If you want to succeed as an author, you need four things: the right mindset, to take action, external support, and knowledge of the publishing industry.
Please note that I am not qualifying or gatekeeping what it takes to be a writer. To be a writer, all you need to do, is write. One word, one sentence, one paragraph, at a time. Anyone who wants to write, can write.
Everyone has their own idea of what it means to be successful. For our purposes, success means to complete a book, publish it, for the buying public. One book or dozens, it doesn’t matter. Self-publishing or traditionally published, it doesn’t matter. To get to the point where you have one book available to the buying public, takes hard work and perseverance, and that is success.
It should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. Writing is the most important thing you need to do to succeed. If you’re not writing, you’ve got nothing. No book, no story, no essay, nothing.
I want you to picture a table. Writing is the top of the table. The four categories of the right mindset, taking action, external support, and knowledge of the publishing industry, are the legs that hold up that table. You don’t have a table without them, just a flat board. Without the table top of writing, you just have table legs.
You could take one of the categories away and still have a decent support for your table, though it won’t be nearly as sturdy. Take away two categories, and it falls over.
But fear not! You don’t have to have all four categories mastered before you start writing. They are all things we can and should learn continually throughout our careers as authors. In fact, they are things I teach through my Daring Writer course, and in my coaching practice.
Here are just a couple of examples of what falls into each category:
The Right Mindset
Everyone’s Path is Different
I know it’s hard to believe, but just because Veronica Roth is a mega-bestseller at 25, it doesn’t mean you have no chance at 26, or 56. Some authors will get their start selling short stories. Some will self-publish, some will blog the first few chapters and get a book deal. Some will have agents, others will not. Some will write all day, others will only write on Saturday mornings. Some will be adamant outliners, some will meander their way through the first draft, and others will do both. Some write long-hand drafts, others are computer only. Find the path that works for you. Your path is unique. Stop comparing yourself to other writers. Do your best in your way. You will be much more likely to want to write, and to continue to write, when you accept and perfect your process.
Believe in yourself
One of the biggest and most important lessons I learned at Seton Hill University, was to believe in myself. This wasn’t taught in any of the classes or workshops. It was what I learned from my classmates, all of us writers, putting our hearts and souls onto the page for critique and sending it out into the world. I learned that it takes courage to submit and face rejection. I learned that by believing in myself meant knowing that pursuing a writing career was what I wanted and that I had the capability and the will to succeed. I knew that I would do whatever it took to find a way to succeed, however long it might take. I knew that I would learn whatever skills I needed to learn to continuously grow as a writer. I knew that I had the strength and courage within me, to face the rejection and keep on.
Know that you can, you will, you do too.
Believe in Your Work
Along with believing in yourself as a writer, it is imperative that you believe in what you write. Believe that you have something to say and that others want to read it. If you believe in your work, the passion and the heart will show. If you don’t believe in it, don’t write it. Don’t waste your time on something you don’t believe in when you could be writing something you love. In the end, even if every editor and agent turns you down, you will be satisfied with what you’ve written. (And then you’ll explore other opportunities for getting your work out there).
Set achievable and Exceedable Goals
So many of us tend to set ourselves unrealistic expectations of how much writing we can get done. We set the standard too high and when we are unable to achieve it, we are unhappy with ourselves and frustrated with the writing process.
Be realistic about the goals you want to accomplish and the time frame you can accomplish them in. Remember, these are goals that you can control. You can’t control if an editor or agent will accept your work. But you can control when you’re ready to submit your work. Sometimes life throws us curve balls. Accept that there may be setbacks beyond your control. Ask yourself if the goal is really doable. If you’re planning to pitch a novel in three months but you haven’t started writing it yet, is that goal realistic? Make sure that it is something you can achieve.
Write down your end-game goal. If it is submitting or pitching, or writing a number of stories by a certain time. Figure out what you need to do to complete those goals. Is it writing a certain number of words or hours a day? Make sure that you can achieve that minimum and once you have reached it, be satisfied. Anything over top of that is bonus work. It doesn’t count toward the next day’s goals. Once you are consistently exceeding the original goal, step it up, increase the minimum. Make sure that you can still achieve it. And know that once you have, you can be satisfied with your work for the day.
