Friday, May 17, 2013

The “Successful” Writer

I attended a workshop last night about self-publishing. I have been down that path enough times now to know something about the process, but I was keen to learn more about how to be “successful”. This was not one of those I-know-how-to-make-you-rich-and-famous-in-less-than-thirty-seconds kind of seminars. It was simply one self-published writer introducing the concept to other writers, talking about the process, and providing some clues about how to be “successful” at it. This prompted me to consider the word “successful”.

How do you measure success as a writer? I think there are many steps in the process.

Stage One

Sitting down and writing. Putting pen to paper (Pen? Paper? What are they?) – applying fingers to keyboard is the first success. For years we can wander around with the vague idea in our head that we would like to write a book. We may even have some vague notions about what that book will be about. Actually sitting down to start writing is the first successful step: turning the thought into action. It indicates that we have crossed some kind of threshold.

Stage Two

This can be any one of thousands of small successes that we have during the process of writing. It might be writing that magnificent sentence that we knew we had inside us somewhere. It might be finding just the right word. It might be a sudden insight into a character or a plot point. It might be completing a chapter. Along the way there are thousands of these successes. It is good to savour them.

Stage Three

Finishing the first draft. As I have said elsewhere in these blogs, I never really have a first draft. By the time I have finished the “first draft” earlier parts of the book have usually been through many, many drafts: I constantly rewrite and revise. Nevertheless, having the first complete version in front of you is a moment of great success. It took me thirty years or more to actually finish one of the dozens of books I had started. Those earlier efforts were not wasted. In some measure, small or great, they have contributed to my later efforts. But to actually finish an entire novel! This was a champagne moment.

Stage Four

Someone else likes your book. This is a success that will hopefully happen again and again, both before and after your book is published (if it is). We write for ourselves, certainly. There is an enormous pleasure in getting words on the page, in creating characters, in weaving the narrative. But it is wonderful when what we have created pleases or touches someone else. We have successfully communicated something to them.

Stage Five

Being published. Let’s be honest here: it would be wonderful to have a traditional publisher wanting to publish our book. We have reason to believe, rightly or wrongly, that they know a good book when they see one, that they know what other people will like. It is good to have that kind of recognition. Nevertheless publishing your own book is also a great success. It means that you have the courage to expose yourself to the market. You have put yourself out there. Perhaps even more importantly, this is the moment when you show yourself willing to let go of your baby. I am beginning to realise that writers are notorious at not quite finishing their work. There is always another tweak to be made, another opinion to be sought. Actually publishing your book is saying to it: You are ready to leave the nest. You are ready to stand on your own two feet. For better or worse, you are what you are. This is a big step.

Stage Six

Yes, selling a book. This is another success that can happen over and over again, if you’re lucky. Someone else is willing to risk their hard earned money on your book, rather than on that Big Mac, or that next cup of coffee.

Stage Seven

Becoming a multi-millionaire. Well, maybe not. There are other potential successes that a few among us will enjoy. Having a best seller; seeing our book translated to the big screen. Most of us probably won’t breathe this atmosphere.

Stage Eight

Starting the next one. Even those who enjoy Stage Seven usually have to do this!

If our book becomes more than just an idea, we will all of us enjoy some of these successes. Maybe even having the idea is already a success. But what about the failures? Well, they are not necessarily failures at all. All those earlier books that I did not complete were not failures; they were steps along the path to the successes I later enjoyed. Those bad reviews? They are steps along the way to making the next book even better. Success is a little like a drug: each success has to be bigger and better than the last one to give us the same high. This is unfortunate. I hope that as I am writing the next novel I will feel just as excited about the next perfect sentence as I did about the last.

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