(This was originally published on the Apex Magazine blog in April 2011.)
How do you measure your success as a writer?
Is it the number of times you’ve been published? Or the quality of the publication your work appeared in? Is it how much you’re paid for your work? Or is it the number of award nominations you receive for it? Is it how many good reviews you’ve gotten? Or how much you like your own work? Or what groups you belong to? Or what panels you’ve been on? Or how many times you’ve been a guest at a convention? Or the number of times you’ve been on Oprah? Or the New York Times’ bestseller’s list?
This is a particularly hard question to answer for a writer who’s only just started out in the field. When sales are few and far between and the rejections are piling up, how do you measure your progress? And how do you know when you’ve slipped your toe across that golden finish line to receive the honorary title of having “made it”?
When I was reading Stephen King’s On Writing, the one thing he said that stuck with me more than anything else was that selling your first book (or even first story) is only the very first step in the race. That’s where the real work begins. It made me stop to consider the truth of that statement, because the more you think about it, the more you recognize that it’s not even about that first sale. It’s about everything. Success is a moving target. The writing folks I know who are much further along on their literary path than I am have no fewer worries, no fewer goals, no sense that they’ve done all they can yet. Those books on their shelves? There could be more. Or they could be selling better. Those pro-sales? If only they were more consistent! Looking from the ground floor up, it can seem funny that a professional author is no less concerned about becoming successful. They sure look successful to me! But as I grow my little publication list, I start to feel the same way. Five years ago, I would have been thrilled to know I had even one sale under my belt. Now? Still happy, but frantic to find the next one. It’s a bit like hunger: you have to keep eating to be satisfied, because the moment you stop is the moment you start getting hungry again.
And that’s a good thing. It means we’re always searching to better ourselves, improve, work harder, try different things. It helps us grow to have a mirage to trail after, hoping some day to sink our fingers into its shimmering promises of perfect satisfaction.
But what about when you’re fresh to the game? If making a sale or even a pro-sale is the only thing signifying any kind of success, it’s going to be a long, hard road. A good road, and one that many, many now well known authors have traveled, but it sure won’t do anything on its own to encourage you. There’s a reason why so many authors say, “If you’d rather be doing anything else, this probably isn’t for you.” So what’s a newbie to do?
In some ways, just recognizing that “success” is a moving target helps lighten the burden of feeling as though the only way you’ll be “successful” is if your books are snatched up Harry Potter style and turned into a seven (or eight?) part blockbuster movie extravaganza. That may come, if we’re really, really lucky, but for now, at the very beginning of the journey, that pressure only makes it harder to write crap (like we have to in order to get better). Our first attempt at lit writing isn’t going to be as densely literary as Ulysses, and our first attempt at science fiction isn’t going to be as inventive as Dune. We may get there after decades of work; a particularly talented few of us may actually hit that prowess much earlier; and most of us may never get there at all. And that’s okay.
Tangible goals are nice, too, because you can quantify and control the outcome yourself. A sale is something beyond your control, but getting a story submitted somewhere is all in your hands. Michele Lee has a great article on the Apex Blog about how to set goals (and the expectations that go along with each kind of goal). Planning to hit a certain submission count in a year is a great way to get yourself out there and certainly increases your chances of making a sale over leaving your work in the “to submit” folder on your desktop.
Writing is a very volatile career, even—it seems—for seasoned pros. There will be a lot of ups and a lot of downs, no matter where you are on the path. But it’s the journey that matters in the long run, not that gold-leaf, quivering finish line in the distance. It’s also helpful to see that even established authors go through the same struggles, as you’ll find in either Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better or Gary A. Braunbeck’s To Each Their Darkness.
What do you think? How do you approach the tantalizing idea of “true success”? Does it matter to you, or is it something you’ve stopped worrying about defining a long time ago? In your career—no matter what stage you’re at—what event has brought you closest to that moment of perfect satisfaction, even if only for a day, an hour, or a few minutes?