Reframing “Success”: 5 Ways to be Happier as a Writer

Last weekend, I was at a writing retreat where middle-grade author Jennifer Nielsen talked about how we define success as a writer. Her talk was inspiring, as she reminded us that there are lots of different ways to measure success as a writer—but her timing was also fortuitous, because as it happened, I’d been thinking about “success” in preparation for this post.

And yes, I put “success” in scare quotes. There’s a reason for that—I’ll get to it.

I’m currently working on the last book in my contracted trilogy, and my agent has already asked me what I want to do next. While I have a couple of possible ideas, the looming question—what do I do next?—has also had me looking long and hard at what I want out of writing.

Of course I’d like to be successful. Ambition has always been a driving force for me (not surprisingly, my Pottermore results turned up Slytherin), and that’s no less true in my writing.

But what is “success” as a writer? Lots of attendees had good answers: money to supplement the family budget, connecting with readers, etc. But I realized, as I listened, that I had no idea what “success” looked like for me.

There are the obvious answers, like hitting a best-seller list, having your book made into a movie, selling x number of copies, etc. But the truth is, I’ve already hit a stage that five years ago I would have thought was successful: my first book came out with a big 5 publisher—my book is even in Target! But I don’t feel successful. I still feel wildly unsure, doubting my words and my craft. And even the measure of success I often hear—I just want my book to reach one person—doesn’t work for me. Because, if I’ve reached one person, then suddenly that isn’t enough. I want to reach one more, and then another, and then another. Most of the time, “success” seems like an endlessly vanishing summit, a trail that lengthens the higher I climb.

My friend Emily King articulated the inherent tension in writing “success” perfectly:

Anyone in the publishing industry knows that luck and timing account for more than a fair amount. Book covers, marketing, release dates, trade reviews, advances, invitations to conferences, etc. I realized as I sat with the question “What does success mean to me?” that success is ever-moving. It is a dangling carrot that motivates us to work harder and persist, no matter where we are on our personal journey. . . . In essence, success is something we chase, not something we achieve.

The intent of our heart, the reason we’re sacrificing and toiling for that carrot, and our motive for consecrating our time and talents, must bring us personal joy or contentment. Otherwise the success we experience will feel like just another step on a lofty ladder to a higher rung of achievement. We must be driven by the carrot hanging out of our reach, ambitious enough to go for it, and satisfied by what will feel like minor advances. Or at some point, we will stop fighting for our dreams.

So for me, success is finding a way to be grateful and happy with where I am today, while always keeping one eye firmly on that carrot.

This begs the question: how do we find happiness with our current progress without abandoning our goals? Here are five ideas (I should note that these are as much for my benefit as for anyone else!):

1. Find your why
Most writers, when they start writing, don’t write because they want to make money* or because they want to be famous (or if they do, they find that those goals don’t sustain them for long). Most writers start because they have a story they want to tell, or because writing fills some kind of creative need in their life. I’ve been telling stories since I could hold a pencil, simply because there’s something so inherently satisfying to seeing the story unfold in my mind.

*This is not to say that writing as a means of earning a living is bad—far from it! Many authors write to sustain themselves and their families. Only to say that money (and fame) shouldn’t be the only reasons to write.

2. Reframe the discussion
Instead of focusing on success and/or failure, maybe we should focus instead on satisfaction/fulfillment and creative play. When we (and by “we,” I really mean “I”) focus too much on success, it can rob us of the joy we find in creating. When we worry too much about failure, we lose the capacity to explore. Maybe, instead of asking, “am I a successful writer,” we should ask instead: “is writing satisfying to me? Why or why not?” If writing isn’t satisfying, it might be because we’re asking too much of it—or we’ve forgotten to play.

3. Be grateful
While goals can be an important forward-looking device, sometimes we need to look back and see how far we’ve come as writers. We need to acknowledge the good that has already come from writing, not just the imagined good we hope will come. I know authors who keep a bucket list of things they’d like to achieve as a writer, and pull the lists out periodically, not to mark how far they still have to go, but to appreciate the things that have already happened, from the mundane (the first query rejection!) to the more profound (the first fan letter!).

One of my critique partners recently forwarded us the pages we’d sent for one of our early meetings (nearly five years ago!) and my pages were truly awful. I’m grateful that I’ve grown as a writer—and this gives me hope that my writing can still improve. My life is so much richer for the friends I’ve made as a writer—even if I had never published, that would be an indelible good that came from a creative life. Sometimes I forget that.

4. Be brave
Sometimes I think we’re socially conditioned to think that happiness means the absence of fear or unhappiness. But mental health experts point out that trying to avoid stress can actually increase it by training our bodies to view all stress as a negative thing.

