I am often asked questions about the business of writing – how to self-pub, how to market, how to amass a group of loyal fans – but the question I am most often asked (in some form or other) is this: “How do I become a successful writer?”

For a long time I tried to answer the question, babbling about sales and marketing and hard work and blahblahblahblah. But then I realized what I should have been saying, and what I now say to you: if you’re asking yourself – or anyone else – how to become a successful writer, you’re asking the wrong question.

Success is an ever-retreating illusion. Like the end of the rainbow, it looks beautiful, laudable, something that people just over there clearly can lay their hands on. So why not you?

Well, because even if you manage to get to the end of the rainbow, even if you somehow contrive to grasp the edge of that many-colored illusion, you will find in the next moment that it moves away from you once more. And your version of “success” moves right along with it.

How many times have you said this in your life?

“If only I could get that promotion – then I’ll be a success.”
“If only I could buy that car – then I’ll know I’m a success.”
“If only I could afford the big house – then I’d know I was a success.”

And what happens? You get the promotion, you buy the car, you put the down payment on the big house… and like the rainbow, your measure of success immediately moves. You’re not successful unless you are constantly moving onward, upward, forward. “Success” is a beast with a relentless appetite.

So what do you do? Is the only answer to eschew success as a writer? Do you put all your manuscripts in a box and bury them somewhere, then go off and live as a hermit in a cave?

Not at all. But you must stop thinking in terms of being “successful,” and instead ask yourself this: as a writer, what will make me happy?

In other words, what is my goal, my aim, which will give me satisfaction once reached?

Is it to simply write a book?
Is it to win an award?
Is it to pay the rent on a regular basis?

Each of these is an attainable goal, but each is different, and each carries with it different responsibilities. Recently, the finalists for the Whitney Awards were announced. Several of my friends were among them, which was great.

My name, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen on the list. I’ve sold oodles of books, my novels are consistent bestsellers on Amazon’s major lists, my most recent novel Darkbound is doing great and getting rave reviews.

But none of my books were there.

Did I break down crying over this? No. Because long ago I decided that my goal, my reason for writing, my “happy place,” if you will, was to write full-time, and take care of my family doing by doing so. So while it would have been nice to get on the list (if only to see the look on the judges’ faces, given the kind of books I tend to write), it mostly would have been nice inasmuch as it might have driven a few more sales my way. Because that’s my goal: to sell books.

Other people crumple into a fetal position when their names are missed for some honor or other. Not me. And it’s because I’m too busy achieving my goal – the thing that I decided will make me happy – to worry about incidentals.

How do you “succeed” as a writer? How do you “make it”? Beats me. But that doesn’t matter. Because more important is your determination of what will make you happy. The question is subtly different, but the difference allows you to focus on concrete steps that will aid you in achieving that goal. It also allows you to avoid the poisonous practice of comparing yourself with others, because no matter how “successful” other writers may be, their success is irrelevant to the question of your happiness.

What is your goal as a writer? What is your happy place? Answer those questions. Then push away everything else, and work to achieve those ends. And once you have achieved them, recognize that you have done so, and find joy in the attainment.

But oddly enough, you will most likely find that in the doing you achieve as much joy as in the accomplishing of them.