It's a big topic for a little blog post, but one that's been much on my mind lately, especially as you, O readers, respond to my requests for comments. Sometimes those responses are wonderfully heart-warming. Sometimes they're a bit more thought-provoking. Sometimes... well, the world and my writing are both imperfect.
So. What does it mean to be successful? For a writer, the bar to clear used to be obvious. Get published, get retained, and you've succeeded. Get rejected or dropped, and you've failed. End of story. But with the rise of the Internet, of e-readers and independent publishers, that bar is somewhat less important than once it was.
For some writers, perhaps for many, simply starting a work of fiction is a success. Fear and doubt are most writers' constant companions (I have a little perch for them on the wall beside my desk) and can make it very hard to get even that first word onto paper or screen. What if? What if? What if? The ceaseless chorus rises.
Once you've started, how to continue past that same chorus? How to work past the slumps, the plot holes, the inevitable skews off course? National Novel Writing Month is meant to help, by simply forcing output and giving writers no time to let the internal editor interfere, but NaNo ends, and most people's writing won't end with it.
Even once you've finished, written "The End" on your manuscript, does that count as a success? What about the revising process, which can be even more harrowing than getting the words down in the first place? No one likes to admit their creation is imperfect, and no two betas or editors will ever agree on what should be changed.
In some ways, this is why I've so much enjoyed writing my fan fiction. I seldom revise my chapters -- what you get on those sites is fresh from my fingers, usually finished less than an hour before it makes its way to you. This does lead to the occasional slip-up, but overall I think I've done pretty well at maintaining consistency and clarity.
With originals, though, the stories live in their own little closed world as you work on them. One or two other people may see them in progress, perhaps three or four if you have a trusted circle of reader-friends, and occasionally an author will "write in public", but as a general rule a novel doesn't leave its writer's home until it's done.
This is one of my troubles as I transition from fanfic to original. I got used to having the immediate feedback from readers, and being able to adjust things in upcoming chapters based on it. But unlike a fanfic, a novel is a finished product, difficult to change. You can try to change the next entry in the series, but it may not work.
Still, I've finished two novels, one historical fantasy and one family-focused fantasy, and am working on my sci-fi debut, along with two short story collections and all my fanfic work. Along the way, I've tried to listen to the feedback, to learn from what's painful and to enjoy what's good, and it has given me furiously to think.
Does everyone who reads my work enjoy it? No. Does everyone who does enjoy my work like every story I've ever written? No. Am I able to quit my day job, see my name in the newspapers, get recognized in the supermarket, hire someone to deal with the endless requests for interviews? No. By those markers, I'm not (yet) a success.
But. Do a great many people enjoy my work? Yes. Do people tell me they find hope and happiness in my work that they don't find in many other writers' offerings? Yes. Have I brought friends together and caused them laughter, given inspiration and help to other writers, brightened readers' lives and even possibly saved a few? Yes. I have.
It would be lovely to be rich from my writing, or to write such marvelously great books that everyone is crazy about them. But I haven't yet been on this earth thirty years and I already know that I have helped others. That I have made a difference for the better. By any measure you care to name, I think that has to be accounted success.
Thanks for reading, as always. The usual weekly schedule of topics resumes on Thursday but I couldn't resist blogging about this, after all the thinking I've done lately. Hope you've enjoyed and more writing is coming as soon as I can manage it! Also check me out (I can't believe I'm saying this) on Twitter, @AnneBWalsh!