This post discussing different versions of success originally appeared two years ago, and while re-reading it, I had to laugh at the deja vu. My blog post discussed the thrill of being a RITA finalist (which happened to me again this spring–YAY!) and the wrenching disappointment of my publisher closing the line I wrote for (which…happened to me again this spring. BOOOO.) I don’t think success is a destination. I think it’s a see-saw. My career has been a series of ups and downs; thankfully, I’ve been blessed with great friends to see me through both.
Writers talk about how rejection can mess with your mind and self-esteem. (That’s true and a series of blog posts in itself.) Wanna know something weird? Success can also screw with you mentally.
Sometimes success goes to people’s heads, making them obnoxious, entitled caricatures of themselves. Paradoxically, it can overwhelm a person with self-doubt or even shame. (Why did I get this? There are other talented writers. Maybe they deserved it more.) Other times, there’s just a strange disconnect between the success you fantasized about and the reality of how it happens.
Early in our marriage, J and I talked about how we’d celebrate when I sold my first book. There’s a tower hotel in downtown Atlanta with a revolving restaurant at the top. We were going to eat there, order massive amounts of champagne, then stay in one of the suites. (I now know that such an extravagant night would have cost the entire advance check I received for my first book.) I did not envision getting The Call two weeks after an emergency C-section. I’d had a particularly rough night with the baby, hadn’t slept in thirty hours and when the editor began speaking into the answering machine, I legit thought it was a sleep-deprived hallucination.
Needless to say, J and I did not run out for a fancy dinner. Still, I’D SOLD A BOOK. The joy of that is mine to keep forever. I had arrived!
Once I’d caught up on sleep and done revisions, I pitched my editor a second book. She apologetically turned it down. I pitched her a third idea, which she thought showed promise, so I wrote a proposal…that she turned down. Thank God she loved my proposal for the fourth idea! But her boss turned it down. By the time I sold another book I was pregnant again. (Okay, I had my kids pretty close together. But still.) My arrival into the publishing world was less a definitive YOU HAVE ARRIVED and more like the scene at the end of “Airplane” when the out-of-control jet hits the ground and airport speakers are announcing “Now arriving at gate 1…no, 2…3, 4? …35, 36, 37…”
After a book comes out, authors are paid royalties a few times a year, assuming the author has sold enough copies. The walk to the mailbox is like Budgeting Roulette—will I get fifty bucks or five hundred? I once got a check for, no joke, sixty-one cents.
A few years ago, I wrote a women’s fiction novel that I think nineteen people read in the U.S. My editor told me the book was also being published in Germany, so I hoped to double the number to thirty-eight. Picture a spring day: Tanya steps outside in mismatched clothes she threw on to avoid encountering neighbors in her writing PJs, she pulls an envelope from Penguin Random House out of the mailbox and, with typical impatience, tears it open before she ever reaches the house.
It had been a tough year, and I was desperately praying for a check that was at least a few hundred dollars to help with medical expenses. The check inside was well over ten-thousand dollars. Apparently, Germany LOVED my tearjerker novel about two sisters. My extremely professional reaction was to sit in the driveway and cry. (Afterward, we went to Disney World.)
Alas, my one-hit wonder bestsellerdom did not blossom into fame and fortune. One day I’m dazed in the driveway wondering if we’re going to be rich; the next September, I find myself looting my State Quarter Collection to give the kids lunch money.
Of course, there are other ways to measure success than financial gain. For romance writers, there’s a prestigious award called the RITA. In March of 2004, while cleaning up dog vomit and begging my baby daughter to stop crying, I got a call telling me I was a finalist in the Best First Book category. Me, a RITA finalist? I was ecstatic to the point of giddiness. For about ten minutes. Then I plummeted into despair-filled certainty that it was a fluke. Possibly a mathematical error on someone’s part. Honestly, I don’t think that self-doubt started to fade until a year later, when I got a RITA call letting me know I’d finaled in another category. As of this spring, I’m a six-time finalist. I no longer think it’s a fluke. On the other hand, because I am fortunate enough to have a track record in this area, I feel palpable expectation from my editors, as if the years when I’m not a finalist are a disappointment to them. (I realize this neurosis is completely self-absorbed and makes me sound like “Oh, poor me, someone nominated me for an award, my life is so tough!” Boo-hoo, Tanya. Shut up.)
But as you can see, a writing career comes with psychological highs and lows. I cope with the lows by leaning on amazing friends and my supportive husband. To cope with success, I advise the following:
1. Don’t buy into the hype. A spot on a bestseller list is awesome, but it doesn’t make you better than anyone else. If you’re blessed with some fame, enjoy it but don’t count on it to last forever (especially if you alienate readers, bloggers, booksellers or other writers with diva behavior.)
2. Any time you have a victory, celebrate the hell out of it. You deserve it. There will be plenty of bad stuff along the way. Savor the good.
3. Understand that with success comes pressure and surround yourself with people who help prevent you from panicking. Whether it’s “Yay, I sold my first book…will I ever sell a second?” or “Hallelujah, I hit the NYT list…oh, God, what if I never do it again?” success can create expectations. You got where you are with talent and perseverance, and they will continue to serve you well as you journey forward. One step at a time.
Sometimes success is subtle. A rejection letter feels like failure, but if it says something like “I loved your voice. What else do you have?” then you are making progress. Keep at it!! I’ve written for multiple lines that got cancelled. Because of that, by the time my books came out, sometimes stores had already stopped them. Dismal sales and not even being able to find my work on shelves always felt like failure.
But sales are only one kind of success. In 2005, I released a foodie rom-com for a Harlequin line that was dropped just as the book was being released. Spicing it Up was a first-person book different than anything else I’d written. I’d worked hard on it, and I was devastated at its grim (that is to say, nonexistent) reception. Months later, I heard from a reader who’d lost her home in Hurricane Katrina. A copy of Spicing It Up was in a bag of donations she received, and she said reading it was the first time she remembered laughing out loud since the hurricane. If I made her laugh, I succeeded, even if she’d been the only person in the world to ever read that book.
Whether you’re a writer or you’re pursuing other dreams and goals, I wish you success. The bad news is, it rarely arrives when you hope. The good news is, it can often be weirder and more wonderful than you ever imagined.