August 31st 2009
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I have been asked several times by unpublished writers, ‘How do I know when to give up?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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