The Measure of Success

I’ve probably written about success on here before, about finding some way of defining that elusive meaning in a way that results in encouragement rather than despair. But this morning I read a post by a young author that hurt my heart, so I think it’s time I revisited the idea.

Success. What does that mean for an author? For a traditionally published author? For an indie author? For the author who never publishes and never wants to publish? It would be tempting to say that every definition is going to be different, and it should be, but the miserable fact is that while an author will have their own measure of success, friends, family, and the writing community at large have their measuring sticks out too, and boy do they like to use them!

Traditionally published? Did you sell a lot of books? Did you get a huge advance? Did you earn out? Did the publisher buy your next book? What about film? When’s your sequel coming out? What do you mean not for another four years? Didn’t you know so-and-so already has a deal for their next two books and a movie deal?

Indie published? Did you sell a lot of books? What about royalties? Are you getting them yet? How many books will you publish this year? What do you mean the sequel isn’t drafted yet? Don’t you know how hard an indie has to work and market to be seen as a real author?

Unpublished? Why aren’t you querying yet? Your work is so good. You need to get an editor. You don’t have enough CPs. Do you use plenty of Betas? Oh, you did query and got a form rejection? Oh, that means you aren’t good enough. That means the agent just wasn’t a good fit. You have to query more! You have to query less! Oh, I know. You should self-publish.

Sound familiar?

An author may have their own idea of what success means to them, but every day in the trenches, on sub, or simply chatting with friends, that idea will be challenged, both externally and internally. Why? Because authors are hard-wired for feedback, for changing their ideas based on what they find out as they grow, and the vast majority of us are haunted now and then from that awful old ghoul, imposter syndrome. Suddenly, the old idea of success as measured only against one’s own standard starts to look kind of foolish. Maybe we should have earned a big advance. Maybe we should have sold a lot more books. Maybe we should have queried more. Everybody says so!

That’s when it’s important to look back at how we define success and either revise it to something that can’t be used to cut us open, or to hang onto the healthy view we have decided for ourselves—one that we created to measure our progress on our own terms.

I know what my definition of success is. That doesn’t mean I don’t question it, doubt it, and struggle to redefine sometimes. But I always come back to the one I had when I was sitting alone with a crayon in my hand and an idea in my head—I defined success by the act of creation, not the reception. I want my meaning to always be my own, not someone else’s idea of what success should look like.

It’s important to remember that, especially during times when there are various pitch contests ongoing, others selecting mentors, and NaNoWriMo roaring in the background. Hang on to your success—whatever that looks like for you. If you don’t, I can almost guarantee comparison is out there, waiting to steal your joy.

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