Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Writers: Sacrifice For Success?

Confessions of a Workaholic
 By Mark Young
 This article has very little to say about cops, crime or mystery writing. It has everything to say about living, sacrifice and success. Writers: What price are you willing to pay for success? How much are you willing to sacrifice to become a successful writer?

Although this article focuses on the publishing game, anyone who must balance the conflicts of life may find themselves peering into this same mirror that I am holding up for writers. A mirror that everyone—myself as well as the bloke down the street—must confront at some point in their life. How much are you willing to sacrifice for success?

Here is another way to come at this issue: What does success means to you?

Two articles about sacrifice and success in the publishing world caught my attention a couple weeks ago. Both authors claimed that writers need to sacrifice in order to become successful. At first blush, I agreed with their reasoning. Writers must become disciplined in their efforts to become a good writer, and a certain amount of sacrifice is required to become a successful writer. Here, I would generally define success as having developed as a writer while achieving a readership following and a certain amount of monetary gain.

Then, I saw how much these writers were willing to sacrifice. For me, the price was too steep.

Among the sacrifices they listed—television, movies, and sleep—they pointed to family relationships and time with their children as part of the price one must pay. They claimed that success requires a single-minded commitment and that truly dedicated writers needed to devote practically every waking hour to writing and trying to figure out how to sell more books. Success—to these writers—meant higher books sales and greater royalties.

One of these writers I have been following closely for some time because of the useful information he shares about the publishing industry. This particular writer really sacrificed over the years, and this sacrifice has paid off for him in the number of books he sells each month. I assume the success he gained was worth the sacrifice he paid.

Another successful writer discussed the grueling schedule he keeps in order to make success happen. Buried among his comments was a reference that really disturbed me. He mentioned this drive for success cost him severed family relationships.

My questions upon reading this: What price did these family members pay for this man’s success? Was the cost worth it? Apparently not to those family members. It appears they moved on without him. I felt sad for him and his family. Success can be an alluring god that sucks the very soul out of us.

In the giddiness of the eBook and digital publishing phenomenon, writers are looking at the possibilities of an emerging reading market never tapped before—much like the Israelites of old staggering out of the wilderness wasteland and viewing the promised land just beyond the Jordan River. These struggling writers see other self-published writers realizing hundred of thousands of sales each month. They see the possibility—if they work hard, long and sacrificially—of grabbing a little of that golden ring for themselves.

All part of the dream, right?

I can relate to their thirst for success. Let us be honest. As writers, we all want our hard work to pay off someday in dollars and cents, and a growing readership that lines up for the next novel we produce, and recognition from others that we have become an established writer. But each of us must ask ourselves:  Will the cost of success be worth it?

At one point in my own life, I felt that success was worth this cost. I always thought that as a father and a husband, it was my job to go out into this cold, cruel world, and wage that economic war of survival. I wanted to provide for my family, and I would do whatever it took to become successful. As a workaholic, sacrifice came easy for me because it became my reason for living. Career advancement and monetary gain became the standard by which one measured success. After all, I was doing it for my family.

I am not saying that we must not work hard and make sacrifices to achieve these goals. There are seasons in our lives, and some seasons require that we put the job ahead of other considerations—even family—for short periods of time in order to meet deadlines or certain non-negotiable demands at work.

But be careful! Try to remember what is really important in life and try to keep life in balance.

In the movie Hook—starring Robin Williams as the aging Peter Pan, Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook, and Charlie Korsmo as William’s young son, Jack—there is a reoccurring conflict between father and son. Willaim’s aging Pan has become a cut-throat merger and acquisition attorney, whose business life dominates everything. In one scene, the young Jack is allowed by Captain Hook to take a hammer and smash all the clocks in a room. Hook wants the young boy to act out all the frustrations held in side about his father. Here are some of the boy’s statements:

            Jack:    “This is for … never letting me blow bubbles in my chocolate milk!” (The boy smashed a clock with a hammer).

            Jack: “This for never doing anything with me.”

            Hook: “For a father who is never there, Jack? Jack, for a father who didn’t save you on                          the ship?”

            Jack:    (starts to cry) “Who wouldn’t save us … And he didn’t even try. He was there and                       we were there and he wouldn’t try. (pulls his cap down as he cries)

As a parent, I could relate to that scene. At one point in my life I had some of the attributes of Williams’s Peter Pan, justifying my work by telling myself it was for the family. Maybe it was, but I struggled to properly balance my life. The price I paid back then was time away from my family. I would be gone weeks—sometimes months—at a time as I traveled on business.  Later, when I could stay in town, the cost was longer and longer shifts, more and more cases to investigate, until I only went home to change clothes and get some sleep. Some of it was necessary. Some of it—in retrospect—was not. All of it was time that I will never get back.

I got wrapped up in the game of the struggle, and work almost swallowed me whole. Slowly and painfully, I began to learn to put things in perspective, to prioritize my life and spend time where it really counted— with my family.

Now, years later, I thought I'd learned that lesson. My writing career began somewhat slow, writing when I could, reading and learning from others as I tried to improve my craft. After a few years, I began sending queries and manuscripts out to agents and publishers, while continuing to work on the next novel. Rejection after rejection came back. And I continued to write.

