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Wednesday, November 8

If You Want to Succeed, Define What Success Means to You

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I’d guess most writers want to be successful, but there’s no single measurement for what success is for a writer. “Making it” doesn’t exist, because there’s always the next step, the next book, the next task.

I’ve been thinking about success a lot the last few months. Although I’ve published my own non-fiction since 2014, my fiction was traditionally published by a Big Five publisher (Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins), and I’m about to launch my first indie novel. I’ve published on both sides of the spectrum, and have what many writers would consider a successful career.

But others wouldn’t, because I haven’t hit certain author high points, such as a major bestseller list like USA Today or the NYT.

And you know what? There are days when I don’t feel like a success because I haven’t hit those lists. I feel like a failed writer because I didn’t reach something a tiny percent of all authors ever do. That’s like feeling bad about being a human because I haven’t climbed Mount Everest.

It’s also destructive to my career. Feeling like a failure doesn’t result in a productive writing session, and if I don’t write, I don’t have a writing career.

I’ve spoken with enough writers who struggle with this to know I’m not alone. I’ve had friends ready to give up because they only sold X books, did Y things, met Z goals, but when we talked hard numbers and specifics, they realized they were doing a lot better than they realized. Or worse, but at least they knew why.

And this is the real problem. We don’t know what successful is, so how do we know if we’ve made it?

We define what success means for us.


For some, this might be hitting the New York Times Bestseller list. It’s a lofty goal, but if an writer is wiling to work to get it, go for it.

For others, it might be:
  • Selling 100 copies of their book each month
  • Making enough money per month to support themselves or their family (make a living as a writer)
  • Selling a novel to a Big Five publisher
  • Selling X books a year (whatever number that is)
  • Getting an agent
  • Finishing a novel and putting it up on Amazon (and not caring how many copies it sells)
  • Winning a particular writing award or accolade
  • Being read by X number of fans
  • Being recognized at writer events (being known in the writing and reading community)
  • Being validated as a writer in whatever way resonates with them
  • A combination of any of the above
If you’ve been struggling with the whole “Am I a success?” concept, take a few minutes right now and jot down what being successful means to you. Be honest. If it’s being the next Dan Brown or JK Rowling, own up to it.

You might have several things on your list, and that’s okay. You might not be able to answer the question yet, and that’s okay, too. Think about it, because identifying it will make it a lot easier to achieve it.

Once you know what success means to you, put together a plan to achieve it.


Now this is the hard part. Selling more books, making a certain amount of money per month, or signing a publishing deal all take a lot of work. But it’s easier if you have a goal to work toward. But here’s the key…

It has to be a realistic goal.

Unrealistic goals for success will make you feel like a failure faster than actual failure.


If you have unlimited resources and time, any goal you set is achievable, but most writers have limits on what they can do. Aiming too high and missing can hurt us and make us feel like failures, but taking smaller steps to slowly climb the goal ladder can get us what we want.

For example, if your goal is to sell 20,000 books a year, expecting that on day one with zero promotion or platform is unrealistic. But you might have a goal of wanting to sell that many within X years, which gives you time to produce more books, promote them, and build your audience. That’s a goal with a plan that can lead to success.

Having a realistic career plan helps you focus on the things that lead to success.


I have goals for both my traditional and indie published paths. My indie path is a five-year plan (four years, now), because I know I’ll need time to build toward my ultimate goal. When faced with “what do I write next?” decisions, I consult my plan and chose the project that will best achieve my overall goal.

Not only does this make me feel more in control of my career, I can see progress toward my goal. I’m achieving small successes along the way. I feel successful, because I’m making positive growth toward where I want to be at the end of those five years.

Look again at your definition of success and think about your writing career.
  • Where you want to be in one, three, and five years?
  • What steps can you take to make progress toward your goals?
  • Are you doing what you need to do to move toward that goal?
  • What can you change to improve your progress?
  • How much have you already achieved?
You stand a much better chance of being successful when you know what that means to you. Know what you want, put a plan into action to get it, and go for it.

If you'd like more guidance and additional details on how to create a plan for success, Jami Gold recently wrote a fantastic post on figuring out your definition of success.

What does success mean to you? Do you have a plan in place to achieve it?

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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3 comments:

  1. Great post. Success for me is being published and producing two novels a year...or one. I want a solid readership that isn't huge. More like a cozy following that I had when I wrote fan fiction. No NYT or Globe and Mail best-seller for me. I LOVE my privacy, so I want to work from home without having to go to any bookfairs, conferences, etc. Did I say my privacy is important LOL? I live a low-key life and wouldn't mind my writing career being the same way.

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  2. Excellent advice. Identifying realistic goals and implementing an action plan makes it real. Need those short-term successes to make it through the long term. And having like-minded friends to share the journey helps. too.
    You're a wise woman. Thanks for sharing. :)

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  3. Fine post, Janice. Thank you :)

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