Editor’s note: this is a guest post by fellow Top Ten Blogger Victoria Mixon of A. Victoria Mixon, Editor.
I have a big problem with the popular definition of publishing ‘success.’
According to our contemporary zeitgeist, a writer succeeds when they 5) finish NaNoWriMo, 4) get a partial request from an agent, 3) get a full request from an agent, 2) get an agent, 1) get a publisher, 0) become a ‘best seller’ by some undefined meaning of the term. It’s like anorexia: where on the scale are you right now? And why aren’t you at zero? What’s wrong with you?
Quality doesn’t even enter the equation anymore.
But that’s not the scale of success I see in my clients—not at all. I see individual human beings who each, at some point in their life, looked at the written word and said in surprise, “I love this.” Not, “What’s wrong with you that you haven’t won me fame and fortune and an eternal spot on Oprah?” But that simple, fundamental, pure emotion: I love this.
So here are a few of my client success stories, out of the dozens of published and unpublished writers I’ve worked with in the past two years—not writers you’ll see touted in the media or machinating a sales spike on Amazon or in full-color ads for “best-selling novels.” Just real writers, like you, like me, people doing this work day in and day out, year after year. . .because they love the written word.
The first thing Kathryn said to me was, “It is important that my editor understand my protagonist must not be dumbed down.” She wasn’t charting the ‘hot’ trends in her genre, MG girls’ fiction. She just wanted to write the book her daughter would love to read.
“My daughter was rough and tough, not a princess bone in her body. Where were the girl adventures for her? Where’s the dang girl/dog book without the emotional baggage? I want to offer girls a physically heroic character who isn’t motivated by a guy, but by something much larger–the welfare of her people. Girls can save the world, too!”
Kathryn has worked through her novel conscientiously for the past two years, pulling herself up by her bootstraps, hashing over plot structure and character development with me and fearlessly incorporating changes in spite of her wry self-awareness: “Why is it so hard to take good advice?” Her skills have improved enormously, and her novel has blossomed to fill her (trend-setting) ambitions. She had a partial request from an agent last fall and is now halfway through her second novel, a sports story patterned on her YA sons.
Kathryn’s a hard-working ranch gal, she’s into the craft for the long haul, and she’s not afraid to take risks.
When Jeffrey brought me his ‘bildungsroman,’ the secretive life story of an abused boy growing to adulthood, he was worried. “I’ve never written anything before but letters. Until recently, I’d never even met a writer. I will not hesitate to change anything,” he said.
In the past year and a half, Jeffrey’s novel has morphed, through endless, dedicated hours poring over Developmental Letters and Line Edits, from a bildungsroman to an emotional unveiling, the story of a man who breaks down and the loved ones who must trace the roots of his trauma all the way back to childhood. “Now I feel confident,” he tells me. “Gimme a good story, well written and well-edited anytime. If I have that, trust me, I’ll find a platform. Or it will find me!”
Jeffrey’s earned his self-confidence by sheer dedication, vision and humor.
Chris came to me in 2009 with an MFA in literary fiction and an ‘edgy’ road trip novel of gambling and epiphany organized in perfect experimental structure. He had talent, a published book of poetry, and the massive necessary number of hours already under his belt. He needed an objective outside eye for Line Editing and the belief that he could make it.
Last fall he signed with Global Literary Management, who are now shopping his second literary novel while he lets the first go cold and works on his third. He’s published in a variety of print and online venues specializing in edgy and experimental work and recently begun writing a column for The Nervous Breakdown. He even submitted a fragment of dialog to my online magazine last summer and invited comments on exactly how far experimental dialect can be pushed. He’s pursuing his unique, ‘edgy’ style of literary fiction as an artisan, with a relentless focus on beautiful craft.
Ultimate fiction is Chris’ life.
Tony started writing at the suggestion of a life coach to counter depression. He brought me the stories he was working on in his writing workshop, charming and casual, the voice of a born storyteller. “Finding my voice was like a rebirth,” he says. “And it’s so much fun. When not stuck, that is!”
He’s not trying to launch a career—he’s had his decades as a professional. Now he’s broadening the scope of his life through his chosen craft. “The many different things you can tackle are a breath of fresh air. The research makes you learn stuff. You can explore therapeutic stuff. You can foist your polemic on the world (if only in your head). You can have revenge on those that’ve hacked you off. And the comments you get from some editors make you feel loved. (Well, at least listened to!)”
Tony’s developing his skills in fiction for the pure joy of it.
After a career as a UN lawyer and freelance journalist and with two nonfiction books published by Penguin, Bhaichand sat down to write a novel of his native India. One half is the unsentimental, heartbreaking portrait of a family’s descent from artisans to beggars. The other is a reverse murder mystery based on the popular mysteries of the 1950s and ’60s. He needed an editor to help him merge the two halves and Line Edit his language to reveal the inherent beauty in it.
“Since you are the first to see it, I am relieved to learn that there is hope,” he said with characteristic humility.
A year and a busy schedule of freelance writing assignments later, he has added significant scenes and polished the climax to live up to the extraordinarily high standards he set for himself with the rest of the novel, and he is now talking with major European agents who handle literary fiction.
Bhaichand’s used his professional attitude toward work to make the transition from nonfiction to fiction.
Lisa brought me her novel last spring shortly after the death of her beloved father. With a producer husband, two teens, a marvelous facility with scenes, and a longing for work even though she’s caring full-time for her mother, Lisa focused on her internal dream, a tragic love story of nostalgia and inevitability.
“I have felt lost, and this book and you have given me re-direction and purpose again. I was a full-time teacher for many years and had to stop working to be there for my parents. When you stop working, it takes a toll on you. You hear that voice inside: ‘So what do you do?’ There has always been my love for writing. I have always done it. I believe in it, in this book. My father was a huge figure in my life, and he knew this was my dream. I want to make him proud.”
Lisa is learning to craft into polished fiction her own passion and grief, the very foundation stones of her life.
And that’s success.
A success story is a writer who has come, through their own efforts and dedication, to a deeper love and understanding of writing (and their book in particular)—to a place where they not only identify themself as a writer but feel a special dignity and self-respect because of the work they have learned to do. These are people who know publication will be there for them if and when they choose it, not because they’re treating fiction as a lottery, but because they’re treating it as an art and a craft.
Becoming a successful fiction writer isn’t winning a popularity contest.
It’s creating for yourself a permanently higher quality of life.
All details are published here by prior permission of the named writers.
A. Victoria Mixon is a professional writer and independent editor with over thirty years’ experience in both fiction and nonfiction. She is the coauthor of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators and author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual. She can be reached through her blog, her Editing Services, and Twitter