How to Succeed as a Writer

August 10, 2012

A couple of days ago, Jeff VanderMeer posted an articulate and insightful piece on the future of publishing. It’s not typical among the current flood of posts and opinions about where we’re going or what the next hot thing is. Rather, Jeff gets to the heart of what he believes to be a real problem today with the advice and predictions being touted in the writing community.

Go read his post if you haven’t already.

What I’d like to add to the conversation is a bit of my own experience in attempting to discover success, both as a writer and in my day job.

What I do for work isn’t especially important, suffice it to say I work for a large corporation with a typical corporate structure. For the past two years or so, I’ve sought out advice on how I can “move to the next level”, which for me means a transition from an individual contributor (where I’m only responsible for only my work) to a manager (where I’ll be responsible for work others do). It may not sound like a big thing, but having worked in a corporate setting for more years than I care to admit, I’ve seen more than enough folks stall out at that transition point to know it’s no simple change.

Part of what inspires me about writing (and probably most writers share this) is my simple love of story. Stories reach us and teach us in ways not possible by any other means, namely by creating deep connections with imaginative and unique characters and situations. So when I said above that I sought out advice on “moving to the next level”, what I mean is that I found what I considered to be successful people at levels above me and asked them for their story. Pretty simple.

What I found was pretty interesting. First, everyone I spoke with was very open and honest, and I’m deeply appreciative of their time. Second, everyone I spoke with had a path that boiled down to roughly the same set of ideas. Their success primarily depended upon two things:

  1. Knowing the right people.
  2. Being in the right place at the right time.

Success is all about opportunity, and as much as we hear about making our own opportunities, the truth seems closer to having a broad enough network so that when opportunities arise, someone who has influence over that opportunity thinks of you.

When I set out seeking advice on moving up in my job, I thought I could take these stories and find common elements from which to make a specific plan. You know, things like take this class, get this certification, work on these types of projects. But the more I spoke with people the more I realized that while most of them had a goal on where they wanted to be, few had a specific plan of tasks to get there. The common element among these folks was that they either naturally had or worked to develop and instinct on where to be and who to know.

I’ve taken the same approach with developing my writing career, which may one day replace my day job if all goes well. And I’ve seen all the rehashed advice Jeff addresses in his post: denouncement of agents, heavy-handed pushes for self-publishing (it’s easy money!), impossibly specific predictions, over-emphasizing the use social media.

Like so many self-help manuals, these are all very formulaic and, in my opinion, useless tasks. The one piece of advice on being a success that rings true is that success is about finding your own path. But no one ever gets there alone. No one. We all need to have, and be, good supporting colleagues, and we all need to be available when opportunity arises.

So, as risky as I think it is to offer formulaic advice, here’s what I think are the few key things to be a successful writer (or a successful anything):

  1. Be good at what you do. Not necessarily great, but good.
  2. Be a good friend to your colleagues. Or at least be a good colleague.
  3. Be present (online or in person) where opportunities arise. Put your hand up when they do.
  4. Be persistent.

A few years ago I would have read that and thought, “Okay, so that’s useless, because there’s no task list from which to build a plan.” But now what I see is that there is no specific task list. Success isn’t about doing a series of specific tasks because there is no specific, reproducible plan for success. If there were, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?

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