What makes a successful writer?

Let’s make it specific, and talk about writers of long fiction – novelists. Is it when a book (probably not your first!) is accepted for publication? When you get your first cheque? Is it when you hold that first published work in your hand? Or when you see it in the local bookshop? Perhaps it’s when you read the first professional review of your work.

Maybe none of those things mean success. Maybe it’s when you receive critical acclaim. A prize of some sort, for your writing. Or maybe when you sell your first 10,000 copies. Or when you finally earn enough on a regular basis to give up the day job. When you are on a bestseller list somewhere. Does it have to be the NYT list, perhaps?

Any one of those things may be the mark of a successful “author”, but none of them defines success for a real live person, the writer. At least, not to me. And to explain why, I have to digress for a moment.

I have been asked several times by unpublished writers, ‘How do I know when to give up? You tell me, “Keep trying!”, but what if I am never going to make it, simply because I don’t have the talent to build on, no matter how many classes I take, or books I read, or practice I do? When do I know I am wasting my time?’

I have never been sure how to answer, because to me they are asking a strange question.

I started thinking or myself as a writer – as a potential published author – when I was about eight. I used to write adventure stories and read them to the other kids in the playground. When anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “An authoress,” And wondered why they laughed.

And yet I was fifty-two before I finally sold my first book. (I had sold work before, though; non-fiction articles related to environmental issues and to travel.) Were the years in between full of disappointments and depression because I hadn’t “made it”? No, of course not. I had a fulfilling life and I was writing. And enjoying it. (And probably not really trying hard enough. My excuse is that money was tight and it was a lot harder in those pre-internet, pre-computer days, living as I did in a foreign third world country.)

So when people ask me, ‘When should I give up?’, I am genuinely puzzled. Why would they want to give up? Don’t they enjoy what they do? Isn’t writing stories what it’s all about?  It is for me. If I were to lose all my publishers tomorrow, I’d still be writing stories. I’d miss the income meagre as it is, but I’d still be enjoying what I do, just the way I enjoy reading, or taking a walk in the forest.

Of course, I love the fact that I have readers. I love to share my stories. But if I hated what I did, if sitting down at the computer every day was either pure torture or massively boring, if writing was a horrible chore – then no amount of money, or acclaim, or great reviews, or huge sales figures would convince me I was a successful person, or that I was leading a successful life.

Success is not measured in money or awards or other people’s admiration or envy. It is measured by how happy you are. The most successful people are those who love what they do.

Now, when people ask me when they should give up, my answer is: “Give up right now, this very minute, if you don’t like what you are doing. However, if you do love writing, why would you ever want to give up?”

 ___________________

The Last Stormlord, first book of Glenda’s new trilogy, is on sale in Australia. (In USA and the UK you’ll have to wait till March 2010). But you can read it – yes, the entire book – for the next ten days or so online here.

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  1. 1. Satima Flavell

    Too right, Glenda! Nevertheless, there is a component of wanting to be appreciated for something one does well, I think, even if it’s only writing and illustrating little stories for the grandchildren, as I know a lot of people our age do. A story that remains unread by all but its creator is lilke a flower than blooms unseen and is never fertilised. Reading and writing are two parts of a whole, aren’t they?

  2. 2. Maureen

    Glenda, you sound like you have a very beautiful soul. I agree that real and enduring personal happiness has nothing to do with material success. But, on the other hand I felt pretty darn happy the day I held my first published work in my hand.
    Maureen Hume. http://www.thepizzagang.com

  3. 3. glenda larke

    I am perhaps really, really odd. I stopped showing my work to others aged about 13. And with a few exceptions, I wrote for more than 30 years without showing anyone anything. I did read a kid’s book of mine to my children. And a couple of times – when I could afford it, which wasn’t often – I sent something off to a publisher. Seems strange to think of that now, but it was once a major expense to both print and to post a MS off overseas, with a SAE. My solitary life as a writer was more or less a secret only my immediate family knew. All my friends fell over backwards when I produced my first book, already published. No one had ever had the slightest idea of what I was doing.

    Mind you, maybe I received any need for appreciation from the non-fiction I had published during that time – which varied from scientific papers to articles in glossy magazines.

  4. 4. Shayne Parkinson

    Yes! Thank you for articulating this so beautifully.

    It’s never occurred to me to give up writing, even though I don’t expect ever to have material success with it. If I have too long a period (measured in days rather than weeks) without writing, a gloom descends on me. A good writing day is a good day, however dull it might be in other ways.

  5. 5. Wereviking

    Easy enough said unless you were raised with praise as a reward making you a perpetual claimant for acknowledgement, in which case slaving away in a cold dark room for the infinite regress of “one day” making it — isn’t easy.

    Zephyr — a superhero webcomic in prose
    http://wereviking.wordpress.com

  6. 6. RD Williams

    Amen Glenda! There are many things that I write that no one might ever see, and I write them because I love to write!

