Redefining Writing Success: Learning to Fly in Today’s Congested Writing World

IcarusI was an innocent dreamer when I arrived in Los Angeles.

I had big plans and it all felt like the beginning of a movie to me. I was about to start studying in one of the best writing program in the country (University of Southern California. Go Trojans!) and I could feel the destiny thick around me like cigarette smoke. I could smell it on my clothes and in my hair; I could taste it on my tongue. In my mind I was certain that this moment, this arrival, was the true start of any future and inevitable biography that someone would write about me.

The stuff of legends.

That first night I had to stay in a hotel. And I practically skipped (already wearing my USC sweatshirt) as I approached the front desk. Behind it was an older, somewhat heavy, bored-looking woman and, noticing my sweatshirt, casually asked if I was a student. Oh, the can of worms she just unleashed!

I quickly talked about the writing program and the professors I was going to study under, about my books, about my scripts, and about my plans, etc. The words (and dreams) flooded out of me. I could have gone on all day.

And when I finally stopped to take a breath, she casually interrupted and said, “Yeah, I’m a writer too. Here is your key.”

Do you know the story of Icarus?

When I think of my dreams and how I have allowed them to take me over, overwhelm me time and time again, I always think of that damn Icarus and the sun.

For those that don’t know. Icarus was the son of Daedalus, and they were both stuck on the island of Crete. To escape, Daedalus, being the wicked smart dude that he was, designed wings for him and his son to use to fly away. The two rules Daedalus gave his son were simple.

  1. Don’t fly too high, the sun will melt the wax (which held the feathers in place) and you will crash and drown.
  2. Don’t fly too close to the water or your feathers will get wet and, again, you will crash and drown.

Well, Icarus, a typical know-it-all kid, didn’t listen, flew too close to the sun, crashed and drowned. The end.

For me, every time I have allowed myself to get excited, daydream and hope about my writing career becoming more than it is, I fall into the water too.

Yeah, I become that damn Icarus, and to be honest, as I scan the sheer number of writers I see on Twitter and on Good Reads and on Amazon, I know I am not the only one struggling to stay afloat in the waves after the fall. It can’t help but make me wonder what all of us were expecting when we first donned our own wings. There could never be enough readers for all of us. Did we think it would be different for us? Would one of us be the lucky one, the one with the wings that would hold just so?

A writer needs arrogance. Yes, I think it is a healthy feeling because you need to believe what you have to say is important and could not be imagined by anyone else.

If I don’t tell this story, no one else will and it will be lost!

Okay writers, it is fine to admit you have that thought too. It is one of the things that drives us, makes us get up in the middle of the night to write down an idea on the back of an envelope. For me, I was sure I was about to enter royalty, certain I would be the next Charles Dickens, the next Kurt Vonnegut; staking a claim like that in the literary world. These are my wings and I can touch the sun! Can you?

A Jane Austen DaydreamNow, I’m not saying it might not happen. It still might (see, arrogance), but for the time being I am fighting to get as many eyes on my books as I can. One example is my novel A Jane Austen Daydream, which I think has a lot of potential because it stars Jane Austen and has some very new literary surprises in it (seriously) that a part of me is certain once they get out, could make my story something like the book version of The Sting (Don’t have anyone ruin the twist for you, read the book!). And everyday since it was published, I have lavished in the possibility and hope of it.

But the publication of A Jane Austen Daydream (as well as my eccentric mystery book Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare), has taught me once again that wings are just wings, and while I would love to see my name on the New York Times Bestseller List, it is wiser to focus on three more realistic flight plans.

  1. Take pleasure in little successes
  2. Enjoy the joy in connecting with your readers
  3. Find the real moments and embrace them

Here, let me explain what I mean…

I like to imagine that the amount of followers I have on Twitter (almost 24000), on Good Reads (almost 2000), and on Facebook (over 300) mean something. Yet, I know, in my heart of hearts it is a somewhat illusionary bit of success.

It’s not altogether real. They are the zirconia of the writing diamonds. How do I know this?

For example on Twitter I’m certain there are only a few hundred that actually read my tweets, check out my posts (Hi there!), and maybe read my books. The reason I am certain of this is that thanks to WordPress I can see what traffic I get from Twitter. The same goes for Facebook.

Some follow me on Twitter hoping I will follow them (which I will do if they an author since I write on the art of writing a lot), and some do the same on Facebook hoping I click that “like” button (which I don’t do unless I have read their work before and like their books since Facebook feels more personal to me).

