“Failure is not an option.”
Ever heard that line? Quite inspirational, isn’t it? Now light it on fire, chuck it out the window, and delight in its screams. For writers, it’s far from the truth. Failure isn’t just an option, it’s inevitable. And not just inevitable. For many of us, it’s the norm–with success being the exception.
Sobering to consider, perhaps, but reality is often that way. A question you often hear at writing conferences or on panels is, “How do I know when to give up?” I.e., “how long until I know I’m not going to make it as a writer?”
First off, that’s not what the person is really asking, even if they don’t realize it. What they’re looking for are signposts to success. They’re looking for ways to measure their performance so they can be certain, one way or another, about whether writing is a worthwhile investment for their time and energy. After all, who wants to waste years on writing that could be devoted to something else if you’re never going to become successful?
If a guarantee of success is what you want as a writer/author, choose another career path. Now. Seriously. Because you ain’t gonna get it. There is nothing anyone can tell you that will live up to the promise of success. Why? Because A. Everyone’s definition of success is different and B. Everyone’s path to it is different. Sure, there are some generally accepted or recommended ways to pursue it, and some definite pitfalls or highly questionable methods to achieving it. But, in the end, it’s only up to you as to what “making it” looks like and deciding when/if you’re going to quit or when/if you’re going to keep going. Nobody else can make that choice for you.
What does success look like for me? I’ve defined it on both the short- and long-term:
- Every completed draft is a mini-success in itself. I’ve finished something I set out to do. I often give myself a little reward for a done draft, often in the form of jellybeans.
- Every story sale is also a mini-success in itself, thought one I don’t necessarily have any control over. These get little celebrations. Again, jellybeans suffice.
- Paying the bills solely through writing is a much larger goal. I am rewarded by, y’know, getting paid.
- Eventually, I hope to make my whole living solely through fiction and fiction-related pursuits, shedding more of my business freelancing. Here the reward is not just getting paid, but getting paid to invest myself in more personally satisfying projects.
What does quitting look like for me? Two things, semi-intertwined.
- Losing any and all desire to ever write anything again, no matter what.
- Reaching a point where writing is no longer even a potential source of income, whether part- or full-time.
Note: #2 is more reliant on #1 than vice versa. Even if future circumstances make me revert to a non-writing job to pay the bills, I’ve little doubt I’ll keep writing and keep trying to sell my work. But if I lose the first, then the second certainly won’t be viable anymore.
Now, how am I doing in meeting those success goals?
Let me share some stats, culled from the ever-so-helpful spreadsheet I’ve maintained since 2004:
- Years pursuing “career writer/author” status (so far): 11
- Manuscripts written: 15. I now consider at least 2/3rd of these to be my “apprenticeship” novels, and they are well and duly trunked.
- Rejections: 650+
- Agents: 1.5 (currently looking again)
- Short stories written: 200+
- Fiction publications: 17
- Novel contracts: 1 (debut upcoming)
On the fiction side, I feel like I’m only just now beginning to gain traction. I’ve had sporadic successes, enough that I’m confident to keep moving forward full bore. If I’d come this far and not seen a single acceptance of anything, I’d really need to be reconsidering my choices. I’ll also note that all my jobs since college have included working for a major publisher and online newspaper, and I’m now a full-time freelance writer and editor. My bill-paying job is solely based on writing, whether it be for a business website and marketing materials or a cyberpunk gaming manual. So on that side, I feel quite fortunate and have no qualms in considering myself a professional writer/author.
What would I have if I’d given up on my writing dream? No, the answer isn’t “nothing.” Because I would’ve chosen another path at that point. Another career, and I’d be 10+ years deep into it right now, hopefully happy with my choices. I would’ve exchanged one dream for another, and that’s okay to accept. Some people see writing as a sort of holy calling in life, as if as if we’re Old Testament prophets touched by the divine, and if we reject our mission to write, we’re failing at achieving a higher purpose. No (actually, that sort of perspective is a really quick way to burn yourself out). As with anything in life, writing is a choice. A choice you make every day, every week, every month, every year. And if you choose not to write, there’s no shame in that. If you choose to write, then choose to do so for the right reasons. Not because you have to. Not because you want validation or success or fame.
Because you want to. Because you love it. Because you know you’d write and tell stories even if you never saw a cent for them.
If you choose to write and eventually make a living at it, that’s marvelous! If you choose to write and never make a full or part-time living at it, but still love it? That’s just as marvelous!
What’s the point of this ramble? I suppose I’m trying to simultaneously douse a few heads in buckets of cold water and stoke hotter fires in a few bellies. One of the things that I found most helpful in my formative career years was being shown the reality behind the writing dream. I then had stand there going, “Huh. That’s a far uglier and rougher road than I thought it would be. Am I really sure I want to go this route?” When I decided, yes, I was just that sort of crazy, I was far better positioned to start gathering the tools and resources and maps and allies I needed to make the ensuing journey a…well, not a guaranteed success, but one that, for me, might be the slightest bit more likely to occur.
What writing realities are you dealing with these days? What choices are you making in the face of them?