And I received the most amazing responses!
For the December Literary Mary Chat, I decided that instead of asking one author a handful of questions, I would ask several authors one question…
The support and insight they provided is overwhelming. I hope you enjoy this final Chat of the year. I know you will come away inspired.
Success, to me, means a number of things, such as: Completing the writing project and getting started on the next one. Learning to navigate, to some extent, the writing/publishing world. Seeing the Author’s Copy for the first time. Opening that first box of books. Gathering and saving all the cards, notes, letters, e-mails and comments sent by people who had read my book(s). Being out on book tours and seeing one’s name (twice) in lights. Realizing, that my friend, who’s a New York Times bestseller, was right when he said to me: “We never know who those stories will touch”. Participating in Authors Days locally. Seeing an 8 year old with her grandmother (a personal friend) excited to “meet a real author and get her autograph”. Being back in one’s hometown and being told “Thank you for having the courage to tell your story.” Meeting new friends through writing groups and workshops. Being able to say with pride “Yes, I am an author” when questioned by a 9 year old about the books in my arms to be donated to the library in her town.
When I started publishing my ebooks through Amazon, I admit that my initial motivation was income. My business had been caught in the “Market Correction” that had occurred in 2010 and I needed to do something that would supplement my husband’s salary. Within six months I was making more than I had with my company and I thought that was success.
I became an Amazon best-selling author and I had readers from all over the world – and I thought that was success.
Then, when my books were printed and I saw them in my local library, I thought that was success.
Amazon contacted me and asked if they could translate my first book into German – yes, that must be it, that must be success.
Then readers started to write to me. Their emails included anecdotes about my books helping them go through chemotherapy and conquering cancer, or helping them deal with the death of a loved one, or just helping them escape from an often too hard and too sad daily grind. They tell me that they hadn’t read a book in years, but someone told them about one of my stories and now they are reading again. Or they tell me that they share my books with family members and it has brought them closer together. They tell me that they feel like they know me and my characters, and that we are best friends.
This, this of all, the letters from my readers – to me, is literary success.
At this point, I consider literary success to be a relatively consistent writing practice. I think for some people writing for themselves, putting pen to page and defying the blank page, can be literary success. For others finding an audience, whether large or small can define success. I used to think it meant being published by a traditional publisher, having your book go to auction and/or hitting the bestseller list, defined success. Then I thought it meant breaking even on expenses, even as an indie author. Now I think it’s what I said above, writing consistently. I have found a small audience through my blog and Facebook and that feels more successful than my writing staying in notebooks. The other dreams of being published traditionally and/or breaking even on expenses seems out of reach for me.
Hearing from one reader who was moved or entertained somehow by what I wrote. Whenever I get a heartfelt email from a stranger who has read my work and felt compelled to reach out to me, it makes my day.
I’m not sure I have a good answer. To me it seems like a distant mythological destination. How many are talented compared to how many have best sellers is uneven. I would say personal artistic success is having people read, enjoy, review and share your works readily and maybe make some money! Literary success seems more formal, accolades, a write up in the New York Times, widespread popularity perhaps. 🙂
I consider “Literary Success” to be as simple as going back to something I wrote a long time ago and thinking, wow, that’s actually really good! I’m a writer!
I think one’s definition of success changes over time, depending on your circumstances. Like, most people will want to be making more money than they do now, be more famous than they are now, and write better than they do now, to some more or less reasonable extent. My extent gets pretty unreasonable sometimes! “I want to make six million dollars a year, buy my husband a house in the mountains, and add a new wing to my local library! I want to be on all the bestseller lists! I want to write books that will still be read a thousand years from now!” But nobody can control any of that. It’s not a reasonable goal. So today I’m going to say, “I will have succeeded if I wrote some fiction, got a project a little bit closer to being published, and studied for a while.” Even when it’s a one-step-forward-two-steps-back kind of day, nobody can take those things away.
