Redefining Success in Order to Stay Sane

Have you ever asked: “What on earth possessed me to want to be a novelist?” Are you starting to realize this journey of being an author is not a short sprint but a marathon—and often a grueling one at that?

When you hear of the numbers of novels submitted to agents and publishers each year (in the six figures), you sometimes think winning the lottery offers better odds than getting traditionally published. But then . . . you finally break through and get a contract, and months later are holding your brand-new brilliant release in your hand, feeling like you’ve finally arrived.

Not Even Fifteen Minutes of Fame . . .

Yet . . . if you’re like me, the flashbulb moment of that exhilaration lasts a very short time, only to turn into something akin to another stark, depressing realization—that the odds your book will become a huge hit or best seller is . . . well, about the same odds as winning the lottery, and you’re back to the same place (or almost the same place emotionally) as you were when you first starting sending out your first queries to agents.

I don’t mean to dive right into depressing statistics and start you into a tumble toward negativity. Quite the opposite. When considering that the novelist’s life is more a marathon than a sprint, I thought of the one thing that we all really need to focus on to keep going in this writing life, and that’s a fresh attitude.

The Desire for Success Can Wear You Down

In the twenty-eight years of my publishing journey, I’ve seen some authors who I would call plenty successful—with many wonderful published novels under their belt, having won some awards and getting great acclaim—suffer from continual disappointment, frustration, and even despair over their writing career. While I waited for my first “breakthrough” novel to go to press, I had foreboding nigglings in the back of my mind, telling me that would never happen to me. I would be on the NY Times best-seller list out the gate!

Yet, four published books later, I found myself crying for a week at the completion of my latest novel. Why? Because I knew it was the masterpiece and apex of my writing life and ability, and I knew the book would never sell big and get the acclaim I felt it deserved. Why? Because it was wholly imaginative, original, untraditional, and broke “all the rules.” I knew that I was risking much by writing the book pressing upon my heart, yet even a couple of years later, I don’t regret a second that I spent writing that novel. I wouldn’t change a word.

A Challenge to You to Change the Picture

So, where is all this whining and negativity leading to? I spent a long year stepping back and evaluating the writing life. And I would like to challenge you to stop and think a bit about your goals, dreams, hopes, and beliefs.

We have been programmed to believe many things that, I feel, contribute to our disappointments, frustrations, and feelings of failure as writers. I believe it’s time to redefine, truly and in our hearts, what success means and looks like to us. Rather than give you a list of practical things your can do like blogging, tweeting, scheduling your time better, and improving your writing craft, I’d like you to think about making this your primary goal for this day, this month, this year: to have a fresh, new attitude about your writing journey.

These are the truths I am learning to embrace, and I hope you will post these and think about them often:

  • Success is not defined by numbers or money earned. Instead of trying to be successful by worldly standards, think about significance. How can you deepen your writing and reach out to readers in a significant way? Believe that what you have to say through your words is significant and important. And put the care and attention into your writing that you and it deserves.
  • You are not writing to please the masses. You may never please the masses. And writing to please yourself is not the goal either. We write for an audience, and know the kind of hearts we want to touch. Write, then, for that audience in all sincerity and passion, and trust that from that place your voice will ring out.
  • Don’t validate yourself based on others’ opinions of you or your writing. Accept helpful criticism and critiques and keep improving your craft, but know you will never please everyone and it’s foolish to try. In my former writers’ group we used to applaud loudly when an author got her first scathing review. It’s a badge of arrival.
  • Find a few really supportive writer friends to be on this journey with you. Encourage one another, promote one another, critique for one another. One way to stop focusing on your own sense of failure is to help others. I find great joy in helping my editing clients get agents and publishing contracts, and their success brightens my day. There is nothing wholesome in jealousy, envy, or a competitive spirit. Believe your audience is out there waiting for your books and write for them. There will always be terrible writers enjoying incredible success with terrible books. It’s easy to want to throw your hands in the air and say “I give up!” when you see the awful stuff getting praised as great writing. Right, it’s not fair. Now, get over it. Really. If you don’t, it will drive you nuts. I tell this to myself a lot!
  • Know that traditional publishing is undergoing radical changes. This is actually great news for authors, for now, with the trend of ebook publishing and social networking and marketing, any good author can get known, grow a true fan base, and connect with readers who love her books. And that’s what we need remember—that we are writing for that connection between writer and reader. The future never looked so bright to be able to accomplish these things.

So take heart and a deep breath and think about redefining success with a fresh attitude—one of optimism, enthusiasm, and a renewed dedication to write the best novels you can, knowing that your readers are out there and in time you will find them—and they will find you. To me, that is the only way to stay sane.

Any thoughts on keeping your sanity by the way you define success? How do you define success?

