Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Path to Success

On the surface, the path to becoming a successful writer has three key components.

1. Write a great book.

2. Do whatever you can to make that book a success.

3. Repeat steps 1 and 2. 

Like all paths, just because the path exists doesn't mean you'll be able to follow it. There are known routes up Mount Everest, but there are no guarantees you'd make the summit no matter how good you are or how hard you try. Even the best mountain climbers must deal with the unpredictability of weather, among many other bad things that can happen.

Luck is always a factor.

Even if you're an Olympic gold medalist with natural talent and years of training, you were lucky no one was better than you at that time. Because all records get broken. Someone always winds up being better.

Hell, you were lucky a bunch of Greeks thought it was a fun idea to compete in sports thousands of years ago. Without them, you'd be doing something else.

Keeping the luck factor in mind, let's review those three points.

1. Write a great book.

This is subjective. There is nothing inherent in a collection of words that makes those words "great". We can study writing, narrative structure, characterization, grammar, punctuation, works that scholars deem great, works that the masses deem great, and the only real connection among them all is that someone wrote them.

I write what I like to read. I'm able to defend why I like it. I'm able to defend what I wrote. I try to be as self-aware and deliberate as possible, and I'm usually able to justify why I used an em dash rather than a semi-colon, why I ended the chapter where I did, why the twist was needed, and why the joke was funny.

That's not to say that things that aren't deliberate can't be successful. On the contrary, the world if full of freak success stories where the artist was neither deliberate nor self-aware.

But, in a world where luck plays such a big role, knowing why you're doing what you're doing is probably going to improve your luck.

Maybe.

A key problem is that you can do things right--defensible, self-aware things--and still fail.

That could mean that maybe you didn't do things right after all. That maybe your meticulously handcrafted narrative actually sucks.

Or maybe, being an artistic type, you're so moody and sensitive that your self-awareness tells you that you'll never be good enough, and that any success you may have attained was a fluke.

Both of these could be correct. Or incorrect. Because no one knows why a book becomes a success, other than luck.

Still, I'd rather call my shots on the pool table than win by slop. The more deliberate and self aware you are, the more you can sink what you're aiming at. It doesn't mean you'll win, but it means you're exercising some control over the outcome.

2. Do whatever you can to make that book a success.

Before you begin this step, you need to identify what your goals are, and what success is.

Then you need to research the different avenues open to you, to pursue goals and success.

It's different for everyone. And it involves luck.

Again, the more deliberate you are, the better your odds. At least, that makes sense logically. The actual numbers may not hold up. You have to be self-aware to know that.

In other words, you can be pretty damn sure you're doing everything right, and you can still fail to hit your definition of success.

You should always be able to reach your goals, because goals are within your power. Finishing your book by May 10th is a goal. Self-publishing it by Christmas is a goal.

Getting an agent is a dream, not a goal, because that involves an agent saying yes to you, and that isn't within your power. Neither is hitting a bestseller list, getting a great review, selling 1000 copies, or getting fan mail. Those aren't goals.

Your goals, and your definition of success, are plastic. They'll change. Make sure your goals push you to learn, experiment, practice, and work harder. That should, theoretically, improve your luck and chances at whatever you call success.

As with your writing, this applies to how you promote yourself, your titles, your brand. Try anything and everything. Luck still comes into play, but reason dictates it is better to do something than nothing.

Even though doing something doesn't guarantee anything.

Yeah, it's frustrating. So is life.

3. Repeat steps 1 and 2. 

We've all heard about artists who didn't become famous until after they've died. For every Van Gogh, there are tens of thousands who died without fame, and were then forgotten.

Did I mention this is all about luck?

You cannot game this system. There is no surefire key. No shortcut. Not even a discernible path.

Maybe hard work helps. Maybe being self-aware helps. Maybe being deliberate helps. Maybe being stubborn and refusing to give up helps. But you aren't guaranteed anything.

If this discourages you, quit. Find a career that involves less luck. Writing is not for the risk-averse. The world can live without your prose. I'm sure of this, because there have been better writers than you or I who have died in poverty and obscurity, their words never to be discovered.

Your words may never be discovered.

In fact, for the majority of you reading this, you'll never reach even your most modest definition of success.

That's because your definition of success is wrong. It's based on money or fame or numbers of something that involves the approval of others.

That's a fail. The three steps I wrote above are bullshit.

There is actually just one true path to success:

Success is meeting your goals.

That definition doesn't depend on money or sales or agents or reviews or publishers or advertising or how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers you have. It has nothing to do with anyone other than you.

Success is all about setting goals that are within your control, and then hitting those goals.

Maybe some people will read you and like you. Maybe they won't. That all comes down to luck.

You can try to improve your luck, but it might not work.

You can, however, become a better writer. Write more. Try more. Do more.

The world may never accept you. But that shouldn't be your goal.

Your goal should be to accept yourself. That's within your control. And it doesn't involve luck. It involves learning, trying, working, practicing, experimenting, finishing, never giving up.

You can do that.

You can write books.

Learn to be happy with that, and everything else is just a bonus.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a book to finish.