What is Success?

by Pari Noskin Taichert

Living in the here and now is fine and dandy, but I’ll save that for another incarnation.

In this here and now, I work toward goals rather than "going with the flow."

But when will I know I’ve succeeded as an author?

Will it be when I can buy two Hummers that run on bio-diesel? Or, when millions of fans buy my books? Does it have to do with quality? Quantity? Ego inflation?

Is there a hierarchy of success?

I decided to make a list of benchmarks, actual measurements, against which I could gauge growth or slippage. The items fell into three nifty categories.

1. Deciding to call myself a "writer"
2. Finishing my first story
3. Letting other people (beyond friends & family) read it
4. Starting a novel
5. Finishing the novel
6. Finding an agent
7. Getting published

Sherri Burr, an author of five law books, has this to say, "Initially, I thought it was great when I read stories to my critique group and they said it was ‘great.’ Whoopie doo! It doesn’t matter how many people think you’re great until the work sees the light of day by being published."

I tend to agree with her. To me, the validation comes when a piece is vetted by others and they invest in my work as well.

Even more though, success means that I can make a living at my chosen profession. This might be too important to me, an obsession. With what I’ve learned since thinking about success these last few days, I wonder if I’m styming myself by putting too much weight on #16.

Here’s the second area on my list.

8. Cashing that first advance
9. Seeing my books in stores
10. Being recognized by store clerks
11. Getting the first royalty check
12. Receiving positive reader feedback (fan mail, happy comments at signings and bookclubs)
13. Meeting a stranger in the airport who is reading my book
14. Receiving award nominations
15. Finding an agent who is truly a good fit
16. Earning more money than I’ve spent on marketing (i.e. earning a living)

In her response to my query, multipublished novelist Jane Lindskold refers to most of the above successes but cautions that the pleasure they elicit "doesn’t linger too long."

I trust her perspective and experience. Hence the final section on my ladder of success.

17. Creating exactly the reader reaction I desire
18. Changing people’s perspectives
19. Positively affecting people through my writing
20. Always having new projects, new areas to explore

Gerald M. Weinberg, an internationally recognized software and organizational effectiveness expert, author of a book on writing and, now, a novelist, says, "I feel successful if my writing has made a positive difference in someone’s life."

Jane Lindskold also chimes in at this level. "There have been two areas in which, for me, the sense of success never dims. One is when someone reads one of my stories and responds just as I had hoped . . . .

"The other success is when someone tells me my story or novel has made them see some aspect of the world, personal or otherwise, a bit differently, that reading what I wrote expanded his or her horizons. Again, that sense that my story was successful in showing a new world to someone is heady and wonderful."

In reflecting on the success question this weekend, I’ve realized that a ladder is a good metaphor for looking at this aspect in our professional life. We climb up and down the rungs, sometimes getting stuck at a particular place for a moment, sometimes getting blisters . . .

No rung of this ladder is inherently better, more worthwhile or noble, than the other.

Still, the exercise of defining professional success fulfilled a need. I don’t feel quite so bound by that second level as I had before venturing into this thought-process.

I’d love to hear your perspectives, too. Perhaps we can come up with something that will be instructive, even useful, for writers at all stages of their careers.

May all of you be blessed with rest and heath this Labor Day.

cheers . . .

12 thoughts on “What is Success?

  1. Iden Ford

    I remember meeting Elzabeth Peters at Sleuth of Baker Street about 8 years ago and I read a few of her books, and really loved them. I said to her on the night of her signing that I had read the first book in the series and I could’nt put it down. There was quite a twinkle in her eye when I said that and we had an instant rapport. I made a joke to Jan Burke, who used to come up to Sleuth of Baker Street every year for her new book. I said: “Jan, I went to bed with Irene last night and we stayed up to all hours.” She laughed and we became instant friends. I thiink the first time I knew Maureen was going to have success as an author was when a fan, someone she had never met before, approached her at a B’con, and said to her “your book kept me up all night, I couldn’t put it down”. I think all others events and milestones like getting an agent, her first publishing contract, award nominations, our contact with a television producer and the subsequent adaptations, etc. seem to pale in comparison for Maureen to hear those magic words that she and every author loves to hear about their book(s), “I could’nt put it down”. That is success.

  2. Pari

    Iden,I think you’re right. When a total stranger tells you that he or she loves your work, WoW, it’s amazing.

    Of course, for someone like me who is currently from a small press, I’ve got to say that seeing a person in an airport in Houston reading my book nearly made me scream with delight. I disturbed him to introduce myself. It was such a rush of joy for us both — and that just intensified the experience.

    BTW: I enjoyed your pix on your blog about the Forensic Center. Thank you.

