The Definition of Success

success kid publishingYesterday on my Twitter stream, someone posted what appeared to be an auto-reported update from an app describing how many follows and unfollows that account had received in the last twenty-four hours. The poster was a book blogger, one who takes her charge very seriously, and I’m certain she’ll find the app a useful tool for measuring the success of her venture, or that if she doesn’t she’ll discard it as a nice idea that didn’t pan out. She’s a smart, savvy cookie, that blogger, and I’m sure she didn’t lose a minute of sleep last night over finding out a few people who had been following her no longer do.

Having said that, I feel fairly confident in saying that most authors who tried to use that app would find it to be a gateway to the deepest circle of hell.

I’ve been an active part of professional author communities since 1999, and in those fourteen years I’ve only deepened my conviction that by and large authors are the most beautiful hot mess of ego and self-consciousness that has ever walked the planet. As a friend of mine once pointed out—we slave (alone) for months and years over a work, crafting and honing and sweating and weeping, and then we not only share it with the entire human race but ask to be paid for it. There’s no escaping the ego, no matter how humble we are. Yet at the same time, to be able to successfully access the stories of the human condition, we must be humble, we must put ourselves aside and reach into truths where ego must be stripped away.

Maybe it’s a bias, but from where I sit writing romance is even more of a schizophrenic split. It is and likely always will be the best-selling sub-genre of fiction, the Big Kahuna of publishing, and yet it isn’t just the story of the human condition but a chronicling of humans at their most vulnerable: falling in love. Even if we try to shut out the world, we know our potential audience is huge, and as we strip ourselves away to write emotionally vulnerable stories, we find ourselves that story’s biggest champion, wanting it to become the biggest story ever, not for our ego but for its own sake. To give it that boost we often must gird ourselves and send the introverted writer out into the void, to be the shill and the advocate and the ringmaster for our book’s success.

Nothing, nothing feels more horrible than rising out of that selfless pit of story, putting on ego we didn’t want—and finding the story not only missing the goal posts but sometimes failing to even get out of the sidelines. Did we do something wrong? Did we not promote enough? Too much? Did we burp in public at a conference and that killed the book forever? Did we make a stupid comment on a blog post or social media and now our stories must suffer for our foolishness? Did we not give it a strong enough editorial pass? Did we edit too much and stripped away the soul? Why, how, did this work we slaved over become passed over? How did we see such a beautiful gem and fail it so completely?

Put a few books under an author’s belt, and this kind of nail-biting ego soup/self-consciousness spirals to wild and crazy heights of hysteria, and usually it isn’t allowed to bleed out until something random makes us spill our carefully guarded jar of crazy. It might be a review. It might be a reader’s random comment on Twitter. It might be the failure of a book to hit a bestseller list. It might be a disappointing paycheck. It might be a failure to be mentioned in a magazine citing several of our genre peers—but not us.

It might be hearing that a conference will extend pre-invitations to a small number of high-profile, reader-requested and bestselling authors—and we must now get a bigger crock for our crazy juice, because now someone will make a judgement, a call, our peers will make a call, and we if we don’t make that list, it will cut us, it will send us so deep into that hysteria that we may not write again, because we’ve been wondering this whole time if maybe we really suck, if those lower sales numbers and meh reviews are tea leaves, if this is the final Tarot card that says, “Jesus, you fool, give it up already and go back to the accounting job.”

Don’t. Don’t you ever, ever let anyone, anything, any list or invitation or blog or review site or magazine article define you that way. Don’t let any outside force, anything of any kind tell you who you are, what your stories mean, what potential your career has. Don’t, not even for a minute let anyone but you define what success means for your career.

That penultimate paragraph, of course, is a real thing, and it’s coming, and I’m one of the six people who helped make that list and that judgment call. If you think for a minute I or any of the other organizers twirled our metaphorical mustaches and cackled over our ability to define our peers and make them cry or make them beholden to our judgment, if you think anything even close to that, you could not be more wrong, and you don’t know any of us at all. I’m not going to get into any kind of definition of the list, of who’s on it or how long it is. I’ll simply tell you we bled over that thing, we argued and wrestled and found the highest standard we could give ourselves to behave by and then tried to exceed it.

LolCatRenderer-23What we can’t control is what that list means to our peers, much as we would like to. Readers don’t find it a bad thing—they’ve written to us and posted on Facebook and made blog posts, elated that their long-saved-for retreat will have better odds of containing their favorites. Authors? Authors are back at that terrible wall between the public and their stories, feeling inadequate to their charge and desperately searching either for a scapegoat for those feelings or using them to beat themselves into a corner. Not all LGBT romance authors are, but some, yes. I know this is happening, and it’s made me so sad, because these are my friends, my colleagues—they are my favorite authors, sometimes, and I want to tell them this stupid list doesn’t matter, it means nothing except that it is the best we were able to do, our best which by some impossible measure of perfection is probably so wanting its pathetic, and yet it had to be done and so we did our best. Ironically we are standing at our own wall between the retreat and the public attending, readers and authors and publishers all, and let me assure you the number of times a day I wonder why in the fucking hell I am doing this, why I think I am adequate to my task, why I am not writing because that part does actually make me money—I do that at least seven or eight times every single day. Every. Single. Day.

