Success is, to me, a many-tiered beastie. We might as well opt for the standard kind of definitions and call those tiers “macro”, “meso”, and “micro”.
Mostly, my focus here will be around publishing, because that’s what we’re all about, right? But as with any creative endeavour, or really any kind of employment, it’s truly impossible at some level not to have the worker bleed somewhat into the work. So I’ll step across to non-publishing factors of success, as I see them, too.
I guess in our society, the most overt measure of macro-success would be chart-topping books, legions of fans, houses by the sea, yachts in space and all that kind of thing. Or simply the ability to live an above-average existence funded entirely by one’s royalties. A less overt, but still tangible, equivalent might be oceans of praise in the form of reviews.
It’s also not impossible to have both of those examples at once, though of course we’ve all seen evidence that society has a self-regulating effect. In Australia we call it the “tall poppy syndrome” (and perhaps that’s more of a global term). Essentially, the gaining of mass popularity does tend to bring the trolls out from under their bridges and onto their keyboards. Sometimes they grunt out milder, passive-aggressive stuff about “liking this before it was popular”, which at the minimum implies they no longer do now it is. Inevitably, there will be more than enough folk who “must have read a different book to everyone else” or “can’t understand why anyone would even finish this”. Even that is a mark of macro-success; that you’ve done so well people need to question how it happened.
I honestly can’t venture an opinion on macro-success from personal experience. My greatest successes in publishing have come via cover art, and while my work might have been one factor in lifting a book to the New York Times bestseller list, let’s not kid ourselves that it’s any more than a potential contributor.
As an author, I was once part of an anthology which reached #34 on the Amazon charts, and gained USA Today bestseller status, but while it gave me a buzz (and my healthiest-ever month of royalties by a factor of at least 10x), I knew the success belonged to the big names in the bundle, and they graciously carried me along in their luggage.
Again from a sales point of view, this would probably be measured as earning something around a living wage. Perhaps earning enough to pay the regular bills and cover mild emergencies, but not enough that you can buy a third car and pay cash for it. Receiving enough reviews, at a high enough rating, to score a Bookbub thingummy (’cause I clearly know what I’m talking about with this stuff!) Overhearing someone you don’t know say “oh, I’ve heard of her” or reading on social media that “someone told me he’s an asshole”. That the thousand people who read you really love your work, but it hasn’t transpired that another hundred-thousand people have discovered you.
But aside from those measurable and monetary moments, meso-success also exists in elements such as improving your completion rate. Most writers have anything from a half-dozen to several dozen stories on the hop at any one time. Personally, I think I have around thirty in various states of completion, which I think I’ve mentioned here before. One of the easiest parts of writing is getting the spark for a story and tossing words at it to see what sticks. Crafting that monkey into a complete and marketable beastie is a whole lot harder, and often it’s because of the fresh sparks of ideas coming along which won’t play nice with that three-quarters-written thing you swore you’d finish before leaping into something else.
So meso-success could be a behavioural thayng, too. Developing your own discipline to the point where you finish at least half of the stories you start. That’s a step I’m in the middle of right now. And as a side-note to that, disciplining yourself to write longer stories. Again, I’m doing that at the moment.
My old story, “Playing House” (written as Abi Aiken), was previously published at around 34,500 words. I’ve been ploughing through that baby for a few weeks now, and so far it’s gone past 59,000 words. Given that I’ve also removed sections and words from the original story, I’ve probably written another 30,000 words or so on this story. That means the new parts alone on “Playing House” are currently the second-longest story I’ve ever written! Behind the original version. And since I still have around 4,000 words I’ve not yet touched, who knows? As Adam said to Eve, “you better stand back… I don’t know how big this thing gets”.
Sales-wise, I guess the micro-successes are the days where you sell a couple more books than you expected to, or than your patterns would indicate. Tiny steps which can be celebrated as such.
Writing-wise, to me, micro-success exists in those moments where you craft a sentence, or a paragraph, which sets your mind abuzz. It can also come from that moment where you finish a thought or a theme you initiated three chapters earlier, and sometimes without having realized you’d even picked out that particular thread. When you go off-reservation without knowing where you’re headed and then stumble on something you never realized you were looking for.
And when you pull enough of those micro-successes together, they make your story essentially into a geodesic dome. The bigger it gets, the stronger it becomes.
Outside of writing, successes are defined in other ways, naturally. For me, as a husband and father who works from home at his writing and cover art, my micro-successes come in ways which would seem boring to 20-year-old Willsin. The days where I got the laundry washed, hung out, brought in, folded and put away before my wife gets home… that’s a micro-success. It’s one less thing she has to stress about, and her resultant happiness gives me a buzz in the belly. Having dinner organized and sometimes even prepared when she walks in… success! An afternoon that runs smoothly with my sons after picking them up from school. Yeah, baby.
Meso-success in non-writing terms, for me, might be things such as the family holiday we’re taking to the USA in September/October. With our special man and his unreliable bodily functions, this trip has been really hard to talk ourselves into. It’s now been 20 years since we’ve travelled overseas, and for most of that time we’ve been parents and house-owners. The fact we can not only afford the holiday, but can put on a brave face and say “we’ll do it in the face of the issues” is huge to us. Meso-success.
Macro-success? Well, my personal macro-success would be the stability of my family despite issues thrown at us. Having a special-needs kid can sometimes break a marriage, but it’s just made ours stronger. 22 years and counting, plus 6 years of living in sin beforehand! Staying in this one house now for over 14 years is a massive record-breaker for us. Our previous record was 3 years. This is the only house Mister Almost-13 has lived in, and it’s the only house Mister Special would remember.
And then there’s the wonderful Venn diagram… where all three types of success blend. Within writing, the micro-success of stringing together bunches of mind-buzzing sentences into paragraphs leads to momentum. Momentum leads to the meso-success of finishing more and more, and longer and longer, works. And while neither of those automatically leads to macro-success, the only sure thing is an unfinished work can’t possibly succeed.
And that same thing is true in life. If we don’t finish what we start, success is highly unlikely.