Monday, May 24, 2010

Let's Be Honest: Success Equals Fame and Big Bucks

By Guest Blogger Elizabeth Sims

Not long ago I spoke on a panel of authors, agents, and editors in a bookstore in Alaska. As we took our places in front of the audience, I wondered, "What are aspiring authors in Alaska like?"

My unasked question was answered by a man in the front row who raised his hand. "We all know we're supposed to just be glad that we write," he said. "We're supposed to not care whether we get a big contract or not. But let's be honest: we all want to make it big, we all want to write bestsellers, we all want to be famous, and we all want to be millionaires. Now my question to you people is: what's the main thing I have to do to get there?"

In other words, aspiring authors in Alaska are exactly like aspiring authors everywhere. I admired that man's honesty. Indeed, although I've reached the enviable level of midlist author, I'm just like him. I too want to make it big and all the rest. Especially the millions of dollars. Hell, yes!

Which provokes the question: how should an author define success?

Most amateur writers I talk to are shocked to learn that none—none—of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books were in print when he died. He was a has-been in his own time. That's happened to tons of tremendously talented authors. Worse still, any of us can point to some bestselling idiot who doesn't have a tenth of the talent we do.

The writing life ain't fair and that's that.

However, I have no patience for writing experts who tell aspiring authors things like, "Forget fame and fortune. Odds are against you ever achieving them with your writing." When somebody says that, I want to kill her. I want to hack off her head with a machete and kick it down a ravine.

Life is tough enough for authors without that bullshit. We know we've chosen a challenging path. We know, empirically and intuitively, that the odds are against us. Anybody attempting to do something extraordinary knows the odds are long. Win a marathon, develop a new cancer drug, find a lost civilization, be CEO before age 30, write a book, get a book published, have a big-time successful writing career.

The paradox is this: if you believe the odds are against you, you won't produce your best work. Why? Because you'll be too busy battling depression. It's damaging to listen to naysayers, especially ones disguised as helpers.

You've got to act as if the odds are in your favor. You've got to believe it in your heart or you're doomed.

You've got to believe that you'll achieve everything you can dream of: Glowing reviews, a thick stream of royalty checks, booksignings attended not only by your friends and relatives but by strangers who have actually read and loved your books. You've got to be able to visualize an ugly little statuette of a man's head with a painted-on mustache sitting in a place of prominence on your shelf. If you do that, you'll find yourself committed to developing your talent as far as it can go. You'll have a shot at the big time.

Believe. That's my answer to the man in Alaska.
Elizabeth Sims is the author of the Rita Farmer mysteries (The Extra, The Actress, and the forthcoming On Location) as well as the Lambda Award-winning Lillian Byrd mysteries. She is also a Contributing Editor at Writer's Digest magazine, where she specializes in the art and craft of fiction. Her formative years were spent investigating the lives of Nancy Drew, Laura Ingalls, and Sherlock Holmes, as well as making gunpowder in the basement with her chemistry set. Now, as a published crime author, she's living proof that studying literature and misbehaving with reactive compounds can work out. She's a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Mensa International.


Marcia Talley said...

Oh, Elizabeth, I have a stitch in my side from laughing so hard at your post, but you've pegged it exactly. Thanks for brightening my day!

Anonymous said...

"I got published but you probably won't": I've heard that in several workshops. Why? A good teacher doesn't walk into a classroom and say, "I learned how to solve quadratic equations, but you probably won't." He says, "Here's how it works. Now practice, do your homework, study, keep trying." Not a perfect analogy, but close. Reading and re-reading Ralph Keyes' The Writer's Book of Hope helps me counter the unproductive message. Thank you for sharing your answer to the man in Alaska. I'll print it out and put it with Mr. Keyes' book.

E. B. Davis said...

Faith lives. Thank you.

Pat said...

I'm a struggling writer... still working on getting published.

Thank you for your post....

Most of all for the "You must believe" part.

Thank you.

Julie Kramer said...

Good advice. And that machete artwork is the greatest.

Sheila Connolly said...

Oh, yes, you have to believe, even in the face of rejection. Lots of rejection. Faith in yourself is the only thing that keeps you writing--that and the desire to look those naysayers in the eye and say, nyah, nyah, told you so!

June Shaw said...

Great answer! Writers in Alaska certainly feel the same as writers everywhere -- we all want success. That's why we plug away at our computers.