Part of being happy with our writing means being brave: sitting with our fear or our disappointment and then putting ourselves and our writing out there anyway. (Within limits, of course: knowing yourself and protecting your own health are also important). Brené Brown suggests telling our fears, “I see you, I hear you, but I’ll do this anyway.” (See  also Tasha’s excellent post from yesterday).

5. Tell your stories
Barbara Kingsolver has said, “Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” I find that as a writer, I’m most satisfied when the stories I’m working on are stories that are meaningful to me, rather than the stories I *think* I ought to write. This doesn’t mean that all the stories I write for myself are stories that need to go to a wider audience (Jeanette Ng has a fantastic post on the need for egotism in writing and humility in editing), but that they ought to start with something that matters to me.

What brings you happiness as a writer? How do you reframe “success” in your own career?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.

Drawing Inspiration from Readers

Some days it feels like an appalling act of hubris to think I might have something to offer readers: my perspective doesn’t seem particularly unique–and I write genre fiction.

I have friends who write the kind of beautiful books where readers write back to say that the book changed their life, that it inspired them. I’ve never received a single letter like that. In other words, I don’t write “important” books.

But I still believe that there’s value in most books—mine included. Here’s why.

Different readers need different things from books. As a reader, I’m familiar with this—a book that moves me profoundly may bore my friend. The converse is also true. Sometimes I read to learn, to experience a perspective that isn’t my own and stretch my empathy, to be inspired. Sometimes I read purely to escape. I’ve read nonfiction books (most recently, Brené Brown’s) that changed my thinking. I’ve read memoirs that linger with me years later: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Terry Tempest William’s Refuge. And I’ve read genre fiction that saved me in dark places.

I read Jessica Day George’s Princess of Glass one long, harrowing evening in a hospital waiting room, waiting for an ultrasound to confirm what I already suspected: I had miscarried at 16 weeks. That night, I needed an escape. About a year later, I again found a much-needed escape in genre fiction: after an unexpected emergency c-section stranded me in the hospital with only my new kindle (I could not leave my room or hold my baby for several hours after the surgery), I devoured Melanie Jacobson’s light romantic comedies.

Were these books any less important than weightier ones? Maybe objectively, when we look at something that contributes to a wider cultural conversation. But in those moments, when I desperately needed an escape, they were no less valuable.

As writers, we’re sometimes tempted to assign value to books, especially our own. But as readers, that distinction is much fuzzier, and something we should bear in mind when we write. Readers read for all kinds of reasons, and they need all kinds of books.

I asked some of my friends why they read, and the answers span a broad spectrum:

• To learn or improve a skill
• To enjoy a well-turned phrase and human creativity
• To change
• To be guided to new and deeper thinking
• To connect with others
• To learn how others experience the world; to see a new perspective
• To find someone like you
• To solve a problem before the main character
• To live more than one life
• To travel to other parts of the world (or universe)
• To travel through time
• To experience emotions we enjoy (whether that be fear, humor, romance)
• To escape
• To relax
• To have fun

Or as my friend Kristin Reynolds (whose beautiful middle-grade novel, The Land of Yesterday, will be out next year) says: “To find myself in others, to reaffirm my experience as a human being, to glimpse the perpetual uncertainty that I am not alone. To link minds and hearts with strangers who end up feeling like friends. And also for the poetry of words, where the meaning is in what’s not being said that ignites something otherwordly inside me, something true, something divine.”

There’s no one right answer to why someone reads—and most people read for multiple reasons.

Chances are, no matter what you write, there’s a reader looking for just the experience you offer.

What do you read–and why?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.

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65 Things Writers Love

It’s the month of love! So, with the help of my friends, I made a list of some of the many weird, useful, and surprising things writers love to play with, eat, do, and use while writing.

love.jpg

  1. Space heaters (warmth is a common theme!)
  2. Scrivener

    “Literally have no idea how I ever wrote, let alone edited, without Scrivener!” –Lindzee Armstrong

  3. Hand bound journals
  4. Note cards

“I use them all the time to write ideas on, outline, remember some grand idea (ha!), or to help keep me on track. When back-to-school supplies are on sale, I have to buy some. I also love using the sticky notes that are like 1/3 of the size to use as tabs with a note on it to mark places in books for research.” –Wendy Jesson

  1. Highlighters
  2. Lemon drops
  3. Dove chocolates
  4. Toys and good luck charms

    “I have a figurines of Rey and BB-8 from The Force Awakens watching over my laptop when I work.” –Melanie Bennett Jacobson                                                                                                      thor

  5. Fountain pens
  6. Pilot Frixion pens, extra fine point
  7. Ergonomic keyboards
  8. Slippers

“Slippers are a must. You can’t be creative if your toes are freezing.” –Micheal Bacera

  1. Liquids

Whether it’s Diet Dr. Pepper, Mello Yello, tea, or straight up water, writers need the perfect drink to sip or guzzle.

