In my last blog post, “So You’re Never Going to be Stephen King” (which you can read here if you missed it: https://writinginthedarktw.blogspot.com/2021/02/so-youre-never-going-to-be-stephen-king.html) I wrote about coming to terms with the success we actually get as writers, as opposed to the kind of success most of us can only dream about. The topic definitely struck a nerve. Where most of my blogs get 200-300 views, that one got over 3,000. One of those readers was Bryan Young, from the League of Utah Writers. He got in touch with me and asked if I could give the group a talk based on my blog entry. I said “Sure,” and I retitled my presentation “Redefining Success as a Writer,” which is a hell of a lot more upbeat than the original title. I decided to make a PowerPoint for my talk, so I pulled up my blog entry, read it over, and realized that its content didn’t really lend itself to a presentation. I’d need to create an entirely new version. So I did. I presented it, the group seemed to think it was worthwhile, and I was pleased (and more than a little relieved).
Afterward, I started thinking that this new presentation would make a good follow-up to “So You’re Never Going to be Stephen King.” And lo and behold, it has come to pass. Following is the information I presented to the Utah Writers Group, tweaked here and there, and with a couple additions that have occurred to me in the few days since I had the pleasure of speaking to the group. If, like so many writers (or creatives in general), you struggle with what success in our field means for you, I hope you’ll find this entry helpful. First, let’s talk about . . .
Common Views of Writing Success
There are lots of ways that writers view success, and we likely hold a combination of them at any given time. But the most basic of these are: 1) Finishing a writing project. 2) Getting it published in any way, shape, or form. 3) Having someone read your work, enjoy it, and think it’s good. Important foundational goals for a writer, I’d say, and healthy ones. You could argue there’s a lack of ambition to them, I suppose, but as I said, these are foundational goals, ones upon which you can build.
Getting a literary agent is a big marker of success for many writers, and some writers are so desperate to achieve this goal that they’ll sign with the first agent who asks them, regardless if that agent is a good fit for them or not. (Or even if the agent isn’t a very good one.) Just having someone in the publishing world believe in your work is a huge boost, and so many writers are starving for this kind of validation.
Even with the current ease of self-publishing, many writers see becoming traditionally published as an important marker of success. You have to make it over a lot of hurdles to get traditionally published, especially with the larger houses, and if you reach the finish line, it’s a huge accomplishment. Indie publishing is far more respected than it was when I started out in the early 1980’s, but I’d say writers in general still view being traditionally published as a greater badge of honor.
Having a large audience is extremely important for a lot of writers. The more people who read your work, the better it must be, right?
Getting good reviews is another measure of our work’s quality. The more stars readers give us on Amazon or Goodreads, the better. Same for book review websites and podcasts.
Many writers make it a goal to join professional writers’ organizations, such as HWA, SFWA, MWA, RWA, ITW, WWA, the IAMTW, etc. (If you don’t know what all these acronyms mean, Google Is Your Friend.) Writers need to meet certain requirements to be eligible to join, and once you have joined, you belong to an organization which considers you a professional writer. You can tell people you’re a member of HWA, put it on your website, your business cards, in cover and query letters, etc. This is another huge validation for many.
Being interviewed, asked to present workshops, asked to be a special guest at writing conferences . . . When people approach you for any of these things, it means they view you as a “real writer,” one whom readers are interested in hearing from or being taught by. There are people who view you as an Important Expert (or maybe just a lowercase important expert), and that feels good.
Making money. I’ve lived in America all my life, and the more money you make here, the more successful you are. And if you can make money from producing art – an activity American culture doesn’t place a very high value on – the better writer you must be, as well as being a savvy business-person.
Writers often refer to writing full time – making your living entirely from your writing – as The Dream, one of the most cherished and sought-after milestones in a writing career. If you can put food on the table and pay your bills solely by putting words onto a page, it’s like you’re some kind of goddamn magician. Full-time writers are often the envy of their peers who still have day jobs.
Winning awards. You get one of these, you have to be a good writer, right? Maybe even a great one. After all, you’ve got a physical trophy that says so.
