The Many Meanings of Success

When I’m not running a communications company and/or working on Las Vegas novels, I do a little writing consulting in my spare time. In fact, the only thing I like better than writing is talking about writing. So it makes sense.

About 20 percent of what I discuss with my writing clients involves technical problems — dialogue, characterization, plot, subtext, voice and the like. The other 80 percent? Emotional issues such as writer’s block, procrastination, fear, hitting the wall and all the other bugaboos that never seem to completely go away. When you start peeling back the layers, you realize that most of them are rooted in the same cause: focusing on the final outcome instead of the process. Which, of course, leads us to the tired, but nonetheless true, cliché about enjoying the journey. Once again, writing as a metaphor for life. And while that’s a fruitful conversation for another day, it’s not technically the theme of today’s musings.

Today, I want to concentrate on one outcome in particular, writing a best-seller. Usually my clients mention the New York Times Best-Seller List by name, although it’s strictly a stand-in for the unspoken questions, “What are my chances of selling millions of copies? Becoming the next Stephen King? (Or J.K. Rowling or E.L. James or John Grisham or whoever happens to be today’s reigning superstar in their genre.) This is especially prevalent among newbie authors, no matter their age. Older individuals broach the subject just as often as young folks with freshly minted MFA degrees. And I tell them all the same thing. “Can it happen? Sure. Will it happen? With roughly the same frequency as hitting the lotto.” Put another way, there are a thousand easier ways to make money.

Some get discouraged and decide not to write, which means they weren’t real writers in the first place. Real writers don’t want to write, they have to write. It’s a primal need that tugs at their sleeve, kicks them in the shin and generally torments them until they give in. I have a good friend who wrote six unpublished novels over a ten year period while getting turned down (sometimes in the ugliest ways) by publisher after publisher until finally breaking through. And now she’s a big success, with a huge loyal following that can hardly wait for the next book in her series. What kept her going? The burning need to get her stories out of her head and onto paper. (Okay, and a bit of insanity that fuels us all.) I maintain she was a success long before getting discovered. She has, and does, disagree with me. Which simply means that success looks different for each of us.

For me, the goals have been incremental. First, to find out if I could actually write something longer than 5,000 words, even if it sucked. Then to try to make it good (with the help of a brilliant editor who I now count as a close friend.) Then to see if I could get it published. (I couldn’t at first, so I self-published, which later led to traditional publishing deals.) Then to sell X number of copies. And then X more. All the while improving my craft. And finally, to make a living as a full-time author. That last one I haven’t been able to accomplish yet, but I’m getting closer.

Along the way, I celebrated little successes that kept me going. Like the first time a reader took the time to send me a complimentary email saying how my book made him laugh and cry. And a reviewer who said she missed her bus because she couldn’t stop reading my story. And a famous author who sent me a hand-written note of encouragement. Not to mention the “writer’s high” I’ve experienced countless times after a good day at the keyboard. And all the really nice people I’ve met. All told, these little successes add up to one big life-changing success, even though I haven’t hit that best-seller list either. Even if I never do, I’m much better off for giving in to my muse and embarking on this remarkable journey. I urge you to do the same.

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