Redefining Success


My blog this week is reprinted from “Live, Write, Thrive,” the website of Susanne Lakin, a West Coast novelist, copyeditor, and writing coach.  Her comments on the author’s effort to stay sane while trying to generate book sales offer a wonderful perspective on the broader human question of how each of us defines success.


Photo Credit: Lakbay 7107 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lakbay 7107 via Compfight cc

Have you ever asked: “What on earth possessed me to want to be a novelist?” Are you starting to realize this journey of being an author is not a short sprint but a marathon—and often a grueling one at that?

When you hear of the numbers of novels submitted to agents and publishers each year (in the six figures), you sometimes think winning the lottery offers better odds than getting traditionally published. But then . . . you finally break through and get a contract, and months later are holding your brand-new brilliant release in your hand, feeling like you’ve finally arrived.

Not Even Fifteen Minutes of Fame . . .

Yet . . . if you’re like me, the flashbulb moment of that exhilaration lasts a very short time, only to turn into something akin to another stark, depressing realization—that the odds your book will become a huge hit or best seller is . . . well, about the same odds as winning the lottery, and you’re back to the same place (or almost the same place emotionally) as you were when you first starting sending out your first queries to agents.

I don’t mean to dive right into depressing statistics and start you into a tumble toward negativity. Quite the opposite. When considering that the novelist’s life is more a marathon than a sprint, I thought of the one thing that we all really need to focus on to keep going in this writing life, and that’s a fresh attitude.

The Desire for Success Can Wear You Down

In the twenty-eight years of my publishing journey, I’ve seen some authors who I would call plenty successful—with many wonderful published novels under their belt, having won some awards and getting great acclaim—suffer from continual disappointment, frustration, and even despair over their writing career. While I waited for my first “breakthrough” novel to go to press, I had foreboding nigglings in the back of my mind, telling me that would never happen to me. I would be on the NY Times best-seller list out the gate!

Yet, four published books later, I found myself crying for a week at the completion of my latest novel. Why? Because I knew it was the masterpiece and apex of my writing life and ability, and I knew the book would never sell big and get the acclaim I felt it deserved. Why? Because it was wholly imaginative, original, untraditional, and broke “all the rules.” I knew that I was risking much by writing the book pressing upon my heart, yet even a couple of years later, I don’t regret a second that I spent writing that novel. I wouldn’t change a word.

A Challenge to You to Change the Picture

So, where is all this whining and negativity leading to? I spent a long year stepping back and evaluating the writing life. And I would like to challenge you to stop and think a bit about your goals, dreams, hopes, and beliefs.

We have been programmed to believe many things that, I feel, contribute to our disappointments, frustrations, and feelings of failure as writers. I believe it’s time to redefine, truly and in our hearts, what success means and looks like to us. Rather than give you a list of practical things your can do like blogging, tweeting, scheduling your time better, and improving your writing craft, I’d like you to think about making this your primary goal for this day, this month, this year: to have a fresh, new attitude about your writing journey.

These are the truths I am learning to embrace, and I hope you will post these and think about them often:

  • Success is not defined by numbers or money earned. Instead of trying to be successful by worldly standards, think about significance. How can you deepen your writing and reach out to readers in a significant way? Believe that what you have to say through your words is significant and important. And put the care and attention into your writing that you and it deserves.
  • You are not writing to please the masses. You may never please the masses. And writing to please yourself is not the goal either. We write for an audience, and know the kind of hearts we want to touch. Write, then, for that audience in all sincerity and passion, and trust that from that place your voice will ring out.
  • Don’t validate yourself based on others’ opinions of you or your writing. Accept helpful criticism and critiques and keep improving your craft, but know you will never please everyone and it’s foolish to try. In my former writers’ group we used to applaud loudly when an author got her first scathing review. It’s a badge of arrival.
  • Find a few really supportive writer friends to be on this journey with you. Encourage one another, promote one another, critique for one another. One way to stop focusing on your own sense of failure is to help others. I find great joy in helping my editing clients get agents and publishing contracts, and their success brightens my day. There is nothing wholesome in jealousy, envy, or a competitive spirit. Believe your audience is out there waiting for your books and write for them. There will always be terrible writers enjoying incredible success with terrible books. It’s easy to want to throw your hands in the air and say “I give up!” when you see the awful stuff getting praised as great writing. Right, it’s not fair. Now, get over it. Really. If you don’t, it will drive you nuts. I tell this to myself a lot!
  • Know that traditional publishing is undergoing radical changes. This is actually great news for authors, for now, with the trend of ebook publishing and social networking and marketing, any good author can get known, grow a true fan base, and connect with readers who love her books. And that’s what we need remember—that we are writing for that connection between writer and reader. The future never looked so bright to be able to accomplish these things.

