More Musings on Success


Stuart’s post on the relationship between success and money has been ricocheting around in my head for a week now. Clearly, I’m not the only one thus affected by it, since David posted an excellent rethinking of the nature of failure on Monday. I wanted to add another strand to the debate which is supposed to compliment both shrewd and provocative posts, and it picks up on a comment Ed made about success being a moving target.
For me, success doesn’t just move, it morphs, becoming different things entirely, things which don’t always play nice together. Let me offer a few examples and the (admittedly rather pompous) lessons I’ve extracted from them.
When I started writing, success meant finishing a novel. Once I accomplished that, it meant getting an agent. That achieved, it meant getting a publishing deal with a traditional house. Then it meant big sales. Then awards. Then bigger sales…
In each case the terms by which I defined success changed, and in some cases that meant reassessing my last “success.” For instance, I finished the novel, but couldn’t get an agent. It took me a long time to realize that the problem was that the novel wasn’t very good and I had to write another. And another. I got an agent, but couldn’t sell the book (any of them) and eventually lost the agent. Here endeth the first lesson: success is like chutes and ladders. Progress isn’t always in the same (right) direction, and sometimes the journey reveals that things you thought were successes weren’t.
Second lesson: Since success doesn’t always build as you go, you have to be prepared to adjust to new circumstances and start afresh: you get a decent advance for a book, but the book doesn’t sell that well, and you find yourself struggling to place the next one (for less money). A writer’s success is only like marching through the levels of a video game if you accept that the comparison doesn’t fit your career (“my last book got me through level 4 so now I’m up to level 5 where I get the plasma cannon and the rocket launcher”) but your WIP: each new project is a new game and you start at level 1 armed with nothing but attitude and the clothes you stand up in.
Lesson, the third: Most failures contain elements of a different kind of success and vice versa. You just have to be clear in your head as to what those elements are. One of my thrillers didn’t sell well and made it very difficult for me to sell others, but that book is—in some ways—the one I feel best about. It’s clearly my most personal book to date and it has, to my mind, more depth, more emotional weight, more truth than the others, all of which probably hurt its sales as a thriller. The paradox eats me from the inside because it feels unjust, but I understand it and it doesn’t make me hate the book or consign it to the Failure Pile. Sometimes you have to sift through a lot of scrap to find the bit that glitters, but you should always make the search.
Lesson, the fourth: nothing easy is worth having. We know this, but we forget. We lose sight that the things that build skill and quality usually come out of learning what we did wrong, not getting lucky the first time. Frankly, it’s one of the things that worry me about self-publishing: it’s too easy. I need the struggle, the process of vetting, the rejection and micro-scrutiny. I need to feel that I have to please a reader as well as myself. These things are hard to internalize without actual hurdles to clear but they invariably (not always, but usually) make for a better product. Turns out our grandparents were right: adversity builds character(s).
Lesson, the fifth: our sense of what constitutes success changes in our careers as writers is how it should be. It shows we are evolving, meeting new challenges, and putting greater and more varying demands on our work and our selves. Even the most mundane challenges of the business (selling a new book, getting a higher print run, or hitting a best seller list) can actually make you a better writer if you find the right way to meet them. Changing tack prevents stagnation. Some authors hit a successful formula and proceed to write what is effectively the same book for the rest of their lives. Good for them, I guess, esp. if it feathers their nests, but where’s the fun or adventure in reproducing the same thing over and over? You may as well be cranking out doorstops or plastic bottles. It may make you a living but it’s not why most of us become writers.
Lesson, the sixth: Sometimes success is about recognizing failure. If you can’t find a buyer for a book, or you can’t get an agent interested in it, or you can’t get a plot point to work, or you can’t get it to a reasonable length, or you can’t convince anyone that your protagonist isn’t just a bitch, or whatever: maybe you should dump the project and start something new. Writers get (understandably) attached to their material, but sometimes they waste years on books which just don’t work, partly because accepting that feels like failure. It’s not. It’s a triumph. Now write something else.
Lesson, the seventh: no one said life was fair. Big news, right? But we all know that there are Massively Successful Writers out there whose work—not to put too fine a point on it—sucks. Welcome to the world. Readers, editors and agents owe you nothing, no matter how talented you are or how hard you work at your craft, and the business (yes, business) always knows which side its bread is buttered on. You may be able to make that work for you, or you may not, but don’t confuse bestseller status with an index of quality, and don’t waste time railing Lear-like on the injustice of the cosmos. From time to time you may need to rant or scream or cry, but don’t make those things a lifestyle, and don’t assume they’ll stop when you become “successful.” They won’t (see lesson 1).
Final lesson, related to that last observation. We’re used to the idea that success comes as a bolt from the blue: the massive advance, the storming of the bestseller lists, the frenzied night of phone calls hammering out movie deals, translation rights etc. But for all the glamour of the “overnight success” story, it generally doesn’t work that way, and when it does that success might (to borrow another cliché) turn out to be merely a flash in the pan. Not only does success usually take years to achieve, it can take years to even recognize. I have great expectations for my next book (I always do), but that’s a book I wrote 18 months ago, which won’t be out till October, and whose impact on the market probably won’t be clear for a year or two. Publishing moves slowly, so when it comes to ideas of success, be the tortoise, not the hare.
Lastly, good luck. May your self-defined successes be rich and memorable whether you make a dime off them or not. Feel free to share other ideas of or approaches to success in the comments.


