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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "What Is Writer Success?" By Eric Dontigney 

The whole notion of success as a writer is, at best, nebulous. What does writing success even look like? It’s not as simple as you might think.

In scenario A, we’ve got a guy you’ve never heard of with a full-time job writing marketing copy for consumer products.  

In scenario B, we’ve got J.K. Rowling. She’s sold millions of copies of the Harry Potter books and made buckets of cash. Now, she’s basically licensing her Potter brand to Hollywood and making more buckets of cash.

Which one of those scenarios equals writer success? Spoiler: they are both writer success stories.

If you’ve never done it before, writing excellent marketing copy for products is hard work. It’s a lot harder than it looks on the outside. What makes scenario A one kind of success story is that the guy is working full-time as a writer.

Most novelists never pull that off. Once you remove the names of the people on bestseller lists, you’re dealing almost entirely with people who write part-time. You can find people working in all kinds of other professions publishing novels. A lot of college professors and lawyers work part-time as writers.

So why is it that we only view people like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or – God help us – Jackie Collins as successful writers? It’s because we’ve got a warped view of what represents success. Those writers aren’t just successful. They’re uber-successful or mega-successful in the very strict sense that they move a lot of copies and make a lot of money.

Yes, that is one standard-issue view of success. It’s not necessarily a healthy one because almost no one achieves it, but it’s unfortunately common.

Another standard-issue view of success deployed by writers of “serious literature” is critical acclaim. By that view, you’re a success if you get nominated for or win the right literary prizes and get heralded by the right critics.

Yet another view of success is simply “breaking in.” On this view, getting published in a professional magazine, getting published by a traditional publisher, or getting inducted into a professional organization (such as SFWA, HWA, RWA) represents success. You’ve been acknowledged by your peers as worthy.

These are all common views of what constitutes writer success. They all share one common flaw. They have almost nothing to do with you. Sure, every writer wants to be a wildly bestselling author because who doesn’t want buckets of money. But, that’s the writer fantasy. It’s only tangentially related to success.

Real writer success is something you define for yourself. Writer success for you might be finishing the first draft of that novel you’ve been working on for ten years. It might be hitting your target word count for 6 straight months. It might also be selling 5 million copies of that YA dystopian trilogy in spite of the fact that no one likes them anymore.

What makes it meaningful is that the goal stems from something that matters to you. The minute you start basing your notion of success on someone else’s definition is the minute success become a candy-coated shell filled with nothing. It will never create any lasting emotional resonance, no matter how much you “succeed” in terms of that definition.

So, before you start thinking that you’re a failure as a writer, ask yourself about the definition of success you use. Is it really consistent with what you value or is it a definition you picked up from someone else? If it’s the latter, take some time to figure out what success would really look like for you. You’ll be a lot happier.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 



Mark Keigley said...

My own personal bar of success has changed over the years. At first it was...will SOMEBODY publish me? Then it started looking more like will SOMEBODY in the top 3-4 Asimovs, Analog, Clarkesworld, yada - yada publish me. That's evolved the years to write stories that I (meaning ME personally) enjoy inhabiting the world of. And not worrying about who publishes me so much.

~brb said...

The problem with success is that the goalposts never stop moving. When I first began writing fiction, I defined success as "getting published." Then, once I started doing that regularly in small-press and regional magazines, it shifted to become "getting published in a national pro word-rates magazine." Once I started doing that consistently, it became, "selling a novel." Then "getting a multi-book deal." Then "making more money from writing fiction than from my day job." When I finally hit that goal, I thought I'd finally made it, and quit my day job to do nothing but write fiction all day long.

The next year, I made a glorious $8,000. So after a year of learning far more about how the mass-market publishing industry really works than I'd ever wanted to, I was very happy to go back to being a full-time software R&D person and part-time writer.

These days, I think Robert Bloch's "That Hell-Bound Train" should be required reading for all aspiring writers. Not just because it's a great story -- which it is -- but because it describes their future career path.

~brb said...

Huh. Whadaya know. Even Robert Bloch needed editorial help sometimes.

"Train" won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1959. (I knew that.)

The story was shaped by William Tenn, who at the time had an editorial position at Fantasy and Science Fiction salvaging stories that had been selected by Anthony Boucher (prior to Boucher's retirement) as "not quite good enough to be published, but still too good to have been rejected". In 2001, Tenn explained that the original version of "That Hell-Bound Train" had been "an absolutely fine piece of work that just didn't have a usable ending"; consequently, he devised a new ending "and persuaded [Bloch] to write it".

Eric Dontigney said...

I've got no problem with the success goalposts long as you're the one moving them. That is a sign that you're making progress. It's when you go into the process using someone else's definition of success that things get problematic.