What’s Your Definition of ‘Writing Success’?

What’s your definition of writing ‘success’ and ‘failure’?

I ask because last Saturday’s Guardian (it was 1st April but I don’t think it was a joke) contained an interesting ‘What I’m Really Thinking’ piece (they’re always interesting, imo but this one is particularly so, because it’s writing-related).

It was called: ‘What I’m Really Thinking.. The Failed Novelist’.

UPDATE: There’s an interesting reply to the ‘What I’m Really Thinking..’ piece in The Guardian, telling the would-be novelist that she’s not a ‘failure’, she’s ‘a quitter’!

It’s a well-known fact that most people’s first novels don’t get published. And usually for a very good reason: they’re not very good. Writing a novel is a learning process. You get better with each one you write, or at least, that’s the theory. The author of the Guardian piece feels she has ‘failed’ because the two novels she’s written haven’t found a publisher.

Hold on a minute! Two novels written (actually finished, not just talked about!) AND an agent took her on so they must have had some considerable merit? I think that’s impressive. I don’t call that ‘failure’ – I call that ‘possibly-giving-up-just-when-you-were-on-the-verge-of-success’!

Perhaps the next novel she writes WILL find a publisher because everything she’s learned from the first two, will help to make the third that much ‘better’. And if not, there’s always self-publishing or diversifying or getting feedback or a mentor and going back to the drawing board and working on the two novels until someone does decide they are good enough to publish.

This ‘feeling like a failure if work is unpublished’ isn’t limited to novelists. I belong to a couple of Facebook groups for writers who target the women’s magazine fiction market (small and getting smaller by the day! The market, not the writers) and oh dearie me, there’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in those!

Whatever happened to writing for fun? Or simply writing because you HAVE TO! (Regardless of whether it ever sees the light of day or anyone else ever reads it?).

As the writer of one of the comments underneath Saturday’s Guardian piece says, “We’re constantly told that we can do anything if we try hard enough, if we believe, if we really go for it” but that’s not actually true, is it? Not everyone can be an Olympic Gold medallist, not everyone is good enough to appear on X Factor and (gasp!) perhaps not everyone can be a published writer.

Part of the reason I blog is because it’s a way of publishing my work. I don’t get any money from it but I get the satisfaction of writing what I want to write and seeing it ‘published’. Being published is not a ‘right’ and if other people are to judge our work and pay for it, then being published is not entirely within our control. There’s an element of luck involved, sure but there’s also a lot of hard work and.. dare I say it.. talent?

What do you think? How do you define your ‘success’ (or otherwise) as a writer?

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17 Responses to What’s Your Definition of ‘Writing Success’?

  1. Great post, Helen. I feel successful for having 3 pocket novels published. Also I have self published a romantic novel a story collection and now seeking an agent and have had a decent first Alcs payment – Also, joined the RNA and looking forward to the conference in July. Went on a bit there, but the point is you’re only a failure at writing if you give up.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. My first Romantic novel was rejected, but after some years I dusted it off, did some editing and put it on Kindle as an e book for a modest sum and amazingly I sold quite a few and got some good reviews which really cheered me up. I give all the royalties to charity. I sent a children’s book to three publishers, and one asked to see the whole manuscript, but then rejected it. I’m currently revising that. I write because I have to. I love it. Just finished first draft of coming of age novel. Never give up writing if you enjoy it.
    I read that ‘What I’m thinking ‘ too and thought how successful that person was in actually getting an AGENT!!!

    • Yes, Susanna, it’s not easy to get an agent, is it? I think lots of things count as a success if you’re a writer: getting a letter published, writing a short story or a poem, being shortlisted (or longlisted!) or placed in a competition, no matter how ‘small’, publishing a blog post, finishing ANYTHING…! and I could go on.

  3. simonwhaley says:

    As I say in my book (The Positively Productive Writer – ahem 😜), I think the ‘failure’ happens because things don’t happen as we hope they will in our dreams. We dream of writing a novel, getting an agent, then securing a lucrative publishing deal. But that’s not how it happens. And because it doesn’t some people percieve it as failure. But you never know when something could happen. But yes, I agree with you, writing two complete novels, and securing an agent is pretty successful!

