Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Makin' It

Who remembers this show?


This was the first thing that came to mind when I asked myself the question, what does it mean to have "made it?" Those old 70s TV shows may have been bad, but they do stick with you.

But as usual, I've strayed from the point, so let me get back to it. You may know that my fellow Do Some Damage blogger, Joelle Charbonneau, recently had her latest installment of the Testing Trilogy, Independent Study, debut at #8 on the NY Times Best Seller list.

<Big Round of Applause>

It got me thinking about what it means to have “made it,” at least in terms of one’s writing career. Obviously, this is going to be different for everyone. Joelle herself tackled the subject in a recent DSD post about success:
I still measure my own personal success in the same way that I always have.  By getting up in the morning, putting my hands on the keyboard and filling the pages with words.  Each day that I write is a success.  Each day I add pages or edit a story is a success.  Each time a reader picks up one of my books and finds something engaging about my work is a success.
I decided to ask a few of my writer friends the same question: "According to your own personal definition, what does it mean to have 'made it' as an author?"

Steve Weddle (author of Country Hardball and editor of Needle Magazine):
I don't know that this means anything. I've heard people talk about it, but most people will say they haven't "made it," whether they've sold zero books or a billion. I think you have "made it" when you're working on something you're really enjoying. When I'm in the middle of telling a story that's resonating, I feel as if I have "made it."

Susanna Calkins (author of A Murder at Rosamund's Gate and From the Charred Remains):
Honestly, I think there's such a shifting definition of "having made it" for me, and I suspect that is the same for most authors. When I compare my writing career to where I was a few years ago, I certainly feel relatively successful. Initially I was just proud to have completed an entire novel; I didn't know if it would ever see the light of day. Now, I have an agent, a publisher, a wonderful editor and a book contract (which has since been extended to four books in my historical mystery series). Seeing my book in the bookstore or in the library makes me feel like "I've made it." It's clear I've crossed some sort of arbitrary threshold from aspiring writer to published author. I feel honored and thrilled by all this. I do not write full-time (because I have a full-time job already), and I'm not certain I could support myself if I did. Honestly, I don't focus on lists and awards, and certainly I don't use them as a measure of my sense of success. There's a lot to this industry that I still don't really understand--in particular, the criteria for awards and lists are not transparent--and it just doesn't seem productive or healthy to connect my sense of accomplishment or self-worth as a writer to these types of measures. Do I want to be a best-seller? Sure. Would it be cool to win an award? Naturally. Can I feel accomplished without such accolades? Absolutely.

Thomas Pluck (author of Blade of Dishonor):
This early in my career, I have met a few milestones- such as completing a novel and having a literary hero give it a glowing review- but the way I drive myself is to keep raising the bar. So I don't think that I've "made it." When I've written all the novels swirling in my head, that will be another milestone, and if they are published to acclaim, that's another. My goal is to make a comfortable, if not opulent living off my writing and have a following of likeminded readers who enjoy the stories I tell.

Making the NY Times bestseller list is a great accomplishment, and having read The Testing, I think Joelle more than deserves it. She has great talent and skill, and puts in the hard work, day after day. I raise my glass to her breaking the top 10, and here's to her next book hitting number one. But I guarantee if you ask her, that despite the elation, she'll be working just as hard tomorrow.
If you think you "made it," will you work just as hard? I'm not so sure if I would. So I recommend moving that goalpost another few yards each time you think you've "made it."

Josh Stallings
(author of All the Wild Children and the Moses McGuire series):
I view "making it" as a never ending spiral staircase of steps. As a younger man I sold a few screen plays and was hired to script doctor couple others, at that point I knew I was a professional screenwriter. But I would have told you I hadn't made it. The movies that did get made weren't things I was greatly proud of. As a novelist I feel I have made it to a certain degree now that my books sales pay for my writing expenses. I will feel I have made another huge step when the writing can support me. As for the craft itself, I don't think I will ever have made it. I always feel I can do better and push myself to do that. One of the things I love about the craft of writing is you can spend a life learning and improving.

Jeri Westerson (author of the medieval noir series featuring Crispin Guest, most recently, Shadow of the Alchemist):
[When asked whether she'd "made it"] I'd have to say a big "no" on that. Most of my readers might disagree but then they don't understand the vagaries of publishing. I think that to them, the book in their hands is a done deal. So on one level, I've "made it" in the sense of getting noticed by a big publisher and having six books published by them. But from where I'm sitting I don't really feel I've made it until every book I write sells through and then some; that I'm offered contracts without a blink from a publisher; and the big one, that I can make a living at it.

Matt Coyle (author of Yesterday's Echo):
I've reached the first step in the process of making it as an author and about the third step in the process of making it as a writer. What does it mean to have "made it?" To be able to quit the day job and make a real living as an author.

Holly West (author of Mistress of Fortune--hey! that's me!):
The simple answer is the same as Matt's answer above--to be able to make a real living as an author. I'd also second what Jeri said--to not worry where my next contract is coming from. But it seems like so very few authors fall into that category these days, does it?

Ultimately, I measure my success in terms of meeting my own personally goals, which means writing consistently, every day, and challenging myself to write more truthfully. I pull punches a lot with my writing, which is a habit I need to dispense with. I want to write things that resonate with people in addition to entertaining them. I want to inspire people the way books inspire me.

Thanks, everyone, for the interesting discussion. But let's not end it here--what does "making it" mean to you?


John McFetridge said...

I have never heard of that TV show, was it the sitcom version of "Saturday Night Fever?"

Holly West said...

Yes! I barely remember it--it was on Friday nights for awhile.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Ha! I love dropping by the blog and finding myself part of the topic. Eek! I am so glad to see this discussion tacked by other writers. And I really think that all writers who take on the challenge of scaling the mountain of writing a manuscript and hit THE END have made it...we are all part of the same club that struggles and worries and when it is all over can't wait to do it all again. Thanks for this post and for the congrats. Tomorrow is another writing day. Thanks for letting me be a part of the club.

Holly West said...

Yes, Joelle, we can't wait to do it again but then we worry that no one will want our next project... I guess that never really goes away. Anyway, congrats on your accomplishment. I hope you've had a few moments to let it wash over you and enjoy the feeling!

EA said...

This was an excellent topic, Holly. Thanks for posting.

Holly West said...

My pleasure, Elaine. Next time I need an opinion I'll tap your brain too.