Profiles in Courage: Six Writers and Their Success Stories

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So here are a few of my client success stories, out of the dozens of published and unpublished writers I’ve worked with in the past two years—not writers you’ll see touted in the media or machinating a sales spike on Amazon or in full-color ads for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.

Kathryn Estrada


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.

That’s success.

Jeffrey Russell

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.

That’s success.

Chris Ryan

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.

That’s success.

Tony Keith

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.

That’s success.

Bhaichand Patel

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.

That’s success.

Lisa Mercado-Fernandez

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

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42 comments on “Profiles in Courage: Six Writers and Their Success Stories

  1. Samantha Bangayan says:

    Wow! Thank you, Victoria, and Ollin, for hosting. =) These stories were infinitely inspiring! What speaks to me is the reminder that fame should be the least of our goals. In fact, swimming in our own ego can diminish the quality and the art of writing. Thank you for sharing the stories of some *real* writers I can relate to!

  2. Ollin says:

    Thank you so much for guesting and for sharing these inspiring stories, Victoria! And thanks for reminding us what REAL success looks like.

  3. You’re welcome, Ollin. Thank you for hosting me! It’s so important in this manic era for aspiring writers to keep themselves grounded in exactly why we do this work: because we love it..

  4. T.S. Bazelli says:

    You’ve reminded me that I need to figure out what I consider success. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the other things that we forget to see how far we’ve already come.

    • Absolutely. We’ve got our eyes glued on that goal post, so we don’t look around and ask ourselves, ‘Am I enjoying this game?’

      And when we look behind and see where we’ve been, it can really bring on that rush of joy in our own accomplishment that was one of the big reasons we started playing in the first place.

  5. K.M. Weiland says:

    I love these kinds of stories. It’s so easy to for writers to slip into the destructive habit of comparing themselves with others who are higher up the ladder of “success” and then berating themselves for not measuring up. Writing is an individual journey for each of us, and, as a result, success is just as individual. Publishing is fabulous, but if that’s our end-all goal, we’re missing out on a lot of the joy and fulfillment of the journey.

    • Oh, I know. And the current mania for pushing aspiring writers, ready or not, toward publication doesn’t help at all.

      I was so glad these guys were brave enough to be profiled here. They’re all great people, and they’ve worked their butts off earning the right to say, “Why, thank you for asking. I’m a writer.”

  6. I really enjoyed reading this. I find myself struggling lately to remember that our culture’s common definition of success = money is so misguided. How much better off we would all be if we were to focus instead on what moves us and helps us to grow as you have illustrated perfectly here!

    • It’s so insidious, Jenny Ann, and the massive pressure of the marketing end of publishing has really turned it into an epidemic in recent years.

      Write because you love it. I swear, I have read and researched and analyzed dozens and dozens of brilliant writers throughout my decades in this work, and it always comes back to that. Even Henry James, who was a real stickler for getting paid, threw himself first and foremost into the love of the craft.

      Do what you’ve got to do because it’s your life. How much joy you pack into it is entirely up to you.

  7. Judy Dunn says:

    This was beautiful, just gorgeous, Victoria. I see myself in there somewhere and you have validated for me that I can write just for the love of writing. As I hold my half-finsihed memoir up to the light, I see that it is the story I most wanted to tell. It may or may not be sold, but when I finish, I will be a success by MY standards, which are way more important than someone else’s (and society’s).

    You have made my day. Thanks for that.

  8. You’re so welcome, Judy. Truly—success at this work isn’t the same thing as success at climbing ladders. Success at writing isn’t about competing, it’s about growing up. . .as I’ll be talking about on Larry’s blog next week.

    You know what happens to someone who stakes their entire identity on climbing the ladder of popularity? They wind up being Charlie Sheen.

  9. Sarah says:

    Thank you for writing this. Exactly what I needed today, Victoria.

    • You’re welcome, Sarah! It’s wonderful how hearing someone else’s story helps you understand your own, isn’t it?

      And that, folks, is the secret behind fiction in general—we humans need stories.

  10. Sonia M. says:

    Inspiring! Thank you!

  11. Kathryn Estrada says:

    Wow, I almost sound like I have my act together. Victoria, you can write my profile anytime.

    Nice to meet some of my fellow classmates, too. Hi y’all!

    • 🙂

      You guys should’ve seen the hilarious email Kathryn sent me before she dropped here. Aside from being a dedicated writer, she’s also a very funny individual.

      Hi, Kathryn! Thank you for letting me profile you.

  12. Cities of the Mind says:

    It’s nice to see so many roads to success, in one form or another, and you’re very right to say it’s not part of some contrived formula. It’s a bit of relief to hear from someone who knows enough for the opinion to carry weight.

