I have a friend whose debut novel has been on the NYT’s bestseller list for over a year. Her second book has found its place there now as well. People rave about her ‘overnight’ success, to which she replies, “Overnight? I have piles of manuscripts collecting dust in my drawers!” She wrote, pitched, trashed, and wrote some more. For years. She was forty-eight when one of those manuscripts finally became a published book and hit the coveted lists. Bottom line, there was nothing overnight about her success. It took years of hard work and a never-give-up attitude to find her version of success.
So, is there a secret recipe to achieving success in the writing world? My own experience says, like anything else, there’s no one right way to navigate this path and no one definition of success, but there are some truths about the writer’s life that I’ve learned along the way.
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
My son has a poster with this slogan hanging on his wall. He’s a varsity high school athlete, but he wasn’t born with a football in his hands. Sure, he has some natural talent, but if he didn’t hit the weight room, even in the off-season, show up for practice every day, listen to his coaches, eat well, etc. he wouldn’t be competitive. To get good at writing, we have to be willing to do what it takes, and one of those things is…
There is always someone we can learn from. Listen to your editor, attend workshops, find a trusted group of beta readers. Be open to constructive criticism. Understand the rules and best practices of fiction writing, even if sometimes you choose to break them. With every manuscript we finish, we learn something valuable about the writing process, even if that manuscript never sees the light of day.
Define what success means to you.
Many people have ‘write a book’ on their bucket list. Finishing the draft of a novel is a worthy milestone, a success in its own right. If you’ve done this, congratulations! Maybe success means critical acclaim. My novels have won some big awards, and those moments sure felt like artistic success to me. Maybe success means you’re able to make a living as a writer, or maybe it means you have a loyal fan base who can’t wait to read your next book. Sure, hitting a list is an excellent marker of traditional success for a writer, but it certainly isn’t the only one, and it’s one many excellent writers will never achieve. So, instead of setting your sights on goals which may or may not happen…
Focus on the things you can control.
Your most important job as a fiction writer is to tell the most compelling, well-written story you can. Show up every day and do that work. Write, edit, and re-write. Behave professionally with all the people you meet in the writing and publishing world, and learn as much of the business side of the profession as you need. Attend signings, keep up to date with the latest marketing trends, maintain a platform, and engage with your readers. The one thing you can always control is your own work ethic. And, at the end of the day…
The more we write, the better writers we become. If we focus on process not outcome, and if we commit to our craft, we can build a healthy, productive career and hopefully find ‘success’ somewhere along the way!