Good Reads is an odder social network and I am uncertain what it actually means (I am certain this will be a blog post in my future). For example, they like to emphasize that you should only follow who you want to, keep your social reading collective a nice club-like size. Well, how does that explain all the writers with thousands and thousands of friends? I get a half-dozen requests everyday, and since I don’t have a reason not to, I always accept them. The reviews are nice and fun to get; yet, each time I post a status update, or share an event, or write on a forum, or recommend one of my books, I know how empty the experience actually is. It’s like everyone has bought tickets to a show at a stadium and we all claim we are going to it… but really we aren’t.

So what is a real moment?

Well, my publisher for A Jane Austen Daydream had the ebook free on Amazon for two days, that lead to over 7300 people downloading it. That was real, because I know, even if not all of them read it, they KNOW of it and me. The same goes for the over 700 that downloaded my book Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare.

Every review I get from a reader on Amazon or on Good Reads is real. It means something special to me, because if it is a good review it states clearly that I succeeded in my goal with my novel.

I have also almost 800 followers to my blog and each visit is real. Granted, I am not making money on advertising (Can anyone really live on 6.00 dollars a month WordAds?). But my mood can be turned positive or negative by those visit numbers each day. Those are readers… even for just a second on my site, they are MY readers.

But beyond those moments, there are more smaller successes that are just as powerful for my writing mental health and they happen each day I visit my Amazon pages for my books to see my rankings or check out my blog visit numbers, I have something I didn’t have before. A little success for that day and I relish it with each sell, each click of the like on a post, each comment added to the bottom of my posts.

They all mean something special.

The Fail WhaleAs much as I have slammed Twitter above, Twitter has given me one gift that I do relish each time it happens… It connects me to my readers in a way I never imagined.

See about once a day (sometimes every other day), I hear from a reader of one of my books. Maybe they will say they are in the process of reading me, or say that they have finished it and like it or maybe they recommend their own followers to read it. Or, just as fun, I will sometimes get questions or comments about a book.

These interactions are a wonderful gift, and Twitter is the best for these interactions.

There is a chance somewhere out there the right reader is right now discovering one of my books.

They might be someone part of a publishing house or a magazine, or maybe simply a successful writer, but they might say something… and that small noise near the mountain could start the avalanche I have always dreamed of. Daring me to dream that this time, or sometime in the future, my wings may be strong enough to survive the heat.

But the catch here is that I have had to accept that that moment is probably out of my hands. I can hope, I can dream, but someone else has the say in that. Just like the publisher and agent with the query letter, the judge in the writing contest, and the producer with the script in hand, all I can hope is they see what I want them to see, that we are on the same page.

Yes, I may be arrogant about my books and my ability, but I recognize my own limitations. The final step in success can not come from me. So every day, I have to learn to find happiness in each small success, each real moment I share with one of my readers.

For the time being, all I can do is flap my wings slowly, carefully, and aim straight for the horizon.

Writers, Daedalus is right.

Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, CoverIf you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my published books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, the new A Jane Austen DaydreamMaximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous DareMy Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or Doors and Megan as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!

Need an editor? Dream of finishing that book but need some help? Learn about my editing services by visiting this page on my site. Or you can contact Rebecca T. Dickson and request to work with me by clicking the image below.

Rebecca T. Dickson, Editor

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18 responses

  1. I have a copy of Bruegel’s” Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in my office as a reminder to not take myself so serious. While I may think what I am doing is note worthy most people just go about their daily lives and take no notice.
    There are a lot of lessons to learn from Icarus. I think you can say you did your best. Your book is well written and is finding an audience. I’d say you have a well constructed pair of wings; you will miss the sun and sail across the sky. Sit back and enjoy the flight.

  2. Great post! 🙂

    I personally believe that arrogance is one of the writers’ biggest tools. If you don’t believe in your work when no one else does, you will never get anywhere.

    As far as social networks, they are a beast. I agree with you on Goodreads. It can be a fun site, and at the same time very empty, especially when people seem excited for your work and then…well, it’s like sending an RSVP for someone’s wedding and not showing up – at least it feels like that to the author.

    I apparently missed the free days for Daydream. Drat! But I’m glad that everything seems to be going well for you. I think you’ll get where you want to. Time is the key.