    • Yes, success is as individual as each one of us. The longer I do this work, the clearer that becomes. Every single person who brings me their manuscript is standing in the doorway to a whole other facet of their life.

  13. Lisa Mercado-Fernandez says:

    Thanks for doing this. Working with Victoria has been a Godsend. Although I am not there yet, for me writing has always been for my own sanity. I have always needed an outlet. If you don’t really love it, then it will show. If you reach deep inside it will be reflected in your writing. Thanks for including this in your blog.

  14. Bhaichand Patel says:

    I am touched that Victoria profiled me but she was too kind and ‘forgot’ to mention that I will be 75 in October. This is my first novel and so you guys out there, you have loads of time! I know I will get the novel published but, believe me, the sheer pleasure of putting it together was worth it. Took seven years between assignments!

    • Hello, Bhaichand! How charming of you to share your age with such grace. I didn’t know how long you’d been working on your novel, but you are absolutely right that the aspiring writer must take this craft to their heart for the long haul, for the “sheer pleasure of putting it together.” It’s not a competition. It’s yoga.

      Thank you!

  15. What a wonderful post! I think we can all caught up in success as a thing to measure by sales or praise. The levels of success you speak of are not only more realistic, but they’re more meaningful as well. Thank you!

    • Victoria says:

      Thank you, Amanda. It’s so important that aspiring writers realize this from wherever they are in the process—don’t waste your time fighting the Approval/Disapproval Beast. It’s a chimaera.

      Just learn your craft.

  16. When one has the love of the game (writing), success will follow (not measured by the world’s standard) according to you. Excellente’!

  17. Victoria says:

    In a nutshell, E.J.! Very succinct.🙂

  18. That’s a very important reminder, Victoria. Thanks for this lovely share.

    You know, just today I was watching a video about Amanda Hocking, the self-made millionaire via her e-books. She’s sold millions of her books on Amazon and is now heading to buy her first house—in cash. She’s in her 20’s.

    Not that it’s only about money (though a certain part of it is, and there’s nothing wrong in that either), but still she is an good example of sticking to her craft through thick and thin.

    I loved how you backed-up your theory with likewise solid examples.

    -BrownEyed

    • Victoria says:

      Yeah, I’ve looked at Hocking’s work and read a sample of it. From what I can tell she’s not a bad writer, even without an editor.

      And that’s the biggest thing she’s doing right: she’s learned how to write.

      The reason she’s buying a house in cash, of course, is that she made the big-time self-publishing news. She’s plugged into a very, very, very popular genre–YA vampires–and created a series of consistent stories, plenty of material for an audience to build up around, which she’s handled professionally by sending ARCs to reviewers and working incessantly online to expand her market. She also does really lovely book covers, and that’s important. But the kicker is that she’s quite young, and she presents herself as a sort of secretive teen with her photo, automatically creating curiosity in anyone who hears about her.

      The media absolutely loves this kind of story, especially coupled with a current hot trend like self-publishing. To paraphrase an old chestnut about money, it takes fame to make fame. Two years from now, someone else in her position will not get the exposure she’s getting—there will simply be too many of them.

      So don’t look to her luck for inspiration, look to her writing dedication and savvy self-marketing techniques. That’s the stuff you can use.

  19. Hey, they do sound like success stories to me. It sounds like you’ve been extremely helpful to so many people, Ollin. That’s something I really like about you, you’re always ready to help and always looking for the positive side of things. I have no issues ever recommending your blog to my friends, or saying that, “Hey, I know this guy, and not only is he a writer, he’s a mentor.” So, I hope you think of yourself that way, as a mentor. You’ve been mine since I’ve been reading your blog. I’m sorry I’ve been away dealing with life. Glad to be back!

    • Ollin says:

      Aw, Kenzie! That was soo sweet! I guess I am a mentor. Thanks for letting me know I should see myself as one. I guess I never thought of that title for me, but it makes sense!🙂 Thank you for recommending me, and are you kidding me? No apology necessary! I know you’ve been going through some rough patches, and I’m just happy to see you back!

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  21. Gretchen says:

    That’s one of the many things I’ve learned from your blog, Victoria, and probably the one that stands out in my mind the most – that you have to write because you love it, and that no other reward is required but this opportunity to pursue your heart’s passion. Your words are a validation that it’s okay to put this much time and energy into something that may never get published and may never earn money. Hooray! Because this is how I love spending my time.

    I also appreciate this insight into the writing journeys of real people. Seeing their paths makes writing seem like a more realistic pursuit to me. Thank you to the writers for allowing Victoria to share your stories!

    • Victoria says:

      Oh, it’s true, Gretchen. This is your life, the only one you get—do with it what you love.

      And thanks for acknowledging the writers. Aren’t they great people? Inspiring!

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