The Perils of Success for Writers

(Always remember to celebrate your writing success…just don’t lose your head. Photo by Jeremy Tolbert.)

Success can be as difficult for a writer as managing feelings of despair at not being successful. For one thing, if your goal was to publish a novel with a major commercial publisher and you’ve suddenly achieved that goal after years of work…what do you do next? You may not have thought past that point, and thus feel at loose ends, drifting, at the very moment when most people think you should be celebrating. Or, you may have spent so much time expecting the worst and having to push up against gatekeepers and other obstacles…that the lack of an obstacle makes you stumble. You literally don’t know what to do without an obstacle in your path. It throws off your balance. Finally, success may go to your head and you may behave like a coked-up rock star for a few months, until reality hits you in the face.

One child prodigy I know had four novels out from Bantam by her early twenties but by the age of twenty-five had literally joined a circus and disappeared into Eastern Europe, never to return — as an author, at least. Another writer achieved great commercial success at the expense of mental health, ever more erratic in emails and face-to-face meetings, and eventually became a recluse. A third writer got a huge deal for three books and, with his day job as an anchor, proceeded to adopt an arrogant attitude, and blow almost all of the money on clothes, books, travel, and thirteen pairs of very
expensive shoes.

Failure’s easy — wrecking your life, not living up to your talent, can be accomplished painlessly over years, or even over the course of an afternoon if you really put your mind to it. But once you’re successful, you have real problems: expectations put on you, readers who correspond with you, and responsibilities you could never even imagine while you were typing away in your tiny office, certain no one would ever read your words even as you hoped
the opposite would be true.

Even a modicum of success can throw you off of your game, especially if there’s an unfair niggling little voice in the back of your head saying you don’t deserve it. Success is a form of praise, and praise can be hard to take, because it requires acknowledging a form of love. We’re generally not good with love, or being as generous to ourselves as we’re told to be to others.

Here are some of the possible untoward results, of success, sudden or otherwise:

• You quixotically quit your day job based on having won a lottery that you may never win again — namely, the big book advance — and run out of money within a couple of years. (Crawling back is much, much worse than never having left, or going part-time and gradually phasing out the day job once you’re assured of future writing income.)

• You turn into a horrible human being, a premature midlife crisis induced by your sudden change in status, and when you wake up from this delusion, you find the wreckage of your life all around you like an airplane’s burning fuselage. (In this case, you will probably have lost the affection of friends and family members, and possibly even the love of your spouse or partner.)

• You have trouble writing your second book because you’re too enamored of your own work, or because you’ve listened too closely to book reviewers or fans, relinquishing your vision in favor of a belief in theirs.

• You never write another book because you discover you don’t like everything that goes with having an actual career.

Can you avoid these outcomes? Of course — you may be the type of personality that is resistant to all the dangers of success; I don’t mean to suggest these scenarios are inevitable, or even likely. But if you are susceptible, you probably won’t avoid problems because of reading these words, although possibly you can limit their impact.

Alas, success is an emotional rather than intellectual experience. No matter what counsel I give you, you may still get the bends trying to adjust to success. All I can advise is that when success comes, try not to make any sudden changes in your life. Try, no matter how hard it might be, to simply enjoy it and incorporate it into your existing paradigm.

As for me, I was the jerk with thirteen pairs of shoes. They still stare at me from the closet, a Greek chorus shouting “idiot!” every time I walk past them.

>>Test this section of Booklife: What other problems does success bring to writers? What have you experienced?

Booklifenow: What Are You Thankful For?

(Mike Brotherton is thankful for being an awesomely creative person. Photo by Jeremy Tolbert.)

We’re taking a break here at Booklifenow, returning with new content next week. But since it is Thanksgiving week here in the United States, we’d like to know what you’re thankful for in your writing and your career. Also feel free to tell us about your upcoming books or other creative projects.

Me, I’m thankful that I have such amazing and creative friends–like my partner in crime here, Matt Staggs–that I am able to do this five-week book tour, and that I’ve had the opportunity to write, edit, and create so many different types of books. I’m also deeply thankful for your patronage of, and your acceptance of my book.

Writer Despair for a Cheery Monday!

(Is it dawn or is it dusk? Photo by Jeremy Tolbert.)

Good morning! How’re you feeling this morning? Optimistic? Not so optimistic? Still need your coffee? Regardless of how happy you are now, chances are you’ve had bouts of despair about your writing. I know I have–and not just as a beginner trying to get published. Over the entire course of my career waves of despair have at times washed over me. Writing is such a perilous calling that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone engaged in it who hasn’t succumbed to these kinds of feelings. Here’s an excerpt of what Booklife has to say about despair. Will you feel better or worse after reading it? It might not matter. The point is: acknowledging that despair is something everyone has to deal with can be a kind of balm. We’re all in this together.

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Friday’s Links: Predators, Romance and The Road

Copyblogger uses lovable Sesame Street curmudgeon Oscar the Grouch to explain how to build a better blog.

Making Light reports on the Romance Writers of America’s strong response to Harlequin’s decision to offer self-publishing options to erstwhile author. Some feel that the company’s decision has compromised its image as a reputable publisher.

Troubled bookstore chain Borders announces that it will be the exclusive book retailer for RomCon, the annual Romance Readers Conference. Will Borders pursue more contracts like this as a source of additional revenue?

Walmart continues to defend its nine dollar book pricing as “not predatory.” The Justice Department declines to comment.

The Vroman’s Bookstore blog asks if we can mass-curate literary fiction, If we try to, what might happen to writers whose style is difficult or challenging?

Follow the Reader looks at the marketplace and asks when, if ever, will the hardcover book format be retired?

Literary agent Nathan Bransford reveals what he learned about writing from watching reality television

Melville House Publishing reports that the Google Books settlement is drawing criticism from around the world.

E-book publisher Smashwords reached an agreement with Shortcovers to distribute and sell their books.

Reclusive author Cormac McCarthy grants a rare interview to the Wall Street Journal to discuss his novel The Road.

n653213921_1671825_1056996Matt Staggs is a literary publicist and the proprietor of Deep Eight LLC, a boutique publicity agency utilizing the best publicity practices from the worlds of traditional media and evolving social technologies. He has worked in the fields of public relations and journalism for almost a decade. In addition to his work as a publicist, Matt is a book reviewer and writer whose work appears in both print and web publications.