I just read Carol Lynch Williams’ novel THE CHOSEN ONE, which I couldn’t put down; I thought it was a very good novel. And it’s a huge success (lots of buzz, great reviews, looks to be selling very well). I googled Ms. Williams to learn more about her. Turns out she is an author who published several novels in the nineties and then couldn’t get her novels published. She went through what she called a “dry” spell. It lasted many years. Something like five or six. So here’s a woman who had published several books and suddenly found herself unable to get her work published. She struggled. She went back to school and got an MFA. Eventually, after what must have seemed like an eternity to her, she did publish two novels, THE CHOSEN ONE and another, and she is having a big success. I’m happy for her. But her story does illustrate the ups and downs of the business of writing. There are many other examples of this. Take one of my own instructors at Vermont College, Bret Lott. Wrote many literary novels that were all published and then he, too, couldn’t get his novels published. He went through a “dry” spell, too. After some years, he did get something published. Then, out of the blue, Oprah selected a novel he’d written eight years before, one that was out of print, called Jewel, for her book club. Hello big bucks. Hello lots of readers. You just never know what will happen in Publishing World. There are probably many reasons why some books sell and some books don’t; the problem is no one knows what most of them are.
If you measure success by the market you will most likely not feel you are successful for a number of reasons besides the most obvious I’ve raised here: market unpredictability. LIKE, for example, human craziness: a book of yours sells well; you want your next book to sell even better and expectations go up—your expectations, your publishers etc…Will you feel successful it that next book doesn’t do better, a lot better?
I consider myself a successful writer. Not because I’ve had big success in fame or fortune. Uh, no. Not even close. Sold a few books, won a few awards, but no fame, no fortune. But I am successful, nevertheless, because I’ve found something I love to do and I’m able to do it. That is rare.
Writing and the struggle to write well and the moments of writing well, of even transcendence, these are what I consider the real and tangible rewards of writing. If you fight through the difficult moments in a novel and you struggle and sweat and take care of all the necessary details you will come to moments when your novel seems to practically be writing itself, moments of transcendence, wonderful moments. These moments far exceed anything you can get from the world in the way of praise or financial reward. That’s why I write. (Of course I want my fiction to break a reader’s heart and cause them to laugh out loud, but those are things I strive for in the work and not rewards.)
Anyway, sell your work. Market it. Do whatever you can to get readers to read it, but don’t forget the reason you write in the first place. That’s all I’m saying. The ways of the market are inscrutable. Whatever happens in terms of sales and recognition, if you remember the love of the process and creation, you won’t be pulled under by disappointments in the publishing world.
Most of us are not in control of much when it comes to our writing career but we are in control of what we value, how we see our lives as writers.