Having your work adapted for film or TV is another huge marker of success. You get some money, which is awesome, but just as good, your work gets in front of the eyes of far more people than your written words will likely ever reach. Plus, even writers often view film or TV as more important mediums than the written word, almost as if their stories aren’t quite real – or perhaps haven’t reached their full potential – until they’ve been adapted for a movie or TV show.
So what’s the problem with these common views of writerly success? Most of these items are beyond our control. Once we’ve made our writing the best it can be, success in any of these areas depends almost entirely on market forces, the decisions of other people, and a hell of a lot of luck. It’s kind of like basing your idea of success in life on whether or not you win the lottery. Not the healthiest or most sustainable of viewpoints.
Drawbacks to the Common Views of Writing Success
You may not achieve all of them during your career. You certainly won’t – or at least are unlikely to – achieve them all at the same time.
You’re following someone else’s paradigms for success, not necessarily yours.
If you try to do too much at once, you might scatter your focus and energy, and you’ll have a difficult time achieving anything.
If you’re focused on achieving All the Things, you might not appreciate what you do achieve.
Lack of Success Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Failure
First off, the concept of failure isn’t necessary. Try to view goals as achieved or in the process of being achieved. And if you don’t achieve a goal, it doesn’t have to equate to failure. Society tells us it does, but you don’t have to buy into that thinking. Not achieving a goal can be a success if you take the attitude it moves you one step closer to achieving your goal. It can also be a success if you learn from not achieving your goal in a way that furthers your pursuit of the goal, helps you redefine your goal or select a new goal.
Focusing on Your Writing Career
Focus on furthering your writing career is good, but being overly focused – especially to point of becoming obsessed with success – can lead to depression and burn-out. In America, there’s an attitude that we have to be working all the time. Gotta keep grinding, grinding, grinding. And if you do anything other than work, you’re lazy and lack commitment. It’s not only good, it’s necessary to balance your writing with other aspects of your life for both your mental and physical health.
It’s okay for your focus to change over time. A friend of mine in college wanted to become a science fiction writer. He wrote sports articles for the college newspaper, and after graduation, he wrote for local papers, and eventually he began publishing sports articles for magazines. When he moved to Indiana, he specialized in basketball and racing articles. When he returned to Ohio, he switched his specialty to golf articles. He wrote some biographies of sports figures for young readers too. We’ve lost touch over the years, so I’m not sure what he’s doing now, but I always think of him when I think of how important it is to be versatile and adaptable when establishing and maintaining a writing career.
America culture tells you to pick a lane and stick to it the rest of your life, but John Jakes wrote science fiction novels before turning to the historical fiction that would make him a bestseller. Raymond Carver started out as a poet before gaining fame as a writer of minimalistic short stories. My college friend wasn’t a failure because he didn’t establish a career in science fiction. He was a success at writing sports nonfiction.
It’s okay to take breaks. My oldest daughter recently graduated with a master’s in oboe performance. She’s burnt out on playing oboe right now, and she began to think she might never play it again. But two of her teachers told her it’s quite common for musicians to take a break from playing after graduating from college, sometimes for years before they pick up their instrument again. My daughter had never heard this before, and I think that’s because people see taking time off as a failure to persist, to keep grinding away, and they’re ashamed to admit it. They shouldn’t be. The more people who talk about the importance of taking a break from their art if they need it, however long it may be, the more normal it will become.
Don’t set arbitrary time limits for success. I turned fifty-seven a couple weeks ago. I first started writing seriously with the intention of making a career out it when I was eighteen. When I started out, I told myself that if I didn’t have a novel published by the time I was thirty, I’d stop writing and seek a different career. My second agent called me on my thirtieth birthday to offer representation, so I figured that was close enough and kept writing. My first novel – a comedic erotic mystery called Dying for It – was published when I was thirty-five (I have a few copies of it lying around it any of you are curious enough to read it as it’s unlike anything else I’ve written). Thanks to movies, TV shows, and entertainment news, we get the idea that if you’re not a creative success right out of the gate, that you’re a failure, and that’s just bullshit.
