Why You Might Not be Ready to Succeed

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

You’re working hard at writing because you want to succeed, right? Maybe not. Let’s talk about it.

What is success?

First, though, I need to explain what I mean by success. Success comes in different-sized packages. You succeed when you:

  • discipline yourself to write regularly
  • show your work to someone else for the first time
  • submit your material to an agent
  • set up a pitch appointment with an editor at a writers conference
  • send in your manuscript when it’s requested
  • obtain an agent
  • receive a publishing contract
  • change a life
  • make a best-seller list
  • write and publish numerous books
  • become a household name.

These are the dreams writers strive for.

While each of us can articulate how we define success (both in small and large ways), many of us fail to ask ourselves one question that marks us for success or failure: What will success cost me?

The price of success

We have a vague sense, when we set out to write and publish a book, that the process will be costly. Sacrifices must be made. We have an idea of what some of those are, such as, time away from family; working hard while friends who maintain 9-to-5, holidays-off, paid-vacations jobs play; reaching deep within to pull out words and thoughts and offer these personal elements to strangers.

The surprise costs of success

But other costs pop up as surprises. Take my experience, for example…

Years ago I signed up for a multi-month-long romance writing extension class at UCLA. My coauthor and I both worked in a publications department writing and editing during the day. Each of us had hundreds of articles adorned with our bylines. We had what we thought was a strong idea for a book, had outlined the story, and had written several of the opening chapters. We were on the road to success!

The instructor started class the first night by telling us the majority of us (about 40 wannabe novelists) would never complete our manuscripts. Mary Alice and I looked at each with confidence. We were professional writers, for cryin’ out loud.

The plot thickens

The classes were fantastic; we learned so much. And we did some writing on our novel for in-class exercises. Mary Alice and I always volunteered to read our work so our classmates could critique it.

Apparently we did so well that one night the instructor called us up at the class’s conclusion to say she had a friend who was a literary agent, and she recommended we get in touch with the agent because the instructor thought she would be interested in our work. What!? Wonderful!

Mary Alice also had gone to school and remained friends with an editor at a large publishing house who acquired novels. We talked to her on the phone, and the editor asked us to submit first chapters. Which we did. She liked them, but they didn’t fit with what she acquired. She gave us the names of other editors who would be more appropriate and said we could use her name as someone who recommended we contact them. All the editors asked us to send our manuscript.

What we did right

Clearly we had succeeded where many had failed: mustering the gumption for several months to drive an hour to a night class after a full day’s work; attracting our instructor’s attention (in a good way!); having a recommendation to connect with an agent; sending our material to an editor who actually read it and gave us feedback; receiving requests for submission from a handful of editors. And yet…

What we did wrong

We failed to take the next step. We couldn’t complete the manuscript. We kept bogging down in the middle of the novel. What was our problem?

  • Part of our problem lay with our editing skills–we kept going back to the first chapters and reworking them.
  • Part of our problem lay with changing our minds. We rewrote the middle of the novel over and over, never feeling that the chapters had reached their potential.
  • And we stumbled over the interest our writing had generated. We became fearful that we couldn’t deliver a completed manuscript that lived up to what everyone (including us) seemed to think it should.

Ultimately, our problem rested in not being able to pay the price success would cost us: Pushing through our insecurities to finish the manuscript. Turns out our instructor was right. We became members of the Never Finish the Book Club.

Different choices for different writers

Other such clubs are strewn along the way to a successful writing career. We bypassed several of them, but settled in to the NFB Club just fine. Some writers stop at a club for awhile and ponder the price of success, then pick up their work-in-progress and hit the road again.

The steepest prices of all

I believe that the farther down the road you go, the more unexpected yet the steeper the price of success becomes. Authors whose work regularly shows up on best-selling lists discover:

  • the pressure to succeed over and over again
  • the peril working so hard can put one’s family or one’s health in
  • the demands to make oneself available to readers when a writer is generally an introvert
  • the number of requests to use one’s influence to help others and trying to juggle generosity with caring for oneself
  • the need to project a certain image to the public when the author might be suffering from multiple personal agonies.

Ultimately, the question, Are you ready to succeed, is not easily answered. Nor is it answered once and for all.

How would you define writing success? What clubs have you spent time in as you travel the writing road? What surprise costs have you experienced?