    Best wishes (via Twitter),

    Alexandra-

  3. Scott,
    I always enjoy reading your posts. You are so right that we need to relish the small successes and find joy in the readers who truly enjoy the story. Continued success to you. Hope to read one of your books someday.

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad you liked it. The funny thing is I still am surprised by the reactions to my nonfiction posts, since I consider myself a stronger fiction writer.

      If you do read one of my books be sure to write and tell me what you think.

      Cheers!

  4. Hi Scot, I’ve been writing for a long long time, and if nothing else writing has taught me humility, patience and most of all, helped me enormously in my quest to seek my happiness and sense of worth from within, and not from what lies outside me. I would like to be read and I would still love to make an income from writing, but if I die tonight I won’t regret the years of unrecognised writing. Instead I’ll be happy that I’ve worked hard and long and joyously, did what I wanted to do with my life, and improved my writing beyond all recognition. Or no-one, if that’s the way it is. The art of writing, and the art of living have become inextricably entwined, together they push me into growth and have helped me to become increasingly skilful in the art of letting go (of my ‘darlings’, of my wants, of my ambitions, of the directions my life might take, of my need to please others in order to be pleased myself, and so on). In terms of writing I don’t think I have anything to say that’s new and must be said by me, but I do have my own way of saying these things, which may or may not be read. I enjoy reading your blogs, I admire you for trying to make things happen, and hope you’re learning as much as you want to from the whole experience. I have downloaded A Jane Austin Daydream, but not been able to read it yet, as my Kindle broke and the replacement I bought has got lost in the post. (should I perhaps blame you for all this:-). But the novel sounds intriguing and I’ll get to it as soon as my repleacement/replacement Kindle finally arrive, and give you feedback asap.

    I want to wish you very good luck, and whatever else you hope for . . . may the god of books be with you . . .

  5. Your name came up as a suggestion for me on twitter and I followed the lead. I’m glad I did. Your blog is only the second one I have ever read. I am usually too busy, too stretched for time, and generally not very interested. One thing that has kept me overly busy lately has been trying to find my way with twitter–at the urgent insistence of one of my writing mentors, who is sure you can’t get an agent and be published without the requisite number of followers. I am an old hand at FB and enjoy what feels like real connections. I have been on linkedin for a long time, but can’t quite see the point for me. And twitter feels much as you say, an I’ll follow you if you follow me, without much meaning–but I’m still very new to it. My mentor has made lots of real friends and fans through it.

    I have spent my life as a visual artist who was a sometime poet and writer. But I had a story that had been with me all my life and would not leave me alone, so I decided to devote myself to it. I am now in a final revision and have feedback from experienced readers that it is worthy. But I look at all the writers out there and I look at all the books I want to read, stacked by my chair, my bed, my desk, still waiting for me to find the time, and I wonder how few people will finally read my novel.

    So your blog feels very comforting and comfortable to me this evening. I have done some art with no idea why and against better reason, with no market, simply because it was what came to be done. I think this novel is in the same category. And I will treasure every small success that is real. And I hope you will treasure this response (even if I don’t find time to read your book soon).

    • Thank you do much. I have a lot of posts on writing (and my own writing) that I hope you will check out.

      Remember if you write for yourself first any success your writing may find is a nice bonus. It will not define your craft.

      Coming from a visual artist background will give your descriptions an edge.

      Good luck!

  6. Before I became involved in the social world of writing I was unaware of the sheer number of people calling themselves writers. You don’t have to have a degree to call yourself a writer. You don’t need to pass a training course, or obtain a certificate. You just need to write.
    There is a flood of people, and personally I have no idea how to navigate the waters. I try not to think about what other people are doing or how many people are out there writing. I just write.
    My wife has said to me that I shouldn’t think hang any expectations on my stories. What I should do is be content with leaving something of myself behind. Stories are eternal. They give us immortality. One day my children and their children will read my stories. That alone makes me happy.
    On twitter: bleh. I used to have a large twitter network, but I set about pruning and pruning, because so many people are using twitter to hock their wares with very little to no social interaction. I’ll add people, but as soon as they start spamming me with their books, and by spamming I mean 5-10 posts a day, out they go to the block list.
    Anyway, this is turning into a blog post…

  7. Hi Scott,

    As usual, great post. I never thought about the endless stats on blog views and downloads as a motivation factor, but you’re right, they are real and they are a little piece of success. I’ll try to embrace them more in the future.

    Great Icarus analogy!
    -Sara

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