Success means different things to different writers. Perhaps you have a writer you aspire to be like, or you aim to publish in a particular way within a certain time frame, or you have technical goals about how you to ideally express yourself, or all of the above.
The question is:
- Are your goals realistic and achievable?
- Are they truly your goals (or some other ideal defined by people you know, writing mythology or your parents)?
- Are you flexible enough to adjust your goals as needed?
- Can you accept failure as part of the creative process, learn from it and continue?
Whose goals? Your goals
- Do you dream of fame and fortune like JK Rowling enjoys? That might be nice, but her writing journey belongs to her just like yours belongs to you. Don’t rule out producing five best sellers in the next five years if that’s your aim, but remember that good writing comes from authenticity. So cast away others’ expectations, stop worrying about what the market claims it wants (which would likely be outdated by the time you produced something similar, if you could that is), forget about proving yourself to your parents or whoever, and look inside yourself to discover what writing means to you. Write for that reason and persist. Relentlessly. Be you.
- Remember, few people are instant successes. Often, many years of learning and hard work sits behind such myths.
- Finally, understand that one person’s success is another’s failure. This is why you must define success for yourself. At the end of the day, once the flashbulbs dim, even JK Rowling has to sit down alone and create a book she’s happy with.
- There’s always another hill to climb with writing—the next story, the next competition, a better publisher etc.. When you achieve something celebrate it.
- To do this, monitor your progress. Break it up into bite sized achievements that you can celebrate along the way. Did you write 1k words each week for the last 8 weeks like you planned? Tick. Did you do a course on character building and bring yours to life? Yay. Did you approach five publishers like planned even if though didn’t hear back from the first two? Brave. Did you enjoy the writing process? Well done. Did you get lost in your love of language, or did the characters carry you away to unexpected places? Wondrous!
Learn to fail well
- Failure is a binary concept that requires success as its polar opposite. Failure and success are thus abstract and arbitrary. We’ve already seen how definitions can vary wildly. Don’t let your beliefs about them stall or stop you. They’re only ideas, which you don’t have to be bound by. Change your thinking.
- Writing requires failure
- If we weren’t willing to fail, new territory wouldn’t be traversed and creativity would cease to exist.
- Don’t let the redrafting process make earlier drafts feel like failures. They’re not, they’re simply part of the process. Accept this and keep going.
- Also, because many writers aspire towards perfection they’re bound to always fail. How can we ever succeed if we continually moved the goal posts further away? Even multi-published authors are often dissatisfied with their achievements. Get off the perfection treadmill.
- Above all, writing and publishing are about tenacity. In this post, I discuss how persistence beats talent. It can be a long process of learning your craft before you test the market to find the best, and sometimes only means to publish your work.
- If things don’t go to plan, don’t give up. If you expected to find a traditional publisher but that didn’t work out, consider self-publishing, research a hybrid model, put your book away or begin again until you produce something your kind of publisher wants. You might also need to lower the bar. Begin slowly but surely. Tortoise, hair – remember?
- If you do ‘fail’ to meet your goals, make use of it. Learn from it and continue writing.
- Remember, THE ONLY WAY TO FAIL WRITING IS TO QUIT.
Perhaps you’re disappointed at not being published, or you self-published but the sales weren’t great, or you’ve been plugging away for so long without ‘success’ that you’re having doubts about this writing thing, or the words that come out on the page aren’t the ones you feel inside, or you’ve simply lost sight of why you’re writing.
The result is that you can’t seem to find your enthusiasm for writing anymore. It used to excite you to sit down at a blank page, it was fun. But now all you feel is dread. You start avoiding it or you procrastinate or you talk yourself out of it. Maybe you’ve given up entirely, or if you do manage to force yourself to write it feels like a chore, another obligation in your long list for the day.
What’s happened to make you feel this way?
Writing has become a negative experience
Whatever the reason, the end result is that writing makes you feel bad. Most likely, you’ve also lost confidence in yourself and your writing along the way. So why would you write if that’s how it makes you feel?
You need to get back to what you enjoy about writing to shift it back into a positive experience. Here are some ideas on how to do this.
- Let go of your expectations
Did you set some goals, perhaps secretly, such as a deadline for when you’d finish your book, or when you’d have an agent or get published, or when you’d win your first writing prize, or when you’d be able to write like James Joyce?
If you did and you haven’t met your goal, then no wonder you feel like a failure. You’ve set yourself up with unrealistic expectations. Need I remind you that writing is hard, really hard.
Let go or detach from your goals and become zen about your writing. Enjoy the moment, enjoy the writing or the process rather than focusing on the outcome. The result is a side benefit, not the primary aim of writing. Loving doing your best writing is the only true goal. See what happens.
- Revisit the reasons why you write
There were reasons why you first stepped onto the unpredictable path of being a writer. What were they? Write them down. Do they still apply? If not, are there new reasons? Write them down on the other side of the page. Be honest with yourself, but be careful push aside those doubting voices that counteract everything positive you come up with.
On the other hand, if you’ve dug deep and can’t find any reasons why you should continue to write, perhaps it is time to give it up. But if that thought fills you with horror and a list of ‘buts I can’t because…’, then you have your answer. Read your list of why you want to write every time you meet the blank page, and watch your self-belief slowly return.
- Stop the negative self talk
We all do it. It’s a fact that around eighty per cent of our thoughts are negative for reasons of survival. But how can we expect to create when we’re in a negative, fearful state of mind? Putting it simply, we can’t. The brain doesn’t work that way.
When we write, we’re not in a life or death situation. So next time that doubting, fearful, critical voice tells you something bad about you and your writing, try acknowledging what it has to say, thanking it for its concern and then telling it you’re not going to follow its advice today as there really isn’t any need. Then get on with your work. Remember, you control your thoughts. Don’t let them take control of you.
- Get help
Join a writing group (one that’s supportive and is going to give you positive, constructive feedback), hire an editor, read a writing book, work with a trusted fellow writer or beta reader, or do a course to help you get some perspective about what’s working and what could be improved in your work. There’s a lot of free and paid advice out there. Use it to keep moving forward. We all like to be challenged. We all need to grow. And believe it or not, we all like the rewards of hard work. Create a growth mindset, not a reward mindset.
- Create a positive writing environment
I’ve talked about how to create a writing routine here. Schedule quality time, meditate or walk beforehand, go to your favourite writing place (physically and/or mentally) etc. so that you feel optimistic and excited about writing. In other words, make your writing experience as enjoyable as possible by setting yourself up for success. By doing that you’re showing yourself some respect and taking yourself seriously.
This seems like a lot of hard work for something you once believed would flow easily from you via some muse. For most of us such a muse is a myth. The muse is really you delving deep into yourself without fear of consequence or expectation of reward and creating (more on how to do that here). Set up the best writing environment possible and you might be surprised at what turns up on your page.
- Perseverance – breakdown, breakthrough, breakout
I heard Beatte Chelette talk recently about the challenges she faced before succeeding in business. (I do that a lot, listen to inspiring people to keep my enthusiasm fire stoked and remind me how much hard work is involved.) This involved a lot of failing. She said ‘success’ has a pattern: Breakdown, breakthrough, breakout.
Perhaps you’re at breakdown, at crisis point? Perhaps a breakthrough is just around the corner. Success (meaning growth) depends on perseverance, which is resilience in the face of failure and adversity. If you give up now, you may never know. You have a choice. Over to you and the best of luck.