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July 2006 : Feature:

Breaking the Success Barrier

A funny thing can happen to writers on the way to the post office. We become afraid of what we can do. People freeze up in all sorts of ways—cat-waxing, rejectomancy, pathological revision, drunkenness, sheer wall-eyed panic. Some folks talk about fear of failure, but if we truly feared failure, we wouldn't be writers. Writers are those people who've mastered failure, gotten very good at it even, and kept on plugging away regardless.

We fear success.

Some of this is understandable performance anxiety. You're only as good as your last sale, or the numbers on your last book. (If you've not yet been published, you're only as good as your cover letter, and that can be very frustrating.) This means every time you go to the post office to mail off your manuscript, that just might be the stink bomb that sends you into an irretrievable slide right over the edge.

What keeps any of us moving is faith in our work—ego strength, persistence and self-confidence in varying proportions. Those are dependent on awareness of the quality of our work, both in its current state and through the process of incremental improvement as a career develops. The irony is that very few of us are equipped to appropriately judge our own work. It's a notoriously difficult task. As writers develop their skills, especially their critical faculties, they become incrementally more able to judge their own work. This means that we see our strengths, but also our flaws. The better we become as writers, the more we begin to see how much we still have to learn. This leads to a paradox of competence versus confidence. Often, a new writer is marginally competent, but highly confident. They are motivated by the ego strength of that confidence. As a career progresses, the relationship between confidence and competence inverts, and the writer is increasingly motivated by external validation of their competence.

Competence vs. Confidence

Competence vs. Confidence

The success barrier happens somewhere in the middle as the two trends cross, where the writer has achieved sufficient critical experience and command of craft (increase in competence) to discern the flaws in their work (reduction of confidence). This undermines ego as the basis of motivation. If success—all too often measured by the external validation of sales, good critical and fan reception, award nominations, Year's Best honorable mentions and reprints, media attention and so forth—has not yet been forthcoming, then fledgling writers can lose motivation and be increasingly tempted to abandon their career.

In fact, many do.

Having defined the success barrier, how do we break past it? That question has as many answers as there are writers, and probably more. Nonetheless, there are some general strategies which can be adopted in some form or another to help get writers past that career muddle in the middle.

These strategies vary in part because different writers experience different breakpoints. Someone with early sales success, who continues to sell fairly regularly as they develop, will experience the success barrier as something akin to a speedbump. On the other hand, a writer with Big Ideas who needs to make a lot of craft progress before they can sell may see it as a chasm. A writer whose first professional sales are few and far between may see it as an almost neverending dry spell. Individual career paths, native talents and developmental speed all heavily influence this process.

What are these strategies?

First, recognize what can be controlled

We've written about this before, but it cannot be emphasized enough. Setting career evaluation criteria based on events which a writer cannot control will only lead to frustration. Making sales, being published and being read—those are everyone's aspirations, if they are writing and submitting. But writers never control the sales themselves. They control manuscript production, editing, mail-outs, networking behavior and so forth. Recognizing what can be controlled and what can't is a very important step in coping with the success barrier because it keeps the writer from experiencing near-terminal frustration.

This is not to say that you should not celebrate your successes. Throw parties, buy yourself a gift, whatever. Just don't build your expectations and self-evaluation process around those moments of external validation.

Move the goal posts or redefine the terms

As the success barrier is a function of a writer's self-perception, try changing that self-perception. If you tend to define yourself according to what others think of you, maybe it would make more sense to emphasize word count or completed stories or some other goal-oriented method. Or, if your own production goals are too high, move them down. This isn't a tactic that works for everyone, but if you're capable of resetting your internal expectations or making a deliberate re-evaluation of your competence without introducing additional self-criticism or negativity, you may be able to simply push the success barrier ahead of you, then reposition it behind you, without ever really slamming into it.

Change personal focus

If you need indicators of success for you to keep going, try changing the focus to emphasize progress in craft. If, for example, you have been writing horror, try switching (sub)genres and write some dark fantasy or fantasy to stretch your creative muscles and open more opportunities for yourself. If you have been working exclusively on novels, try writing and submitting short stories for a while or vice versa. This will often have a cross-training effect which can improve all your work, and will give you a new set of problems to tackle instead of remaining focused on certain markets or publishing houses or avenues of success. This in turn will give you an opportunity to reset your expectations, while also giving you a greater appreciation for the progress you've made.

Change work habits

Another approach to breaching the success barrier is changing work habits. This is analogous to the suggestion about changing focus. It certainly doesn't work for everyone, but it's worth a try to distract yourself, see what you can shake loose and possibly learn something new. If you're a burst writer, try writing for long stretches. If you're an outliner, try free writing. If you're fast, try slowing down. If you're slow, try to speed up. If you feel compelled to always write at the computer, try writing in longhand. If you always write in longhand at the coffee shop, try typing a story straight into the computer. It puts you in the place of being a different sort of writer and may help shake blocks that have nothing to do with writing itself.

Do what replenishes you

This is called many things by many people: filling the well, downtime, generating mental energy, or simply taking a break. The thing is, with our sights on the word counts or the story sales or the novel completions, sometimes we forget to just take care of ourselves, to allow the imagination to wander, to feed that special spark that made us writers in the first place.

Daydream. Take a walk in the park. Stop to examine the flattened corpse of a frog at the side of the road, or the wildflowers blooming in deep orange above it.

Because when we forget to do that, it is not only the success barrier that will stop us.

In conclusion, it's fair to say that the success barrier is itself an artificial concept. That's simply a way of describing a transitional state from aspiring writer to professional author. And everyone experiences that transition differently. But as they say on the London Underground, one must still mind the gap.

Copyright © 2006, Joseph E. Lake, Jr. and Ruth Nestvold. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at


Jul 10, 23:10 by IROSF
A thread to discuss the path to success.

The article can be found here
Jul 11, 10:39 by Scott Sandridge
A very good article. Something that all us writers can learn from.
Jul 11, 17:16 by Jay Lake
Thanks, Scott. It's one of those elephants in the room for writers, I think...we all look down the path and wonder, but nobody likes to talk about it.
Jul 16, 06:45 by Scott Sandridge
I think that's mostly because people have a natural tendency to not talk about the things they need to talk about the most.
Aug 1, 17:42 by Steven Francis Murphy
Feel like I'm facing this problem right now. I found the article pretty handy.


S. F. Murphy
Northtown, Missouri
Aug 2, 06:40 by Jay Lake
Glad it helped, SF.

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