Success Doesn’t Look Like What You Think It Will — 6 Steps For Going For It Anyway
Success is an interesting thing. I’ve reached a point in my life where I think I have a modicum of expertise on the subject and I thought I might share some of it, if you’ll indulge me.
In 1994 I was studying for a double degree in Law and Commerce at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. I was a single mum with two pre-school kids, and was technically a pauper as I was living off a government pension while I studied. I was eking out four meals a week on one leg of mutton (that’s old lamb to you) that cost $5 for the whole leg, and making soup from the shank and leftovers. Chips and chicken nuggets, a whole $10, from the local fish & chip shop and a rented movie on Friday nights was the highlight of the week.
Two years into this punishing routine, my best friend got me very drunk one night on cheap champagne. Australian champagne is both inexpensive and very good quality, as we tend to keep the good stuff at home and export the lesser quality. Sorry, but what you pay $15 a bottle for isn’t the good stuff. Go on a vacation to Australia and visit the wineries and find out for yourself. But to get to the point…
I got very drunk. So did my friend. But she had an agenda that night and she wasn’t quite as drunk as me, and she managed to drive her point home in a way that changed my entire life. What are friends for?
I quit university a week later, and started writing — finally — for publication. It had only taken seventeen years for my brain to catch up with what my soul had really wanted all along.
When I quit university, my intention had been to get published. Well, d’uh. That’s what everyone wants. But joined at the hip with that intention was the burning ambition to write fiction full time. There was an image in my head of just staying home and writing novels all day. I knew of writers who did it. I was an avid science fiction reader. Isaac Asimov wrote those neat little autobiographic notes in between his essays in his Opus books, and I lapped those up. I would devour any autobiographic texts from novelists anywhere that hinted about the life of a novelist and what it was like to write full time. I was addicted to the idea.
Fast forward to today, March 13, 2010. That’s sixteen years after I started writing seriously for publication.
This morning I kissed my husband goodbye as he headed off to Saskatchewan to get pounded into the canvas for another wrestling match, and I headed downstairs to start up another day at the desk. It suddenly struck me as I pulled up my chair that I am doing exactly what I wanted to do, all those years ago.
After sixteen years, I am:
- Published — 31 fiction titles, 300+ non-fiction articles and counting.
- I have won awards.
- I am writing full time.
So why am I not doing cartwheels, handstands, and emailing all my old enemies and the snotty bitches from high school who use to ignore me, just to rub it in their faces that nah-nah, I did it!!! ?
Because up until this morning it didn’t occur to me that I am successful.
To be truthful, it still doesn’t feel like I’m successful, because this isn’t the way I thought it would go down, all those years ago.
Wayne Dyer, author of Real Magic, and other positive-thinking/self-actualization experts are always very careful to point out that you get what you wish for. You may have heard it put another way, a negative way: Be careful what you wish for…you might get it.
Actually, if you want something and work hard enough and long enough for it, you will get it. It just may not look exactly like what you thought it would when you get it.
Let me explain.
Sixteen years ago when I started out writing for publication, I wished to be a) published and b) to write full time. I’ve achieved both those things.
If you’re a writer and still struggling with a day job, you might be thinking “bitch!”. If you’re a writing and still trying to get published, you might be thinking something even worse. Just hold your horses for moment and keep reading.
If you’re a reader and reading this, don’t paint me in your mind’s eye lounging around in pink satin, popping bonbons in my mouth as I dictate my latest best-seller to a half-naked male secretary. I’m not even going to dignify that hyperbole with an “I wish!” It’s so far beyond the slog-your-guts-out day I usually have I don’t have breath to sigh about it.
For sixteen years I went through day jobs, raised kids, switched countries, learned to drive on the right, pretended to a long string of bosses that I really was gung-ho about my career, while I burned the midnight oil cranking out manuscripts at home, wooed agents, schmoozed editors, sold books, marketed and promoted myself, learned career strategies and tried to figure out how this stupid, crazy, idiotic, bizarre business we’re all in really works. I got more and more frustrated about the built-in dilemma for fiction authors: You can’t get to making a living writing popular fiction working a day-job, but you need to write/promote full time in order to make a living at it. There’s no way to break that dilemma short of someone handing you one of those headline-making advances that will give you the day-job-free time you need to get to whole full-time ball rolling.
I’d learned after all this time that I wasn’t one of those people who got the lucky breaks. I knew that wasn’t going to happen to me. I don’t lead a charmed life. I knew I was going to have to settle in for the long haul. This, the part-time career I had on my hands, was it.
Then, nine months ago, the day-job industry I was working in at the time was reorganized province-wide and I was abruptly handed my walking papers. I arrived at my desk on June 4 and forty minutes later I was standing on the sidewalk with two cartons of my personal possessions, calling Mark to come and pick me up again, a severance slip in my hand. It was bad news for someone my age and with my seniority. I knew that very few employers would be interested in hiring me because I would be considered too expensive — especially in the economic climate that existed in mid 2009. The severance package give me a bit of time, though, so I tried not to panic.
I started looking for work.
And I started writing stories. Lots of them.