Don’t wait for the magical day the stars align to start your writing career (or to make a change in it). Conditions will never be optimal. They never are, for anything. It’s not easy to write when you have to work a demanding job, have small children that need a lot of attention, have persistent health issues to manage, etc. Writing is a choice, though. Maybe you can’t make that choice every day. Maybe when you are able to make it, you can’t write for very long, or you have a hard time concentrating. Do your best, whatever your best is that day, and remember there’s no timetable for success. Just by writing, you’ve already succeeded at overcoming not-writing.
Never think you’re too anything – too young, too old, too new at writing, etc. – to begin. I once had student in her forties who wanted to enter a PhD program. “By the time I graduate, I’ll be in my fifties.” I told her she’d reach her fifties whether she had a doctorate or not, so if she really wanted one, she should go for it.
What Makes Someone a “Writer,” Let Alone a “Professional” One?
Some people say if you write, you’re a writer. Others say a professional writer is someone who approaches their writing professionally, regardless of whether or not they publish. Others tie the label of professional to someone who’s traditionally published, even if only a few times and if only in the small press. Others tie to the label to publishing with larger presses, while still others tie it to making a living solely from writing. People’s idea of a Writer with a capital W is often tied to one or more of these definitions. But I’ll tell you a secret: None of this shit matters. Writing isn’t something you are; it’s something you do. It may be a vital part of your life, but it’s still just a part. I love the first line on Ramsey Campbell’s website: “I’m Ramsey Campbell. I write horror.” He’s a person who writes, and the type of fiction he creates is horror. Don’t get hung up on the world’s many definitions of what a writer is or should be, and don’t get down on yourself if you don’t fit any particular definition. You’re a person who writes, so go do it. That’s all you need to know.
Looking Forward vs Being in the Present
Looking forward is a wonderful attribute in a writer. It helps you set goals and keep working toward them. But if you’re always looking forward, you might forget to appreciate present achievements fully. You might even forget to appreciate them at all. If you push too hard to get to the future, you might not take the time you need today to do your best work. You might rush the work to get to the next goal and the next one after that . . .
It’s always cool when a box of author copies arrives at my house, but they’re copies of a book I finished writing a year or more ago. I’m focused on the book I’m currently writing, sometimes to the point where I treat getting author copies like another item to check off a list. Copies of Your Turn to Suffer came today. Check. Time to put them on the shelf and then get back to work on the current novel. It’s important to appreciate present accomplishments, whether it’s writing a scene you’re happy with or getting an email from a reader who really enjoyed one of your stories. Those are wonderful moments, ones that feed your soul, and you shouldn’t let them pass you by.
However . . .
Being too satisfied with the present can keep you from continuing to work on furthering your goals. It’s important to not get too comfortable with where you’re at, to stay hungry and keep striving. – without becoming so consumed by looking forward that it’s all you do. You need to balance looking forward with being in the present. Breathing, drinking, and eating are all equally important to sustaining life. It’s the same for looking forward and being in the present. Both are equally important for a writer.
So much of how we define success as writers depends on whether we reach the goals we’ve set for ourselves. If we get better at how we set goals, as well as how we view those goals, the healthier our attitudes toward achieving them (or not) will be.
Make realistic goals. Starting your writing career by deciding your first novel will outsell Stephen King’s entire output is a sure way to set yourself up to fail. But if your goal is to start and finish your first novel, then you’re setting yourself up for success.
Make “shoot-for-the-stars” goals too. Go ahead, imagine your first novel getting a rave review in The New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly. Write the very best book you can, but once it’s out there for readers to see, don’t count on your shoot-for-the-stars goals to be fulfilled. Don’t invest so much of your mental and emotional energy in these goals that you’re devasted when they don’t happen. I imagine these type of goals like being a basketball player holding the ball as the last few seconds on the clock ticks down. They’re going to hurl the ball as hard as they can toward the opposing team’s net, knowing there’s a slim chance they’ll make a basket, but also knowing there’s zero chance if they don’t take the shot before the buzzer sounds. Accept that shoot-for-the-stars goals may take longer to achieve, and accept that some of them – such as winning a Pulitzer Prize – are less likely to occur than others. And for god’s sake, don’t let not achieving shoot-for-the-stars goals become reasons for believing you’re a failure.
