How to Fail, Part 4: You Can’t Control Success

I’ve talked about why failing is so hard and that we need to give ourselves more opportunities to fail, if we’re going to succeed.  I’ve talked about the idea that we need to be talented writers instead of hard workers and how useless it is.

Now it’s time to talk about success.

What is success?

Every person has a different definition of success, and that definition will change over time.  It’s important to have a feel for what your definition of success is; for example, if you don’t really care about becoming a New York Times bestselling author, then it would be foolish to throw all your time and energy into becoming one.  Defining what success is for you, personally, doesn’t have to be a single mission statement; it can be a list, like this:

  • NYT bestselling author
  • Supporting self/family with writing
  • Winning a major award
  • Using writing income to buy a really nice dinner once a month
  • Getting a royalty check
  • Buying a house
  • Getting paid for your writing.  At ALL.
  • Finishing a story you can be proud of.
  • Writing a story that your best friend loves.
  • Having a local book club discuss your book.
  • Having a signing where you sell more than five copies.

When you’re figuring out how you define success as a writer, the sky is the limit, and nothing is too petty to write down.  You don’t have to be noble about it.  There is nothing you “should” write down or not write down.  If you want to write down that you want to write sex scenes so hot that your boss worries about you running away and joining a very strange circus, well, that’s a valid measure of success.

It’s important to know what you want, even if it isn’t reasonable or if it isn’t part of your current goals.  You need to know what motivates you, so you aren’t acting against your deepest dreams.

But, on the other hand, you can’t let a drive for success wreck your career.

Earlier, I implied that being a top-selling writer was like winning the lottery.  In a way, it isn’t–you can control whether you put in the work (those ten million words), but in a way it is–you can’t control how many copies of those ten million words you sell.  You can influence the numbers, but you can’t control them.

And like playing the lottery, it can be easy to get caught up in playing the game when it comes to writing.  Let’s say you sell a book.  Is the next book you sell going to be just like the book you sold?  Are you going to try to stick to a magic formula, or are you going to write the book that you really have faith in?  Are you going to sell out, that is, do things you don’t believe in, just to try to hit better numbers?

And what happens if you don’t succeed at things on your list right away?  Are you going to get angry at other writers who do succeed (even if it’s only pseudonymously, ghostwriting for celebrities)?  Are you going to throw down your “perfect” work in disgust, because so much “crap” is getting published?

You can’t control success.  You can’t force people to read your work, and you really can’t force them to enjoy it, any more than you can force people to like you. You can bully, you can nag, you can bribe, you can beg…you can manipulate people into buying books, but you can’t make people like your work any more than you can make them like you.

There are all kinds of strategies you can you to make yourself (and your writing) likable, but what the best ones come down to is:

  • Be yourself, as best you can.
  • Not everyone’s going to like you, and that’s all right.
  • But get the word out; being shy isn’t going to get you liked.

Look at that list of top ten bestselling writers.  Do you like their writing?  All of it?  Are those your top ten favorite writers ever?

Probably not.  Not everyone likes them, yet they sell. Conversely, your favorite authors may not be on that list, but you still like them and buy their books.

As writers, a lot of us were (or still are) the weird kids who weren’t popular in school, and that’s a hard thing to get over.  But think about it:  as you became more skilled at being yourself, you found your niche–you found the places where you’re most comfortable, the people you most enjoy being around, and the work that you most enjoy doing and are good at.  You might not be doing it full time, but at least you know what it is.  You may not have perfected that niche, but you’re getting better at it. Life got better after high school, right?

If you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to have to figure out your writing niche (or niches; you don’t have to limit yourself to one).  It’s 100% your responsibility, not the responsibility of an agent, editor, publisher–or even an audience–any more than it was the responsibility of your high school classmates to make you popular.  Nobody, not even your mother, is obligated to like anything you write, and the second you say something like, “You’re too stupid to understand,” you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

People who want to read books want to read books.  So you already have that working in your favor.  So if you’re not convincing people to read your books, it’s not because they don’t want to read books; it’s because you haven’t convinced them to read your books.

People aren’t stupid.  You just haven’t won them over.

There are lots of strategies to winning people over, but most of them involve the following:

  • Being yourself, as best you can.
  • Not everyone’s going to like you, and that’s all right.
  • But get the word out; being shy won’t get you liked.

Face it:  successful books are about people being themselves and are written by people being themselves (those aren’t the only reasons for their success, admittedly).  That celebrity tell-all that you’ve been making fun of for months?  Exactly the kind of person that people like to gossip about.  That book whose cliches make you groan and lack of sophistication makes you fear for the future of mankind?  You know people like that, and people who like to hear about people like that.  Those books, no matter what you think of them, are about real things.  Maybe not uplifting things, maybe not deep things, but real things.

But you’re being yourself and nobody wants to buy your books!  It isn’t fair!

The only answer to that is that you’re the one who wanted to be a writer; it’s your job to convince people to buy your books.  Books not selling?  Happy learning experience.

Part of your job, as a writer, is to learn how to be more convincing, either by writing better books, finding your audience, or getting better at getting the word out.  If nobody wants to be your agent, and nobody wants to publish your books–so what?  There are other ways you can convince people to buy your books.  Other businesspeople have been marketing their products without the benefit of the big New York publishing houses for years, and that’s what writers do–market products, either directly or by licencing the copyright to other companies to do so for you.  But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion, another one that I’m not yet qualified to lead.

So, to sum up, you can’t control success.  You’re working on finding your niche; you’re trying to be yourself, as best you can.  You can’t control who likes you; you can’t control whether an agent or editor “thinks you can sell.”  What can you control?

I’ll give you a hint…

Next time:  Rejections.  Lots of Rejections.

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