Gauging Progress

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
We've looked at what constitutes success in a few old threads, including these:

But, I was recently reading an article by writing guru Jane Friedman, where she said that “The only true measure of a book's success is sales”.

Strictly speaking, she's correct, for any artist creating a piece of work to be sold to the public is entering commerce. Films are judged by their box office receipts, paintings become treasures by reaching stratospheric auction prices, a musician's sales are proof of their talent (or their publicist's marketing skills), so why shouldn't a writer's progress as a writer be measured by sales?

But, that ignores the writer's relationship with their stories, the struggle they went through to get the ideas onto the page. It's an achievement to write a book. Many say that they want to, but do nothing about it. We work alone, though the support of friends, family and Colony members is a comfort. But, we're still alone, unsure of where we're going, so how do we gauge our progress?

Looking at my efforts since I returned to creative writing in 2013, I've typed about 2,000,000 words, some of which worked as story-telling. I've self-published 48 titles of short stories, novellas, poetry and song lyrics, arousing little interest in readers. I've completed five novels in my Cornish Detective series, querying agents 750 times, which has increased the depth of my hide. I may finally have piqued the interest of a publisher, who asked for a full manuscript this summer. I'm waiting on them. I'm ready to self-publish on Amazon's KDP Select should they say 'No'.

I've also started a writing blog and a website devoted to my Cornish Detective. Somehow, that didn't feel like progress, more like putting scaffolding into place for a house of stories that few may visit.

I'm not sure if I'm sanguine or cynical about the business of publishing. I do know that it's best not to take myself too seriously when receiving rejections.

I love writing stories. It's joyful for me. In the last six years, I've learned a lot about technique and punctuation, which is progress, but for me, it's the reactions of readers that show how I've improved.

Three of my friends offered to be beta readers of a novella about assisted suicide, and all cried at the same point (Yes!), which made me tear-up too and I knew what was going to happen!

I wrote humorous poetry for infants, which made the daughters of a friend laugh and start writing their own poems. Blimey, I'm influential! A short story I wrote was satisfying to one reader, as it ended exactly as she hoped, which was my intention. It's great to surprise readers, but there are times when they crave the predictable.

Not to forget, that writing stories creates a fresh identity for you, which is real progress keeping you interested in who you are and arousing curiosity in others. Anyone who produces a book is infinitely more intelligent and sexier than they were before!

Huge sales of your books would be fantastic, but it's the human reactions that really matter. Isn't it?

How do you gauge your progress as a writer?

By blogging or communicating on social media?

By contributing to a writing group?

By typing 5,000 words daily?

By getting a response from readers?

Not answering your questions, but volunteering:

If you need anything for your work on assisted suicide, I am a member of Dignity in Dying -- don't really want to talk about how/why -- and would be happy to help.
Paul, I think so much of what you’re saying there - your love for your craft, your work’s influence on others, touching people emotionally, and your own personal growth - denotes success in anyone’s language
Every writer is different, there's no doubt. And everyone is entitled to their own spin on success and what they define as success. It boils down to why you write. Who do you write for? Just yourself? Family? Friends? Others? How do you want to connect? Emotionally? Do you want to entertain? There are probably a million reasons. Personally, I find I want something different from each piece, but I'd like one day to see some word of mouth. Doubt I'll see that, but that won't discourage me from writing.
For me, success varies. Sometimes, success is nailing that one sentence that's been bugging me. Sometimes, success is the feedback I get from beta readers. Sometimes, success is when someone tells me they enjoyed reading my words. Sometimes, success is struggling with my craft because I know that struggling means I'm learning. Sometimes, success is finishing the novel.

I guess success lies inside me, in how I see things and I feel about things.

One could have a million and one positive reviews, and still not feel successful.
Am I learning? That's progress. Has one reader said to me, "I love your book"? That's success. Would I be happy if everything I wrote turned into a best-seller? Of course, and I strive for that (knowing exactly how unlikely it is, but why not try?) but what I have is plenty--a small and enthusiastic fan base, and continued improvement in my writing.
Good questions that you brought up Paul. For me it was learning how to write and to contionusly learn something new that I see as progress. Each completed manuscript is another progression. But as to success in writing, for me it is being traditionally published. That's the goal and my measure of success.
I cannot speak for other writers. For myself, I have learned so much through the whole process of writing my first book - that I consider it already a success. When an agent said "If this is your first attempt at writing fiction you should be immensely proud," I nearly wet myself! ;) I started off knowing nothing about writing. I have struggled to write my novel on a shared computer which sits in the open plan living room/kitchen with all the noise and distractions of teenagers, 5 cats, a dog and a depressive husband behind my left shoulder. I wrote it in the spare moments that I had between trying to earn a living as a market trader and dashing back and forth to the UK caring for my dying brother and then my dying mother. It kept me sane and it has taken bloody years to get it right. I am proud of my achievement and feel I deserve a gold star for writing it at all.

The only writers I know now personally are members of my family (mainly dead now) and a few family friends (ancient and on the way out too). The publishing world has been rapidly changing since my mother (for example) hit the big time in the mid-seventies. I remember how sad, and disgruntled, she was at the LA Book Fair, where she'd gone for signings because the Americans asked her only about sales figures and income. No one asked her what her books were actually about. She had been used to my father's way of publishing which concentrated on content and quality (as many old school British publishers did back then). Keeping on the theme of my mother, her books have been in continuous print since 1975/6 - which I believe (@AgentPete will correct me if I'm wrong) constitutes success. We, her heirs still get royalties - not massive by anyone's reckoning, but something.

Another little story about mum. She was also a poet. One night she sat up all night writing poems inspired by the Christian fish symbol. The next day my parents went to the theatre. As they went to take their seats a woman gasped when she saw mum. At the interval, the lady came and sought mum out. She apologised for her reaction and said, "I have been very depressed recently and contemplating suicide. You appeared to me in a dream last night, and talk me out of it. But why did you keep talking about fish?" (I would count this as a success on the 'human reaction scale').

The world, in general, is too fixated on success in terms of money and fame. If you want to know what I think, then I will say this. The pursuit of money and fame is one of the major problems in the world. Money is great to the extent that it helps you pay the bills. But as a final goal, it is insignificant - you can't take it with you and it will not make you immortal. However, the people that you touch on a deep level through your writing, or have helped in some way, will remember you long after you have shuffled off. That is true immortality.

Of course, I'd love to pay my bills and write something meaningful, so watch this space.
I think success is more about achieving one's goals than anything else. Setting out to write a book is easy and lots do it but very few get to the end. For me, that will be a big success. Along the way I am having lots of smaller ones starting with Chapter one then two, three etc. I am fortunate in that I am not writing to put food on the table but because it challenges me and eventually I want a pat on the back and someone to say "well done." If that happens I will be a happy bunny and if I earn a few shillings I'll have a party :)
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