The other day on Facebook a friend wrote a rather long post. After reading it I wanted to turn his thoughts into a blog post. I wanted to share it. And I wasn't the only one...it's now been shared dozens of times on Facebook. Many of you reading this might have already read it. If so, I hope it had a similar effect on you. I wrote my friend and asked if I could share it on my blog post. He was kind enough to give his permission.
Like I said, it's long, but for anyone engaged in an endeavor that isn't completed overnight--specifically writing--these are wise words, important words that give perspective to what we think we know about writing, but cannot know unless we've put in the time and lived the lows.
Many times I blog things that I want to remember. Hopefully, they'll be helpful to others. I know they'll be helpful to me. They are reminders that life isn't always what we think it is or what's shown to us on social media. Scott, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.
I heard a story a couple of years ago that I love so much. An author (author A), who is now quite successful, was just getting going in their writing career and attended a local writing conference. At the conference, author A met author B. Author B was a very talented author who author A looked up to. Having heard so much about author B, author A walked up and said, "I know you are a very successful author. Could you tell me how many million books you've sold?"
Because author B is such a wonderful person, I'm sure that she refrained from punching author A in the face or saying something rude, and instead probably nicely explained that with very few exceptions, "millions" and "number of books sold" don't apply to most authors.
I bring this up now, because social media, while having many positive effects, also has one really negative effect. It makes people feel like everyone else is so much more successful than they are. Not in a, "Yay! Look at how well you are doing," kind of way. But in a "I am the only person on the face of the earth not winning an award, getting an agent, having a launch party, and yes, selling a million books," kind of way.
And what makes it worse is that not only does it make you feel jealous about the success of others, and terrible about your own perceived lack of success, it also makes you feel like you are a terrible person for having bad feelings about people who you genuinely like. You start to go into the cycle of, "I am the only person who is struggling, and I'm jealous of the people who aren't struggling, which makes me a bad person. I am struggling. I am a bad person. So maybe I am struggling because I am a bad person?"
This goes on until people feel so bad about themselves that they stop doing something they love and cut off all communication with their friends. Many, many friendships have been ruined over this exact cycle. Many people have given up writing completely because of it.
And the thing is, this is all happening because of a huge misperception.
Let me explain.
1) Once you get enough friends you are following on social media, the law of averages kick in. It's almost always someone's birthday. Someone is always on vacation somewhere fun, or eating somewhere nice. Someone is telling a funny joke or getting a great new job. (Or going to Disneyland. Grrrrrr) And in your head you start to get the idea that everyone is doing great things and having great experiences, except you.
As authors, we tend to have a lot of authors friends. Just like running people have running friends, musical people have musical friends, My Little Pony people have small equine friends, serial killers have serial killer friends. Okay, maybe those last two are slightly off, but you get the idea.
As we get enough author friends we are following, the law of averages says that there is always going to be someone signing a new deal, getting an agent, having a launch party, or going to a conference. And we start to feel smaller and smaller.
But what we are forgetting is that every day the vast majority of our friends are not winning an award or selling a book or getting an agent. It's just that people seldom post, "Hey just wanted to let you know I got three more rejections today." Or, "In case you were wondering, I was not included on the best of XYZ list." Or "Sales are terrible, and I got a bad review today. Totally not rocking it."
People tend to share when something good happens, but that is this tiny bit of iceberg peeking up through the water. They are posting about their successes, because those good things are what help them survive the huge mass of bad things going on under the water. If all authors posted all the bad things that happened to them every day, no one would ever want to be an author, and the rest of the world would wonder what is wrong with us to pursue such a punishing profession.
2) Even the "successful" authors are not succeeding at anywhere near the level you think they are. One of the benefits of having been involved in an incredible community of writers for nearly fifteen years now, is that I get to talk shop with a lot of other writers. Many of these writers are considered very successful for one reason or another. They have big agents or they are selling lot of books as an Indie author. They have won awards. They have hit lists. They are with big five publishers or have great covers or go on exciting tours. You know what I'm talking about.
These are the people that aspiring writers dream of emulating. Except, guess what, with very, very few exceptions, all of these writers are struggling to make numbers. They are struggling to sell another book. They are doing whatever they can to make ends meet. They are getting together and quietly whispering with each other about how little their most recent book is selling and how their publisher turned down another one of their manuscripts.
This applies to both traditional and Indie authors. You know that self-published author who is cranking out books like crazy and showing up on top-seller lists? Her sales are down so much, she's wondering if she can even keep writing. You know that guy whose great new book from a big name publisher got a starred review? He's looking at his sales numbers and wondering how they can be so low. The woman who won that big award is discovering that most awards have little to no impact on actual sales.
Do they tell the outside world that? Of course not. They whisper it among themselves at quiet lunches, shake their heads, and go to work on the next book, hoping that one will be different. Hoping they'll somehow break out, and reach the level of the people who they see as "successes." (Here's another secret. Even the people who the "successful authors" view as "successful" are struggling too.)
3) Last point, but this may be the most important one. One's definition of "success" changes all the time. I can't tell you how many people have told me they don't even care about how many books they sell; they just want to publish a book. Until they publish a book or two and they don't sell very well. Or the people who just know that they will have made it when they get an agent to accept their work. Then they discover having an agent doesn't mean you will actually sell a book.
Think signing with a big publisher will guarantee sales? Think going on a tour, or winning an award, or having your book in stores, or reaching a certain number on Amazon or teaching at a big conference will mean you've made it?
Do you feel like you are on the outside because you don't live where all the other authors live? Or maybe you aren't attending the conference all your friends are at? Or you haven't made it into the "cool kids" author group you really want to be part of.
The funny thing about getting inside most groups is that once you get inside you realize it isn't all that much different from the outside. You discover that most of the people inside the group are asking each other if they have any idea what the heck is going on. They're looking for a the very secret you want to get inside the group to learn.
You know how I recognize a really "successful" author? It's by the fact that they realize how different "success" is than what they thought it was going to be.
So, in conclusion...first, stop looking at writing as a destination and realize it is always going to be a journey. Stop telling yourself you will be happy when X happens and enjoy what you are doing. Second, take whatever you think big name authors are selling and divide it by at least ten. That will bring you much closer to reality. Third, recognize that when you see authors posting all kinds of good news, that this is the exception, not the rule. We are sharing the good stuff and keeping the bad stuff to ourselves.
And most importantly of all, take your definition of success and throw it out the window. I'm not telling you to stop striving for greatness. As I mentioned the other night, a great leader recently said, "Our greatest danger is aiming too low." Every time you sit down to write, aim for greatness. You are great, so why not aim to fulfill what's inside you? But stop tying to success to a certain event happening. The only thing completely in your control is writing a great story. After that, outside forces start playing a huge roll, and your "success" ends up in someone else's hands.
One of my greatest writing heroes is a person who would probably not even recognize it. He writes great stories that people enjoy and takes pleasure in writing those stories. He's with a small publisher. I don't know if he's ever won an award. His sales numbers aren't huge. His writing doesn't pay the bills, but he has a job he loves. He isn't well known outside of Utah, but those who know him and his books love them. But he writes because he has stories inside of him and it makes him happy to share those stories.
That is his definition of success and he is successful every single day.