, I still did it. That’s an achievement I will always be proud of, finishing that first novel.

Now, I need a new stepping-stone goal. I’ve proven that can I do it, now I just need to do it over and over and over again. I’ve started setting myself deadlines, with definite plans and timetables for the projects I’m working on. I think my next goal will be: secure an agent or self-publish. I’m not really in charge of that one. I’d love to have my work represented, but if it’s not, I’m more than willing to follow a self-publishing route.

I accomplished the little goal. Now I can move forward toward the bigger, scarier goal of getting myself published. It’s still scary, and I still stress out about it, but it doesn’t seem so impossible anymore.

As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. I know the comments section doesn’t appear on the homepage (I’m working to fix it, I just don’t know how yet), but comments can still be made by clicking on the title of the post. Also, I’ve set up an option to subscribe if you’d like to receive notification of new posts.

5 Replies to “Setting Realistic Goals”

  1. Me, too. Me, too. Me, too.
    Recently I went to an AA meeting. Not because I am an alcoholic (though I had been at one point, but was delivered from it), but to support her. One guy there spoke in the circle of people who were all welcome to speak. He made the point that he felt most comfortable at AA because it seemed to be the only place where he could say, “Me, too.”
    So now, with you, me, too.

  2. Hi, Jessica. Feel free to delete this if it’s too public. I notice that most of your sentences are structured Subject-Verb-Predicate, at least in your post above. That sets up a hypnotic rhythm for many readers. If you look at the writing style of most professionals, they vary the sentence structure more, which keeps readers on their toes. I try to shoot for variation at least every third or fourth sentence. It becomes second nature after a while. (Just one more of the dozens of techniques we have to learn before arriving at the place where we’re competitive. I know, I know, sometimes it seems insurmountable. But if you’re a learner, you can do it.)

    1. I’ve never heard that before. Honestly, I don’t know how to fix it, but I’ll do some research and see if I can’t figure it out. Thanks for the tip.

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Future Competition

My niece is writing a book. You know how everyone thinks their kids are the best? Well, I don’t have any kids, but my nieces and nephews rock. Claire just turned 7, and she’s one smart cookie. Today I thought I’d share her book with you:

Not bad, huh?

As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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Query Letter Rejections

As previously mentioned here, my first rejection came just an hour after the agent received my email. I got one each day for the next several days, then they kind of tapered off. Those first rejections came in the form of form letters, which leaves me not knowing if they even read my submitted writing sample. Some later agents were kind enough to write me an email themselves. Here are some of the emails I got:

Dear Author:

 Thanks so much for letting us take a look at your materials and please forgive us for responding with a form letter.  The volume of submissions we receive, however, makes it impossible to correspond with everyone personally.

Unfortunately, the project you describe does not suit our list at this time.  We wish you the best of luck in finding an agent and publisher for your work and we thank you, once again, for letting us consider your materials.



Thank you very much for your query, which we have read with interest. Unfortunately, the project does not seem right for this agency, and we are sorry that we cannot offer to serve as your literary agent.

We also apologize for the form rejection.  The sheer number of queries we receive prevents personalization in order for us to respond in a timely fashion. 

We wish you all the best in finding more suitable representation, encourage you to query widely, and thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your work.



Dear Jessica,
Thank you for thinking of me for your work; unfortunately, it’s just not quite right for me.  As I’m sure you know, whether or not to take on a client is a very personal decision, and has as much to do with an agent’s personal preferences as it does an author’s writing abilities.
I wish you lots of success in your writing career.
All the best,
Dear Jessica,
Thanks so much for sending along the sample pages of Origins.  I’m sorry to say, though, that I just wasn’t as completely drawn in by the material as much as I had hoped.  What with my reservations, I’d better bow out. 
Thanks so much for contacting me, though!  I really appreciate it, and wish you the best of luck.  

Reasons An Agent Might Reject A Query

It isn’t personal. But that doesn’t stop it from feeling personal. It still hurts, trust me.

  • Maybe your genre doesn’t fit with what they’re accepting right now.
  • Maybe they signed clients recently with stories similar to yours, and just don’t have room for you.
  • Maybe your letter didn’t promote your book very well, so they didn’t even read it.
  • Maybe they liked your story well enough, but they don’t think it’ll sell to a publisher.
  • Maybe your story is okay, but it didn’t draw them in well enough.