    When my first novel was published I wondered why I didn’t feel any different. Then I had my own copy of it in my hand, and I still didn’t feel any different. I finally realized, as I was writing a short story, one of those ones you write just because you have to, just for yourself, when I realized I didn’t feel any different, because being published wasn’t why I had written anything. Now I find myself thinking…”I write, therefore I am…” :) and wonder if that makes me….a bit odd. Oh well, I am happy, and my wife understands my “writer’s madness” as I call it, so I AM successful!

  7. 7. Clothdragon

    I’m not yet published, but my answer to that would be that if you think you can quit writing and still be happy — quit. That just makes sense. Writing is hard work that is often solitary, keeping you from friends or other sources of fun.

    If you’ll spend the rest of your life writing, whether you get published or not or if anyone else likes your stories even — then you keep writing.

    And if you’re writing anyway, you may as well try to make your writing the best that it can be and submit it when you think its good enough for the chance of turning a hobby into a career.

  8. 8. Leah

    Your story sounds similar to mine. The only thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a writer. It took me 30+ years to figure out *how* to do it, but I never thought about giving it up. It’s what I do. And it makes me very happy.

  9. 9. Satyavrat[Novelistt]

    ” If you love sunshine, the sun doesn’t shower more on you and less on others.
    If you hate the heat, the sun doesn’t stop shining!
    If you don’t like apples, they don’t stop growing!
    If you don’t like birds singing, they don’t stop tweeting!

    If someone likes your writing, arrogance shouldn’t creep in you.
    Nor if someone doesn’t, you shouldn’t stop writing.

    Can you give up breathing if someone suggests you to?

    Writing comes naturally……………..just like the breath: You live to write OR Do you write for a living?

    The answer to this question would solve your problem….

  10. 10. Elias McClellan

    Most of this (comments included) is very helpful but some is down right annoying. I’ve been the noob asking this question at signings and readings, just as I’ve been the noob asking how to get published.

    I’ve been looked at and spoken to oddly by authors who have obviously forgotten the pre-published years or remember them diferently than they expressed in interviews. What I find most often is the brush-off as both questions are regarded as rediculous.

    But Walter Mosley and Elmore Leonard were the least arrogant most helpful. Mr. Mosley said if you believe in your story, you never give up. You may amend, revise, or re-work it or you may become bored with it and then it wasn’t meant to be anyway. But if you believe, you never give up. Mr. Leonard said that if you focus on the writing, you’ll get published and if you don’t focus on building, developing, and improving your writing, you wont.

  11. 11. Alma Alexander

    You should give up and stop trying when it stops being important to you – in terms of WRITING. Because that is what you are doing. Writing. Getting published is gravy.

  12. 12. glenda larke

    No, Elias, it’s not a “noobish” question, just one that I didn’t know how to answer because it didn’t relate to my experience. Now that I have thought about it some more, you have my answer above.

    Clothdragon above has an extension to the answer worth thinking about too: “And if you’re writing anyway, you may as well try to make your writing the best that it can be and submit it when you think its good enough for the chance of turning a hobby into a career.”

  13. 13. Rachel Heston Davis

    In many ways this article is right on. You have to love to write to be a writer! I’ve been writing since I was old enough to hold a pencil and draw out stories in pictures, and most of that body of work is never going to see a publisher, but I enjoyed doing it!

    There is, however, another side to this issue if you are a full-time writer. I’m fortunate to have a husband who makes enough money that I don’t have to work, so I do my writing full time. Writing is the only job I could ever see myself doing–I just don’t have a passion for anything else. When publication becomes your only career option, the pressure to get there is stronger than it would be for someone who feels satisfied and affirmed in their career and is doing writing as a “second career.”

    Just my two cents.

    Rachel Heston Davis
    Up and Writing
    http://www.rachelhestondavis.wordpress.com

  14. 14. H. Midiam

    I remember reading a comment once that was written by someone in their twenties. It was a lament as much as a comment, and it basically said that all of the writers of Science Fiction are gray-haired. After looking through some of the photo albums from prior conventions, I can say that a goodly number of them are. Perhaps it simply takes most of us that long to really get good at the craft.

    There is something to be said for persistence, but I find that many of the people who are writing today are just testing the waters. They are more in-love with the idea of being a “writer” than they are with actually putting words on paper or sharing their ideas. When they try for several months or years and still find no success, they are ready to quit.

    I write because that is how I think best. It is much more difficult for me to speak the things I want to say and writing gives me a bit of time to think about my message.

  15. 15. Cynthia Harris

    I just discovered this, so maybe I’m a bit late. I fully understand the overpowering need to write, come what may. I think what many people (including myself) mean is: “When should I decide that all the research on publishers and agents, and all the careful enquiries and partials etc, are really a waste of time that I don’t have.”
    I don’t mean at all to sound arrogant, but I am old enough and academic enough and experienced enough to know when writing is good, and I feel sure there are many worse novels than mine in print. I keep on trying to find the right spot for one of my novels, but even with internet it is a slow process. Sometimes I think I should be saying: “Enough! Woman, you’re an idiot! Give up the Angst, and get a life!” Any thoughts on this?