13 comments to More Musings on Success

  • In one word: Yes.
    That is it exactly.

    I’ll add one thought from my own perscective, after 20+ years of writing professionally. Writing should be a journey, like a paddle on an unexplored river, launching into the unknown, with only the paddling (writing) skills and life lessions learned. With only the equipment on our backs. We *should* find long stretches of flat water and hard work, followed by amazing downstream runs of danger and excitement and joy. And then more hard work and discovery at the end of the rapid.

    The writing life, like all true art, should be *full* of discovery. Those writers who find a formula and write to it always, may make the money. But they have little self discovery. And when the formula dries up, like a river that flows into sand and disppears, they have no reserves to keep on going. They have no muscles to flex to make it forward to the place where the river reemerges, or to make it overland to a new river, full of new promise.

    Do I wish I had hit the bestseller list with any of my books along the way? Oh yes. I do. Do I wish my life had been easier financially, that my books had allowed me to quit the lab and write full time? Oh yes, I do. Even though that lab gave me the financial reserves to make the hike between rivers, my boat on my back. Do I regret the journey, the discovery, the friends I’ve made along the way? Nonononono. Not one bit. I’m on a downhill race right now, with no idea what I’ll find at the bottom. But I’ve learned I don’t race alone.

    Lovely post, AJ.

  • Absolutely, Faith, spot on. As Stuart suggested, when we focus too much on the business end of the writing business we start thinking in terms of bottom lines and the generation of ‘product.’ As you suggest, the journey is far more than that, and I particularly like your paddling analogy. It’s not all about reaching the finish line. It’s about what you see on the way.

  • Ugh, Lesson, the Sixth rings too true. I spent thirteen years on one manuscript and its spinoffs. About the only thing I can say is that I learned and evolved as a writer because I kept rewriting it. Learning that lesson—letting go, and moving onto something else—was hard, but worth it. I’ll come back to it eventually.

    All of these success posts feel a challenge, a test of resolve that strips away my pretty illusions. I still want to do this. (I’m reminded, to a point, of the myth of Inanna’s descent into the underworld, where she passes through seven gates and gives up something precious until, when she arrives, she is naked. But that’s the only similarity I want to draw. I have no plans of sending my husband to the underworld when I get back. Hm. Maybe someone else here can think of a better example?)

    Thank you for this!

  • Thanks, Laura. Yes, I’ve had books I’ve held on to far too long, but you are right: you learn from them. Some writers canibalize them–a character here, a plot point there–in other books, and some (myself included) have returned to ‘failed’ books years later and been able to tweak and sell. Sometimes the key is getting away from it while you work on other things.