“My writing needs are simple–beautiful folders, Uniball ink pens, hot tea with cream in a pretty mug and a brilliant idea. I can typically pull off three out of the four” –Vicky Lorencen

  1. New notebooks (Oh! How we love our office supplies.)

” .17 Spiral bound notebooks. Seriously. I leave the store with like ten of them when they’re on sale. I always have a notebook with me.” –Chantele Sedgwick

  1. Smooth writing pens

“I love these extremely specific spiral notebooks that I buy at Barnes and Noble. They are maybe 5-1/2 x 8″, and they have colored edges (red, blue, grey, light green, purple, and real) with lines that match the edge color of the particular page. They are by Miquel Rius and made in Spain. And they have perforations to remove the spiral edge if you pull them out. Covers come in red, blue, black, and purple.I love Pilot Precise V5 RT pens in blue because they write super-smoothly.” –Kelly Ramsdell

  1. Raw almonds

    ” Me, writing: *Need a metaphor, can’t think of one, decide to eat.* Almonds contain the damage.” –Melanie Bennett Jacobson

  2. Ergonomic chairs
  3. The app Self-control to keep ourselves off of social media
  4. Mobile ways to keep track of all our words and ideas

“My current favourite is the voice memo function on my iphone. My ideas come while I’m driving rather than in the shower, so I hit record and talk out loud to myself about plot and character arc ideas, worldbuilding details, etc . . . And sometimes I write whole chapters with my thumbs in my “Notes” app and then email them to myself. This is probably why I get so annoyed when my phone rings . . .” –Kimberly VanderHorst

  1. Cajun trail mix from Walmart
  2. An uncluttered mind

“I also like a clean space. My head is so full of stuff that I like to look down at my laptop and only see it.” –Christine Eller

22.Storyboards

23.. Silence

“I need silence when I write. Music, people talking, the TV… all of that is SO DISTRACTING that I can’t hear the voices – I mean the characters – in my head.” –Shaela Kay Odd

24. Dark chocolate

25. Skinny Pop popcorn

26. Cardigans

27. Legos

legomen

“Dark chocolate and Skinny Pop or the words don’t work. I have an Eddie Bauer “sleep cardigan” that covers my hands and can be wrapped around my body several times. I keep LEGO mini figures on my desk to play with, and often will put together LEGO sets while I think. In the last few months I’ve done the Millenium Falcon and the Mines of Moria. I have a stuffed Moomintroll that I hug, and my dog sleeps under the desk so I can roll her around with my feet.” –Jessica Day George

  1. Goldfish crackers
  2. Chocolate chips
  3. Pajama Pants

“I have to be in pajama pants when I write. My favorites are the men’s lounge pants from Walmart (because POCKETS). I have Captain America, Batman, Superman, and Jack Skellington.

I usually prefer to have a snack nearby. Chocolate chips are a frequent go-to, as well as goldfish crackers, or sometimes potato chips. If I’m feeling heathy it’ll be sliced apples.

I ALWAYS have my water bottle nearby. Cold water helps me focus.

(Last one…) I have to write sitting on the couch. I *can* write other places, but that’s pretty much my spot.” –Darci Cole

  1. Camera

“My camera!! I have a 500mm lens that lets me watch wildlife from afar, and document their behavior with photos. In every season, I lug it with me, hiking, kayaking, sailing. I also use the photos at school visits to talk about descriptive words.” –Tamra Wight

  1. Fuzzy socks
  2. Hoodies
  3. Pellegrino

“I need a hoodie and fuzzy socks. When things aren’t going well in my writing, I can hide under my hood. In the summer – Pellegrino and dark chocolate almonds. In the winter, hot chocolate and trail mix.” –Jolene Perry

  1. Pens

“I’m a pen snob. Nothing is more frustrating than having a creative thought and having nothing with which to record it. My weapon of choice is Papermate blue ink. They never explode, and don’t dry out. These are preferable to chanting in line at the bank, and having everyone wondering if you’re nuts.” –Robin Martin

  1. An empty bladder
  2. Entertainment for wee distractors.

“The only thing I need when I write is a second computer, right beside mine, so my youngest can watch truck shows while I work.” –Bethany Wiggins

“Netflix for my kids. Freedom app to disable my wifi. A trip to the bathroom before I get started. And frequently, chocolate chips.” –LaChelle Hansen

  1. Pencils
  2. Fun sticky notes

“Ticonderoga #2 pencils for first drafts; Pepsi Max; sticky notes with funny sayings; my harmonica of rejection to use when necessary; white out to name a few.” –Linda Boyden

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  1. Hand lotion
  2. Inkjoy pens
  3. Covered knuckles

“A cardi with long sleeves that come down over my knuckles. I like my knuckles to be covered. It’s like I’m about to softly punch the world with knitted knuckles.

