On Writing & Success

A dear friend of mine spent many years as an editor with a large publishing company. Her time there coincided with my own coming-of-age as a writer. We had our kids at the same time and survived our mat leaves tethered to each other. Over the years this friend, we’ll call her K, has given me advice on many things, the writing life included. And it is excellent advice.

This is it: As a writer, you must enjoy the process. You must hinge your sense of success on the writing itself, because the end result is out of your hands. As I see it, no matter how often or how well I write, I can’t really control what happens to my work when (if, I should say – a big if) it gets published and reaches the outside world. I have no control over reviews or the size or reaction of the readership. I can blog and tour and sign books for everyone I meet, but ultimately I can’t really control whether my book rises to the top of the lists or takes a nosedive right off the shelf. If it makes it to the shelf at all.

Every writer knows that the odds of getting published are slim, but as the stigma around self-publishing fades away, we are no longer forced to see that pile of rejection letters as the endnote. If the agents and publishers reject us, we can slap the book up on Amazon ourselves, right? There are the stories of the writers who’ve gone it alone and sold millions of e-books. I saw a documentary about a young woman in the States who bought a mansion with the proceeds from her self-published novels. And then I read that the average self-published book sells fifty copies. The math likely looks like this: For every self-published writer who sells a million books, there are probably a million who sell less than fifty.

And for those who do get the golden ticket, the publishing contract, the statistics aren’t terribly different. Most published books sell less than a thousand copies, and most writers must keep their day jobs. K has told me so many stories of emerging writers in that sweet honeymoon phase – those months before the book is about to be published, where it’s okay to be optimistic because the possibilities are still endless. Of course these writers are hopeful that theirs will be one of the 5% of published books that actually soars, that pays their rent and secures them a writer’s life for the foreseeable future. But most of them won’t be.

Depressing, right? Why bother?

I imagine most of us bother because we must, because it really is about the writing and nothing else. If you think about it, K is actually advocating optimism. She is telling me not to let anyone else dictate my version of writing success. Right now, I am waiting in that void where my book has been drafted and sent out to professionals for their thoughts – my grand dream is still intact. Of course I’m not immune to dreaming big, to picturing myself walking the red carpet at the premiere of the film adaptation. But I understand that beyond my own hard work in writing it, I have no control over what happens once the book leaves the confines of my computer. If it gets published, garners attention, wins awards, becomes a bestseller and a blockbuster movie... well, I'm sure that would be awesome. I'd take it, and I'd redefine my version of success accordingly. But for now, my success comes simply from having written it.

I first started writing the novel two years ago, around the time I got pregnant with my third son. Over that winter, I found little chunks of time to chip away at it, hauling my pregnant self through the snow to the library, and onwards for months and months though I had three small boys at home and a vast life outside of writing to balance. It was really hard, but I found a way to do it. Now, it is a book, 86,000 words, printed out and thick and heavy in my hands. I invented people who now seem very real to me. I made mistakes in the writing and in the story, and then I went back and tried to fix them. I am still working on it, still trying to make it better. I learned a huge lot about the writing process. This is my success. Even if this novel ends up in a drawer, it nonetheless remains a life dream that I’ve accomplished. I wrote a book. I think that book is pretty good. And so I’m a writer, whether the wider world ever knows it or not.