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32 Responses

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  1. Bad Day. from Barbara

  2. Kristine says:

    Wow, Janet! This is so true. Thank you for sharing your personal experience with us. I would have to say that I’ve been a member of the Spinning Plates Club, trying to spin too many plates at once. And when I do that, the writing plate is the one that seems to hit the floor first. Boy, I used to be a frequent attender of that club. We just have so many responsibilities, don’t we? It’s easy to get overloaded. But creating balance in my life has helped me put my writing goals in their rightful place on my list of priorities.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Kristine, I’m sure the room is packed when the Spinning Plates Club meets–or doesn’t meet. Sometimes folks are too busy spinning those plates.
      You’ve made a smart move in concentrating on your writing; it must come before all else, as you know.


    Hi Janet,
    This is so deep and accurate. someone asked me a year or two ago in a survey. How do you define success in your writing? At the time I saw my success as “when someone reads my writing then I would feel rewarded.” Isn’t this interesting? My success had been based on my outcome of affirmation. When now after two years of observing, reading, writing and learning from so many about writing, I’ve come to the conclusion. Success comes in the glory given to God, in not only having someone read the words given to share but seeing others laugh cry, inspired, resting, and loving or hating lol what they read. God is such a good God and as I read your words tonight I heard the words. My Grace is sufficient for you for my strength is made perfect in weakness. When we are weak, giving all we have He gives the strength as our power source to complete that which He has given us to do. Success is knowing we can do nothing without Him.
    Sorry to see Andrew is having a bad day. Praying God will give him rest and restoration.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jeanette, you are so right that thinking of success based on others’ responses to our writing is an easy path to take without considering the consequences. While we should always have the reader in mind, sometimes our job is to stir up readers, not make them feel good. And, in reality, we can’t please everyone since responses to writing can be a matter of personal taste.

  4. Carol Ashby says:

    My definition of writing success is doing my personal best to write a novel that tells a gripping story, beautifully crafted, that also encourages its readers to consider their own relationship with God in a way that deepens it. My measure of success: the emails and reviews that tell me I created a story with characters whose deep faith is an inspiration to the people who read and loved it.
    *The cost: Before I started, I had no idea I would have to spend so much time on social media and marketing to make potential readers aware that the books exist. I’d much rather spend that time writing. I don’t consider maintaining my history website as my main platform to be a cost because researching and writing the articles there is as much fun as writing the novels themselves.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Carol, I’m sure many writers would vigorously agree with you that being active on social media is a cost they didn’t know they needed to pay. And seldom is that payment made without a sigh.

  5. Success in ministry or writing (or anything) is obeying God, 100%. I fail at that often. But when I succeed, I forget the cost.

  6. You have demonstrated so well that “success” is not a fixed term, always definable in the same way. It is a floating term, often defined by context. While I may have an ultimate goal that is so far down the road I cannot see it, and I may define success as realizing that goal, I also have two dozen milestones along the road to that goal, and reaching each milestone can be viewed as a success. I believe each success should be celebrated with ice-cream, a fire in the pit in the back yard, a good glass of wine, and my wife’s hand in mine.

  7. Ah, Janet. I really needed to read this today. I just received a simultaneously encouraging and heartbreaking rejection letter for a ms. I’ve been working on since 2008. Thankfully, the editor was able to tell me “the one thing you still lack” no, it was not to sell all my possessions and give to the poor…although, I think if I were to hire an editor our financial situation would probably look very much like that…anyway, now I have to take a good long look at this beloved story and see if I have what it takes to repair the thing…again! Thank you, you have given me a bit of courage today. I was feeling a bit blah and used up. Perhaps I have something left to give to this story after all.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Kristen, based on what I’ve seen here, I’m positive you have what it takes to do those “repairs” and make the manuscript everything it needs to be to succeed. Hang in there and don’t lose heart!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Kristen, the good news is that the editor told you what you need to do. It’s far more frustrating to receive rejections but to have no idea why. Success for you is to decide to dig into that manuscript once again.Hopefully with the added success of an editor’s interest! I know you’re counting the cost now, which is a good thing. I’m sending you a virtual hug.