Deanna Knippling, freelance writer, author of many Science Fiction, Horror, and Urban novels and short stories, editor, and designer
Those of us who write non-fiction like to be paid for our work. I considered making enough money to fill out a business income tax form as success. Nobody tells internal revenue she made more money than she did.
Lolita Ditzler, freelance writer
What is a literary success?
For me, it is finishing a piece of work. Finishing as in all the edits are complete, I am happy with the final read and I can set it aside with a sense of peace and move on to the next writing project.
Separately, writing success, for me, is not publishing, selling, or being famous. Success comes from the internal and solitary sense of accomplishment.
Cindy Karnitz, Writer, Poet, Editor, Chef, Baker, Artist, Musician
Literary success to me is two-fold. First, I write for me. Selfish as it may seem, I write. It is my creative outlet. I have a love and hate relationship with writing, but mostly love. It consumes me to no end. It is a journey into the lives and experiences of my characters. When I’m in the “writing zone” I think of my characters and stories all the time because I want to get the story right. Right, meaning to have a completed tale. This is the part I love. The hate is when inspiration is not working. I can’t get to the next scene. I’m stuck. The other side, is that it can get too distracted that I’m not in the moment of real life. My family doesn’t like that part. But again, it is something I have to do. And that, is one part of my success.
The second part is to be READ. What writer doesn’t want that? You labor and labor, working in the middle of the night to no end. You want the fruits of that labor to be enjoyed by others. But, more than racking up sales, (it is good, by the way), I desire reviews. I can sell a 100 books, but if no one writes a review, how do I know if the story resonated with the reader or not? It’s like Yelp. I go to read up on a restaurant, a movie theater, hotel, etc. That’s the “word of mouth” review. It’s hey, I liked/disliked because of… To me, that’s literary success because if someone asks that reader what they’ve read, your book could be mentioned. I’ll take that gamble.
I feel successful because I have written, produced and published a book I’m very proud of! Sales have been great and while I’m not on anyone’s Best Seller list, other than my own, I feel successful. I also feel successful because I make an effort to write at least once a week, if not more. Traveling, babysitting, working, being involved in theater all fight for my time, yet I still make writing a priority. I feel successful because I love creating something from nothing and LIKING it after it’s written. Well, most of it anyway, but that’s what editing, brainstorming and percolating fix. I feel successful because I have surrounded myself with other authors whom I love and are so incredibly talented. They inspire me.
I feel literary success comes in many forms and packages, stages and abilities and I feel very lucky to be where I’m at today.
Getting words on a page.
Catherine Conroy, multi-published short story writer and poet
My idea of literary success is hearing from satisfied readers. There’s nothing like getting a new review on a book you worked hard on (and love yourself) and reading that they devoured your book and are recommending it to others.
Books are nothing without an audience.
For me, literary success would be landing an agent who ‘gets’ me and my writing and then finding a publisher willing to take a chance on me. I’d love to be able to make enough money to chuck the day job and just be an author.
When I write a piece I don’t initially write it with the intention of affecting the reader. When I write it’s usually because something is ping-ponging around my head and I need to write it out of my brain. Writing is also how I process life and recently for teaching. Literary success is then when someone reads a piece and connects with it. If I’m with the reader, I watch their face and reactions. I feel satisfaction when the person laughs or even becomes still and says “Wow…I had no idea” or “I get this”. To me, that’s where the success comes in. Not in how many copies of something are sold but the connections made.
Susan Wolf, new writer
It is so interesting that you would ask this question. I have been thinking about it lately. After writing and publishing for four decades, a few ideas of literary success come into view:
Being a successful writer combines purpose, identity, and a calling. Success lies in the question: Have you been steadfast in your calling to be a writer? If the answer is yes, then success will come your way.
