Thirty Years Gone By

"Challenger flight 51-l crew" by NASA - NASA Human Space Flight Gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Challenger_flight_51-l_crew.jpg#/media/File:Challenger_flight_51-l_crew.jpg
“Challenger flight 51-l crew” by NASA – NASA Human Space Flight Gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Challenger_flight_51-l_crew.jpg#/media/File:Challenger_flight_51-l_crew.jpg

Wow. 30 years. I was 12.

One of Challenger’s SRBs burned a hole in the EFT and it exploded. This forced the space shuttle to disintegrate under sheer winds from the massive speed it had obtained during its 73 seconds of flight. All seven crew on board were killed that day.

Those are the cold facts.

The truth is deeper.

When I heard about the disaster, I was walking across the field between the tennis courts and the school building at my junior high. I didn’t believe it. Not for an instant. The space shuttles were, in my mind, infallible. Manned space travel had become routine. Normal. The usual thing. Nothing could go wrong. Ever. The space shuttles went up under a mighty plume of smoke and fire and returned to early on graceful wings to be refurbished and go up again.

I picked up a wood roofing tile that had blown from a nearby house and landed in the field. Tossing in the air, I said, “There goes a heat shield!” I still feel intensely guilty over this callous, unknowing act. Had I known the truth of the matter, no way a joke would have entered my mind, let alone escape my lips.

Over the course of the next two years, I got into many, many fights while defending the honor and memory of those seven brave astronauts. Every time I heard a joke about Challenger, I came out fists swinging. I didn’t even give the offender a chance to apologize or retract the note. Eventually, the jokes stopped. Partially because no one wanted to suffer my wrath and partially because they’d lost their appeal, even to the most crude teenage boy.

I battled my way through the inane jokes in part to atone for my own poor jest. Most of it came from the fact that I wanted to be an astronaut. Not in the childish sense of wanting to grow up to be a “cowboy jet fighter pilot” or some dreamy aspiration such as that. I’d done my research. I found out what it takes to get on a Space Shuttle. I set a goal and put myself on that path.

I took all of the advanced math and science and engineering classes I could get my hands on. I studied on my own. I had a plan that I’d made when I was somewhere in the neighborhood of eight years old. I wanted to fly on a shuttle. Badly. Tasting the desire doesn’t come close to describing it. I felt it in my very core, in the depths of my soul.

When the Challenger disaster happened, my soul stopped working.

I remember getting to my speech and drama class on that day, which was held in the auditorium, so we could use the stage. The teacher had managed to get her hands on the last TV cart available in the school and set it up on the stage. She told us we could either watch the news during class or sit in the back of the auditorium and practice our monologues. By this time, I’d learned the truth of the news.

I sat and watched as the video of the explosion and destruction played on loop. Loop. Loop. Over and over. More looping.

I cried each time because I felt my soul’s desire die a little more each time.

I still cry when I see a still or a video of the Challenger launch. Just the word “Challenger” makes my heart skip a beat each time I see it or hear it.

When I got home that afternoon from school, I found my “become an astronaut plan” and read it over and over. I ended up burning the tear-stained paper later that night. I wish I’d kept it. There were some great ideas on there. Things like:

  • Do your best
  • Get high grades
  • Space Camp
  • Apply for Air Force Academy
    • (I had the application in hand already and it was filled out.)
  • Graduate with honors
  • Become a pilot
  • Excel at flying
  • Enter astronaut training
  • Fly Space Shuttle

There were some other steps in there as well, but this is what I’m putting together from memory. I had spent hours in the library (school and public) researching what it took to get to where I wanted to go.

The day Challenger vanished into that bright ball of smoke and fire, my dreams died.

The next year in school, we had to do a seven page research paper. I chose the Challenger disaster because the congressional report had just been released, it was still in the news, and I had ample resources to pick from. I also wanted to know what had killed my dream, what had killed those astronauts, and what had destroyed the Space Shuttle.