I read a statistic that said less than 1% of authors seeking representation get signed. 1%! Some agents receive hundreds of submissions a day, and they are tasked with reading through each of them and picking out the best. It’s a demanding job, and if your work doesn’t catch their eye just so, then they’ll move on to someone else.

So, what can you do with those rejections start pouring in? Me, I took it personally. I got depressed. I moped. I cried. I wondered if it was worth it to keep trying. I convinced myself that I would never amount to anything.

Then I got up. I made concrete decisions about what I needed to do to move forward. I put that project away. I got back to work on my current project. I started this blog. I set new goals and new deadlines. I reached out to family and friends for encouragement.

Rejections feel like the end of the world. They’re not. Everyone tells you that, but you don’t understand it until you go through it. Mope if you need to. Cry if you need to. Then pick yourself up and keep moving forward.

Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments section. I’d love to hear from you.



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Query Letter Review

I labored over this query letter. I researched (pretty sure I’m the queen of research), read examples, read so many articles titled “How to Write a Query Letter”, and then I pounded it out. I knew it wasn’t terrific, but I considered it decent enough. After all, I only needed to get one agent’s attention, right? This is what I ended up with (names and addresses removed, just pretend it’s done in official business-letter style):

Dear Agent,

I am seeking representation for my debut novel Origins, an urban fantasy with a focus on werewolves. I found your name on and learned through your website that you were seeking new clients. With your interest in sci-fi/fantasy authors, I believe my novel would be a good fit.

Origins is just over 90,000 words and is intended to serve as a jumping off point for a further series. It begins with 3 college students in Chicago who are abducted by a team of werewolves and transported to a secret compound in the jungles of Peru. There, they are turned into werewolves themselves. Jesse and Dylan are made to fight other werewolves in the arena for sport, while Kate is used as an experiment on how the transition affects her unborn baby.

Told from the perspective of multiple characters, each chapter focuses on what one character is experiencing at that point in the story. In addition to the three initial protagonists, additional characters are granted chapters as they become relevant. On the surface, Origins is about survival and escape, but it also explores the nature of entrapment, the role of family, and what it means to be a monster.

As already mentioned, this is my first completed novel. I have recently completed James Patterson’s Masterclass and was chosen as a semi-finalist in his 2017 co-author competition.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.


Jessica Goeken

So, what went wrong? I have some ideas, and some of these are parts where I disregarded recommendations because I didn’t think the letter made as much sense without them.

Opening Paragraph

I actually think this is pretty solid. It’s fairly generic, but it states my purpose, my connection to the agent, and why I think my novel would be a good fit for them. It’s important to give them the name and genre of your novel here.

Paragraph 2

It’s important to quickly list your word count, too, so I did that right (yay!). But then I said that I planned for this book to start a series. Which is true, but not a good idea to tell them. I’m not trying to sell them a series, I’m trying to sell them a single book. That’s information better kept to myself until things progress further.

I also don’t think I did a good job introducing my novel. It sounds kind of boring, but I couldn’t come up with anything better to say. How do you condense something so big into a couple of sentences that accurately convey what your book is about?

Paragraph 3

I talked about themes. I couldn’t think of anything content-wise to follow Paragraph 2, so I tried to generalize what I wanted them to understand about the story as a whole. That’s another recommendation I skipped. Don’t tell them what themes are in your book. If you’ve done your job right, they’ll be able to tell. A better thing to focus on is what conflict your protagonist is facing, what decisions they have to make, and what hurdles stand in their way.

Paragraph 4

Writing credentials. I don’t have any. Not any that count, at least. I’m sure they don’t care that I had poems published in the Fall Foliage magazine in the fifth grade. I don’t know if they care about the co-author competition, but it’s all I have, so I put it in there.


Nailed this one. Polite, to the point. This is not where you beg the agent to read your book, or insist that it’s the best thing they’ll read this year. Obviously you think it’s worth something if you’re sending it to them, so don’t lay on the praise. Let your writing speak for itself.

So, those are the mistakes I’m pretty sure I made. I’ll never truly know, because none of the agents told me what made them reject my novel, but I think I have it figured out. This part, at least. And these lessons will help me to make my next letter better than this one.

Stay tuned. I think next time I’ll share some of the responses I got to my query.

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