  8. Katie Powner says:

    The cost and sacrifice required is one of the things I’ve struggled with most on the writing journey so far: Is it worth it? Is it okay to take so much time from my kids? Is it okay for my husband to come home to a dirty house because I’ve been in drafting mode all day? Can I justify the cost (monetary and otherwise?)
    *I haven’t necessarily been able to answer all those questions yet, but I have spent a lot of time pondering these words from a friend: “No one ever did anything big for God without great personal sacrifice.”

  9. Finishing a manuscript is not easy, but I always push through to the finish line. I have four times. I always give myself permission to be terrible in the middle, because I know if I can push through, I can go back and edit. And people always say that there is magic in the re-writes. πŸ™‚ The “pressure to succeed over and over again” scares me more than anything, but I tackle this every year. I receive writing contracts every year, and though they are on a completely different scale, I am always nervous in the beginning, but I sit down and push through. And I’m so thankful for each year that I am given the opportunity to write. We never know when the last day to write will be … by choice or not, maybe health, etc … but I’m thankful for today’s opportunity.

  10. Wow, Janet, I appreciate this post! There are hidden costs to success. First, we need to define success for us. Then we can begin to understand the costs.
    *One club I have fallen into off and on is the Insecurity and Fear club. I hate my visits to this place, but I’m discovering that God uses the times I’m dwelling there to do a lot of work in me. He’s revealed fears to me and shown me how to work through them, in spite of them. When insecurities crop up, I have to remind myself that God has given me stories to write, and He will use them for His purposes. But I have to trust Him first. I have to believe what He’s shown me is HIS view of me and not get stuck on my “less-than” view of who I am as a person and a writer.
    *It seems like sometimes those stopping places can be good for re-orienting my compass and learning lessons to prepare me for later success.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jeanne, oh, yeah, writers flock to that club. And often never hand in their membership card, regardless how much success they experience. When helping my clients through a knotty problem, I keep reminding myself that insecurity and fear are often at work in the writer.

  11. “Writing success”? Casting off the fear and forging ahead on a path that seems to be shrouded in cloud and darkness at times. Sometimes I feel like I’m going in circles, and sometimes I feel like I’m leading the way.
    But no matter what I need to remember that while feelings can and do lie, I am bound by a promise that God gave me-that I would be one of those He will use to lead the way to the Healer.
    “Club”? The Confident Pretenders. One day we’re good, the next day? Notsomuch.
    “Surprise Costs”? The surprise is the friend who doesn’t want you to leave the box that he or she sorted you into, and for whom change is an insult, instead of a triumph. The cost is walking away from that person, who may have been the one you needed in a certain season, but who now is the albatross around your neck, holding you back from obedience.
    Nothing is free, other than Jesus.

  12. Perfect post for me right now. I’m drinking my cofee each morning in the “Is This Enough?” Club. I’ve had some small success as a regional author. And it is comfy here. Am I willing to press forward and try to reach a larger audience? Am I willing to pay that price?
    You’ve given me much to pray about and ponder. Thank you.

  13. I’d love to become a rich and famous author, but that’s not likely. However I’ve learned that one of my books and a couple of my articles made a big difference in the lives of readers, and that makes it all worthwhile.

  14. Excellent! So true!
    Add one more demand: the need to promote on social media.
    So much to do!

  15. Thanks for this post, Janet! What became of that book you and the co-author started writing? Would you ever resurrect it?

    For me, writing success is showing up, listening carefully, and writing down what I hear/think/know. I find I have to circle my writing area a few times first — initially, I write lying on my stomach in my office loft. I write by hand first; I’ve been journalling this way for more than 35 years, and it flows πŸ™‚

    I’ve sabotaged my writing success by retreating….but I wasn’t ready to go the distance, so it wasn’t really a sabotage back then. Now is a different story! Now, if I don’t show up and speak my truth, I won’t be doing what God created me to do. Blossom! πŸ™‚

    How have you sabotaged your success in business, as an agent?


    • Janet Grant says:

      Mary Alice and I now live on opposite coasts and are very busy with our current commitments. I don’t think my clients would appreciate me taking time to work on this manuscript. I suspect that book was an important element to both of us back in the day when we worked on it. It provided us with a fun project to work on together, in person. That dynamic no longer exists for us.
      I probably sabotage my agenting most by dawdling on less important items on my to-do list because I’m mentally struggling to get myself wrapped up in reading a contract or working diligently on a proposal or reading a manuscript. It’s hard to dig into the mentally-consuming and time-consuming tasks.