We had six weeks to produce a research paper. I asked for a one-week extension because I wasn’t done with my references pages, and I needed that week to get it right. The teacher gladly granted me the week because she knew how hard I’d worked on the paper. She and the librarian had worked together to get me a copy of the congressional report. (Keep in mind, kids, this is before the Internet.) I still love both of those ladies for their efforts on my behalf. I’m not sure how many times I read that report. I wanted to keep it, but it apparently was an expensive thing to obtain back in the day. I returned it to the library (very late, but no fees) very much more worn than when I received it.

Before the end of my one-week extension, I turned in a twenty-eight page paper, and another six pages of references. The teacher asked me if she could enter the work into some essay contest. I was okay with the idea. I honestly didn’t pay much attention. It turned out to be a national thing for some presidential essay competition. I ended up ranking fairly high with my paper, but didn’t win. I remember getting a letter from the Secretary of Education over it. I don’t recall what happened to that letter.

The competition wasn’t important to me. Compiling, assembling, building, and discovering the facts was what I cared about. When I learned that the failure, while a technical one, was more to do with politics and funding and human arrogance, I lost faith in NASA’s administration. I still believed the engineers, astronauts, and scientists there to be the brightest and best in the world. However, I learned they were hampered by the bureaucrats running the show.

Not much has changed.

I found new goals and new aspirations to reach for. I’ve achieved them. I’m content. I’m happy.

However, the eight-year-old in me still looks up at the stars at night and wonders, “What if?”

Godspeed, Challenger and crew.

In loving memory of:

  • Francis R. Scobee, Commander
  • Michael J. Smith, Pilot
  • Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist
  • Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
  • Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist
  • Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist
  • Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist

SMART Goals

When I was a manager at a past Day Job, we had to take a 2.3 million hours worth of classes on “how to manage” and related topics. 99.99999% of the classes were absolutely worthless to me in my daily life, the Day Job, every job I’ve had since, and probably everything I ever will do until the heat death of the universe.

One of the exceptions was a class on developing SMART goals. They actually used an in-house, slightly-modified system, but it was based on SMART. I prefer the unadulterated version because the extras they added on were, well, superfluous, silly, and cumbersome.

SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

So, let’s break this down a bit. Sure, you can read the Wikipedia article I linked to, but here’s my take on things as it pertains to writing:

Specific

This portion means the statement of the goal (which is usually expressed as a single sentence) is clear, concise, and holds no ambiguity on what the target of the goal is.

Bad: I will increase my word count.

Good: I will increase my word count by 10%. (See next point.)

If you’re don’t see a number or count included in the statement of the goal, then you’re probably not being specific enough.

Measurable

While the specific portion of a goal (e.g.: word count) states what is being measured, this portion states how much measurement constitutes a success. In the above “better” example, the 10% increase mentioned could be good, or it could be completely bogus. If you have a baseline of how much you wrote last year, then a 10% increase would be easy to calculate. This would make the goal measurable. However, it’s two numbers to reference instead of just one. My recommendation is to find your word count for the previous year, add 10% to it, and put that number into the goal.

Good: I will increase my word count by 10%.

Better: I will write 110,000 words.

This, of course, assumes a writing effort that produced 100,000 words last year. Now you just have one place to look for your goal and you can easily figure out how far away from the goal you are.

Achievable

This portion means the goal has to be achievable with a decent amount of effort. Don’t set “low ball” goals. They won’t make you feel good about yourself. You need “stretch goals” which make you put in extra effort and improve over time. If your goal is, “I will write 10,000 words this year,” and your name is Chuck Wendig, then you’ve just set a low ball goal that will do you no good. You want an achievement. You want to push yourself.

The flip-side of the coin is this: Don’t set a goal that can’t be reached. You will destroy your self confidence and set yourself back on the mental/emotional scale. If your goal is, “I will write 1,000,000 words this year,” I don’t care who you are. I’d be highly doubtful you could hit it. That’s 2,740 words a day. Every. Single Day. Possible? Yes. Probably? No. Having said that, if you can nail a million decent words into manuscripts in a year, I’ll gladly toast a drink to you!

Relevant

Make things relevant to what you’re trying to accomplish. If you need to set a writing goal, don’t make the goal about running a marathon (which is a perfectly fine goal, but has nothing to do with writing [unless it’s research]). If you need to flex and grow those short story muscles, avoid goals for your novel. Set some goals for short (or even flash!) stories and see what comes of it.

