Measuring Success

I’ve been on panels with some amazing authors at Utah conventions the past couple of years–national bestselling authors who have had incredible success and a lot of experience working with major publishers, negotiating contracts for advances on their manuscripts, and teaching the craft of writing. I love learning from these people about their writing processes, their experiences, and their strategies, and have copious notes on their nuggets of wisdom stowed away. These people are brilliant. They work hard at their craft. They get people, and they know how to spin the stories their audiences want to hear. They also seem to recognize they wouldn’t be where they are today without somebody–a publisher, an agent, people they’ve never met browsing the shelves of a tangible or virtual bookstore–deciding to take a chance on them. For anyone, putting our work out there is a gamble, and that gamble doesn’t always pay off in the way we hope or expect.

Something I think is important for new and veteran authors alike to recognize is that everyone’s path to success is going to be unique. Major bestselling authors can describe their own journey to fame and fortune inside and out, but they can’t fully translate that success into an exact formula that will turn you into a bestseller too. It isn’t for lack of trying. Like I said, a lot of them teach professional workshops and actively reach out to new writers who may be either looking for someone to point them in the right direction or who may be discouraged. They have a lot of great insight to share. They make a concerted effort to foster creativity in others, advocating the power of learning and the value of perseverance. Somebody else taught them about craft and business somewhere along the way, and they want to pass it on.

Tenacity, skill, and networking to build both a fan base and a peer-support base are all essential to a writer’s growth and success. Taking classes, reading, attending professional writing conferences, working hard, and learning from the pros are almost guaranteed to make your writing solid and sellable. People who study the publishing market, however, have a hard time identifying exactly what makes one product soar up the charts seemingly overnight while another flounders and flops, or does “just okay.” It’s a weird combination of timing, of making something that is good enough quality to resonate with people, marketing it properly, and hitting just the right nerve with the masses at just the right season.

Most of the time, writing fiction is a labor of tough love fraught with rejection, stagnation, confusion, isolation, and meager successes that build credentials but can’t pay the bills. I was talking to a really nice man back at Steven Peck’s release party for Wandering Realities who’s published a heck of a lot of short stories. I won’t name him, and I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing his story because it struck a cord with me. He said he tends to be self-conscious about his writing abilities and carries a feeling of inadequacy around with him, even to this day. He has never reached his goal of making it into a Writers of the Future anthology (despite being a finalist FOUR TIMES), or finished a novel. This made him so discouraged he gave up writing for many years because, despite his incredible track record, he felt like a failure.

He assumed he wasn’t a very good writer, so he withdrew from doing what he loved–and what he was, in fact, good at. His very beautiful and earnest advice to me was this: don’t undermine your successes because you’ve failed to meet your goals.

When I was in high school, I received my first ever C-grade taking a calculus class my junior year. A friend of mine in the same class, who was on track for a D that term and was a lot less stressed about her grade than I was about mine, communicated a similar sentiment when she told me, with an amused and reassuring grin, “After the first one [C-grade], you get used to it.” I consider this some of the best life advice I’ve ever been given.

Success does not appear to be a simple equation with obvious outcomes. Your success will not be my success, and my success will not be Tracy Hickman’s, or James Dashner’s, or Jack Horner’s (I might as well throw in a famous paleontologist while I’m at it). We may not achieve exactly what we’ve dreamed of, hoped for, worked for, or expected, but we have likely accomplished far more than we give ourselves credit for.

In the words of a scripture I love, in LDS Doctrine and Covenants 58:3-4, “Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation. For after much tribulation come the blessings.”

Whatever you may feel and wherever you may be with various accomplishments and milestones in your life, hang in there, and don’t sell yourself short. We’re all making more progress than we may think we are.

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