At this point in my writing career, I have never won any prestigious awards, but I do make a living from my writing so I feel pretty successful. Success means something different to each of us, of course. If your idea of success involves the words “JK Rowling,” I probably can’t give you many tips. That level of success comes from a creative mind, a strong work ethic, and a good solid scoop of luck. But if you’re defining success by being published regularly, and getting steady income from your work, I can give you five tips that I have used in my life.
There are few ways to more surely short-circuit your success than to become known as unpleasant. Early in your career, you’re competing with a lot of other writers who may be every bit as hard working and creative as you. So one way to tip the hand in your favor is to be known for being kind. Be kind to your editors, they’re carrying a workload every bit as brutal as yours. Be kind to the readers who respond to your work with less enthusiasm than you’d hoped, because there is never, ever a good result from being short-tempered with readers. Be kind to your fellow writers, because someday, they may have leads that will kick open doors for you. I honestly cannot count the number of times editors have contacted me because other editors have said they liked working with me (and frankly, I could still use some work on my attitude sometimes, so you don’t have to be a saint, just be someone people can like). Most of the people you’ll work with in this industry will only know you by the words you write in communication with them. Make sure those words are gracious.
Writing has a zillion things that can stall your progress. It’s easy to stall when you feel things are getting too hard. It’s easy to stall if you’re feeling creatively blocked. It’s very easy to stall when you get rejected or criticized. It’s also easy to stall when you get success, and fear you won’t be able to repeat it. Stalling robs you of the success you can have, so keep pushing ahead and shaking things off. Make it a rule that you will not tell yourself that you “can’t.” The more you tell yourself that you can’t do something, the more certain it is that your temporary stall will turn into a long-term wall. Instead, tell yourself that you can: it may be hard, it may involve falling down, it might even hurt, but you can. Because that’s probably the real truth.
Be a Toddler.
There’s a phenomena that happens with toddlers taken into a new situation with their moms. They start by clinging to the familiar (mom) but eventually begin making short forays away from mom, testing out the new situation in small doses and then going back to the familiar. This kind of challenge/rest/challenge/rest pattern can be the perfect plan for writers. Sometimes you just need to work in your comfort zone. Sometimes you need to step out of the comfort zone and try new things. But it’s always okay to come back to the comfort zone again for rest breaks. No one needs to just push, push, push (unless your personality thrives in that kind of personal pressure–mine definitely doesn’t). So if you have found good success writing for online magazines, but you dream of writing print picture books, then go from comfort to challenge and back to comfort. That will help you avoid being burned out by the effort and frustration that comes with facing new challenges.
Look at today more than at yesterday or tomorrow.
If you spend a lot of time fretting about what you’re going to have to do tomorrow, or this week, or this year, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. If you spend a lot of time rehashing what you did yesterday, it’s easy to get down on yourself and lose forward momentum. But when we stay in the moment and attack the challenges available in each moment, we keep moving forward. You also need to take time to celebrate the successes of today as well. Don’t wait for that “big” success, because you’ll grow tired waiting on it and it will seem to be taking too long. Instead, be mindful of the good you have now, then when you get even more good things, they won’t be trying to lift your spirits out of gloom. Instead each success will just be adding to your energy to continue.
Be the Captain of your own destiny.
By this, I mean don’t blame other people. We’ve all had hard times. We’ve all had folks say unkind things to us at one time or another. Honestly, I once had a creative writing instructor in college refer to my story as poop (only he didn’t use that word, he used the ruder one). I’ve had publishers reject things I’ve submitted. I’ve competed for writing jobs and lost. I’ve gotten bad reviews (sometimes brutally bad reviews). And yet, I make a decent living from my writing. This is because my success isn’t dependent on my college writing professor, my publishers, other writers, or the reader who didn’t like something I wrote. My success is dependent on how I react to challenge. Am I stopped by roadblocks or do I drive around them? Or even right over them? I choose to be a driver. I recommend you do too. Forget the people who said things you didn’t like or failed to buy your piece (when they should have). In the vernacular of school yard everywhere, “They’re not the boss of you.”
Writing isn’t the easiest of jobs. It comes with few guarantees and lots of frustration, but I can’t imagine making a living any other way. If you’re a writer because you can’t imagine a life without writing, then you have what you need to succeed. Everything else is just effort and time and a little luck (which mostly affects time; effort will always be needed). Still, I think it’s worth the cost. I hope you do as well, because I honestly believe we always need more writers.
Be one of them.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.