  16. 16. glenda larke

    Cynthia, perhaps these words of yours are telling: “really a waste of time that I don’t have”. If you are focused too much on the getting published and not enough on the joy of writing, then definitely there comes a time (if many tries don’t end in a success) when it is time to say “enough”.

    Think of people who play the piano for their own enjoyment. Or knit. Or garden. Or scrapbook. Or any other of a hundred and one hobbies which offer no chance of monetary reward or even recognition. They don’t stop because it is not going anywhere much. Why not? Because they enjoy it. Because they like the finished product.

    If they felt it was a waste of time they didn’t have, they’d be mad to continue past the point where they realize it is not going to end up with them being a concert pianist, or producing prize winning roses or income selling knitted items.

    The problem is identifying that ” ‘waste of time’ versus the ‘there’s still hope’ ” threshold. And that’s a very personal decision.

    There is something I tried in the days before I was published: I sat down and wrote something totally new.
    It revived my flagging enthusiasm, and quite frankly, each time I did that, the next book was better and more likely to be published.

  17. 17. JACOBY FROM LA PUSHY

    @GLENDA LARK: I have a serious question. Do you write novel-length manuscripts when you say “write”, or are you talking about journal writing here and there? I ask because everybody keeps talking about fun, fun, fun in writing but are you engaging in the constant editing and revising process of the manuscript? Are you spending time studying literary agents, what they accept, and what kinds of queries, ect. each one of these agents prefers? How much time have you invested in studying the market, the market for your genre, and the publishing industry? Do you present your work to Beta Readers for feedback and then revise again? I ask all this because, well, this is EXTREMELY hard work. I have written 3 novels and would like to get this 4th one I’m working on “published. Yes, PUBLISHED! This is WAY to much work to just put in a drawer when I’m done; that would be SILLY! I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to get published or even trying to earn some $ through writing. I mean, typing and editing
    /revising just is not really my idea of actual “fun” these days. I mean for fun I’ll play video games or something, watch a movie- not edit a friggin’ manuscript!

  18. 18. JACOBY FROM LA PUSHY

    Okay Glenda, I directed my last question at you but also to all the responders. Thank you.

  19. 19. glenda larke

    Hi Jacoby – sorry been a while in replying this, but I was only just notified about your comment.

    Firstly, when I say “write” I am referring to novel writing only, but with all the bits and pieces, i.e. the editing, re-writing, polishing, over and over again.

    Secondly, I already have a literary agent and a market for my books, so I no longer have to spend time on that kind of research. However, I still read a lot in my genre (mostly because I want to) which helps me keep up with trends and the kind of thing that is selling. I invest in the publishing indutry by buying books! I read my reviews, which tell me what works and what doesn’t work with my own readers.

    I do at least 5 or 6 thorough rewrites before anyone at all sees the MS. Then I send it out to at least 4 beta readers, and I rework the book on the basis of their comments. Next I have 2 different publisher’s editors (Australian and UK/US) and I rework the book on the basis of their comments too. Then I get comprehensive copy-edits from the two different publishers, and rework the book yet again. I enjoy almost all of it – although there comes a time towards the end of the process when I start to get heartily sick of the particular book I’ve been working on…

    Is it work? Of course it is! Difficult? Yes, sometimes. And it’s hard to turn down invitations because I have to work abnormally long hours to achieve what I set out to achieve. But I don’t equate work with unpleasantness. I enjoy work. I have another job as well, which I fortunately enjoy as well, and which gets me out into the field a lot (the rainforest) – and the change between one and the other is like a holiday. So to me, fun and working are pretty much the same thing.

    To relax though – that’s different, and necessary. I walk, I spend time with friends, or read a book. Those things are both fun and relaxing.

    Of course it’s not wrong to want to be published. And from the sound of it, you have the determination to get there. But do try to enjoy the process as well as the result!

  20. 20. Steven Lyle Jordan

    Glenda, you frame the question to suggest that writing does not have to be productive… a common opinion among writers, that writing is its own reward, especially if it’s something you enjoy doing.

    For those of us who believe that writing is an effort that should be productive to be considered successful (and that guidelines such as readers or sales are useful measures of productivity/success), the answer skews in a more practical direction, ie: When the effort put forth in writing is not equaled or surpassed by the measure of productivity/success, you’re operating in a negative sum, and it is time to consider whether further effort is worth the lack of measured productivity/success you can reasonably expect of it.

    For someone who approaches writing as a vocation or profession rather than a hobby or sideline, the production/success measure is far more useful; for it might force a prospective writer-for-success to concede that some other activity or vocation might be better suited for them.

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