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What Wild Success Looks Like

"The Ninth Circle" by my friend  Doug Thielscher

"The Ninth Circle" by my friend Doug Thielscher

I ask this question – What does wild success look like? – of every writer I coach and every writer who comes into my AuthorAccelerator program, because I think it’s a critically important thing for us all to understand. If you’re going to spend at least a year pouring your heart and soul into something, you should have a clear idea of why you are doing it, and a clear idea of what you are aiming to achieve.

In the last year, I have probably read more 250 answers to this question, and I recently realized that almost everyone gives some permutation of the exact same two answers. No matter WHY they are drawn to writing a book, their vision of success usually includes some version of the following:

1. Wild success means being plucked from obscurity. This may take the form of being on Oprah, selling rights to a Hollywood movie studio, winning a Pulitzer Prize or getting on the New York Times bestseller list. Whatever the exact vision, it has to do with being recognized as being worthy. It’s not just ME standing here saying, “I can write! I have something important to say! I am good at this!” It’s some clear authority who has singled me out and said, “She can write! She has something important to say! She is good at this!”  Big, big difference, and it’s the thing we all want. To be validated. To be made legitimate. To have the inner vision of who we are, writer-wise, match who the vision of who the world believes we are.

2. Wild success means getting to keep writing. This often takes the form of people wanting to do well enough to quit their day job. Sometimes people cite getting a three-book deal, or a big advance, but the root desire is the same: you get to keep doing the thing you love and you don’t have to do all the other hard stuff you have been doing all your life. You get a free pass.

I bring up this up because the vast majority of us are never going to get the things we dream about. We’re just not. And I think it’s critical to look at this truth from time to time, because what writers often experience once they finish or publish their first book is despair and heartbreak.

I hate to break that news to you, but it’s just the way it is.

A teeny tiny fraction of writers get plucked from obscurity in a way that is life changing. Yes, you may land a great agent, secure a solid book deal, and score a review on the cover of the Sunday Times, but odds are still really, really good that you are not going to become Elizabeth Gilbert or J.K. Rowling.

That means that you still have to explain to people what your book is about and what you do and why it matters. You still have to fight for readers and money and airtime. You still have to think about what you are going to write next and find the time to write it amidst all the other hard things you have to do. You still probably have to keep your day job.

And as for getting to keep writing? To be invited back to do it again? And paid for the privilege? A very few number of writers win that prize. It usually has to do directly with how many books you sell, and most books don’t sell enough to warrant the writer getting ongoing support.

This is all in my head right now because I had a lot of writers this week feeling a lot of despair. These are writers who are just starting to take themselves seriously, as well as writers who have worked really hard to finish and don’t seem to be getting anywhere with agents or publishers or readers.

And it hurts to have to face that truth. It hurts a lot. Because it’s so easy to think that if you don’t win wild success, you have lost.

I heard a quote this week on the radio during a discussion about the NFL.  The guests were talking about what a successful football season is. Is it ONLY winning the SuperBowl? Do we believe that there is literally ONE team that is successful and 57 others that lose? The conclusion was that this kind of thinking is, of course, absurd. There a many, many ways to have a successful sports season – including being good sports, doing better than last year, building towards future success, being moral leaders to the legion of young people watching, breaking records, making money, and enjoying playing the sport.

The same is true with writers. It’s not just the people who win big and win publicly who succeed.

I think it would help all of us to reframe our notions about what it means to succeed.

  • Actually finishing, for example. Actually doing it and not just talking about it. THAT is a huge success and for many people, that is enough.
  • Learning the craft. Really understanding how books are made, how readers are hooked, what magic creates emotion on the page. It feels good to master something that other people don’t know how to do, to become good at it.
  •  Touching a reader. I know from experience that touching just one reader in a truly deep and impactful way can be enormously satisfying. Yes, of course, we would all like to touch thousands, perhaps even millions, but one is good. One is a good start.
  •  Not taking no for an answer. Not letting someone else dictate what you are going to do with your time and your talent. This can mean, in some cases, deciding to go ahead and publish your book yourself when everyone else says no. Is that as good as being plucked from obscurity? Of course not. But it’s also sometimes the difference between reality and fantasy. We live in a time where we don’t HAVE to wait for an agent to choose us or a traditional publisher to invest in us. We can bring our own books into the world. And perhaps sometimes that makes good sense.

I did an interview a few weeks ago with a writer who stopped waiting for an agent and self published her book. It made good sense for her.

Today at 9 am PST I’ll be doing a live Q&A with another such writer, who refused to take no for an answer and is making good things happen for herself. We’re going to talk about how you do that, and what it feels like and what the risks and rewards are. (If you want to join us or get the recording, sign up HERE.)

What I love about these stories is that the writers didn’t roll over and play dead just because they didn’t get the big juicy book deal. They re-calibrated their ideas about what wild success can really mean and looked at it a little more realistically.  They took control of their writing destiny. They looked despair in the face and said, “No thank you.”

Believe me, I’m the first to raise my hand and say I want to be plucked from obscurity and handed a three-book deal with a crack traditional publishing team that would mean I never have to do anything ever again except write whatever comes into my head.

The yearning for that never ends…. unless you realize how rarely that Big Win happens. And unless you realize that the Big Win is not really why any of us are writing.

As Madeline L’Engle said, “What matters is the book itself.  If it is as good a book as you can write at this moment in time, that is what counts.  Success is pleasant; of course you want it; but it isn’t what makes you write.”