Time-Bound

This is probably the most important piece. Once you know what you’re trying to do, how much of it you’re trying to accomplish, and that it’s relevant to what you want to grow toward, you need to set a deadline. No. This is not optional. Here’s why:

Goal #1: I’m going to write 1,000,000 words.

Goal #2: I’m going to write 1,000,000 words next month.

Both of those have the same elements, but #2 is time-bound. This crazy “next month” addition makes the goal no longer achievable. Period. Not even for the long months with no holidays.

In addition, the time frame in which you want to accomplish a goal must also be specific and measurable.

Good: I’m going to write 50,000 words in a month.

Better: I’m going to write 50,000 words in November.

Great: I’m going to write the first 50,000 of a new novel in November.

My Goals for 2016

This post was inspired by two things:

  1. I wanted to write more short stories.
  2. In 2006, I set a goal of being paid (not living wages, mind you, just paid something) for my writing by the close of 2016. The goal was phrased something along the lines of:
    • I will receive monetary compensation for one of my stories within the next 10 years.

I’ll talk about the #1 here in a bit. I want to address #2 first.

Take a look at that goal. Here it is again:

  • I will receive monetary compensation for one of my stories within the next 10 years.

Specific? Measurable? Relevant? Time-bound? Yep, on all counts.

Wait! What’s missing? Achievable!

You may think (like I did) this would be achievable. Easily. Ten years to get good enough at writing to get some sort of payment for it? Yeah. Doable. Completely.

Nope.

Of course, I’m not talking about self-publishing here. I’m talking about the traditional routes and markets.

The goal of “receive monetary compensation” 100% relies on other people to give me that compensation for one of my stories. Yeah, the bulk of the work is on my shoulders (writing a good story). However, there is the “X factor” (not the TV show) involved in which an editor must like the story (damn you, subjectivity!), have room for the story, not have purchased a similar story recently, have the money for the story, and so on.

Guess what? This goal was out of my hands. Not completely, but enough that it no longer made the goal achievable solely through my efforts alone.

The fact that I can’t make this happen by myself makes this goal a poor choice. Not horrible. Not outrageous. Just not a good one.

I honestly thought I had a good goal here. Then my great friend, Patrick Hester, pointed out that I’m not in full control of my goal.

I was actually in a tight mental (and emotional) pinch. I realized this past Saturday at critique group that I had less than 365 days to get something published and receive payment for it. I pretty much panicked and freaked out and had an unholy internal shit fit that leaked out into the room to stink the joint up.

I started making plans for selling off my library of writing books, selling my laptop (a Mac with Scrivener and oodles of other useful software on it), using those funds to buy a gaming Windows PC, resigning from all sorts of writing-related places and organizations, unfriending people that I only knew because of writing, stepping away from the keyboard, and doing what I could to kill off my persistent imagination.

On the spot, I was trying to find the best way to kill my writerly self.

That sucked (which is putting it mildly.)

All because I had a poorly thought out goal.

Which leads me to a new goal for 2016.

I tossed around a few ideas for what to do with myself for 2016. Related novellas? Short stories? Loads of flash fiction? I wasn’t sure.

After consulting the writerly muse (e.g.: Facebook, Twitter, friends at a social gathering), I came to the conclusion that it would be best for me to set a goal of writing 52 short stories between January 1 and December 31, 2016.

So, here it is:

  • During the course of 2016, I will write and edit 52 short stories.

Specific? Yes: Write and edit short stories.

Measurable? Yes: 52 of them.

Achievable? Yes: I write about 1,200 words each lunch break. That’s about 6,000 words a week with weekends for editing. (This assumes it takes me the full Day Job work week to write a single story.)

Relevant? Yes: I need to improve my short story abilities, and this will do that.

Time-Bound? Yes: The whole effort will take place during 2016.

Now that I’ve spent a lunch break cranking out this blog post, it’s time for me to get back to the Day Job.

PS: The first short story for the year is already completed, which is what allowed me the time to get this post done.