Meanwhile, I learned that a writer needs to be more than a writer if they want to succeed in this publishing business. Writers need to do more, like create a social network on the internet,  develop blogs like this one, and cultivate friends and contacts within the industry.  I took to this like a duck to water (sorry for these cheap cliques’, but after all, I am the editor here), layering this social interaction on top of my writing schedule.

And then came the eBook revolution. Oh boy. Could I see the possibilities.

So I published my first eBook earlier this year, planning on writing or re-editing three other novels for release over the next eighteen months. Stunned, I received my first royalty check EVER, and saw several more coming down the pike. I must admit my sales numbers are far below, say, Amanda Hocking or John Locke,  like the distance between earth and the sun—but, hey, a sale is a sale. It has only been a few months, but people are starting to read my novels and some of them even taking the time to give favorable reviews. I found my workaholic nature kicking in once more as I strived to follow the advice of others.

Then, two things happened that stopped me cold.

First, my nine-year-old daughter started complaining about daddy always talking about or working on his books. My wife—who never pulls any punches—glanced over at me with that ‘I told you so’ look. She didn’t have to say anything. I got the message. Out of the mouth of babes and wives.

If that was not enough, I read these two articles I mentioned above and saw the cost these writers paid to become a success. It was like looking into the mirror and I did not like where I was going. I do not want to pay that price at the cost of losing the time I spend with my family, time I will never get back. And for what? So I can sell a few more books?

I know that we are all different, and that we all strive for success in our own ways. For some, they may be able to justify success as any cost. I just can't do that anymore.

As of today, I don’t know whether I will ever reach the number of book sales other writers have reached.  This is a process, a journey, in which that question will be answered over time. But I intend to make sure that whatever sacrifice I must pay to achieve success, that it be on my own terms and at a cost my family can bear.

As I sat down to write this article, the words of another man—who truly knew about sacrifice—came back to me. On the way to the cross, Jesus asked his disciples this question: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” He was speaking of eternal consequences.

I believe our relationships with family and loved ones can have eternal consequences, while selling books does not. I love to write, and I love to write something others want to read. The words we put down on the page often reflect the values we hold in this life. I hope when the last page of my life is penned, that my life would have had more about eternal consequences than becoming a bestseller. And I hope my daughters will remember, unlike Jack, that their father did try his best to be a good father. That I showed up for the job.

So I raise the question once more: How much are you willing to sacrifice to become a successful writer?


  1. This was well-said. I think at the outset of any career, especially writing, you have to take some time for deep introspection and determine what exactly defines success so it doesn't become a chase after an ever-moving target. Is it publication? An income? Units sold? Obedience to a calling in spite of the numbers?
    And as you mentioned, it helps to have a couple of trusted folks to "reorient" you when necessary.

  2. Good points, Paula. It is important to have realistic expectations and goals, then chart a course way from the storms of life that tend to overwhelm.

  3. Great post, Mark. It reminds me of the exchange between Fredric March and Gregory Peck in the film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. March, who has sacrificed his family in building a huge company, tells Peck, young family man, that there are two kinds of men. Those who come in, do their work, and go home to their families. And those who sacrifice home for huge success. "My mistake," March says, "was in being the second kind of man."

    It's possible in this new e-world to create a steady income stream without sacrificing the more important things of life. We don't want to end up like Charles Foster Kane, do we?

  4. Jim: Good point. Life must be balanced.

    By the way, I'm impressed with your invasion of the eBook world. Best wishes. Look forward to a Q&Q with you about these efforts here on this blog soon.

  5. Very well said.

  6. Daniel: Thanks for dropping by. By the way, I love your blog title, Dragons Can Be Beaten. A very positive message for troubled times.

  7. I like your post, Mark. I do nothing that upsets the balance of my home, and I maintain balance in my own life and behavior, and in my family's. So the short answer . . . I make no sacrifice for my writing that conflicts with my larger priority of leading a balanced life.

  8. Good for you, Mary. I hope this gives pause to other writers tempted to live an unbalanced life ... life is too short.

  9. Mark, Awesome post! I think we as a society--not even just as writers--get so caught up in chasing rainbows that we fail to see our greatest blessings are often right in front of us. Too many simply take the world's definition of success for themselves, never stopping to discern where that will lead. The thing is, we literally cannot chase every single available rainbow. There are too many and they move too fast. It takes getting very quiet and very still and listening very carefully to the whispers of our soul to find out what is right for us. And then we must never make the fatal mistake of thinking our "right" is "right" for everyone else. The freedom God gives each of us is the right to choose for ourselves, to make our own mistakes and choose our own paths. But that we could learn to extend that grace to each other, what a wonderful world this could be!

  10. A much needed observation for those in many walks of life. You have done a great job reminding us to not take ourselves so seriously we forget to take the really important things seriously enough.

  11. Thanks, Tim. We need to help each other remember what is important. I need reminders every day.

  12. I took my 13 year old daughter to lunch today. Her fav restaurant.

    I'm one of those who spends many hours at my craft. Perhaps too many.

    Good thing cooking is my other love. I can offer up a delish meal and my family forgives me.