Success comes in many forms. Perhaps it is recognition and respect at a local or regional level. Is that enough? I feel very blessed by the recognition I have received regionally through Rock River Times, Northwest Quarterly, Rockford Public Library, Rockford Register Star and many organizations that have invited me to share my work. Yet I have to admit that I want more than local recognition. One of my goals has been to be published or to give a reading in as many states as possible. For others, there may be a more prestigious angle. At many of the writing programs, we were taught to aim for the highest and most prestigious journals. But these days it’s hard to define what that actually means. Maybe academic success isn’t as appealing as it once was. One reason is that there are so many more academic writing programs than there ever were; not only is the competition truly daunting, but these programs have created a subculture that may not be your cup of tea. So then what?
Being steadfast to your calling as a writer involves a process that moves through stages of success. The most important element of success is discipline. That means writing frequently and consistently. It means “showing up on the page.” When I first started writing, I felt that having a group to be accountable to was important. During this apprentice stage, belonging and participating in writers’ groups, group prompts, classes, and conferences were a whirlwind of challenging activity. Affiliation is a stage of writing success. At some point, at least in my writing journey, I realized that I was spending more time talking about writing than I was actually writing. I went through a stage of adoring big name poets, like sitting at the feet of the holy. Eventually that stage felt completed. In my own process, that marked the end of the apprenticeship and the beginning of something else. So then what?
Finding your way on your own can be very exciting. You are no longer competing but rather exploring possibilities. That applies to both the writing process itself as well as the publishing process. For example, writing workshops are positive challenges in many ways, but one drawback is that they can create a subculture that can be stifling to the writer and unappealing to an audience. Many times as a poetry writing teacher, for example, I have become aware of how many poets have been taught to reduce their poems, misguided by well-meaning teachers in the Imagist tradition who think that the elimination of certain parts of speech create a better poem. This creates stilted writing devoid of articles, adjectives and adverbs. It may take the writers years to get back to the natural voice they had to start with!
So what is my point? Successful writers take chances when they resist and break away from groupthink. Writers might do better to read as much as they can, see what’s out there, discern the current state of the art, and go on from there on their own. To be successful, a writer needs to be a contrarian. Then you have to believe in your writing, have some back bone, write regularly, and find audiences. For some, the idea of audience is daunting; yet an audience completes the cycle of success. There are so many venues for publishing and reading now from journals, anthologies, contests, and a healthy array of book publishing options.
Mostly I write poetry so and am driven to succeed through established magazines and reading venues. I have published over 500 poems in more journals and anthologies than I can count. Journals (at least for poets) serve as better audiences than trying to sell entire books because the audience is anonymous and exciting. If you have a piece in a journal with a readership of 1000 people, it’s likely that someone out there is reading one of your pieces. That to me is success.
That leads me to think about the life cycle of a successful poem or prose piece:
1. Show up on the page and write. See where it leads without stifling yourself.
2. Put it away for awhile. Then come back to it. Is the energy still working? If it isn’t, either revise it or throw it away. Some pieces just don’t work.
3. Research journals and contests that take the kind of work that you write. Send for a sample copy always. That creates success by establishing rapport with a publisher/editor as well as letting you know if you would be a good match. Contests can be exciting, but now there are so many writers that winning a contest seems unlikely. I am very realistic about this. Forty years ago, when I was just starting out, I had success with contests and won several awards from journals. It was exciting and fueled my desire to continue. However, now there are too many writers and too many fees for national contests. In my own writing adventure, contests were a stage of the process, one which I no longer take part in. Keep in mind your odds and the amount of money spent entering and ask yourself if it is worth it. If so, proceed and good luck!
4. Follow the guidelines but don’t get too disappointed if you are rejected. My own philosophy is three tries and then move on. Frankly, by the second or third try, pieces are usually accepted. Why? Partly because you have been steadfast and proven you are serious about both your writing and that particular journal. I find success by sticking with journals that like my work. Usually this last several years until there’s a new editor. Then, sadly, I have found new editors are also contrarians and want new blood. Accept it and move on.