We all know L’Engle as the author of the classic, A Wrinkle in Time. But before she wrote that book, she was a frustrated housewife trying to be a writer and wracking up rejection after rejection.

On her fortieth birthday, upon receiving one more rejection, she wrote this:  “I uncovered the typewriter.  In my journal I recorded this moment of decision, for that’s what it was.  I had to write.  I had no choice in the matter.  It was not up to me to say I would stop, because I could not.  It didn’t matter how small or inadequate my talent.  If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing.”

If you are feeling any sort of despair around your work today (or this week or this year), take a step back from that agony and take a deep breath and try answering that question – What would wild success look like? – in a way that is a little less grandiose.

And think about why you are writing.

Do you have to go on writing, no matter what the world offers you in terms of success??

Good, then do it, and do it with joy.

If you don’t have to go on writing? Also good. Now you know, and you have time for other interesting pursuits.




How to See the Story

                                                             One of Mary Reaney's beautiful designs

                                                             One of Mary Reaney's beautiful designs

Over Thanksgiving my kids were talking about the concept of a “lame superpower” – which I take to mean a superpower that would be cool to have, but also somewhat useless in comparison to actual superpowers such as being invisible or being able to time travel. One such lame superpower that was discussed, for example, was the ability to wake up with a smile in your face every day – before coffee.
This whole train of thought led me to think about a superpower that I believe many writers possess – and one which I believe we should all seek to strengthen. It’s the ability to see stories – to see the resonant moment in our own work, to see the core of the point we are trying to make, to see the idea that is strong and powerful and everlasting and not just the next shiny thing in front of us.
I think this would be a powerful asset, because sometimes the story is so maddeningly elusive. I have a client whom I shall call Joanne. I have been working with her one on one for a year – and she has been working hard.  She never misses a deadline, she estimates that she has written 500,000 words, she is willing to throw things out, to start over, to try again and again and again. And yet only this week did she really SEE her story.
Here is what she wrote about it:
 I feel excited about the story as if it were a new idea.  I can see how it plays out and, most importantly, I understand why I’m telling it.  I am embarrassed that it took so long to get here, but my sweet spouse’s reaction was pure delight: I found the key piece of the story!

I kept looking under the lamppost where the light was brighter.  I kept looking there until you suggested I wander over to the dark side of the street where more interesting things were happening if I’d stick around long enough to look and listen.

[This is Jennie and I didn’t want to include the next part but this writer made it a requirement of my using her words, so here it is…] I would not have gotten here without you.  It’s that clear.  You showed me what we missing, time and again, and the last piece helped click it all together. Thank you a million times over!
A year to see your story isn’t actually so bad. That’s actually somewhat fast. I have taken three times that long to find a story I was writing – and that was only after an editor led me to it by my nose. (In a post in the next weeks I’m going to write about what you DO once you have this aha moment – how you write forward, how you revise, how you use this information…. I call it The Golden Thread. Stay tuned for that!
The truth is that sometimes the words get in the way of the seeing, or the world, or our doubt, or a million other things. But like Joanne, when we see it, it’s so clear.
I am going on a trip this weekend with a friend who has just embarked on a grand adventure in her life. She is an interior designer who has a newly empty nest at home. She loves to travel, and loves to make spaces beautiful, and she has made a commitment to transform ten houses in ten cities in ten years. This is a commitment to how she wants to live in the world and how she wants to work – not from one home base, but from ten home bases. We are travelling to New Orleans, where the first of the ten projects is underway.
All I can see here is the story. It is like a neon sign flashing in the night! Who wouldn’t want to know how she chooses the cities, how she chooses the spaces, how she populates the spaces with lovely things in under a week  ( a one woman extreme makeover), how she meets people in the new place (the realtor, the woman at Restoration Hardware, the professor from the college down the road, the owner of the building…) what she does when she visits the new city, why she does it, and what lessons she will take to the next city on the list (which will be Rome)?
I see in stories and my dear friend simply does not… she is not chronicling the first of the ten, not writing blog posts about it, not taking pictures of the process, not taking notes. Part of me is jumping up and down and screaming, “Story, story, story!!!” I feel as thought my heart is about to burst.
But another part of me is realizing that my friend is not a writer. She tells her story in different ways, through furniture and art and fabric and rugs and even the glasses in which she serves drinks. A few weeks ago, she held a cocktail party for all the new friends she has met in her new place, and I have been to her parties so I know what they are like – warm, friendly, festive. I am certain that everyone who came enjoyed themselves and marveled at the lovely surroundings and felt the enveloping glow of a woman who likes nothing better than to host a party in a pretty space – even for people she has only just met.
I would tell the same story in a very different way – I mean, I can just SEE it: ten chapters, a through-line about making the world more beautiful and being at home in the world, a thread of how-tos about the stores visited, the money spent, the secret list of things that you can buy at Target that you don’t need to buy somewhere more expensive.
I have the power to see this story – but not the motivation to tell it.*
Having both the story and the motivation?? Maybe that isn’t such a lame superpower at all.
* Yes, yes I know that I could actually write my friend’s ten houses story on her behalf. But I have so many of my own stories to tell – I don’t need to borrow anyone else’s. And since you asked (ha!), my dog story is going just fine, thank you. I have a character who is writing a twist on Romeo & Juliet-- I basically need a play within a play within the story -- and so on my weekend outing, I will be reading some Shakespeare and thinking about the fabulous movie, Shakespeare in Love, and trying to tell myself that I can do this.