The Successful Writer

In 1 on September 17, 2009 at 4:33 am

Guest Blog by Susan Taylor-Brown


 There’s been a lot of talk around the kidlitosphere lately about keeping your dream alive when all around you, as in this business of writing, seems to be working against you.

Some people are afraid to post their success stories because they don’t want to make other people feel bad. (Which brings to mind that great Eleanor Roosevelt quote,”No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”)

Some people are afraid to whine about anything, especially after having sold a book or two or more because they are afraid that people won’t think they are grateful for the success they have already achieved. (I would probably put myself in the second category.)

Some writers attribute their success to everything from having a cat sleep on a manuscript, always mailing manuscripts from the same post office and kissing the envelope before you drop it in the big blue box. Sometimes it is the act of getting an agent, finding the right agent, attending the right conference, having a great critique group, not listening to their critique group, writing every day, writing in many genres, writing only one thing, writing teachers and classes and degrees designed solely around writing for children, supportive spouses, understanding children and pets who love us even after we’ve been rejected.

Some days for some writers, being a success means getting a contract, finally seeing a book on the shelves in the bookstores with their name on it. Other days, for the same writer, it might mean being able to write ten pages on a new novel that isn’t even under contract. (Hmm. I’m in the second category here as well. I’m beginning to sense a trend.)

And for all the many ways of achieving success there is a different definition of success for that writer at that particular time in their writing life.

But being a success is evolutionary process, not a final destination. It is good to remember this. Not easy, but good.

 And it is a uniquely individual process. Success for a young writer, say in their 20s or 30s might be different for a writer in their 50s or 60s.  I am a different writer now than I was in my 20s. And my version or perhaps vision of success has changed over the years. In some ways I am more realistic, which is actually rather sad because I thought I looked good with those stars in my eyes and the rose-colored glasses. In other ways I still remain a Pollyanna, true to the idea that a good story will find a home, that hard work will be rewarded, and that while nice folks might not always finish first, they will always finish.

So I challenge you to think about what success means to you. Spend a little time today to actually write it out, the whole vision of what being a success would mean to you. How do you define it? How would you recognize it? What does it mean, to you, to be a success? Not in how you measure up to anyone else in or out of the business. It doesn’t matter if your younger sister/older brother/best friend is suddenly the most powerful person ever at her ad agency and they wonder why you persist in playing around with this writing thing. It doesn’t matter if your mother/father/next door neighbor has bought and sold more companies than you can remember and has their picture on the cover of some fancy business magazine. It doesn’t matter.

I’ll say it again, slowly so you can hear me.





What does matter is that you have a dream. You have a dream and you are doing something, anything in any way that you can to pursue. If you get up in the morning and you remember your dream of being a writer and at the end of the day you’ve done just one thing in pursuit of that dream, well that qualifies as success to me.

No, it doesn’t replace seeing your book on the shelves at a bookstore. It doesn’t change the fact that it was great aunt Martha who called to tell you about her bunions instead of your agent calling to tell you your book has just sold. It doesn’t make it any easier to give your kid money for the book fair knowing your book isn’t going to be there, may never be there.

But it’s a start. A word after a word after a word is tremendous power.

And you can’t sell what you never write.


Susan Taylor Brown served on the faculty for the Highlights Foundation Chautauqua Conference, is a past instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature, and has been the recipient of several grants from the Arts Council Silicon Valley for teaching poetry to incarcerated teens. She is the author of serveral books for children including Robert Smalls Sails to Freedom and the Children’s Notable novel in verse, Hugging the Rock. She lives in San Jose, California with her husband, her rescued German Shepherd dog, and over 8,000 books. When she’s not writing or reading, she can usually be found working in her native plant garden creating a habitat for wildlife. She blogs about her writing life at You can find out more about susan on her website. or follow her on Twitter

  1. I like this quote from Winston Churchill: Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.
    Now, I guess “failure” has to be defined for each person. A rejection slip is the first thing that comes to mind for us writers. But I think the point is to never give up on any dream you may have.

    • Linda, I like to think that if you’re getting rejection slips, you’re not a failure–you’re earning your way to publication.

    • Linda, yes, I think failure as well as success needs to be defined for each of us. But I also think the definition changes and we need to acknowledge that. When I was in my 20s all I could think about was having a book published. I’ve sold a lot of books now in various markets and I need to look at it differently

      If I don’t sell a current WIP, am I failure? I might have thought so in the past but now I think if I don’t write the best book I am capable of writing, if I don’t write with emotional honestly, THOSE are the things that make me a failure.

      I also think you’re right, never give up any dream you might have.

  2. Wonderful post. Just sent the link to a friend who just hit one of the down spots, thinking this may help!

  3. Becky sent this one to me–and I have tears in my eyes. Yesterday I had a high-powered agent and was working on my third novel, while waiting to hear from my agent about what had to be the smashing sale of my second novel. My idea of success was to be financially very comfortable, famous, a wonderful addition to society. My glasses were so rosy I couldn’t see.
    Today, I have that second novel back on my desk and no agent. I lost both dreams in one fell swoop.
    But you’re right. These bumps, although they hurt worse than anything I’ve ever known (even childbirth), just don’t matter. What matters is that you keep coming back –you keep pursuing this miserable, ungrateful, painful, frightening dream called writing. Today, the courage to keep doing that is my definition of success.
    Thank you for the post. I’ve put off submitting my application at Safeway.:)

  4. Oh Jana, ouch! You got hit hard and I know you have had, at times, hard struggles with your career. But remember your beautiful book, My Half of the Sky, has touched so many lives and been so well received. To a great many writers at different stages of their careers you’ve made it – you did what they are still trying to do – you published a NOVEL! I have no doubt that you will bounce back from this latest set-back with an even more fierce determination.

  5. Susan. This is so beautiful. I would put myself in pretty much every category up there. Some days I’d define success as, “I’m alive, I didn’t throw the computer out the window, and the kids are tucked in safe and sound.” Other days are much better. I just keep on hoping for peace and joy. That’s the goal, always, even if I don’t always hit it…

    • Liz, yep. It changes every day which I think is fine. I think it’s when we forget that simple fact that we get ourselves into trouble. I keep shooting for joy in the process. Some days that’s easier than others.

  6. Susan, what a clever post on a treadworn topic. (I especially love “And my version or perhaps vision of success has changed over the years. In some ways I am more realistic, which is actually rather sad because I thought I looked good with those stars in my eyes and the rose-colored glasses.”) My version of success if one where I would earn enough income from the kinds of writing I LOVE to do to not need to take on assignments I don’t love to do. That’s what I’m aiming for. Probably not ever going to happen, given that I love to write poetry. But my current iteration, making a living off of writing and writing-related stuff, even if it’s not all writing I love, is still better than a job at Wal-Mart:>)

  7. That felt like a wonderful hug to everyone’s dreams. Thanks for that. =)

  8. I like to measure success by what I can control–meeting my deadlines, polishing a scene so that it says what I want to say, taking the risk to send out my work. If I did my part, I succeeded; I have no control over the reactions.

  9. I want to thank all of you for your wonderful comments. I would have replied to them all individually but wordpress has been acting bizarrely and not letting me! But this conversation has been very inspiring. Thanks to Susan for instigating it.

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