I serve the GRL Retreat because I believe it in and I believe in our tribe. I do my job for GRL because I believe in it the same way I believe in my stories, because I love Ethan and Damon and Carol and Reese and Teresa and JP with a special chamber of my heart, because we’ve been through the blood and fire together, and now we’re bound for life. I love the attendees of the retreat—some of you when I see your Facebook posts, I get soft and misty and I think of you with love and devotion and I am glad to see you happy, or I weep with you, or I am outraged with you. I’m connected, and when I go to work at GRL, it is you whom I serve. For readers, I want to create a wonderland of your favorite stories and the friends you read them with. For my peers, for my fellow authors, I want to create a space, a haven, an opportunity. For my community, for LGBT romance I want to help promote and advance it, to continue to edge us all closer to the mainstream, to make us not genre separate but simply another kind of pairing in romance. This is why I serve, what I think of every time I sit down to work on website copy or draft a newsletter or answer questions about the retreat, as I discuss with the other organizers what would be best for GRL. I can assure you that this is where the other organizers come from as well.

But this list. This upcoming marker that readers won’t know but authors will, because they’ll either receive a pre-invitation or they won’t—this list is another stone thrown at each one of us on our walls, and we know it’s coming, and we hate it and crave it as much as we do every review, every bestseller list, every single constant thing that can define for us who we are and whether the stories we caretake are any good. The stone has already come for me—for the six of us, it came when you found out we had to do this, when you saw our decision and either loathed it or rejoiced at it or accepted it even as you yearned for and despised it. For the rest of the LGBT romance authors, the stone is still on the way.

I urge you with all my heart to not let it define you or your work. I implore you not to let this decide who or what you are the same way I would tell you, if you asked me, whether or not being on Amazon’s bestseller list or ARe’s list or getting a snarky review should define you. Several of you with whom I share close relationships have come to me in those moments, in fact, and you’ll recall I told you the same thing then. Don’t. Don’t let anything have that kind of power over you. Not GRL, not Goodreads, not Amazon–nothing. Only you author your stories. Only you know what is best for them, what is right. You are their advocate. You are their champion. You are their shepherd, and they deserve you standing between them and the world.


Yes, we fail our stories every day, in the same way we fail our children, our friends, our neighbors. In the same way the GRL organizers cannot make a perfect list of pre-invited guests, none of us can ever fully do justice to the things and people we love, because we are not perfect. This does not mean we should stop trying, nor does it mean we have not also succeeded. We tend to focus on what we have left undone but not on what we have actually accomplished. We tend to ignore the waves of positive reviews and focus on the handful of readers who did not connect with us, people who if we were to meet them in person and get to know them we’d soon find are simply on different wavelengths than we are, and connection was never possible. Caught up in a culture of perfection, we feel that this alone is the marker of success—despite knowing the ideal is impossible, we rake ourselves over coals, fires we feed and stoke with failures, because our stories are this good, this amazing that only the ideal is acceptable for them.

We forget that true art is always flawed, that the cracks in the vase and the missed threads in the woven rug and the type-os and miscues in our stories are, according to many old and wise cultures, the way viewers of art enter. We forget that since we are flawed ourselves, we cannot see perfection even as it passes us by, and we forget that the ideal is based on perspective, that we have unknowingly given it to many of our readers already, even as we can still see our mistakes.

We forget, because we still can’t quite accept we are worthy of our charges, the reader letters telling us how much they love our work, the fans whose faces brighten at the sight of us because we are the ones who gave them the characters they adore. We forget that each individual fan is more important as the masses, that each reader who stays up late to buy our book at midnight or read even though they should be going to bed—we forget these are the people we write for, this is who the story wants. Not some list.

Our stories are alive, and they breathe and live, but they want different things than we do. They wish to stand as they are and see what the world will make of them. They aren’t afraid to be judged and criticized or ignored, because they know they will also be loved. Every time a reader connects, their existence deepens, broadens, glows stronger—yes, we want as much existence for them as possible, but they would rather be kings and queens of the meadow than emperor of the world. Each individual connection is worth more than the amassed whole.

tumblr_lt175nz2DW1r30yjlo1_500I cannot stop you, authors, from letting lists and reviews and external judgments define you and your definition of success for your stories and your career, and you possibly can’t succeed in resisting completely either, but I implore you to struggle with that impulse with the same intensity you defend your stories. Resisting the urge to let others define you is defending your stories. I encourage you to explore ways to raise your profile, your brand, your sales, but I ask you to please never question your own worth, never question your ability to tell your stories and be their shepherd. I ask you to believe in yourself, because I do. I may not know you, but I have been you, and I know the same hell as you, and I want only good things for you because I would never wish the agony that comes with being an author can be on even my worst enemy.

I have been rejected by more publishing houses than I can count. I have been rejected by many, many agents. I have been dismissed in contests. I have been given half-hearted praise and encouragement only to find doors slammed in my face. I have had my writing gutted by beta readers and professionals and random strangers. I have been laughed at. I have been mocked. I have been told to give up, have been given that awful wince that means, Jesus, she’s never going to make it. I have spent over a decade throwing myself against the wall of publishing and being rejected over and over and over again, told directly and indirectly that I could not do what I was trying to do.