5. Eventually you will compile, if you are a poet, a manuscript. This applies to short stories and chapters of novels too. That manuscript is more likely to be taken seriously if you have already published some of the pieces in it. My own book success has been through networking and synchronicity. I might be giving a reading with another poet who has a lovely book out. I ask questions about the book and the press. For example, one of my books, THE TENDERNESS OF MEMORY (1995), came about because I read with another poet in Chicago. Her book was stunningly designed by Plainview Press out of Austin, TX, a women’s press. I followed up with Plainview and ended up with a book contract.
6. Readings, book launches, book fairs, radio come next. Some fall like magic from the sky. Others you have to set up yourself. Writers’ groups and organizations can be very helpful with this. Networking helps! If you are a novelist, it may be that an agent will set these up. For poets, however, virtually no agents exist. Sometimes you have to be bold, take chances, approach bookstores, conferences, and book fairs on your own.
7. Finally, another form of success might be labeled “recycling.” That happens when someone has read your piece and wants to republish or review it. This could be a reprint, a written review of a book, an interview, or an article with the writer. It might be an invitation to read or share your expertise with others.That is the culmination of the cycle!
It has been fun trying to define writing success. Thanks for the opportunity to share some insights gleaned over a long writing span. Remember, if you remain steadfast to your purpose, identity, and calling, you will eventually find success.
Christine Swanberg, speaker, teacher, poet and author of five books of poetry
Sharon P. Lynn
I guess I won’t feel “successful as a writer” until I have my first published novel. I’m working on it. 🙂
Sharon P. Lynn can’t help telling stories
Authors who are on the best sellers list or are making a living at writing (which according to statistics is about 11%), would tell you success is determined by how many books you sell and how much money you make. For the other 89%, the story of success is different. I consider it’s literary success when an author can corral the multitude of ideas floating around in their head, effectively write these ideas down until magically a story emerges. To clarify this, it isn’t really magic, but a lot of hard work and dedication with the constant bombardment of self-doubt. If an author can write to enlighten, entertain, or motivate their audience through their literary works, they have accomplished true success.
Carol Kuczek, artist, author, and original member of Chicks of the Trade writing & critique group
When I write a book or story that other people honestly enjoy, I consider that true literary success. It also helps if I read some of my work years later and feel like it has held up over time. I used to equate success with being traditionally published, but that’s not true for me anymore. I haven’t been traditionally published, but one of my self-published books garnered three awards and that feels really satisfying. And finally, success for me means just finishing writing a novel. Writing is hard work, and when I complete a book it gives me a sense of joy and pride that I can’t get any other way.
Isa Briarwood, author of A Drop of Blue
I had to think about this a bit. When I think of “success”, a lot of things come to mind – bestsellers… fame and fortune… swimming pools, movie stars… a de-luxe apartment in the sky… you get the idea. But all those things are nice to have, but not necessary.
Have you ever seen the “deep field” pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope. Like all pictures of space, these are filled with bright shining objects. But the point of the pictures was to look beyond the bright stars in the foreground and seek out what – if anything – was hidden in the deep darkness between the bright points of light. SPOILER ALERT – It turns out that even in the darkest, most-empty regions of the sky, there is light. The light was generated billions of years ago. Over time and distance, most of the light has been blocked – by clouds of dust, by black holes, even whole galaxies got in the way. But – ultimately – there was enough for us to see and be amazed by.
I think up story ideas all the time. Most never leave my head. I jot some down and file them away. I still have piles of them – I peruse them every so often to see if I’m finally ready to write them. When an idea has finally matured, I start writing a draft. Many drafts are stillborn – they never get past a few paragraphs, a scene, some snippets of dialogue. Others have full chapters full of characters. They might have a beginning, a middle, or an end, but not all three. Even when a story is finished, there are any number of re-writes that follow.
To me, the best measure of success is being able to get to that final version. It makes me laugh out loud, get a little misty-eyed, maybe say “Holy s%^t!” at a big reveal. I sit back and think, “You know, that wasn’t half bad!”. And I realize I wrote it. Can’t beat that feeling.
