I am often asked questions about the business of writing – how to self-pub, how to market, how to amass a group of loyal fans – but the question I am most often asked (in some form or other) is this: “How do I become a successful writer?”
For a long time I tried to answer the question, babbling about sales and marketing and hard work and blahblahblahblah. But then I realized what I should have been saying, and what I now say to you: if you’re asking yourself – or anyone else – how to become a successful writer, you’re asking the wrong question.
Success is an ever-retreating illusion. Like the end of the rainbow, it looks beautiful, laudable, something that people just over there clearly can lay their hands on. So why not you?
Well, because even if you manage to get to the end of the rainbow, even if you somehow contrive to grasp the edge of that many-colored illusion, you will find in the next moment that it moves away from you once more. And your version of “success” moves right along with it.
How many times have you said this in your life?
“If only I could get that promotion – then I’ll be a success.”
“If only I could buy that car – then I’ll know I’m a success.”
“If only I could afford the big house – then I’d know I was a success.”
And what happens? You get the promotion, you buy the car, you put the down payment on the big house… and like the rainbow, your measure of success immediately moves. You’re not successful unless you are constantly moving onward, upward, forward. “Success” is a beast with a relentless appetite.
So what do you do? Is the only answer to eschew success as a writer? Do you put all your manuscripts in a box and bury them somewhere, then go off and live as a hermit in a cave?
Not at all. But you must stop thinking in terms of being “successful,” and instead ask yourself this: as a writer, what will make me happy?
In other words, what is my goal, my aim, which will give me satisfaction once reached?
Is it to simply write a book?
Is it to win an award?
Is it to pay the rent on a regular basis?
Each of these is an attainable goal, but each is different, and each carries with it different responsibilities. Recently, the finalists for the Whitney Awards were announced. Several of my friends were among them, which was great.
My name, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen on the list. I’ve sold oodles of books, my novels are consistent bestsellers on Amazon’s major lists, my most recent novel Darkbound is doing great and getting rave reviews.
But none of my books were there.
Did I break down crying over this? No. Because long ago I decided that my goal, my reason for writing, my “happy place,” if you will, was to write full-time, and take care of my family doing by doing so. So while it would have been nice to get on the list (if only to see the look on the judges’ faces, given the kind of books I tend to write), it mostly would have been nice inasmuch as it might have driven a few more sales my way. Because that’s my goal: to sell books.
Other people crumple into a fetal position when their names are missed for some honor or other. Not me. And it’s because I’m too busy achieving my goal – the thing that I decided will make me happy – to worry about incidentals.
How do you “succeed” as a writer? How do you “make it”? Beats me. But that doesn’t matter. Because more important is your determination of what will make you happy. The question is subtly different, but the difference allows you to focus on concrete steps that will aid you in achieving that goal. It also allows you to avoid the poisonous practice of comparing yourself with others, because no matter how “successful” other writers may be, their success is irrelevant to the question of your happiness.
What is your goal as a writer? What is your happy place? Answer those questions. Then push away everything else, and work to achieve those ends. And once you have achieved them, recognize that you have done so, and find joy in the attainment.
But oddly enough, you will most likely find that in the doing you achieve as much joy as in the accomplishing of them.
Michaelbrent Collings has written numerous bestselling novels, including his latest novel Darkbound. His wife and mommy think he is a can that is chock-full of awesome sauce. Check him out at www.facebook.com/MichaelbrentCollings or michaelbrentcollings.com.
12 thoughts on “Why You Should Avoid Succeeding as a Writer by Michaelbrent Collings”
Awesome post!! Thank you! Success is so different for each person and when we compare ourselves to others we accomplish nothing. I want to write books. That’s my goal. I’d also like to sell them :).
Yes, the word “success” is very subjective. You have a healthy perspective on finding that happy place.
What a fantastic way to look at success! Thanks for the post.
Amazing! Yes! Double yes! I needed to read this! =D
My happy place is sitting at my desk in the corner of our spare room. In this quiet place I can escape into my fantasy world. I have three books published, and am working on the fourth, which is the sequel to book three.
Do I sell well? I would have to say, not really. But am I happy? You bet!
It’s natural for human beings to seek after success, but as you say, success is for ever moving; and we’re only ever as good as the last thing we accomplished, so it’s a struggle to keep up. Better to relax and enjoy the process of writing. And if one person loves what we write, then it has been worth it.
This was a really good and helpful post.
Very well said. I completely agree, and I’ve spoken to some of the top selling writers in the business about this issue, Brandon Sanderson, being one of them, and even he has a similar opinion. We must define success ourselves, and being happy with our work is a huge success, in my opinion.
Author of the Iron Dragon Series
Thanks, Michaelbrent. This was a post I needed to read right now! Very well said.
Great advice! I wonder sometimes if the reason that success is so elusive is that we don’t see it clearly ~ we often already have it (in terms of family, health, profession) but then turn our focus to the next attainable challenge or ‘prize’ – I think it’s part of our desire to continuously grow and improve – which will always be a part of ‘gods in embryo’.
This is welcome and helpful advice for me as a new writer starting the journey to publication. Your message hit home. Thank you!
Thanks for this. Lately I have had several people ask my why I don’t write something different. I try to explain that I am interested in branching out, but have not yet completed everything I would like to in my current genre. I was beginning to question myself until I read this.
Success IS relative to each person and what they WANT out of writing. You’re spot on. I like this post!
Glad this article seemed to hit home for some folks! Remember to define success for YOURSELF. Because the surest way to fail is to allow OTHERS to define your success.
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