Mark Terry

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Success Checklist

November 13, 2009
Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written a whole slew of articles on the freelance business that can be applied to writing novels or running just about any type of business. She's recently written a series on "success." Highly recommended.

In response, writer Brad R. Torgersen wrote a checklist of when he will be a successful profession writer. It looks like this:

(X) … He makes his first professional short fiction sale.

(_) … He makes his 5th professional short fiction sale.

(_) … He makes his 10th professional short fiction sale.

(_) … He makes his 25th professional short fiction sale.

(_) … He makes his first professional novel sale.

(_) … He makes his 5th professional novel sale.

(_) … He makes his 10th professional novel sale.

(_) … He makes his 25th professional novel sale.

(_) … He has the entire mortgage paid off, through fiction revenue.

(_) … He has the equivalent of the mortgage in savings, as a financial cushion.

(_) … He is able to quit his corporate day job and write full-time.

I thought that was interesting. I would get to check off the same one he did, then be able to check off the "first professional novel sale" and the "fifth professional novel sale."

"He is able to quit his corporate day job and write full-time" I'd be able to check off as well if I was counting my nonfiction, but Brad doesn't seem to be looking at things that way.

I confess that the idea of this sort of checklist makes me ever so slightly uneasy. I think it's because "success" is largely a matter of definition and at different times in your life your definition changes, sometimes drastically. Go back and read Kris's things on success, especially when she talks about Robert Silverberg's essays, on one of our most successful SF writers who nonetheless "retired" from writing twice, apparently out of frustration.

But it does make me wonder about my list, so let's see if I can throw some sort of quasi list out there.

(X) ... Gets something (anything) published, even if it's not paid writing.
(X) ... Gets paid for his writing.
(X) ... Gets an agent (I've had 3 for fiction, and one for nonfiction. Maybe I should write about this again)
(X) ... First short fiction sale.
( ) ... He makes his 5th professional short fiction sale. (I rarely write it)
(X) ... He makes his first professional nonfiction article sale.
(X) ... He makes his 100th professional nonfiction article sale (I'm not even counting, but I'm way past that).
(X) ... He makes his first professional novel sale.
(X) ... He makes his first professional novel sale that has an actual book advance.
(X) ... He makes his fifth professional novel sale that has an actual book advance.
(X) ... He gets foreign translations of his books published.
(X) ... He gets movie studios/producers interested in his books.
( ) ... He gets a film option of one of his books.
( ) ... A film is made out of one of his books.
( ) ... Audio book rights are sold.
( ) ... He gets a novel advance that exceeds $5000.
(X) ... After being dropped by one publisher, he gets picked up by another.
( ) ... He gets a novel advance that exceeds $10,000.
( ) ... He gets a novel advance that exceeds $20,000.
( ) ... He gets a novel advance that exceeds $50,000.
( ) ... He gets a novel advance that is six-figures, all six figures on the left side of the decimal point.
(X) ... He receives a $5,000 advance for a nonfiction writing job.
(X) . . . he receives a $10,000 advance for a nonfiction writing job.
(X) ... He is offered a contract for a nonfiction book.
( ) ... He actually accepts the contract for a nonfiction book.
( ) ... Nonfiction book actually gets published.
( ) ... Nonfiction book actually gets published, and in the process he does NOT want to beat up, maim, or kill his collaborators and/or publishers.
( ) ... He gets a contract and eventual publication for a nonfiction book that he did not ghost or collaborate on.
( ) ... He publishes more than one book a year.
( ) ... His annual income exceeds six figures, all on the left side of the decimal point.
(X) ... He is a full-time professional writer.
( ) ... His sole six-figure annual writing income comes from fiction only.
( ) ... He takes a week-long vacation and doesn't, not even once, field a business-related e-mail or take a laptop computer along to write.
(X) ... Is happy, contented, satisfied, etc., with his writing career, with the caveat that there's always more, more, more, and the goals and checklist continues to grow.

Looking at my list, there are things there that never ever would have occurred to me 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. I think if you had shown me this list and what I had checked off 10 or 15 or 20 years ago I would have been shocked at how successful I had become. That I don't necessarily always feel successful says something somewhat unflattering about me, although I think that's largely a process of being a human being, not me being an ungrateful swine.