Photo Credit: Lakbay 7107 via Compfight cc

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  1. Well said Susanne – if you’re constantly trying to validate yourself by sales figures and royalties then you’re almost begging for disillusionment unless you’re really, really lucky!
    Am sharing this in my online community as some of my writer friends need to know this doesn’t only happen to them… thank you for setting it down so lucidly and gently. 🙂

  2. Recently, Susanne, you’ve written (or hosted several guests who’ve written) articles that speak directly to my heart and my personal writing journey. Thank you. I really needed these words today as I contemplate what to do next. I don’t know if I can express with words the gratitude I feel for the encouragement you project with your posts. That encouragement makes all the more sense because it’s balanced with the reality of the writing life. In the end I find a little measure of hope and a little nudge to keep moving forward. Thank you so much!

  3. Great post. I am retired and write for pleasure, as a hobby only. Even so, your advice is most applicable. I hope you don’t mind that I am reposting your words of wisdom, with credits, to my tumblr blog. Jim Traylor

  4. This is a much-needed and much-appreciated post! It is so easy to get discouraged and want to give up on writing when things aren’t going well. My biggest fear is dying with all of my stories still inside me! So, I keep writing even when it seems like I may be the only one who “cares”. 🙂

  5. Susanne,

    This post is perfect timing for me and my writing career. Although, I came to a good place several years ago about not pushing myself to publish, I’m at a turning point once again. My ever wonderful freelance editor :)) has helped me to bring two books to completion, and now I must keep my word to myself to not become discouraged when the rejections come. I so enjoy your blog.

    God bless you!

  6. Great post and from your heart, I know. I have written all my life and have lots of words to
    show for it and yet no novel published yet. But writing is part of me and the best part of me
    and I won’t let it go. And I won’t give up. Thanks, Beth Havey

  7. Thank you, Susanne. When I began writing over ten years ago, I discovered the feeling of exhilaration in expressing myself freely via the written word. Being an introvert and constantly second guessing what I should say, writing gave me a venue to be free of those shackles. Then when a traditional publisher liked my work enough to publish it, I believe I achieved the ultimate gift – a published author. Yes, I do check sales figures and ‘likes’ as that’s a part of the business. Sometimes I make the mistake of comparing my success to that of others. Big mistake! Occasionally, I need to remind myself about the experience of writing The Guardian’s Wildchild. It was a personal journey of self exploration, of passion for the story, and becoming someone I wasn’t before the book became known on Amazon. That’s all I need to know. That’s enough for me.

  8. Thank you for this post. Last year I published a book that was written from my heart and didn’t really expect it to be a big seller, but I got swallowed up by a drive for success. I wanted my book to win awards, get praised by readers and reviewers, and of course sell well. I struggled for a year to figure out how to get noticed and then decided I didn’t want to write if I wasn’t going to get anywhere. Recently, I had a change of heart and did exactly what you mentioned. I examined my motives, redefined my vision of success, and decided to get busy writing. I want to touch the hearts of readers, even if it’s only a few readers. I still have to remind myself daily that my vision of success has changed, because when I look at my computer it’s easy to get caught up in the crazy world of social media, comparison, and self doubt.

  9. Great post! Thank you for voicing what I have been feeling needs to be our focus as authors. I want to focus on the ways my writing has touched people, not the numbers of books sold (I’ve given away more than sold – lol). I realize publishing is a business, but I am more inclined to see it as a ministry in which God will get our work out to those whom he believes need to read it. Not to say we don’t market, tweet, blog, etc. You’ve really encouraged me. Thank you! Miss you too 🙂

  10. Oooo, great article! Much needed today, one of the down days. But I know there will be up ones too and hearing from others really helps. Thanks!

  11. Excellent points! I agree with them all. For myself, I don’t know if I will ever publish, but something inside me insists I keep revisiting my characters in my four projects to continue to add to their narratives.

  12. I’ve recently take a break from writing reevaluate what I want. This post sits very well with me. It lines up with a lot of what I’m thinking. I have stated to care less about people’s opinion about what I do and write. Hell, I just told my mom that i write fantasy and erotica.

    Thanks for the honesty about what goes into being a writer and author. My only concern is my audience and what I want/need to convey to them. Yes, we would all love to make a living from our writing, but that shouldn’t be the main point of it. We love it, and that should be all.

  13. Retired and starting writing to amuse myself, but found after I published my first e-book that I really wanted to know what people think of my effort.

    As many times as I’vr told myself that I was doing this just for ME, I still feel the need to know that people actually like my work.

  14. Good points made and I’m in a similar boat, constantly worrying that I’m not doing enough to push my debut novel up the rankings. The reality is that one can’t ‘push it up’, you can only alert the world to it and let the world decide. Finding people who really love the book and connect, and want the next one is a great reward for two years unremitting effort – but I am constantly bombarded with social media talking about other people’s rankings and the most FAQ from those I meet is – how many have you sold? I don’t yet know, is the answer.