Bob Francis, short story and novel writer, NaNo King
For a long time, my definition of success meant finding an agent and being
traditionally published. Recently, I’ve heard stories from other writers
about their agent nightmares and have queried a bit on my own. I’ve heard
many stories about writers having to revise to “fit the market” or comply
with an agent’s ideas rather than the writer’s. I don’t want to do that.
My thinking has changed. Success for me now is to write the best books I
can write and look for publishers who are willing to publish my books the
way I have written them. Even if I don’t find a publisher, having written
good books will be enough for me.
Shannon Anderson, historical romance writer and blogger
During the first six months of 2018 I asked myself, “Do you really want to go on with this literary endeavor?” I was not feeling so motivated and I was thinking of throwing in the towel. In order to answer my own question and decide what to do with my life (professionally speaking), I had to remind myself of the importance of writing, and why I think it’s so beautiful, uplifting, motivating, enriching, and rewarding. It took me about six more months, then came the answer, “Yes, I want to go on writing, publishing and shaking minds.”
Why? Because when we dive heart first in such engulfing art, we live the beauty, the meaning, the inspiration, the wisdom and joy that we are spreading. That’s the first reward. The second reward is not the monetization, but what brings the money in: the loyal audience, the fans, the admiration for what and how the writer writes. Then we see success! Changing lives, inspiring, giving hope and love, shedding some light, provoking a smile… bringing a new perspective. Being able of all this is success. It’s to accomplish the goal of writing, reaching minds and hearts. It’s to educate, inspire, entertain.
From that point of view, I’ve reached literary success with my first novel Never Use the ESC Door (2016). Important to say that the person who motivated me to do it and participate in 2015’s NaNoWriMo was Mary Lamphere! Forever thankful to you, Mary! After answering my own question from early this year, and Mary’s question about success I can definitely say I am ready for more! Ready for another literary success in 2019! Let there be writing!
Literary success means getting an agent on the first try, getting picked up by a major publisher, and selling millions of copies of your book with fans lined up around the block for your book signing. NOT!
Oh my heart, no. Success is picking up the pen or putting fingers to the keys. Success is expressing yourself and sharing a piece of your heart/mind via the written word. Success is having writing as an integral part of your life. Success is knowing that you are doing what you are meant to do.
Success is not measured.
Success is feeling joy to hit send, even if sometimes you feel trepidation that you exposed yourself a bit too much.
Success is reading what you just wrote and saying out loud to yourself, “Damn, that’s good!”
Success is loving “the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” (Thanks, James Michener.)
Success is defined only by you.
Success is the transformation that occurs within the writer, not the finished product (although that is significant too).
Success is the continual journey, the growth, the expansion. Every good thing that has come into my life has been because I have put myself out there in writing. Success is looking forward to the future and knowing that writing is part of my life, kind of like breathing. 🙂 Success is gratitude for the privilege of being a writer.
I guess I would have to say that literary success, to me, is fully capturing the essence of what a character goes through. What I mean by that is, all the emotion, the turmoil, the triumph and the defeat, in such a way that the reader not only gets to read about it, but experience it themselves. Writing is so much more than just putting action down on paper, it is capturing who the character is, a fully 3-D image of that character. Things happen to characters all the time, but not every writer conveys how that character reacts, feels, experiences, endures or overcomes what happens to them. Writing is not only about plots and storylines and the unexpected twists, it is about the human condition and about how humans react to the things that happen to them. When a writer explores the mind of the character and really gets inside their head, exposing all the turmoil, conflict, emotion and victories, then, and only then, can the reader truly understand the character. This, to me, is literary success.
Sarah Hernandez, author and co-founder of OWLS, Ogle-Winnebago Literary Society
THANK YOU to all who submitted a response.
Thank you to all who took the time to read through these invaluable answers.
Please click on underlined text for more information on authors and publications.
Wishing you a happy, healthy, and however you measure it, SUCCESSFUL new year.