Success

With the publication of Tales Around the Supper Table II on Dec 31, I officially published 3 stories last year. Which, um, actually was my goal I set back in the beginning of the year. The funny thing about meeting my goal: what do I do now? Do I set that again? Do I raise the bar?

This also means Peter got two things out last year, since he had a short story in Tales II, as well. Which is… about what he wanted, although he was hoping to have the next Maxwell out, as well. Instead, he got hit with a new western out of nowhere (not unlike A Perfect Day, With Explosions and I Didn’t Sign Up For This did to me), and next week, will release Wood, Iron, and Blood.

Which leaves me wondering: what do you do when you succeed?

When we’re first starting out, we have to deal with the problems of failure. And they are many! The lack of discoverability, of struggling up and through the many learning curves, of isolation, of stories turning out on the page not nearly as good as the story in our head, of shifting gears to editing and publication, which are always work even if writing the story was fun. The problems of discouragement, of lack of budget, of putting your stories out and hoping you’ll get any feedback at all…

You will work far harder for your first 100 reviews than you will for the 500 after that. It’s like blasting off for orbit: the first 10,000 feet are far harder than the rest of the trip.

But once you get there, all your problem don’t go away: they swap out for new problems.

First, there’s the mental fallacy of “I did this much, so I should be able to do it again! Every time!”

Which isn’t actually true. At all. The first time I walked… well, when I was relearning to walk, at $80/session for physical therapy, the first time I managed to walk again didn’t mean I had mastered it and could promptly stop going to physical therapy. Nope, I still fell down quite a few times. I have a friend, writer David Burkhead, who ice skates. Just because he can do amazing things I am not sure I have the structural capacity to learn doesn’t mean he doesn’t ever fall down. In fact, he regularly reports falls, especially when learning new techniques, or pushing the limits of things he’s mastered, or somebody else on the ice does something unexpected and he choses to fall instead of wiping them out and injuring both parties…

Think of your writing abilities more like a bathtub, that you’re sitting in, splashing your rubber ducky navy against the bath toy shark armada. As you tell more and more stories, and grow your skills and reach, the water level of success will rise. But when you make a small tsunami that the Kraken allies of the shark swarm sent against the ducks, the water is going to splash over the level line of success…. but it won’t stay that way! It’s going to settle back to the filling level.

Not everything will be a success. Not everything will be the same level of success. Sometimes, as you learn new genres or new series, you’ll be starting over… not from zero, but from a much lower level of what carries over. Sometimes, things will flop.

Sometimes, things will do very well for what they are. Westerns are a smaller selling genre than SciFi, and as such, a successful midlist western (Say it hits #200 on bestsellers in the kindle store) is going to be a much smaller total sales number than a midlist successful scifi.

Define your goalposts, and stop moving them just because you met them once. Or because you had a near miss. Or pathologically, you’re getting close and move them to make sure it’s impossible to hit… if you’re doing that, get some therapy, and learn to be kinder to yourself. You don’t deserve your insecurity and negative programming doing that to you.

Second problem of success: The fallacy of “This worked, so I have to keep doing this.”

You found something that worked. Congratulations! Absolutely, you should grab that success and ride it, and do more like that, and enjoy the rewards! Now, what are you going to experiment with next?

Because yes, you found something. But you don’t have to be a one-trick pony. You can keep learning, keep experimenting, keep growing. Not all of your experiments will be successes. Not all will succeed at the same level. If you switch genres, it takes a while to grow a new audience. Even new series don’t always get carry-over.

But that doesn’t mean you caught lightning in a bottle, and it’ll never happen again. In fact, the more lightning collectors and the more bottles you put out, the more likely it is to happen again! And the more you learn and grow, and experiment in other areas, the less likely you are to feel trapped or stale on your main moneymaker…

And third, though not last problem of success (we’re not going to cover filing quarterlies with the IRS, though that, too, is an issue): forgetting to enjoy it.

This is why I tell my friends, who are working on being full-time professional authors, that I have a Day Job, and I like my day job, and writing is a hobby. IT’s true, I like my Day Job. But it’s also true that that answer is a reminder to myself that I don’t need to get all twisted up in knots and wrapped around the axle about keeping to a publication schedule and being creative to a calendar full of deadlines. I’m going to enjoy this.