And if I can, I love writing under this picture:”

sachiko

–Sachiko Burton

  1. Motivation

“My favorite writing companion is a contract, so I can be sure I’ll get paid. Unfortunately, that’s not usually with me in the creative process, so I need to content myself with a good cup of coffee.” –Tim Davis

  1. “I love Pinterest. It’s perfect for pulling up pictures that look like what I’m trying to write about, and then I have something that I can look at to write a description.

Recent searches include floating cities, mermaid Tiaras, inflatable space stations, and plunging necklines. Pintrest really delivers.” –Don Carey

  1. Detailed outlines

“I have a printed, extremely detailed outline (50-ish pages) next to me. And I have to have a second monitor where I can display my writing log (an Excel spreadsheet). I also have a credenza on which is displayed my large Lego sets that kids don’t get to take apart. (I know. I’m the dad in The Lego Movie.)” –Robnison Wells

  1. Things to play with when we’re stuck.

“Ecojot notebooks. My laptop. Also, I have an abalone shell full of really smooth pebbles on my desk, and I play with them when I’m stuck.” –Kate Messner

  1. Ambience

“I like to burn a candle while I write–especially at night with all the lights off. I’ve even started making my own candles.” –Julie Daines

candle

  1. Coffee shops, libraries, dark and abandoned corners (aka places we can write without distractions)
  2. Inspirational pictures on the wall

    I like having pictures and other items that inspire me and remind me why I am in my writing space.” –Scott Rhoades

    pictures

  3. Comfort

“I wear onesie PJs sometimes…and drink Crio Brü like crazy.” –Jo Seable Schaffer

“I have a fuzzy blanket on my lap, sitting in my recliner, and my music playing. Sometimes it’s Piano Guys Pandora station, sometimes Celtic – whatever fits the book mood.” –Jaclyn Weist

“Sweats, with a fleece blanket and the chihuahua on my lap.” –Linda Budzinski

“Bra off and pajamas on.” –Courtney Willis

  1. Cuddly company

“My favorite writing accessory? Cats. Cats. Cats. But not kittens – they keep trying to roll around on the keyboard when I’m writing.” –Hillora Lang

  1. Crunchy snacks
  2. Music

“Extremely inappropriate music for the work in progress. The sweeter the topic, the punk-ier the music. Stupid loud too. I’ll be sorry someday.”—Hayley Barrett

  1. The perfect spot

“I write in the basement on a section of the couch that kicks back with my laptop on my lap, and I turn on a space heater in the winter or I’ve used a heating pad for my back.” –Alice Beesley

“This is going to sound weird, but writing with a standing desk. I write more when standing than when sitting.” –Adrienne Monson Torkildson

  1. Document holder  document-holder

“I have this cool editing stand that elevates the pages and puts them at an angle and has space for pens and other writing implements.” –Susan Law Corpany Curtis

56. Sharpies

57. Scrap paper

58. Silly mugs

59. Mirror

60. Tower fan

61. Reference books

“*Sharpies, highlighters, and scrap paper for the ideas that pop up where they don’t belong

*chocolate covered fruit or cocoa-roasted almonds or wasabi almonds (depending on my writing mood)

*water to refill my Shakespearean insults mug (from the Unemployed Philosophers Guild)

*carefully culled Pandora station of stalker songs (when writing appropriate scenes)

*a handheld mirror for figuring out which muscles do what while experiencing [insert emotion of choice]

*”The Emotion Thesaurus” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi for when the mirror fails me

*tower fan with remote control so I can turn breezes on (or off) as needed” –Teresa T.L. Bruce

  1. Warm digits.

gloves

  1. Inspirational words.

“Writers that I enjoy act as a Muses to me. Before writing I read a few chapters by them and that fuels my desire to produce work of the same inspiring quality.” –Tom Baldwin

  1. Books about writing and creativity

“Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott and Poemcrazy by Susan Wooldridge are my go to books.” Heather VanHoose Truett

  1. Perseverance

“I used to think I needed certain things and a perfect environment to write. But ever since we moved I do most of my writing in my car while I wait for my kids at some kind of lesson or other. It turns out all I really need is something to type on and a place to sit my butt.” –Elissa Barr


erinErin Shakespear writes silly pictures books and middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. After all, they say, “Write what you know.” And with six kids, her days are full of…quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures.