I Am Not a Success Story


Source: Flikr user Todd Ehlers 

There’s not a lot of advice I can give to other writers about how to be successful. The problem is that there are too many individual interpretations of “success.”

To me, success looks like this: I can pay my electric and mortgage bills, eat sausage gravy and biscuits at Tupelo every Sunday, and find at least one hour a day to devote to writing or editing. If those bills (including the ones from the restaurant) could be paid courtesy of my writing, that’d be grand. Given these parameters, I am not successful. Nor am I successful according to your average American writer expectations. I only have a handful of stories published. I have not found an agent.

But one thing I am successful at: Not quitting.

Just kidding: I quit!

After a recent post-Novel Incubator alumni meeting, I finally said, “I am okay with putting this manuscript in a drawer. Forever.” This, after almost ten years of writing and lots and lots of revision, which I plan to elaborate upon next month using pictures and maps and tree rings. The ease with which I condemned my manuscript to a drawer is directly tied to the completion of my second novel. The pressure was off. My writer self-worth was no longer tied to my first novel. Hooray.

Just kidding: Where’s my butcher knife?

Even as I said the words and received applause and respect for my maturity (ahem), I did not mean them.

I don’t know how to give up. I don’t think that it’s about the writing so much as it is about my personality and a certain inner momentum that drives me (crazy) when I can’t have closure.* I’ve only begun to abandon reading novels that don’t suit my tastes. But for my novel, abandonment is not an option.

As such, I turn once again to revision, a phase that leaves me feeling all the feelings that Elizabeth Kubler Ross outlines as the five stages of grief: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

It is what it is, but it is not real trauma


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Source: 21st Century Tech

All I need to do is hang out on my Twitter timeline for two minutes to realize that I am a whinybitchycrankybabypants, and I need to STFU.

But STFU is not really my style.

On one hand, I want to be honest and transparent about the trying-to-get-traditionally-published process because there are far more of us out there than those who have published. But it’s hard to be transparent about the amount of rejection you receive on a weekly basis — especially when you are also submitting short stories and looking for jobs, a whole other level of feelings. Such honesty and transparency can lead to a downward spiral of “ohmygod, do I sound like a complainer?” anxiety to endless pity and pithy sayings from well-meaning individuals, such as:

  1. Your time will come.
  2. Good things come to those who wait.
  3. You just need to find the right person (read: agent).

Nothing feels more squishy awkward to me than someone who tells me that one day my book will be published or on one of those bestseller lists. It’s the adult writer version of Molly Ringwald’s grandmother in Sixteen Candles squealing, “Fred, she’s gotten her boobies!

Feelings. Woe, woe, woe. Feelings.

Feelings are the unsung heroes of getting over it. I will be the first person to tell you to have a good cry, get drunk on food or alcohol, dance, scream, punch things. As long as you’re not hurting yourself or others, what is the big deal?

There’s plenty of advice out there in the writing community about how to deal with the assorted stages of publication. Most end with an appeal that writers grow thick skin. Honestly, I don’t understand why someone hasn’t developed a specific hand cream for writers. There’s certainly a market.


You just need to develop some thick skin, he said.

I suppose the single bit of advice I, a successful-at-not-giving-up-author, can supply is, if you are a writer, embrace the long haul and don’t be ashamed of having your feelings. You’re putting yourself out there by making the word count or sitting there for an hour without getting up, risking that someone will say no in the hopes that they will someday say yes. That is courageous in its own way, even if it’s not as courageous as going into, say, a firefight or a burning building. But it is something. Many people don’t get that far.

As for me, I try to set a time limit on how long I’ll wallow in my self-doubt and proclamations of surrender before I get back to work. Time helps with this. And also Jason Mraz.

Jason Mraz is me, my novel is my beloved, and we are us. Jason wouldn’t give up. And neither will I.**



* This, however, rarely applies to personal relationships.

** Actually, he broke up with his girlfriend shortly before this song was released.



  1. Belle Brett

    Thanks, Kelly, for expressing so candidly what so many of us feel. Unless one has put oneself through this process, it’s difficult to grasp just how challenging and frustrating the rejection can be and how important it is to do what one needs to do to work through it and keep writing. I find myself feeling like a fraud when non-writer friends ask, “So when is your book coming out?” but I know that is just them not understanding how complicated this question is. You are a wonderful writer (not to mention an astute editor), so keep at it! And don’t forget the chocolate—my answer to everything.

  2. Gerald B Whelan

    I understand entirely, Kelly. (Only thing is, I was a bit startled to read you’d only been at it a mere ‘almost ten years.’ A mere babe-in-the-woods. I’m closin’ in on thirteeen, kid.) That said, I’ve been warning myself for the last seven years that my project could be a ‘grand failure’ (as opposed to ‘craven failure’– ). I’m okay with ‘grand failure.’ The question is, knowing when enough is enough. I’ll tell you if and when I get there, but I have vowed not to engage in another major overhaul after this revision (tinkering is okay), simply because there’s a lot more sand in the bottom of my hourglass than on top, and I have other ‘grand projects’ in the queue. But one way or another,. I do believe that the patience people of our ilk possess is our secret (now, not so secret) weapon. Onward!

  3. Yes, chocolate is critical. And patience is the key.

    When is enough enough? Good question. Lately, I’ve been thinking of my submissions as a sort of “princess and the pea” situation (this is a bit of a ridiculous reach, but let’s go with it). Despite the quantity of rejection and years, I’m still “kept awake” by a small pebble of confidence that says, there is something here. Don’t quit. So I’m going to keep on keeping on until it’s gone.

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