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When you imagine yourself as a successful author, what do you see?

  • A popular genre franchise that begets movie deals and amusement parks?
  • The phrases “critically-acclaimed novelist” or “bestselling author” in front of your name?
  • A modest yet solid reputation as a prolific indie author?
  • Your name on the byline of a few literary magazines?

Success means different things to different people, and some of those meanings are generally more realistic than others.

selective focus photography of two hatchling birds in nest

What success do we hope to find when we leave the nest?

I’m not here to tell you that you can’t define success in Rowlingesque terms, but dreaming big without the foundation of realistic expectations can result in a great deal of disillusionment. When we, as fledgling writers, think of authors, we are conditioned to think of the most prominent and wildly successful ones—those who’ve won Powerball in the author lottery, so-to-speak—and then we conflate true and worthy achievement with only that. 

The most basic function of storytelling is to create a story and then share it with others. That’s it. It doesn’t define how large the audience must be, the transactional nature of the sharing, or the role of the person telling the story. Any of the scenarios listed above will achieve this basic function. Hell, you can write and publish your stories for free on a reading platform like Wattpad, and you’ll have met that goal. For some, that’s enough.

But for others—many others, I suspect—more is desired. The glittery allure of lucrative publishing contracts, buzzy book deals, and worldwide name recognition consumes the basis of what we want out of writing the stories we write. Or at least, what we think we want. I’d like you to take a moment to sit and think…really think…about what it is you’d like to achieve with your writing. What do you want to get out of the time, hard work and passion you put into your stories?

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Who doesn’t  want to get paid for doing something they love?

Perhaps your primary motivation is money. If so, then how much constitutes success for you? Would you be satisfied with token payments and a bit of extra spending money? Are you hoping to net a secondary source of income to supplement your day job? Or do you want to make a solid, full-time living-wage income?

Maybe recognition is what spells success for you. If so, then is it enough to build a reputation within your own community as a beloved local writer? Do you wish to be a well-respected author known mostly within your select genre or target audience? Or perhaps you hope to one day see your name long-listed alongside other prominent authors for literary awards?

Maybe success as a writer is less about you and more about the book itself. Perhaps you simply want to see it published in print form, with a glossy, colorful cover and your name beneath the kitschy title font. You have a few ways to achieve that, be it a self-published book you give out for holiday gifts and sell at local book fairs, or a traditionally published book that sits on bookshelves and in libraries nationwide.

row of books in shelf

Wanting to see our books on shelves is a valid goal!

All of the above goals are valid—from the most modest to the most outrageous. After all, the Franzens and Meyers of the world are actual people—not fictional superstars—who started by throwing a few words together on a page with the hope of being published. If it happened for them, then it can happen for you, right?

Yes, but this type of reasoning is why millions of people buy lottery tickets. “Someone has to win, so why not me?” While that may be true, it’s not a solid plan for financial success. The more pragmatic people are those who dream big and buy those tickets but plan realistically with savings. They may never be overnight millionaires for all their trying, but they will find contentment with what they do achieve.

As you write your novels, screenplays, and short stories, it’s perfectly normal to imagine giving that Hugo award-winning acceptance speech or seeing your characters brought to life on the big screen. Dream big. Invest a thought or two into winning the coveted author’s Powerball lottery. But also ask yourself what you really want out of writing, and then craft an expectation that will bring you a more realistic contentment.

P.S. Did you find this article helpful? If so, check out the story of this author who is still trying–after 10 years of writing–to nab her first book deal. It’s a struggle, for sure! (No, this is not a paid advertiser link; just something I came across while researching notes for this article!)