So take heart and a deep breath and think about redefining success with a fresh attitude—one of optimism, enthusiasm, and a renewed dedication to write the best novels you can, knowing that your readers are out there and in time you will find them—and they will find you. To me, that is the only way to stay sane.

Any thoughts on keeping your sanity by the way you define success? How do you define success?

Redefining Success - Susanne LakinIn addition to being a novelist, copyeditor, and writing coach, Susanne Lake is a mom, a backpacker, and a whole bunch of other things that she loves to write about.

Based in San Francisco, she teaches workshops on the writing craft at writers’ conferences and retreats. She also enjoys guest blogging, and would be delighted to do a post on writing and editing.  To read Susanne’s blogs or make a request for teaching or guest blogs, click here.

Susanne is also on Facebook and Twitter


  1. Mary, what a rejuvenating post this is. It appears to be in direct response to the recent discussions we’ve been having about the frustrations in publishing and marketing our books. Redefining our own success empowers each of us to claim our own rewards for publishing our books. I’m thinking that focusing on the writing is probably our best marketing tool. I write because I cannot NOT write.Thank you for featuring Suzanne in this excellent post. I needed to hear these words as I embark upon my own publishing journey and face the realities and challenges of getting my book into the readers’ hands.

    • Thanks, Kathleen. I’m glad these words encouraged you!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      I share your sense that you “cannot NOT write” but struggle philosophically with the purpose of writing if no one reads it. But I loved Susanne’s essay the moment I read it … I thought it was wonderful way to put a writer’s life intro perspective.

  2. I LOVE this post. I’ve been preaching this to my self for years. I used to belong to an artist community in which success was measured by dollars made and pieces sold. It was terribly depressing. I got out and went my own way. Success is not about my paintings or the books I write. It’s about loving life and filling every nook and cranny with joy. Sure there are bad day, but when we’re in the dark, we see the light come on.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Absolutely … I hope that one day I will be able to fill “every nook and cranny with joy.” Definitely a more worthy goal than trying to sell my books.

  3. Thank you, Susanne. A useful perspective at just the right moment in time. I love how the universe works.

  4. Amen to every word in this post. The effort I expend in writing shapes my thoughts in nearly every way. During the fifteen plus years I’ve been serious about writing, I’ve begin viewing life through a wider lens; my perception is keener; more possibilities come to mind. Life is richer and more amazing, day-by-day. I’m happiest when I’m writing. Touching other hearts, opening other eyes? That’s ice cream on cherry pie!

    But truly, writing IS best when shared with at least a few others. Writing groups and classes are good. I know how people sneer at “all the junk so many people are spewing into the indie pipeline that ruins things for serious authors.” But I’m not concerned about that. I’m all in favor of people doing their best and bravely putting their work out there without investment, fuss or fanfare for friends, family and whomever to find rather than hiding it under a bushel for lack of funds or fear of failure or ridicule.

    I define success as being comfortable and joyful in my own written skin and walking the writers path with kindred spirits. That’s enough. Smiles and a few years from readers? My version of a Pulitzer.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sharon … thanks for another wonderful perspective … “walking the writer’s path with kindred spirits.” You’ve been one of my kindred spirit this past year … and I hope it will continue going forward. We still have to do our joint discussion !

  5. We all struggle with success. I almost quit every year from discouragement. But if we love to write, it pushes on to continue and to be true to our creativity and dreams. Learning how to feel that self-worth despite the world’s standards of success (which is a poor measure) is a daunting but necessary challenge!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Susanne … thanks so much for letting me reprint this on such short notice … the timing was serendipitous for me, as well as a number of my readers.

  6. Mary Van Heukelom says

    As a friend of yours who admires writers and wishes to write more, and inspire others, I am grounded with this blog.

    This translates for me as a health coach as well. That in my attempts to educate, through actions, written or spoken word, that I may not hit the masses, or the majority. But, there are some that are motivated, inspired, changed.. and with that, I shall continue to move with integrity to produce a “product” in some way, that may or may not shape many, but it is really a gift, to still impact a few.

    For me, success is defined more in the learning process. Numbers are a simple validation, but self worth truly comes from the heart.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Mary V … In other words, it is the journey, not the destination. And I know that many (including Kent and I) are indeed inspired by having you along with them on the journey. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  7. Mary and Susanne, thanks for sharing this — wonderful insight & reminders of what’s really important in our all-too-short time in this life. Following you both on Twitter and appreciate your continued updates and sharing of experience in your writer’s journey.

    I’m a little behind you and the wonderful commenters above but hope to join you in due course with a published book. Until then the writing process is indeed its own reward. Cheers and thanks again for your words and inspiration.

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