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Writerland Challenge 2013 Week Two Check-In: What Is Success?

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Yesterday my five-year-old son opened his fortune cookie, and together we read:

“You have a strong potential for success.”

“What is success?” he wanted to know. Avoiding the temptation to whip out my smart phone and read him the Merriam Webster definition, I began:

“Well, if you want to bake a cake, and your cake turns out perfect, you can call that a ‘successful’ cake. But if you’re talking about success in life, it means different things to different people. If someone wants to be a gymnast and they become a gymnast and they do it well, they are successful. If someone wants to make a lot of money and they do make a lot of money, they are successful. If someone wants to be a doctor or an artist or a writer and they accomplish that, they are successful.”

“You’re successful, right, Mama?”

Okay, here’s what was going on in my head: My memoir was rejected by the Big Five last year (Yes, it’s true. Dead in the water after being submitted to every major publisher in New York.) Although a condensed version is going to be published by a new ebook company in January (more on that soon!), and I still have hopes of selling the full-length version to a YA publisher or a small press, I failed at my ultimate goal, which was to sell my book to a large trade publisher. Plus, my agent tells me it’s practically impossible to sell memoirs and would I consider fictionalizing my work-in-progress, a second memoir? GROAN.

Here’s what else was going on in my head: I’m happy. I’m healthy. I have an awesome husband and two wonderful kids. I live in a house with comfortable, warm beds and central heating, and I can afford to eat all the food I want. I have wonderful, loving friends, family, and neighbors. I have a snuggly cat. I have a fun job that affords me the flexibility to do pretty much whatever I want any day of the week.

“Yes, I’m successful,” I told my son. “For some people, being successful means being happy—having friends and family who love them and having a happy family. Success is different for everyone.”

“But you have to work hard and do well in school to be successful,” my husband piped in with his voice of reason.

“That’s right.” I said. “Success takes work.”

What about you? What is your definition of “success,” and how does it relate to your writing goals? Do you consider yourself a “successful” writer? How are you successful in other areas of your life? And how did the goals go this week, Writerland Challengers?

26 comments to Writerland Challenge 2013 Week Two Check-In: What Is Success?

  • annerallen

    This is such an important question. For the longest time, I only defined success as having a Big 5 contract. I "landed an agent" but that wasn't success. Especially when I went through the same heartbreak you did–the agent couldn't sell my work. (This happens more and more.)

    Then I had 2 books accepted by a small publisher who paid my way to go to England and promote the books. But I wasn't a success because it wasn't the Big 5.

    Then the company went under and I defined myself as a "failure." But the truth was, I was writing and traveling and publishing articles and making a living (OK, scraping by) doing what I loved. I didn't see it as success at the time, but now I realize it was. I had achieved my goal to be a professional writer. Now I have a couple of bestsellers and things are going pretty well, but I realize I really had achieved success all along. I just hadn't realized it.

    • meghancward

      Thanks for this, Anne! It's very encouraging. I will keep trudging along, but it does get more difficult to keep the eye on the prize with each rejection. I know many other authors can relate!

  • I love this, Meghan (though I kind of hate it too, more on that in a sec.) When I wrote a novel that never got picked up, I told myself that having my kids see me work really, really hard on something and not let it wreck me when it didn't succeed the way I hoped it would was one of the best parenting gifts I could give them. I still believe that; they understand, on a deep level, that payoffs may take a while and you don't have to let rejection stop you.

    I hate it because I think your memoir sounds great and I wanted to sit on my couch and read it. I'll take the revised version if that's what I can get.

    And also I hate it because my current project is memoir. Dammit.

    • meghancward

      You've got a great agent, Nancy! Fingers crossed that she can sell your memoir! For me, it's hard to know when to stop revising and move on to write another book. I'm anxious to work on my WIP, but I also think it's worth revising my first memoir for YA and small presses. Too much to do and too little time!

  • Ann Marie Biskar


    This is such a great post, and something I was thinking hard about right before logging into Facebook just now.

    I felt pretty successful today. I read my work out loud last night in front of strangers at a small bookstore in LA. Riding on that high, I wrote 2600 words today…good ones (at least I got that 'YES' feeling when I was done).

    I started feeling a little cocky in the kitchen as I was cleaning up daydreaming about my success. I imagined all the shout-outs I would give on Facebook…you know, thanking my fellow students and teachers, yada- yada. At that moment for me my success was that I FINISHED. I didn’t give up and decide to take on quilting or oil painting. Success was showing my grit, my stick-to-vividness; that I could actually finish something worth finishing.

    When I first started writing success was a “Top Five” publishing. Once I got knee deep in the work, the whole idea of “success” evolved for me. It also has become a day-to-day thing, and today, I was successful.

    Thanks for that post. 🙂

    • meghancward

      Thanks for this insightful comment, Ann Marie! Speaking of finishing things, I was thinking last night how tempting it is to scrap both of my memoirs and start on a novel (if memoirs aren't selling …), but then I remembered the importance of finishing what I've started, of seeing it all the way through. I don't want to be one of those authors with 6 half-written books. So back to revising I go.

  • I really needed to read this today as my memoir project has similarly hit a ‘publishers won’t take chances on narrative non-fiction’ wall and I feel like such a disappointment. It is both comforting and terrifying to know that a writer I so admire struggled with the same roadblock. Thank you for reminding me that the sense of joy and accomplishment has to come from the writing itself. and to stop adopting such a narrow view of success.

    • meghancward

      Sorry to hear that, Wendy, but yes … there are many definitions of success. I think about a Buddhist friend of mine who meditates all day. I imagine that to her, striving for success is probably considered a sort of failure, a sign of being unenlightened, or letting our egos get in the way of our true selves. So when I get bummed about how difficult it is to get published right now, I try to be "zen" and accept that what is, is. And it's all good.