Make short-term and long-term goals. Your long-term goal may be to find a great literary agent. One of your short-terms goals in this process is to research agents and come up with a list of ten to query. Once you’ve done that, you’ve succeeded in achieving a goal, regardless of how the long-term goal plays out in the end. Working toward goals is success in itself, and we should view it as such.
Enjoy the Victories
View achieving any goal, no matter how small, as a victory, and try to take time to appreciate these victories. And of course, celebrate the big victories too! Develop celebration rituals. Give yourself a treat at the end of each writing session. Allow yourself to finally start that series you’ve been meaning to watch on Netflix. Go for a walk. Go out for a drink with friends. When your first novel is published, throw a party. Celebrate alone or invite others to celebrate with you, both in real life and on social media. These rituals will help keep you centered on the present and help you enjoy your victories without immediately forgetting them in your race to achieve the next goal.
Keep mementos of victories around to remind you that success is possible. After all, these reminders are proof you’ve achieved success before and therefore can do so again. Display your author copies where you can see them. Frame an especially glowing review or an email from an appreciate reader and display it somewhere you can see it. On the bad writing days, they’ll serve as a reminder that there are people out there in the world who like your writing and are looking forward to more of it.
Keep a celebration journal. Log your victories in it, no matter how large or small they might be, and when you feel down about your career, page back through it. Savor your victories anew, allow them to become the fuel that will get you going again. (Plus, it’ll be a valuable resource for your future biographers once you become rich and famous.)
Dealing with Not-Success
Not getting what you want isn’t fun for anyone. It’s okay to feel your feelings, but . . .
Don’t overreact and vow to quit writing, destroy all your work, bash your computer to bits with a hammer, etc. Commiserate with friends who understand your pain. Create Not-Success Rituals to make you feel better, but avoid making them self-damaging. Revisit previous successes – mementos, journal entries, positive reviews you’ve saved – to remind you that not only is success possible, you’ve achieved it before and can achieve it again. Allow yourself a short mourning period, then get back to work.
Making a Living as a Writer
Very few writers of any type – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, playwriting, screenwriting – can make a living solely from their writing, especially if what you write isn’t deemed commercial by society at large (like the weird-ass surreal dark fantasy I often write). Those writers who do make a living solely from writing often live in near-poverty (if they don’t have a spouse with a good income). They often don’t have health insurance either. Living like this can be very stressful, and that stress results in difficulty creating. Because of this, people who write full time often don’t produce any more work, or any better work, than when they had a day job. And full-time writers often have various income streams that are writing-adjacent, such as teaching writing, freelance editing others’ work, freelance mentoring other writers, doing freelance business or technical writing, etc. Not long ago, I read an article with the director of an MFA program who said he advises his students to find a day job that allows them time to write. A job which keeps your body busy but allows you time to daydream. A job that doesn’t suck all the life out of you each shift so you’re too tired to write when you come home. A job where you have a certain amount of downtime, such as a night security guard. A job where you can earn an income that will allow you to live but still affords some time off, such as a teaching gig where you don’t have to work in the summer unless you want to. (Teachers are only employed for nine months. The other three months they’re unemployed unless they wish to teach part-time or work at some other job, such as their writing.) Finding a job that will allow you time to write is far easier said than done, but it’s a goal you can strive for. But never feel like a failure – or like you’re not a “real” writer – because of what you do to pay your bills.
Positive Views of Success That Are Under Our Control
Artistic Satisfaction. The making of something, of engaging our creative selves in the artistic process, can be satisfying and a worthy goal in itself. We may not always feel fully satisfied with each project we work on, but if we continue to create, we will experience such satisfaction. We need to take time to savor it.
