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.


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.


Kfir Luzzatto said...

I've read many of your posts and this is the best of them all, putting all the important things in a nutshell. Thank you!

Lorelei Bell said...

Thank you for this, and especially that last part. I needed that shot in the arm!

AK McKinnon said...

Yet another blogpost that I will bookmark to reread regularly to keep myself going. Thanks, Joe!

Three Hoodies Save the World said...

I often read blurbs about how so and so wrote a truly rubbish book and made a fortune, and how others spend a fortune on sales and make nothing/a fortune. I don't believe in luck. I could win the national lottery on Saturday and Wednesday for the rest of my life. It's simply chance. So if I write to the best of my ability and publicise to the best of my ability then no sales or a million sales are purely down to chance.
Great post as always.

Unknown said...

I've read almost every word you've written. I totally appreciate you standing up for self-publishing and going up against the "pinheads" as you call them, but this is the Joe Konrath that inspired me and many others to start writing fiction. Of all your posts, and there have been many amazing posts, this is one of the best.

Five books later and no sign of stopping, I've found a hobby I truly enjoy. If I ever make anything at it, that'll be a bonus. Thanks.

Walter Knight said...

Because of Amazon Kindle now is the best time ever to be a new author. Go for it. Write long and prosper.

Raymond Bolton said...
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Raymond Bolton said...

My goal was to become a good enough writer that people would enjoy reading my books. Those who have discovered them have done so. First major goal satisfied.

I'd like more people to read them, so I'll continue to find ways to insure that happens. I will probably succeed in this, as well.

Even so, it's nice to be reminded there is only so much in this world I have the power influence, and that to a limited extent. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Simple and brilliant at the same time and the best part is... as a famous newsman used to say... And that's the way it is!

Now I have to get back to writing!

Carrie Callahan said...

I think it's easy to get blinded by all that glitters - the money, the publishing contracts, and those who've already crossed the threshhold into socially defined success. Spend too much time on a twitter feed of your idols and you can become accutely aware of every quality you don't have and may never have. It's demoralizing.

Sometimes, though, you read a blog post that reminds you how unhelpful and unhealthy it is to use such external factors to measure your success - that it's all in your head.


Alan Spade said...
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Alan Spade said...

I agree with what you said.

I think that there's a thing you already said in other blog posts worth mentioning here: have fun. Enjoy the journey.

If my only definition of success had been to make a living, I wouldn't have quit my dayjob to write full time. I will most probably end up being one of those tens of thousands who die without fame, and are then forgotten, but that doesn't matter, as long as I enjoy the journey.

Every day I make a living writing is a victory.

Aimlesswriter said...

Success is hitting your that! I might have to tack it above my desk.
Well said, Joe.

Kriley said...

"Write more. Try more. Do more." That's a motto to live by.

w. adam mandelbaum esq. said...

Harlan Ellison has a quote related to this, something like "the universe doesn't care, it will let you win a six million dollar lottery one day, then give you colon cancer the next." Not exact words, but close enough for literary work.

Cyd Madsen said...

Howdy. This is my first time commenting, but not my first time reading your blog. That's almost a necessity :-) It's refreshing to hear others finally fess up to the role luck plays and how to deal with that lady. I've been gobbling up your books lately on my Paper White, and surprised at how often people underline a tossed off line here and there that give a clean drill down to the human condition, the need for hope and value. You don't hammer people with self-help stories. Your stories that are often over the top and funny, and yet the help is there for those seeking it. Very nicely done, as is this post.

Unknown said...

Joe, you da man! Your guidance continues to contribute toward our success opportunities.

You said: "Success is meeting your goals.
...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."

Wow! My introspection energies have been launched as well as other commenters. Resetting my goals. Luck will follow as I reread this blog to help find the right pathways for my success.

Thanks for all that you do.

Jill James said...

Thanks, Joe. It is always important to know the difference between a dream and a goal.

D. C. Chester said...

You've reminded me of a quote by Earl Nightingale.

"Success is the progressive realization of a worthy goal."

Good post, Joe. As usual.


Unknown said...

Whew! Thanks for the reminder. I forget these important points now and then, and it was meaningful for me to read them again today. We become too wrapped up in what society considers "success", and often when we fail that definition we feel like we're a failure in what we're doing. And that couldn't be further from the truth. :)

Alexander Mori said...

I agree that for writers, success should not be measured by others. Except in the case of a writer who is being helped by a supportive wife. Like me. I must produce enough quality work, must finish what I start, and must demonstrate that I'm putting myself out there enough for her to continue that support (both financial and emotional). And for her, my success IS measured by the numbers and by what others think. Same with my family and friends who still ask me after nearly 2 years if I'm "still a writer."

I don't personally harp on the numbers. I don't check them frequently. I focus on my writing goals and keep pressing forward, and I think my work is good up to this point. Some of it is even great. But it's hard for me to make them see that this dream is worth the time and effort I put into it...and the emotional and sometimes financial support they provide.

ToddTrumpet said...

"Luck is when Preparation meets Opportunity."

"Opportunity" is luck.

"Preparation" is not.


Anonymous said...

Keeping it real, Joe, something you do very well. Always a treat to read your blog.

Re: Luck is also being aware of what's going on in the biz. Taking advantage of new ventures.

I entered my sexy Civil War time travel in the new Kindle Scout program--I won't know for a couple of more weeks if it's chosen, but it's on the Hot list page, so I'm hoping...

Never miss your're a real inspiration. Thank you.

Inara Everett said...

A great post!

I've been slogging away and some days I wonder if I have what it takes, but I've received some good reviews and that REALLY motivates me. So, a bit of success!

Your words of wisdom help too, so thanks, Joe.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great post, Joe. I always direct other authors, aspiring or published, to your blog for some great advice and knowledge on the indie biz. It was your blog that gave me the extra nudge to try self-publishing when I was considering my options and the two years following my plunge into indie publishing, I've made $250000+. So thank you. Who knows how much of my success was due to luck, timing, etc. Can't know, but I know that your blog gave me the courage to try it out.

Anon Author

Mark Asher said...

This is probably the best time to be a writer, but for most writers it's still a time to keep the day job and write on the side as an indie until that critical mass of sales happens.

For most it will never happen, but a few hundred or few thousand every year as an indie is still nice.

Unknown said...

After several years of writing, and promoting, I have found myself spending more and more time on step two, and drove myself mental. I did so much promoting, I stopped writing. Finally, I took my books off Amazon so I could totally focus on step one. this solved my writer's block instantly.

Anonymous said...

I think j a wrote tge whole 'conversation'

Steven M. Moore said...

Wow, do I disagree with this! While I'm happy if each one of my ebooks just entertains one reader, why write if you don't want to be read? This is your most stupid post ever, Joe!

Anonymous said...

This rings so true to me, particularly "Your goal should be to accept yourself."

I find myself seeking "success" in some form to somehow prove I'm worthy. I often forget that it's the journey that's important, not the end result. Thank you for this reminder.

Dale said...

Best post yet, Joe. Loved it.