Grow as a Writer
The idea of a perfect manuscript, is hogwash. There will never be, nor should there be, a time when you know everything there is to know about writing. We should always be learning and growing, challenging ourselves to learn new techniques and elements of the craft of writing. What worked for Charles Dickens, does not work for authors publishing today. Language changes, the tastes of the readers change, and we must change and grow as well.
Surround Yourself With Support
You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends.
How often do your friends and family make you feel guilty (intentionally or not) for spending time writing rather than with them? How often do they tell you it should only be a hobby? That you shouldn’t bother pursuing publication? How many of your friends keep asking you when your book will be published no matter how many times you’ve told them you’re still writing it, or you’ve just finished it and haven’t submitted it anywhere yet? Do they expect you to be an instant billionaire like J.K. Rowling? Do they expect you to give them free copies of your work? Do they celebrate your successes or do they look at you blankly then change the subject?
Surviving in this industry is impossible to do on your own. If you read the acknowledgements of any book, you see a glimpse of the support systems authors have.
Connect with other writers in your city or town, and online. They understand what you are going through, and will celebrate your successes with you. Find friends who understand how important writing is to you. They will understand that you need to spend time alone writing. They will also be your biggest fans at your readings. They will be there for you when you need a break, and they will support you when you don’t. When we surround ourselves with people who support our writing, it makes it a lot easier to push through the difficult times.
How often have you thought that it would be so much easier to stick to writing if you had a deadline? It is an inclination we learn in school, always completing assignments to deadline. How often, when you have a deadline that’s a month away, do you procrastinate and wait until one or two weeks before the due date to really get to work? When you get that book contract, the due date may be a year away. If you don’t have a contract, there is no deadline. How do you keep going? Find an Accountability Buddy. Find someone you can share your writing goals with. Someone who will check in with you regularly to hear about your progress, encourage you when you’re struggling, crack the whip if you’re procrastinating and making excuses, and help you reward yourself when you succeed.
Knowledge of the Publishing Industry
The Publishing Industry is a Fluctuating Industry
The publishing industry has been in a lot of flux the last several years, and it will continue to be for several more. In the past few years, there have been mergers of publishing houses and closures of publishing houses and short story markets. There has also been a rise in the online e-zines, e-books, and self-publishing. It is true that pursuing the traditional route of publishing may be more difficult with a limiting of options, and the dilution of the market with all the self-published works of varying quality.
Rather than viewing this as a negative and a reason to quit, see this as your opportunity. Explore all the options available to you. You no longer have to either traditionally published or self-published. Going hybrid (doing both) can be an option. There is also a growing number of reputable small-presses gaining a lot of attention and putting out great books that may be the right fit for you. Whatever way you decide to go, see this fluctuating business as an advantage to get your story out there.
Rejection is Rarely Personal
I know. Writing is intensely personal. We’re artists. We’re sensitive. We pour our heart and soul into our stories. We are submitting our babies that we have spent hours, weeks, years, perfecting. And then the rejections come telling us that it didn’t grab their attention, it wasn’t a good fit. And we’re at home reading these rejections thinking, “What do you mean my baby didn’t grab your attention? Are you saying my baby isn’t cute enough?”
Rejection of our writing, as hard as it is to believe, isn’t a rejection of us. How can it be? The editor’s (often) don’t know us.
Publishing is a highly subjective business. It relies on the personal opinions and preferences of the editors. It may also depend on what their bosses and sales departments think. What one person doesn’t like, another may love.
When they say the story isn’t a good fit, that’s exactly what it means. It isn’t what they’re looking for. It doesn’t fit their market. It may fit someone else’s. The same thing if it didn’t grab their attention. The story didn’t. They story. Not you. But it may grab someone else’s attention.
Talk to any editor or agent and they will tell you that sending rejections is the hardest part of their job. They are not out to get you, or to crush your dreams. Unless you are a jerkface and they know it, the rejection isn’t personal.
So keep writing and submitting. Keep growing, learning, and submitting. And when they say ‘not this one but send me more,’ they mean it.
Being a successful author takes more than just writing. It takes the right mindset, taking action, external support, and knowledge of the publishing industry. You don’t have to have all of them to start to write. Just like your knowledge and skill of the craft of writing grows, so can your strength in these areas of your writing life.
In which category do you feel the strongest?