Personal Satisfaction. When we write, we are doing the thing we enjoy the most, the thing which perhaps is the truest expression of ourselves. We show we have the courage to pursue our dream. All of this can be very satisfying on a personal level, and we need to savor it as well.
Community-Building Satisfaction. By sharing our writing with others, we contribute to enriching our culture. By connecting with readers and other writers, we build community, and we should appreciate this.
What else is writing for ultimately, if not these three things?
And that seems as good a point to end on as any.
Additional Resources: Eric Maisel is a psychologist and author who specializes in helping creative people. He’s written numerous books that can help creatives develop a healthy and positive view of success. You can find them listed on his website at www.ericmaisel.com. One of my favorites, which I recommend to writers all the time, is Creativity for Life.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION
YOUR TURN TO SUFFER
Lorelei Palumbo is harassed by a sinister group calling themselves The Cabal. They accuse her of having committed unspeakable crimes in the past, and now she must pay. The Cabal begins taking her life apart one piece at a time – her job, her health, the people she loves – and she must try to figure out what The Cabal thinks she’s done if she’s to have any hope of answering their charges and salvaging her life.
Advanced reviews have been good so far, with the book garnering a cumulative Goodreads score of 4.13 out of 5 stars. Reviewers have commented that the book is something of a throwback to 1980’s horror and reminds them of early Clive Barker. They’ve also said it’s a dark, brutal book, with some going so far as to say it flirts with Splatterpunk. It also has elements of surreal, cosmic horror as well. Perhaps my favorite review quote so far comes from Donna Fox:
“For the last quarter of the story, I felt like I was caught underneath a freight train going one hundred miles an hour! My mouth was so dry I needed to get a drink, but I couldn’t put the book down. I had goosebumps, and I needed a sweater – but I couldn’t stop reading. The ending was that intense!”
Music to a horror author’s ears! If all this sounds like your cup of poisoned tea, I hope you’ll give Your Turn to Suffer a try.
Order Links for Your Turn to Suffer
Flame Tree Website
This is my page on the Flame Tree site, where you can order any of my Flame Tree novels, including Your Turn to Suffer.
Barnes and Noble
WRITING IN THE DARK SYMPOSIUM: SPRING EDITION
The next Writing in the Dark Online Workshop will take place this coming weekend March 26th-28th. It's all about how to level up as an author. No matter what level you're at, there's always room to level up! Many guest lecturers have signed on to assist and it will cover a broad list of writing topics. The first symposium was a big hit, and I hope you’ll be able to join us for the sequel! I’ll be conducting a session on using three prime elements of horror fiction: Anticipation, Confrontation Point, and Aftermath, and I’ll likely be on several panels as well.
Follow this link to register:
NECRONOMI.COM: DISCUSSION OF IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS
I recently had the honor of being a guest on the Necronomi.com podcast. We talked about one of my favorite films, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. It was a great discussion, and you can listen to it here:
WANT TO STALK ME?
Writing Media Tie-Ins: May 4th. I’m presenting this workshop in conjunction with Clarion West. It’s online and there’s no fee. https://www.clarionwest.org/workshops/online-workshops/creating-media-tie-in-fiction-just-add-writer-with-tim-waggoner/
Stokercon: May 20th to May 23rd. Thanks to Covid, Stokercon will again be virtual this year. I’ll be conducting a guest of honor interview with the amazing Steve Rasnic Tem, and I’ll also be presenting a workshop based on my article “All the Things I Wished I’d Known as a Beginner Horror Writer.” I’ll be participating in a panel on the importance of horror for Stokercon’s Librarian’s Day, and I should also be on some additional panels and likely doing a reading. I’ll let you know when I have a schedule to share. http://stokercon2021.com/
Readercon 31: July 9th to July 11th. Readercon is going to be virtual this year, and I’ve been invited to be a quest. I should be on a panel or two, and I might do a workshop as well. http://readercon.org/
Want to follow me on social media? Here’s where you can find me:
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZEz6_ALPrV3tdC0V3peKNw
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