How about you?


Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I don't think it says anything unflattering about you, Mark. Different things motivate different people, which is just fine.

I browbeat and make fun of myself as I write. I rather enjoy it. It actually cracks me up, and gets me writing better. I have accepted that I will probably never be as good as I want to be, but I love trying, day after day. I work really hard at it.

Overall, though, I already feel successful: I'm living my authentic life. I disagree with Kathryn that I'm resting on my laurels, though. I'm just playing in the sandbox of success, enjoying all the different opportunities and paths I can try. I'm not striving; I'm playing. It's a different attitude, and although I loved and agreed with Kathryn's article on burnout, having struggled with burnout many, many times, I know that this attitude is the key to preventing burnout for me.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I would caution against a preliminary list like Brad's because -- and people may disagree -- it's a list of outcomes that aren't necessarily within the writer's own control. Better to list what you can do yourself, like write a book.

On the other hand, it is interesting to make after the fact lists. As far as fiction goes my list (as a co-author mind you) isn't much different than yours. Mary and I did see (hear) our last book out in audio format. Unlike you we haven't found more than one publisher. Nor have we elicited any movie interest, although we have published around 20 short stories, mostly before we started writing the books.

I have to admit that maing up a list like that makes it all seem a bigger accomplishment than it sometimes feels!

9:44 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Sometimes people need to consolidate what they're doing before moving on, too, and I think Kris would probably agree with that sentiment.

And yes, I found her piece on burnout particularly inciteful and timely. Sometimes you've got to give yourself a break.

It also inspired me to put the "vacation without e-mail and laptop" thing on my list. Sigh.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think that's it exactly that makes me a little uneasy about it. It's not a yardstick I really want to be constantly comparing myself to. When I made my own list--and it's not like I spent a lot of time on it--I was surprised how, at least on the surface, I had seemingly accomplished so much. So why don't I more often feel like a success, as far as my fiction is concerned?

I think money has a lot to do with it, honestly. My novels make a little bit of money. But I'm reminded that Stephen King got a $2500 advance for the hardcover of "Carrie" back in 1972, which was then followed by a $400,000 advance for the paperback rights.

Years and years later, my first book advance was $0. My highest book advance has been $3000, and the company eventually dropped me. Now, granted, I probably shouldn't compare myself to Stephen King, but it says something completely irritating about the publishing industry when over the course of 30+ years the advance for first novels has GONE DOWN instead of UP. Or maybe just for me.

Also, looking objectively at my list, it's fairly easy to see why I often feel happier with my nonfiction career, which isn't as much fun as writing fiction, but is clearly more lucrative and on a dollars-and-cents scale, I'm wildly more successful at.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

My feeling that I haven't accomplished much is due to the small amount of money earned by fiction, but really because as a result of not earning enough I haven't been able to spend enough (i.e. all) my time writing fiction, which, to my mind, is what successful writers do. I suspect in your case also it isn't the money per se.

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Brad R. Torgersen said...

Just a tiny administrative note, in case people didn't see the context of my list. I gave myself the caveat that I might not EVER sell enough to make even HALF of the items on the list, and I was OK with that. I also noted that I'd doubtless be coming back to the list and adding/editing from time to time, as things progressed or I had a change of heart about something.

I mostly thought it would be a good idea, right now at the very, very beginning, to at least try to conceptualize success for myself -- what it would look like.

Granted, much of that list might look foolhardy or naive. I really did try to be conservative. Really! But I also wanted to be ambitious at the same time.

I think the place where I truly have zero control, is awards. Which is why they're not on my list anywhere.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thanks for stopping by. It's an interesting exercise, at the very least. Doing it sort of reminded me just how far I've come, and frankly, that's probably a reminder all writers need from time to time. Good luck with your work.

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Brad R. Torgersen said...

Thanks, Mark. I appreciate the well-wishing.

Your checklist actually provides a lot of food for thought, too, in terms of rubber-meeting-road. Thanks for posting it, and linking back to me. I followed the cyber-bean trail back here, and am glad I did because your post was very interesting from my newbie perspective.

4:01 PM  

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