I love reading other writers’ success stories. Since every writer starts at the same place (the bottom), their story is usually a rags-to-riches one of hope, struggle, defeat, defeat, defeat, and then victory. As a writer on the bottom myself (or, to be kinder to myself, as a writer starting out—I say that even though I’ve been writing and publishing for over 15 years), I can easily identify with them. I’ve received countless rejections, as they had (actually, I have a database to keep precise count, but suffice it to say that it’s a big number); I’ve wanted to throw away in disgust a work-in-progress and had to force myself to keep going, as they had; I’ve questioned my own ability to write stories people want to pay real money for the privilege of reading, as they had; I’ve wanted to give up entirely on writing, as they had. But they didn’t give up, and now they were quitting their day jobs to write full-time, which has been my dream ever since I had a day job (and a bit before then, actually).
The problem, though, is that many of those stories are entirely focused on sales. After months or years of constant rejection, our hero finally sells a novel to a publisher for a big advance; after months or years of very few sales, our hero is finally moving up on the bestsellers charts. But if you’re a success because you’re selling lots of copies, what happens if those sales drop off? You’re a failure now? And if you start selling again? Back to being a success? That felt too schizophrenic to me. I had to ask myself if selling lots of copies was my goal, and, if not, how I would define success.
I’ve published four ebooks so far, almost entirely composed of stories that I’d already sold to paying magazines. I chose to start with those because I figured I had little to lose—most of the stories were already paid for, forgotten, and were now just sitting on my hard drive. At worst, I thought, they could take up space on Amazon’s hard drives instead and, at best, I could give these stories new life and maybe even make a bit of money from them.
Those books have not done very well; in total, they’ve sold less than a hundred copies among them, many of those sales to family and friends (but, I must also add, a few to strangers—even strangers in countries where I don’t know a living soul, for what that’s worth). And yet the few reviews I’ve garnered have been very kind, and when people talk to me about those books, they’re usually saying nice things (although occasionally I will have someone stare at me suspiciously and say, “What goes on in that mind of yours?” and I realize they may have not appreciated some of the horror stories included in my first collection).
Despite low sales and almost complete obscurity as a writer, I actually feel very successful. Because I’m writing and publishing. I’ve completed two novels in the last few years. With one, I’m seeking traditional publishing, and with the second (Father John VS the Zombies) I’m trying the self-publishing model on an original novel-length work to see if my results will be different from the short stories I’ve released. I’ve already started work on the next piece.
Sales fluctuate; highly-reviewed books today may be completely forgotten tomorrow. I’ve never liked defining my success on factors outside of my control, like sales or good reviews. True success has more to do with who you are as a person than it has to do with how the world responds to you (this conviction probably comes from being a Christian. Nonsense like the prosperity gospel aside, it’s hard for a Christian to think of success as the outside world’s acceptance of you, since we worship as God and regard as the perfect human being a man who was poor, ridiculed, and executed as a trouble-maker, dying in humiliation on a cross between two thieves).
I’m reminded of a story singer-songwriter Harry Chapin told about his grandfather, who was a painter. His grandfather told Harry that there were two kinds of tired: there’s ‘good tired,’ and there’s ‘bad tired.’ “Ironically enough,” his grandfather told him, “bad tired can be a day that you won. But you won other people’s battles, you lived other people’s days, other people’s agendas, other people’s dreams, and when it was all over there was very little of you in there, and when you hit the hay at night, somehow you toss and turn—you don’t settle easy.” But “good tired, ironically enough,” his grandfather continued, “can be a day that you lost. But you don’t even have to tell yourself, because you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days, and when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy—you sleep the sleep of the just, and you can say ‘take me away.'” Then, and it’s truly moving to hear Harry Chapin recall these words, his grandfather said to him, “Harry, all my life I’ve wanted to be a painter, and I’ve painted. God, I would’ve loved to have been more successful. But I painted and I painted, and I am good tired and they can take me away.”
So I’m writing the story of my success long before I even release my first novel. No life is complete until it’s finished, and no one is really a success or failure until they stand before the Judgement Seat, and under Christ’s gaze they see themselves for what they truly were, stripped away of the world’s reactions to them (good or bad) and also stripped away of their own self-justifications and self-condemnations.
I’ll do my best to put Father John in front of readers who may be interested in reading it (the novel deserves that much at least), but even if I don’t sell lots of copies, I know that in that novel I told exactly the story I wanted to tell, to the best of my abilities as a writer.
And I know that will be the story of my success—that whether or not the book sells lots of copies and gets good or great reviews, I’ll keep writing and I’ll keep publishing. I’ll keep writing the stories I want to write—stories that I feel deserve to be told. I’ll keep fighting my battles, chasing my dreams, living my days. Because with Harry Chapin (who died far too young) and with Harry’s grandfather, I hope at the end of my life to know that I worked, and I worked, and that I’m good tired and they can take me away.