  15. I have to add my voice to those thanking you for these words of encouragement. I’ve wrestled with the demon “success” a good bit in my writing career. At this point, I feel blessed to have the continuing drive to say what’s in my heart AND a venue for reaching a few more readers than would have been possible twenty years ago via traditional publishing routes.

  16. This kind of advice can’t be stated too often, not just for writing careers but any endeavor. We all struggle to get to the brass (or gold) ring and miss the journey, the learning and growing going on.

    Thanks for the heart to heart.

  17. Thank you so much for this post. I especially loved to hear what you say about ‘terrible writers having incredible success with terrible books’. Your advice is great and I need to listen as that is something that really bugs me. That and the fact that if you’re a TV presenter, have rowed across the Atlantic, been in Big Brother – whatever – an if you write a ‘novel’ it will get published. Your comment that a book might not sell well because it is imaginative, original and untraditional both encourages me as I feel I’m not the only one who is doing something a bit different. At the same time there are books out there by brilliant authors who sell wonderfully well. However, I take your point – if you are unknown you’ll have less chance if you are not mainstream than if you are mass market. But then, who wants to be mass market. Unless that totally reflects who you are. It’s not me. I’ve gone on a bit longer than intended. Thank you for the encouraging and helpful post.

  18. Well said!

    I’ve let my own fear of failure stop me from pursuing my dream of writing a novel – but not anymore. I might really suck, or I might be great and sell nothing, but I’m going to man up and write.

    Started a blog because I need support: My goal is to get from outline to first crummy draft in about 45 days and I would love it if folks would drop by. There will be times when I’m going to need the encouragement, I’m sure.

    Maybe one day it will be (self) published and I can send all my readers a copy. And even if those are the only ones ever sold, I’ll call it a success because I got it done.

    Or I can call it a success because it sold a million copies. You never know…

  19. Your post has resonated on an emotional level with many, as the comments show. Thank you. I have completed one novel and am writing my second now. I have queried 50 agents so far with #1 and have received a few requests for more chapters and even some comments like, “Love the plot but main character didn’t resonate.” No cigar yet, but I’m driven to continue. Why? I confess, part of it is the desire to say to all those people from the past who doubted me, “I told you so.” But on a deeper level, my desire to write connects with my life goal, which I stated many years ago as “to see the beauty in the world and help others see it.” A few years ago, a business coach asked me what I did for a living. When I mentioned, at the end, that “oh, yeah, and I write novels,” she asked me, “Why don’t you tell people that first?” When I began to do that, it changed me. It was akin to coming out of the closet and saying to the world, “This is who I am. I am a writer.” Try it!

  20. Yes, thanks, Susanne! I finally got around to reading this, and it was worth the wait. We all do have our bad days. Sometimes I feel about writing like Marshall Dillon in the introduction to the old RADIO program of “Gunsmoke” — “It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful. And a little lonely.” (And a woman too.) Shows you how old I am….

    I appreciate Michael Tevlin’s comment, above. Several years ago I was umm-ing and err-ing about coming right out with “I’m a writer.” A friend of mine said, “Do you write?” “Well, yes….” “Then you’re a writer. End of story.” Once you KNOW that, it makes a real difference, not only in how you feel but, yes, in how you write.

  21. In 7th grade I wanted to touch type, but thought the standard exercises were boring. So I typed my own stories to practice. Small goal (learning touch-typing) and limited results (I had a homemade story to hand out).

    I kept typing stories… then books… over more than half a century… looking for someone to believe in me and pay me to write (big goal… no results)… while pursuing my main career as a nuclear engineer (teachers who read my short stories said, ‘Even Steinbech starved. Find a more reliable job.’)

    Then I heard about createspace (one of many self-publishing companies). And in two month’s time I had 5 books published! Yeah, I had to pay for them myself (about $5 for a 300 page book), but I was a published author! Yeah, I had to market myself (very difficult). But I got my ideas and name out to a growing number of people.

    And suddenly the words I’d been typing on paper and sighing over, had meaning! I was getting published and this invigorated my sagging ambitions and gave me energy.

    I heartily recommend self-publishing to any of you unpublished authors out there. It’s a marvelous motivation to take the next step.

    However, I would discourage bulk self-publishing arrangements. If you can’t do it for around $5 per 300-page book, plus postage, look elsewhere.

    Why? I can’t think of a single book I’ve published that didn’t have errors. And I did all the typing for the camera-ready PDF myself (no stranger retyped my words and put in all HIS own typos).

    In spite of reading my own work at least 10 times and having at least two other GOOD proof readers!

    So, instead of having 600 copies costing $2,000, knowing they ALL had significant and embarrassing errors, I had a few copies with errors that I corrected and maybe $20-25 in books I was too embarrassed to sell… per title.

    An additional benefit to getting my books out to a few readers is that I got feedback to correct sloppy thinking or incorporate other good ideas.

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