The Definition of Success
Yesterday 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.
What 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.
I 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.