“The Miracle Question” Walking Backward to: What Do I Really Want?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently—the elusive, often-unvoiced question behind so many emotions, reactions, and decisions.

I found myself remembering a form of short-term psychotherapy—from my pre-novelist years as a therapist—known as Solution-Focused Therapy. Unlike other forms of psychotherapy, Solution-Focused Therapy bypasses the whole process of excavating the source of the problem (that’s the “backstory” for us writers) and jumps right to the desired outcome by asking the client to visualize what life would be like if the problem that brought him to therapy had been miraculously solved.

In the middle of the night, there is a miracle, and the problem that brought you to talk to me about is all solved! … What would be the first sign? How would you discover that the miracle had taken place?

In other words: “How would you know you had reached your goal?”

The “miracle question” is a powerful technique because it asks us to describe how we want life to be in specific, observable terms. Yes, there are probably certain feelings and internal states that we also want—but it’s easier (for most people) to formulate the steps to reach an external goal than it is to identify what it would take to reach an internal goal.

Since this isn’t a blog about psychotherapy, you’ve probably figured out where I’m going with this.

Asking yourself to describe what it would look like to attain your goal as a writer—what would have to happen, for you to know that you had fulfilled your goal—can help you to work in two directions simultaneously:

  • Backward, to the essence of what you actually want
  • Forward, to the specific strategies needed to get there

By backward, I don’t mean backward in time, but “back” to the essence, the core, the underlying drive or desire that keeps you going, as a writer.

Identifying that essential desire can be harder than it might seem. We may not want to admit to others, or to ourselves, what our goal really is, for fear that it will seem arrogant or unattainable, or just plain silly.  We may have conflicting goals.  Our goals may change over time.  That’s why describing what “goal attainment” would look like right now can be a helpful technique.

For sure, your “miracle scenario” might include learning that your book has hit the New York Times bestseller list, was picked by both Jenna and Reese, and is being fast-tracked for a film directed by Jane Campion. If something like that comes to mind, don’t censor it!  Rather, trace it back to the goal it represents. What would any or all of those external markers signify to you, personally?

There are no wrong goals. But there are “wrong strategies,” because they’re unrelated to the goals you want to attain.

That’s why making a list of promotional activities—without an organizing principle that has meaning for you, personally—can be so overwhelming and exhausting, especially when you find yourself sneaking looks at what other writers are doing. To put it another way: Unless you know your goal, it’s impossible to say which strategies you should adopt and which you can ignore.

(And yup, there’s a parallel with the idea that your book’s protagonist needs to have a goal. Her actions to achieve that goal create the story—the obstacles she encounters, the people who become allies or antagonists, the choices she must make along the way. Without a goal, there’s no arc and no sense of an ending.)

Writers, like protagonists, have different goals.  For example:

  • To preserve a story (my own, or someone else’s) so it won’t be lost
  • To create, as an artist
  • To fulfill a bucket-list dream
  • To entertain
  • To help others or draw attention to an issue
  • To become well-known in my genre
  • To excel at my craft
  • To make money

You might have more than one goal, though I do think it’s helpful to know your primary goal.  And once you know that, the next question is:  How will you know you’ve achieved it?  What has to happen, externally, for you to be able to say: Yes, I did it!

You wake up in the morning, get out of bed, and begin the new day. How would you discover that the miracle had taken place?

Here are some external indicators, just to give a few examples, in no special order:

  • Holding my book in my hand and seeing my name on the cover
  • Seeing my book on Amazon
  • Getting a contract with a major publishing house
  • Finding my book in bookstores or libraries
  • Getting XX number of Amazon or Goodreads reviews
  • Getting reviewed in a newspaper or magazine
  • Being interviewed on the radio
  • Winning awards, or winning a particular award
  • Being on the New York Times or another best-seller list
  • Selling XX number of copies
  • Earning XX amount of money
  • Being able to quit my “other” job to write full-time

This is a random list, and certainly not exhaustive. Your personal list might be very different. What matter is to have some idea of the external indicators that matter to you.

Without some clear measures that you actually believe in—that is, not because other people have hit those marks, or because an “authority” claims that these are the measures that count—it can be hard to feel a sense of inner satisfaction. There may be a lingering doubt or fear that there’s some other proof of accomplishment you still need to achieve.

Just as it’s important to know what “success” would look like to you, it’s also important to remember that not achieving one—or any—of the indicators on your list does not mean you’re a failure!  “Success,” when you experience it, may feel very different than you expected.  Maybe there was one person, one encounter or event, that made it all worthwhile.  Or maybe you really did hit a lot of the marks you set out to hit—only to find that they didn’t mean as much as you’d thought, and it was something else you never foresaw that really ended up mattering.

The benefit of formulating your goals, and what their accomplishment would look like, is that it helps you select the strategies you want to use.  No one can do everything, after all!  You may feel that you “should” be doing podcasts, posting on Instagram, reaching out to libraries, attending book fairs, doing giveaways and “author takeovers” and Zoom panels and every form of promotion that you see other authors doing—but that’s just not realistic.

If one of your aims is to have your book in libraries, for example, you might want to attend a conference where librarians will be present; doing Facebook giveaways isn’t an especially good use of your time and energy, since there’s no relation between Facebook users and libraries.  If one of your aims is to reach a particular audience (e.g., women who have lost a child, because that’s a core theme of your book), then doing podcasts and guest blogs on related sites is a sensible strategy.

Work backward, from broad to specific.  For example:

  • Aim—to sell a lot of books, even at a discount
  • Concrete indicator—number of books sold
  • A possible strategy—price reduction on e-books, promoted on social media and boosted by sites that will promote the sale (for a small fee) to their subscribers

Another example:

  • Aim—to excel at my craft
  • Concrete indicator—winning a prestigious award
  • A possible strategy—study the work of those who have won in past years in order to apply for appropriate awards (and categories)

That said, the simple and direct goal of “getting my book published” might be the only one that feels important. For some, the means of publication is irrelevant; it’s the creative fulfillment or the ability to leave a legacy that matters. For others, the sense of validation through traditional, agented publication is essential; without that, they won’t feel that they’ve achieved their goal.

You may need to re-evaluate your goals from book to book, or at different points in your career. Goals can become “grander,” or more right-sized.  They can simply change.

They’re your goals, and no one gets to pick, judge, or analyze them but you. No one.

And you might discover that you’ve already achieved them.

P.S.  The converse is also true.  It’s okay not to have a particular goal. That means it’s okay not to pursue certain strategies. Just as there can be a surge of joy in doing something that brings you closer to one of your goals, there can also be a swell of relief and liberation in saying no to something you don’t really want.

What about you? Try asking yourself the “Miracle Question.” What do you see, when you wake up in the morning? What is one of your most important goals, as a writer? How will you know if you’ve achieved it? 

About Barbara Linn Probst

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES (April 2021) was the recipient of a Kirkus starred review, where it was lauded as "a tour de force" and selected as one of the Best Indie Books of 2021. It was also awarded the Sarton Gold Medal in Contemporary Fiction, as well as the Silver Medal in Fiction from the Nautilus Book Awards. Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate for out-of-the-box kids and their families. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.