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Achieving Success in Writing

May 20, 2021 - 1:02 AM

Stephen King. George R. R. Martin. Ernest Hemingway. William Faulkner. J. D. Salinger.

Which one of these authors would you say is the most successful? Why?

I think it is very important for any writer to assess and define success as early as possible. It begins by understanding exactly what it is one wants to achieve with her writing. The spectrum of success is very wide.

On one end, you have those souls who simply wish to complete a story. They don’t delude themselves with dreams of stardom or money. They have one goal: they want to complete a story and be able to read it. Sometimes, they want to complete the story solely to read it to somebody else: a child, a parent, or some other loved one.

On the other end of the success spectrum, you have those souls who have seen Stephen King’s name every day since being born. These writers’ mothers no doubt brought a King novel to the hospital with them to have their future writers. When this type of writer finally musters up the courage to read one of King’s prolific works herself, she discovers something remarkable. “I can write something like this,” she says to herself. With every good intention, she purchases King’s work about writing, and when she reads the scene in which he describes the way he sold the paperback rights to Carrie for $400,000 (in the middle of the 1970s, by the way), she gasps in awe.

His words on paper changed his life. One phone call shifted his entire career, brought him out of the drudgery of his day job.

And of course, this poor soul has also heard similar tales about other famous authors. Everybody’s heard the tale about how Rowling was a struggling, single mother when she got that advance to continue working on Harry Potter, right?

Maybe the numbers are fudged a bit. Maybe the details aren’t all there. The one thing that prevails from stories like this is the idea that writing—an accessible medium for many people—has the power to propel an author into the stratosphere.

On this side of the success spectrum, you’ve got the humble authors who write as well as they’re able, and you’ve got the snobs who think King’s work is utter garbage because he head hops and because he writes—gasp!commercial fiction! “It’s pure smut,” they say. “Where’s the theme? What is the point of his works?” they say.

He writes to entertain.

His stories are often little more than sequences of events tied together to keep a reader wondering what will happen next. He has even admitted that he sprinkles his themes in after he writes his story—he writes the thing and then goes back to look for themes that stick out. Can you imagine? Contrast him with an author like Atwood, who clearly—and I am just guessing on this—begins with a theme.

I’m not disparaging King. I love his work, and I respect him immensely as the prolific and successful writer he is. He cares about the craft, and he has created some marvelous pieces of writing. I also respect Atwood—and Faulkner and Hemingway and Salinger. I respect all of these authors because they’ve achieved success, and I think it’s undeniable to argue that they’re not successful.

But then we come back to that question.

How do you define success? Is it based on how many books you sell? Is it based on how much money you earn? If a publishing house purchases your book and it resonates with the crowd that that publishing house promotes it to, have you achieved success? Are you successful if Netflix or HBO buys the film rights to your story and they turn it into a film or television show? Are you successful if you write a story and you’re proud of it?

I think it ultimately comes down to what each writer seeks to do. I think a lot of authors don’t take the time to define and measure any progress toward their goals. And how can one measure progress toward her goal unless she first defines that goal?

I think it’s imperative to stop—stop today—and define success for yourself if you haven’t already. If you don’t, you might fall into some deadly traps like comparing yourself or your progress.

It’s completely natural to use benchmarks. You love something. Take Harry Potter as a popular example. It’s only natural to compare your work to it. After all, as a piece of the written word, it is something that’s given you great joy. When creating your own story, you might have a similar—if undefined—goal to deliver such great joy unto your future readers. In other words, you might wish to emulate that which you love. The danger here is that you’ll find yourself comparing your work to Harry Potter. It could be A Song of Ice and Fire. It could be the Stormlight Archives. It could be the Dune books. It could be King’s extensive bibliography.

When you’re a kid, and you go to the store and see Harry Potter merchandise lining the toy aisle, or maybe you watch one of the movies and the special effects grab you, you think to yourself, “I could make something like this.” As a kid, your only goal is to make something that emulates that which you love. Imitation produces innovation because after you’ve spent enough time drawing Harry Potter, you venture out into that unknown territory of making your own witches and wizards. Pretty soon, you’ve made your own wizarding school, but maybe you’ve changed something important about it, and now you’ve synthesized a new creation. Now you’ve got Novik’s A Deadly Education. Whether you call it trope subversion or innovation, the process is still the same. You take something you love, and you build upon it, and you shift things here and there until you’ve made something new.

When you grow up, your pursuits can very quickly become all about measuring success by the quantifiable metrics most accessible to you. How many follows or likes do you have? How many reviews and stars do you have on Amazon? How much money have you made? Certainly, when respected for what they are, these can be great tools and indicative of your work’s reach and influence. These, however, shouldn’t be tied to your happiness, your self-esteem, your definition of success.

Is success getting what you want? Is it getting what you think you want? Is it getting what you think society wants you to get (the job, the house, the family)? If you had to give your definition of success to a room full of people, how would it change when compared to the definition you’d give yourself in the mirror?

Let’s be honest, we all want what we want. Some of us only want money and fame from our writing. Some of us only want a community to get excited about what we’re doing. Some of us only want to finish a story. Some of us only want to say something significant about issues in our world.

Some of us seek to do all of the above.

Life is finite. We only have so much time. If we meander—if we wander—we will not achieve our goals by happenstance. We must pursue them. This is true not only in writing but in all walks of life.

To chase something so elusive, you must know it as intimately as you can. Define what it is you want, and go after it. Do not fall into the trap of comparing your work to other works. Do not use the metrics of our world to gauge your progress if you’re not sure what you’re progressing toward. Amassing likes and followers and dollars is surely nothing to frown about, but to what end are you gathering such things?

As for me and my goals, they’re simple:

I want to be the very best like no one ever was. To catch them is my real test. To train them is my cause. I will travel across the land, searching far and wide. Each Pokémon to understand the power that’s inside.

No, just kidding, but I absolutely couldn’t resist writing it. It was a chore to stop where I did; I was tempted to write the entire song out (and the Pokérap, too), but I worried I’d lose you.

My goals are to enjoy the ride. To smile each day. I want my books to sell, yes, and I have my own numbers written down in a binder that stays virtually fused to my laptop. I want to form a community around my stories, and I want people to theorize while waiting for future books and care about my characters and weep at the end of my tales. I want to say something significant with them.

I want to finish my stories.

What do you want? How will you achieve it? When will you achieve it?

And perhaps the most important question is: why do you pursue it?

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