Depending on the hour, I have three books listed in the top ten list on Amazon’s Gay Romance bestsellers, two of them in the top fifty, one which has been in the top twenty for almost a month. I have thirteen published (or about to be published novels) with two in process of publication and another I’m well into writing, one which when I tweet or post about it sends up a fan frenzy. I have had, many times, people respond to me when I come up to them and say hello or send them an email, “Are you THE Heidi Cullinan?”as if they have brushed against someone they never expected to meet. (That never stops feeling weird, at least for me, and it’s a bigger shoe than I’d like to try to wear, but that’s another blog post entirely.) I’ve been interviewed by international newspapers and reviewed in national trades and am constantly finding that people I don’t think will know who I am already have me firmly in their sights. I have received many, many fan emails and messages from readers telling me that I touched them, that my work moved them and made them feel good, that what I gave them was worth so much more than the cover price of the book.


I was told for a long, long time that I was not a success, and even though I spilled many tears and had to squelch mountain ranges of doubt, I did not give up and I was able to write that paragraph above listing the many ways I have, in fact, succeeded. Though I still have my moments of anxiety and self-doubt, I do not ever let them win. If I fail to make a list, I do my best to figure out how I could change that outcome in the future, and if it’s not something I can change, I do my best to shut it out of my mind and move on to things I actually can affect. I make myself work hard for my stories, giving them everything that I can, surrounding myself with supportive people who help me sell them and polish them and give them the showcase they deserve.

I am my stories’ advocate. I do not let anyone but me define what success looks like, because my stories deserve it, and so do I. I am not defined by what others think of me but who I am, by what I say and do and think and believe. I am the shepherd of my beautiful, wonderful stories, and I will support them and nurture them. I am successful because I say I am successful.

So are you.

16 Comments on “The Definition of Success

  1. This is beautifully written, Heidi. I know the feeling of fear and inadequacy when handing something over to be read that I’ve written. Your words are like a balm. I really think this is a must read for any writer, whether published or not.
    Hang in there on the GRL stuff, you guys did what you thought best for the health of the event. The hub-bub will die down. Stay strong. 🙂

  2. This is such a beautiful post!

    And it’s not just in writing, either. Any form of art, where you’re putting yourself out there for the world to see, comes with a free helping of self-doubt.

    Actually, I think it’s even more than art. It’s about being brave enough to care. When we commit to something, when we go out and say, “This is important to me,” we’re incredibly vulnerable. It’s frightening. We have to be our own best support system, don’t we? Because the world is sometimes unkind, and we have to be able to keep on keepin’ on.

    Or get very good at faking it, which has its own value. 🙂

  3. I’m with you in a lot of ways here, Heidi. I DO work the day accounting job, and writing is a happy little sideline for me. I started as a reader, the a reviewer, and now am a published author. You know the biggest thrill out of all of it? Well, two. One, it was tres cool that my review blog was known and respected a little. But two, and the most important…my 89 year old dad is proud of me. I published a book, and that is the biggest thrill, that he brags about his gay son, who works with people living with AIDS and is a published author. And notice where “published author” fits in the equation.

    Yep, I let a little of my crazy come out this past week, and I still have some quietly held concerns and opinions about how this whole “pre-invite” extravaganza was rolled out. But…it doesn’t matter.

    I will be writing to make myself happy. The sun will come up tomorrow. There will be clients to serve Monday. Life will go on.

    And I hope everyone has a great time here in Atlanta in October. I love my home town and whoever comes…it will be great.


  4. As one of your readers, I’m glad you have followed your own advice and have never given up. I am going to print this post and have my daughter read this as she is graduating from college in May and is very stressed out about her future and confused, and I think this post is inspiration for more than just your fellow authors. I have only been reading this genre for over a year but you and other authors have influenced my life and my outlook and I am grateful. I won’t be going to GRL, but that won’t stop me from buying books and discovering new authors whose stories and characters resonate with me. Thank you for taking the exra time to share your thoughts with us on a regular basis. As a reader it makes me appreciate your stories even more.

  5. Ultimately, even not giving up on yourself is still governed by the reader, the one who spends that dollar that says I like what you do. Even if writing is just a tiny part of your life, you still have to sell at least some to be validated by your publisher. Unless, you self publish which is a viable avenue, unless you are a Hemingway, I don’t see it leading to main stream acceptance. That said, I wish I could buy at least one book from every author just to say “Hey, you did good, You put yourself out there and took a chance”.
    I am like the old Coke commercial “I’d Like to buy the World a Coke”, “I’d like to buy the world a book”, just because I am awed by anyone who can put pen to paper, produce characters, stories, worlds, that I can’t. Good or bad, I applaud everyone that bares themselves to the world, after all it is your ego that we see.

  6. Pingback: The Kind of Review You Want To Receive | Charles Ray's Ramblings

  7. Pingback: Gay Rom Lit | RJ Scott

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