  • Maia

    First of all, good for you, Meghan, for persevering through setbacks. That inspires me. I think that counts as success. It's an ongoing challenge to keep going in the face of resistance–of both the internal and external sort. My blog post today on thesaltwatertwin is kind of a pep talk to myself (and all of us) in that regard. I called it "Meeting Resistance: On Writing, Workouts and Endurance"

    So, in terms of my Writerland Challenge goals, this week was rough. I am pep talked and ready to have a great week, though. Going to finish a chapter, have a rough draft of two more and an outline of a fourth. Boom.

    • meghancward

      That's great, Maia! I'll check out your blog post on Meeting Resistance, too. I'm finding it SO difficult to write this month. I think it's partially because of the holidays coming up. My head is so full of lists of things I need to do (get holiday cards out, make a pie for Thanksgiving dinner, make candy for kids' craft fair, figure out a child care plan for the winter break, make photo books, chaperone field trip …) that there's hardly any room in my brain to write. I need to just sit and clear my head with some "morning pages" before I sit down to write I think. I'll try that.

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    Writing well.

  • David Madrid Moo

    Thanks for sharing.

  • I love this post, Meghan, because I'm constantly asking myself what success is, and I've found the definition shifts over time. Currently, I'm in a writing rut because I will not feel success unless I can publish and be rewarded financially, and I'm not sure if I can achieve that.

  • meghancward

    I hear you, Christine! I find that the more rejections I receive, the less motivated I am to write. One solution is to submit shorter pieces to print and online publications (on my list of things To Do). Getting something published – even an essay or book review – will help build our confidence to finish our WIPs.

  • Hey Meghan –

    Just wanted to thank you for hosting the Writerland Challenge, and let you know that although I'm dropping off the grid, I'm not dropping out of my 1000 word commitment. The car's packed up – stuffed to the ceiling – and I'm about to head into Washington's North Cascade mountains for a 3 month residency. There's internet where I'm going, but my laptop is disabled and I'll be seriously minimizing my logging on, to make a full draft deadline by mid-February. I'll be sending grateful, encouraging thoughts to my TTWC cohorts, & wish you "success" in whatever way you define it.

    • meghancward

      That's so exciting! Please check back in three months from now to let us know how it went. We will be thinking about you.

  • Okay, let me begin by saying your agent is an idiot.

    Well, maybe it is impossible to sell memoirs to people who know nothing about the current world of books selling (Big 5), but it is NOT impossible to sell memoirs to readers. I have a friend, Marlayna Glynn Brown who has been writing memoirs about her self and her first one is present ranked #104 overall. She was up to #31, yesterday. I'd guess she sold 2 – 3000 copies…Yesterday!

    I'm very disappointed to hear you are using someone to publish your memoir. Have you signed anything yet?

    I've read the one bit you published and you're a fantastic writer. I suspect it will do very well. I would be happy to help you do it yourself. Once you learn the skill set to publish you will be able to get the ebook (Kindle) and print versions done in under an hour.

    I'm dying to read you memoir and I'll be happy to give you some guidance in the marketing of such.

    As for the subject of your post, I think success can me measured in many ways. For me, it was multiple stages.

    Stage one: First book is out and has sold 100 copies
    Stage two: Second book is out and sold over 1000 copies
    Stage three: First month where I sold 1000 copies (which is this current month and I'm at 1489)
    Stage four: Not yet achieved, but to get a book on the New York Times List
    Stage five: 1 million dollars from all my books
    Stage six: 10 million dollars.

    Beyond that, I'll have to think of new goals. I'm always a success in my mind, because I keep trying, but I won't every think of success as the end of the road, merely a mileage marker on the journey.

    • meghancward

      Brian, is your friend Marylayna self-published? Maybe I should self-publish. I just don't know anymore.

  • Damn, typo…I meant 1189 on my sales for this month.

  • Yowsers this post was perfect for me this morning. Well, and a little discouraging. I'm sorry about your memoir being dead in the water. I'm still trying to find an agent for mine, though it sounds like the prospects are grim for us memoirists in 2013. Sigh. But, then I love that you made a plan B, and a good one at that! Excited to hear more.

    But, success: I struggle with this all the time. I too have so many things to be grateful for (good relationship, beautiful kid), but what I really really really want, of course, is a book deal, which to me signals so much more: a way out of stupid adjuncting, cache, some sense that all the years of work had a purpose. Since I turned 40 in October I'm both more desperate for "success" and a little less focused on it. Some days it feels easier to just think, I made a good cake today. If you get my meaning.

    All best to you, and I'm going to reblog this on this morning.

  • […] Her latest post on Writerland asks the question, “What is success?” and, well, it resonated with me. On many levels. […]

  • brittany

    What a great question to think about. Let's see… success. I'm not sure. I was frustrated recently about feeling stagnant (and that feeling didn't make me feel super successful), but then I took a look at my resume and the things I've been doing the past couple of years and I was like, wow! I am surprised with myself. I'm a success. So maybe it's a little cheesey… but for me, it seems like success seems kindof like a state of mind. I also know I've been pretty lucky – no big failures, no crash and burns. There are things that I have done that I wish I had done better, but for the most part, I'm happy with where I have been, where I'm at, and where I'm going. Life is good.

  • seanpfarley

    Meghan, for me, personally, success is making a mark. It's being remembered for something. My goal in life isn't to make a million dollars (I will not shun it, though), or to be famous, but rather to write something someone reads and says, "Oh, this was wonderful." That's my definition of success. 🙂

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