  3. Mark Terry

    Hangin on my office wall is a sign. It reads:

    Success is a journey not a destination.

    It’s been up there above my desk for about 3 years and I expect to keep it above my desk forever. I know I look at it regularly and contemplate what it means.

    First, I think success can only be defined by you. This is problematic, because we tend to want to define success by what others think of us. But is it money? I make a living as a freelance writer and my novels are part of that, but not nearly (yet) as large a part as I would like them to be. Yet last year I made almost exactly what I planned to earn, and made the goal of $10,000 more this year–which I just hit this month, so I’m doing great, right?

    Well, yes, but it’s just money, and for some reason the money’s gone, and when you make more money you owe the government more, none of which is really a reason to bitch, just the notion that as a definition of “success,” money is only a yardstick, and you should only compare it to yourself, not other people.

    Getting published? Certainly a sign of writing success, but anybody aware of trends in novel publishing knows we’re all pretty much balancing on a razor’s edge waiting for one poor-selling book to knock us off.

    Getting a positive review? Hey, I’ve had positive reviews and at least one negative, and if you think the negative reviewer is full of shit, what are we left to think of the positive reviewers?

    Cashing your advance? Getting a royalty check? Movie deals? Radio interviews?

    Somebody recently asked Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones what the best thing about their success has been, and he said, “Getting to continue doing it.”

    Yeah, Keith, you half-dead reprobate. You nailed that.

    I’d sure love a million bucks and a movie deal. But even more, I’d love to continue getting my novels published and getting paid for the privilege. That’s success.

    Best,Mark Terrywww.mark-terry.com

  4. Pari

    Mark,I like your definition of success — or Keith Richards’ definition.

    I think that’s why I get stuck worrying about making a living. I want to keep writing and the only way I can do it — and justify doing it to my husband and children because writing takes me away from them — is by adding to, rather than draining, the family income.

    It’s feeding that addiction, the compulsion to write and be read, that spurs me forward.

  5. Mark Terry

    Pari,As someone who does make his living as a writer–and I imagine Jeff C might have something to say about this as well–I can only suggest that it has its positives and negatives. The positive is the lifestyle and the commute (heh-heh). One negative is the instability and unpredictability of the money and the sense I have (maybe others disagree) that you can be bought in a way I couldn’t have been working for other people. Although I can certainly turn down work, if a job pays particularly well, but it’s not necessarily something you want to do, it becomes damned near impossible to turn it down.

    And I suspect it might get that way with novel-writing. You build up a readership for a certain type of book and you want to write something else and it’s possible your publisher and readers don’t want you hear about it from you–and since you need to make money, you write what the publisher thinks they need, rather than what you need to write.

    As crises go, not much to whine about, but still… you have to remember why you got into this gig to begin with.

  6. Sarah Stewart Taylor

    Pari — As always, I love your thought-provoking posts! I was thinking about this recently when, at 4 or 5 a.m. or one of those goddawful hours I get up to write these days, before the baby wakes up — I had a moment where the words were flowing, my mind was churning ideas for characters and plots, the birds were starting to sing outside, the coffee was perfect, one of the dogs was sleeping at my feet and making little snoring noises, and I just thought “This is it. This is what I always wanted.” It felt like a revelation, that it’s about process, not product. Know what I mean? It’s hard to hold on to that feeling during daylight hours, when I can’t help but think about sales figures and publicity — not to mention bills and college funds and making a living, but I’m trying. . . Of course, it’s pretty cool when someone tells you they stayed up all night reading your book too!

  7. Pari

    Oh, Sarah, aren’t those moments absolutely wonderful? The other day, I was sitting and reading a section of my draft of SOCORRO and thought, “Wow. This works.” I wanted to hold onto that so badly but it was like trying to keep rubbing alcohol from evaporating. Poof. It was gone.

    And, Mark, I used to make my living writing nonfiction–along with the PR–and know what you mean about those pro/con aspects.

    Writing Sasha now, I must keep to a certain set of rules. They’re fairly flexible, but if I diverged too much, I’d lose readers for sure. That’s why I want to write the new series as well — to keep myself interested in it all.

    Sarah, that comment about keeping a reader up all night — well, a few people have said that to me and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven right there.

  8. Naomi


    This is a more practical question, but do you ever think about your career in terms of expanding your readers? For instance, reach 1,000 sales mark, then 5,000 sales mark, 10,000, 20,000, 40,000, etc.?

    I think that each stage requires something new, but I’m loathe to articulate exactly what is needed. But I do think about it.

  9. Pari

    Naomi,That’s a very practical question indeed. I know I can measure sales, but I’m not sure I can measure readers.

    I like the idea though, and thank you for suggesting it.


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