Achievement without tears

It’s always a very strange time when you finish writing a novel. There’s a mixed bag of emotions – part of you is sad to see the end of the adventure, part of you is still focused on whether you did the story and characters justice, and part of you is just plum tuckered out and glad to be at the finishing line (for now).

In my case, all the above is due to completing the edit of Scars & Stripes, my fourth novel. I know what you’re thinking, and it’s either ‘Well done you, how productive!’ or ‘Jeez, four books written and none of them published yet – can’t you take a hint?’. We’ll come to that in a minute.
An excerpt from S&S was entered in the Good Housekeeping novel competition, so that novel can now be put to rest until the end of May. And, given my ability to miss my own typos, the rest will do us both good. Meantime, a couple of trusty friends will probably be reading the new version through. Plus, unusually for a novel, I’m waiting for clearance from someone who, along with a specific life experience, appears in the book.
So there’s a lull in the proceedings now, where I can turn my attention to other writing. And a vantage point where I can catch my breath, glance back over the journey covered and think about where to head next. Which brings me back to success.
Most of the time, we define success by an external standard or recognition. But is that always a meaningful yardstick? Take a glance at any popular book online, where there are reader reviews, and you’ll find people polarised in their support or criticism. In fact, the more successful the book is in terms of its profile and sales, the greater the disappointment appears to be for those who hated it. Numbers do not always equate to quality.
Surely then, you might say, publication itself is success, since no publisher would spend money on a book if they did not think it had artistic merit and commercial potential? That’s certainly true, if the former goes hand in hand with the latter; businesses are, quite rightly, in the business of doing business. But, just as we’re not all going to the prom, we’re not all going to be conventionally published. Don’t blame negativity here – it’s maths, pure and simple. And I’m not knocking self-publication, having self-pubbed The Showreel Sketchbook myself.
I think what’s missing is a personal measure of success; one that doesn’t need to stand up to the world’s scrutiny. Because if copy writing has taught me anything, it’s that information can be presented in a variety of ways to support a variety of conclusions.
Your success might be defined by:
– Having an agent.
– Having a publisher.
– Having a book in print or an ebook, with its own ISBN.
– Sales figures and royalties.
– Reader feedback.
– Prizes and awards.
– The respect of your peers.
– Being asked to speak at arts events.
– A hugely popular blog.
– The quality of your writing.
– Your ability to develop as a writer.
– Your willingness to sit down and write, irrespective of most of the above.
So, should you find yourself in a roomful of strangers, and someone asks what you do or what your passions are, don’t flinch. When you’ve said, “I’m a writer,” and the next comment back asks what you’ve had published, don’t falter. If their only interest is in ISBNs and publishing credentials (in which case you can be sure that your earnings will also be somewhere on their list), they’re not interested in your writing. Test it out. Tell them about your plot, subplots and character arcs – see if their eyes glaze over!
Don’t let your passion for your craft be dependent on other people’s approval. Remember, writers write; and if you’re writing for public acclaim, they can also take that away from you.
In the words of George Edward Woodberry:
Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.


  1. Freya Morris says:

    Arh so true – must write down that Woodberry quote and have it tattooed on the inside of my eyelids.

  2. Chloe says:

    I think Iain Banks had written either 4 or 5 novels before he got one published. I can't speak for you, but every time I write anything – novel or otherwise – I learn how to write better next time. So no novel draft is ever wasted. If you don't write the ones that don't get published, you'll probably never write the ones that will get published, right? The difference in my writing between now and when I first tried to write a novel at 19 with no guidance or experience is comical.

    That quote reminds me of the quote I used to have on my kit bag when I was a competitive track athlete. It's Michael Jordan: "I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. I can't accept not trying." Ooooh, and my favourite quote of all, "Our greatest victories lie not in never faling, but in rising every time we fall."

    This is rapidly turning into a self-help comment for my own benefit. I'll stop now.

  3. Derek says:

    Hello there fellow writers Freya and Chloe! (And a belated Happy Easter.)

    1. Tattooing the inside of your eyelids sounds like achievement WITH tears!
    2. Many thanks – I'm rightly chuffed to have moved S&S along to a version I'm happy with – for now!
    3. I completely agree. Everything we write teaches us something about our craft, if we're paying attention. I'm big on self-help – it's the only help that lasts.
    4. Chloe – would you be into recording your Bamboccioni story on audio or video? I had an email from our editor recently. Info to follow.

  4. Deb says:

    Well done on completing Scars & Stripes, Derek. Can't wait to read it. If you're an unplublished writer and you're faced with the dreaded question of; 'So what have you had published?', say something along the lines of; 'I've got a publisher reading through my manuscript as we speak.' Which is true for every writer submitting to publishers. It's important to remember that most non-writers know nothing about publishing statistics, how hard it is to get a publishing contract, or even how many hours go in to writing a book. They equate writer = book on shelf of Waterstones. Also, no one knows anything about you until you tell them, so if you say, 'I'm a writer but I haven't had anything published yet.' they automatically assume that you're not a very good writer. If you say, 'I have four agents interested in my work.' instead, it puts you in a whole different light on their view of you.
    In an ideal world, we shouldn't really be concerned with what other people think of us or how 'successful' we are in our writing, but unfortunately in our culture we are judged by what we do for a living.

  5. Derek says:

    Hi Deb, interesting points. I think the first mad dash is to the first ISBN and, having done that along with a few writerly notches with mags and newspapers, I've grown to realise now that I'm doing it for me. Heck, I've even turned down contracts – but that's for another post!

  6. Chloe says:

    That sounds interesting, though I'm not really an actor! Be interested to find out more though. I have no idea if the book is selling.

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