    • And sometimes it’s just a matter of timing (which I suppose is luck – or bad luck). That novel that was turned down by publishers a few years ago might be more topical or relevant now and another publisher might snap it up! You just never know but if you don’t keep trying and putting yourself out there, nothing will happen. Agents and publishers won’t come knocking on your door! You have to be resilient if you want to be a writer. No one said it would be easy!

  4. pennywrite says:

    Yes, I read that article you mention… it sounded a bit melodramatic, but I suppose it sold, even if her novel did not! Fireproof stickability plus a cool head is a minimum requirement, perhaps. (I will not say exactly how many short mag story rejections I had at first, but you can take it they pretty much filled a very large tub!) But on the whole, writers are the most helpful people I know, so that helps!

    • Actually, Penny, you don’t get paid for those ‘What I’m Really Thinking’ pieces – at least, I didn’t when I had one published a few years ago! They consider them to be ‘reader’s views/pieces’, so a bit like a reader’s letter (good way of filling a bit of a slot in the weekend paper, isn’t it?). At least though if you have one accepted, you can say you’ve been published in The Guardian!

  5. Trying to do, or go for something, whatever it is, is never a failure. OK you may not always be ‘successful’, but the success has been getting off your butt and trying. Many, many people won’t even get that far. Never stop trying. After all life would be boring if we didn’t go for our dreams.

    • Well said, Caroline. You can never reach a point anyway, as a writer, when you’re not trying to improve. I think you learn with everything you write – and with every rejection and success. It’s a ‘journey’, to coin a phrase!

  6. Ninette90 says:

    I’m not very good at persevering long term – which is what I’m discovering novel writing is all about – However, I don’t feel a failure as a writer just becuase I’ve started two novels and finished neither. Hopefully I will finish one of them at some point. I’m still at the stage where I’m not entirely sure where my strengths lie, but, the flash fictioin, short stories and poetry keep on coming. I’ve not been that ‘sucessful’ in competitions but I don’t get disheartened. Also, I sent in a script for BBC Radio which was turned down, but they did recieve over 4000 so how can that be considered a failure? At least I finished it and sent it off! Who knows, maybe I’ll have some fun and record it myself with a few friends. Failure as a novelist – maybe – but as a writer, no.

    • Ninette
      I agree, you’re not a ‘failure’ if you haven’t finished something, yet. It’s still a ‘work in progress’, right? And actually, like you, I DO count it as a success that you’re sending things off for consideration. Many people don’t even get that far, frightened of failure perhaps but, more likely, they realise, when it comes down to doing it, that writing is hard work – and they’d rather do something easier, like watch the tele’!

  7. Kate Hogan says:

    Personally, I think failure is more about giving up before you even begin, by thinking up excuses as to why there’s no point in doing whatever it is you could have a go at. Almost thirty years ago I dipped my toes into the writing game for a year, sold a few and got lots of rejections. I could have binned or deleted those stories, but I didn’t. Instead I kept them and when twenty five years later I decided to have another go at writing I’ve not only sold many new stories, I’ve actually sold quite a lot of those rejections, too – some more than once! I said I’d write a novel and I succeeded, I’ve yet to make much money from it, but I succeeded in doing what I said I’d do. So I suppose I would define my success in actually having a plan to write, and seeing that plan through. Good wishes KH

    • Kate, thanks for your comment. I agree with all you’ve said and you certainly sound like a success to me! Well done, you. It’s too easy to talk ourselves out of things – espeically if they’re hard – whether that’s running a marathon or trying to get our work published. There’s an interesting reply to the ‘What I’m Really Thinking..’ piece in The Guardian, telling the would-be novelist that she’s not a ‘failure’, she’s ‘a quitter’! I am going to put a link to it on the blog post now.

  8. Glen says:

    I wrote something similar about blogging recently – I blog because I love to write. It would be wonderful to write a novel that someone would think worth publishing, but that’s not going to happen. So I write Hub Pages and it feels like success when they are featured 👵🏻

  9. Rosemary Reader and Writer says:

    All this sounds about right, Helen, says she, still trying to edit the first novel.

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