  • All very well said. “No one said life is fair.” Ain’t that the truth! I’ve yet to meet a writer (pro or otherwise) who doesn’t know at least one writer of great talent who wrote great work that is being ignored by either the publishing world or the public.

  • Julia

    AJ — I wanted to thank you for your posts a while back about juggling academic writing and fiction.

    I took your advice to heart, especially about choosing to focus on a particular project at a particular time. I had resisted that for a while, afraid I would marginalize my novel.

    But I need dedicated, deliberate focus to finish a big project. Otherwise, I flit around happily, working on this and that — spinning out lovely things, but leaving a hundred balls in the air. It’s a wonderful way to rejuvenate my creative juices, but not a fantastic strategy for completing projects.

    With your advice in mind, I honed in on the academic project — and I just today finished the manuscript!

    It will probably take me a few more days to wrap up the mechanics. Then, while the MS is under review, I’ll devote my attention to finishing the revisions of the novel.

    Thank you so much!

  • Julia,
    congrats on finishing the manuscript and best of luck finding a suitable home for it. I’m glad I helped a little.

    Thanks, Stuart. I’m glad to get all this negative stuff off my chest. Next post will be more up-beat 🙂

  • Thank you AJ – and Faith, for your beautifully poetic image of what writing really *is*

    I stumbled across The War of Art by Stephen Pushman over the weekend, and have embraced the honesty that writing is art, and I may get to be on this journey as a starving artist. While that’s not my goal, I’m willing to write for writing’s sake, to attach my joy to the process – the journey – of writing, and not to the Gold Star perception of joy I’ve attached to getting a publishing contract. (though I’m fairly certain when that day gets here, it will bring joy)

    Will it change my goal to get an agent, sell a book, and the rest of the plan? Hardly. But I’ve decided to stop looking outside me for my definition of success.

    Happy writing.
    Jen Greyson

    PS – and I’m setting aside this WIP that needs to be overhauled and starting The Next Book. Thank you for that insight as well – I’ve been wavering.

  • The War of Art *Steven Pressfield*


  • Razziecat

    I think I can boil this down to: “Success itself is a Work in Progress.” As you said, it morphs. And thank you so much for this post. You’ve made me realize that there is a good side to having many things going at once. If I get badly stuck and need a break, or I discover that something is just not going to work no matter what I do, there is always something else to work on, another “pretty shiny” in my box of treasures. But, like Julia, I need to focus on one thing at a time, or I won’t be able to move forward. So it’s time I pick one of those shiny goodies and make it complete.

  • Survivalmama (!), in the end, this is the best way to go, I think, though it does not work against having professional aspirations and methods. Keeping the joy of writing itself uppermost is the key. If it’s all about profit, you may as well be selling alumnium siding.

    I’ma big fan of having multiple projects on the go even if I give each one my undivided attention for large blocks of time. I open a show on Monday, and I can’t wait to get it in front of an audience so I can get on with some writing!

  • Very late to the party, and I know that you’re focused on your show this week, A.J. Hope it’s hugely successful. But I wanted to say that these posts on success and failure have been bouncing around in my head, too. I’m in the middle of what promises to be a challenging year professionally as I await Thieftaker’s release in May 2012. I am doing what I can to focus on other work, to keep myself from putting all my emotional eggs in Ethan Kaille’s basket, but it’s incredibly difficult. Reading and writing about these issues has helped, and this post has reminded me of much that I need to keep in mind but all-too-quickly forget. In particular, I allow myself to be thrown by the non-linear nature of career progress in this profession. Just as one success does not make a career, a single setback can’t destroy one. I have to remind myself of that all the time. Thanks for this, A.J.

  • David, boy, do I hear you. I’ve been waiting on Darwen’s release for over a year (and have another 6 months to go). Even before I sold it I had started to think that a LOT was riding on the success of this series, and it’s pretty terrifying. Like you I feel that my future is absolutely bound up in what happens when the book comes out, though I know that feeling this way isn’t healthy and probably isn’t smart. Am toying with writing something completely new just to offset this feeling. In all my free time. And speaking of which, thanks for the good wishes about the show. I’m actually feeling very positive about it, which is unusual for me…