Okay, granted, I might squeak and reflexively hide behind a couch pillow when someone I hadn’t met before says “I read your stuff!” …but mostly I enjoy it.

This year, I plan to write 4 complete stories. I’m not going to plan to publish all of them, because that may or may not happen. Some might be complete failures, the kind of trunk stories that one day, with more experience in the genre, I can pull out, cut away most all of it, and go “This had a good idea. We can rewrite this, and make it the story I wanted it to be!”

In fact, even the next AJ & Jenna book might be that. I have no idea if it’ll succeed, though I’m determined to at least finish it, as one of the four.

And if I succeed? I plan to enjoy it.

11 comments

  1. Do what you can, and don’t stress over it. The stress WILL induce writer’s block quicker than anything else… sigh

  2. “What do you do when your dreams come true / And it’s not quite like you had planned…”

    Except that it sounds like when your dreams come true, and it IS quite like you had planned, the problems still continue.

  3. First, there’s the mental fallacy of “I did this much, so I should be able to do it again! Every time!”

    THIS one is something my family struggles with — the moment I read that you’d hit your goal, my brain was yelling at me (in grandfather’s voice) “Good! Now see if you can do it again, until it gets easy. When you’re good at it, then set a goal for the next step.”

    Look at weight lifting– you don’t manage your Best Weight Ever, stop and say OK now that’s nothing, I’ll have to go to the next goal. You get your Best Weight Ever and work to keep it, so that you can move on to the next step from a firm foundation.

    I know some folks are able to go “I did this before, so even though I failed at the next step, I still have this success to build on;” we are more likely to go “sure, I did that before, but I failed at the next step, so it was Clearly A Fluke.” While going “I got to this point once, now the goal is to consistently get this goal” means that even failure doesn’t put it into the fluke category.

    1. I know it’s a bit late, but thank you for this, Foxfier. I needed to hear it today. My brain has been running around in ever diminishing (non-productive) circles. I read this and that part of my brain went. “Oh… right. Got it.”

  4. I confess, I’ve stopped counting annual releases. And yes, I worry a goodly amount about “Can I keep the same quality level in this one? What about this one? Was that a fluke, or will people like the next one as much?” It’s good, in that it slaps me a little when I start coasting. It’s not so good when I start second-guessing stories.

    Is it good enough? For whom? Compared to what? I’ll never be as good as some authors. I’ll never be as good of a classroom teacher as my mentor. But can I get better? Can I expand my knowledge, shift styles with series?

    Brava for success, whether planned or not!

  5. Success is not a substantive thing in itself, which is what makes it so tricky. Canute succeeded when he ordered the tide out, because he was not aiming at getting the tide out again, but silencing his courtiers’ flattery.

  6. Looking forward to another Combined Ops book (I just finished all three, need to write reviews).

  7. It’s not just Jenna & AJ. I’d love to read more about Raina & Akrep, Annika & Restin (or their children) and how they adapt to the changes coming, plus more of Chief Smith, Lee and Bet too!

  8. Yes, the ‘I did this before I can do it again’ issue.
    Oh how I know that one all too well.
    In a two year period I wrote over 20 novels and all of them did spectacularly well for me.
    Then I burned out. There is only so long you can work 100+ hour weeks after all.
    Then there were some other wonderful issues that took place and along with being burned out, I just really didn’t want to deal with the business aspects, the fans, people, anything. Eventually I pulled myself out of that hole, but right now I’m gonna be happy if I can clear 6 in a year, unlike the 10+ I’d done over that period.
    Yes, I did it before, and maybe I could force myself to do it again, but… maybe I can’t.

    This doesn’t mean I still can’t write, and write well. But it does mean that you shouldn’t obsess over past successes and find fault with your self for not doing so well.

    1. I’m still working my way through your stories. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t read them all, yet, if only because I keep reading stories by other authors, too. I do hope you find a pace that you can maintain, so that we all can read more of your work.

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