The Definition of Success | author’s note

I’m about a third of the way through writing my next novel, with a rough outline of the rest of the plot. As always, some days it’s much easier to get into the creative groove than others, but I continue to open up the file and plug away. If I don’t write, then I edit, or research, or put it aside and daydream—but the goal is always to get words on screen, as many as possible in one sitting.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about what it means to be a successful author. In a change from my usual marketing inertia, I recently submitted a book deal to BookBub, a service I really enjoy as a reader. It turned out they were literally that day in the process of shifting from a free model to a paid model, now charging authors and publishers to promote deals. Undaunted, I submitted my deal regardless of the cost, which seemed pretty reasonable. The following day, they rejected my deal. I can only imagine that my relatively low readership (as measured by Amazon reviews and Goodreads ratings) didn’t make my book a good prospect.

It was kind of disheartening, I admit, but at the same time I found myself quickly shrugging it off. BookBub would probably be a fantastic break for me as a self-published author, and I’ll probably try again at some point. But I feel about the service just as I do about agents and traditional publishers. If I had an agent or a contract, I’m sure my books would sell better, I’d make more money and be considered more of a legitimate “success” by the industry.

And yet, I’m not sure that internally it would change my feelings about my achievements in any way.

Before I began to write the first book in my series (not my first book, which wasn’t much good), I’d taken a lot of time to think about why I really wanted to do this. What did I want to write—and why? Did I hope for fame? Fortune? Prizes in literature? Bestseller lists? A big display in Barnes and Noble?

The answer wasn’t any of these things. I wanted to write books that readers could enjoy. That was it. That was my motivation, my meaning and my inspiration for sitting down with my dad’s old laptop and starting a new story. Not to be rich, lauded or popular, but simply to entertain to the best of my ability.

In the eight years since that realization, I’ve accomplished that goal. I’ve written 11 novels that readers—perhaps not many readers, but readers in plural all the same—have read and enjoyed. I’ve helped distract people from worries, inspired them to use their imaginations, and created moments of enjoyment. Rather than beat myself relentlessly against the wall of agent query letters, I chose to self-publish, considered by many to be a “cheat” or “shortcut,” but which allowed me to achieve my highest aspiration. When I remind myself of that amazing truth, all the negative stigmas, unreachable trappings and other possibilities fade away.

I recently had a conversation with someone close to me about our respective jobs. I’m not sure why or how it became a competition, but somehow it did—and in their mind, they won, because of status and income. From my perspective, we both won, because we make good livings at jobs we like, allowing us to live the lives we want. We’ve worked hard to get where we are in our careers, knowing we could always aim higher but also valuing where we are. I like what I do, and while it isn’t my passion, I get to work on my passion all the same. At this point, my passion isn’t paying the bills—and yet I still get to do it because of my job. I have a positive reputation at work and a proven track record in a position that’s both challenging and comfortable at an organization I believe in.

Alongside that, I’ve climbed out of extreme debt, rebuilt my finances, survived toxic partners and taken care of myself, my pets, my home, my car and my relationships. As far as I’m concerned, I’m a success story. I didn’t get here alone; I’ve had loads of support and lucky breaks and made the most of them whenever possible. Of course I experience moments of stress, doubt, anxiety and irritation most days, but all the same, I wake up happy with my life, believing that whatever comes can be faced with gratitude, perseverance, help from my support system, a sense of humor and grit.

This morning on the way to work I listened to a TED Radio Hour podcast about success, which touched on a lot of my own feelings about it. Twenty-first-century American society, including many of our peers, friends and family and even ourselves, usually defines success as hitting certain specific measurable results. So much money. So much property. So much satisfaction with our work, or ambition to climb higher. Buying so many things, the newer the better. So much fame and so many followers. But the truth is, almost none of that is going to be true for almost all of us. Whether we’re artists, writers, entrepreneurs, accountants, trash collectors, administrative assistants, teachers, actors, stay-at-home-parents or unable to define ourselves as any one thing except professionals, a successful life can’t be measured by any single standard.

We get to define what this thing called “success” means for us. Every day, every year, every goal reached or given up, everything we find inspiring and everything we do to pay the bills. We get to find our own meaning, our own measurements, and we get to find satisfaction in that definition. If we aren’t satisfied, if we want more or different, we have the power to change our circumstances—or change our mindset, or both.

I was a deeply unsatisfied and unhappy person for many years. I longed to be a successful author, yet didn’t write anything because my ideas about what success meant were so huge and daunting. I hated my job but stayed in it because I felt trapped. I looked at my life through a desperately negative filter that only showed lack—not enough money, not enough time, not enough luck, not enough of what everyone else had. I was envious and bitter and spiritually barren.

It wasn’t one thing that changed me, it was a series of decisions and circumstances that set me on this different road. Nearly 20 years later, I love the life I’ve built. I’m deeply grateful for it, for all my privilege and opportunities and lessons. I never want to take any of it for granted, not even the most challenging hours at my day job, or the most scathing reader reviews of my books. It’s all part of the experience that I’ve chosen, and it all defines my success.

So today, in spite of BookBub’s summary rejection, negative stigmas, one-star reviews and my total lack of prospects for stardom or bestsellers or awards, I’m proud and honored to call myself a successful author as well as a successful person.

I hope you do the same.


Taken by one of my longtime coworkers, when I saw my first book in print.

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