Tally to date:
- Titles completed: 9
- Titles sold: 9
- Jobs applied for: have honestly lost track. At the beginning it used to be two or three every day. It has petered out now.
- Interviews granted: 1
The job interview I got was just at the beginning of this month. I think it was a fluke — I got it because I had officially given up on ever getting a job interview, let alone a job.
Here’s the thing: The severance money ran out months ago. The royalties from all the books I’ve sold kicked in just as the severance money ran out. It was so close a shave a barber would be proud, but we covered the mortgage, and we’ve been covering it ever since. We juggle, using credit cards to cover bills when the royalty cheque doesn’t arrive in the mail when it’s supposed to, or isn’t as big as we’d hoped.
E-piracy just kills my income, but after getting slaughtered publicly for daring to voice an opinion, I’ve given up trying to actively do anything about it. I live with the bite it takes — there’s no way to tell how big a bite it is, anyway.
Some months we’re in the black. Some, w
e’re glowing red. The black months pay back the red.
Juggling taxes is an exercise that brings sweat to my brow and requires the services of one of the best accountants in town. I pay his bill without a quiver. He’s worth it.
Our kids have all moved back home. Partly, they moved back because they needed a place to live. But they also moved back to help us out financially, too.
I constantly worry over money. It is a subject that can make me sick to my stomach and Mark will often have to nudge my mind out of that well worn groove and onto other subjects, when we’re together, because covering bills and when the next royalty cheque comes in and how big it might be, and what I can do to make it bigger is an obsession.
My slog-my-guts-out days that I referred to earlier consist of a) writing as much manuscript as possible, b) promoting the hell out of my books and c) developing as many secondary passive sources of income as possible to top up my royalty cheques. The security of having secondary income sources to cover income from an industry that is infamous for its instability is a survival thing, because the last nine months have demonstrated that going back to “normal” is not an option for me. The job interview I had at the beginning of the month confirmed that I wouldn’t fit in there anymore, anyway. I nearly broke out in hives just sitting in the interview room. A month of tugging my forelock would send me bonkers, I know it.
I work Monday to Friday, 7am to ~7pm, minus a couple of hours gym time. On the weekends that Mark has wrestling shows out of town, I work all the hours I’m not sleeping, working out in the gym, or preparing food. And often I skip the gym, mainline coffee and go without food, unless one of my kids raps their knuckles on my desk and reminds me to eat, or actually slides a plate of food under my nose.
It doesn’t sound very glamorous, does it?
Fact is, I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for…well, certainly not for a stable, secure, boring, monotonous day job. That job interview scared the hell out of me.
All the downsides are manageable: The angst over money, the uncertainties about the future of the industry, all that crap…it’s no more stressful than anyone else has to put up with if they’ve got a day job (when you can still get fired without notice) and whole industries can implode overnight, economies and stock markets can tank in hours. These are the times we live in. I just take it day by day and deal with what I’ve got in front of me. The secondary, passive income sources are a hedge against fluctuating royalty cheques, and there are other strategies I’m employing that really aren’t relevant to this post, to offset other inherent weaknesses of full time fiction writing.
I am totally happy when I am at my desk writing, or working on promoting my books, or something related to my career. When I’m mucking about in the fiction industry, I’m in my zone. I’m home.
And that’s what I realized this morning.
I have achieved what I set out to do, sixteen years ago. And it looks nothing like what I thought it would look like. It doesn’t feel like success because it doesn’t look like what I thought it would. But it’s success, anyway.
- When you set goals, be very specific. Knowing exactly what you want will give you something to work towards. It will also tell you exactly when you’ve got there.
- Don’t give up.It takes a long while to smooth out the odds in the publishing industry, and cancel out everyone else’s lucky breaks so that you’ve got an even playing field. I’ve spoken about this before, in my post “7 Things I wish I’d Known About Getting Published When I First Started Writing Novels,” when I said the longer you hang in there, the luckier you get.
- Success will arrive in a way you did not anticipate.You can map out the way you think you’re going to get to your goals, and it may even seem to make sense. Gurus talk of studying your enemies, or competitors, or role models and doing what they do. I guarantee that you will end up not getting to your success the way they did, even if you do exactly what they did. Not in this industry. Success will come at you from some completely unexpected corner, and it will come dressed in disguise. You may even start out, like me, thinking the shittiest break in the world has just happened to you. It may take a while for you to realize you’ve made it. That’s why you need the very specific goals — so you can recognize success when it arrives.
- Celebrate the bejeezus out of your success when you make it.No one else will. There are no awards for career success in this industry, except for a handful of stellar superstars. It’s a loner’s game so you have to pat yourself on the back for achieving success in your terms.
- Immediately (if not sooner) create another set of goals.Do not, do not, do not allow yourself to stagnate, not even for a moment. You must keep up your momentum. Yes, you have day-to-day survival inertia working for you (paying the bills gets everyone out of bed in the morning) but that isn’t enough. You want fire-in-the-belly motivation driving you, too. You made it. You’re a success. Don’t sit down on the side of the road and gather dust. Keep moving. This time, the whole shiny publishing world is your oyster.What do you want now?
- See Point #1, Rinse, Repeat.