For a short story writer, what is success?

Here’s another guest post from editor/poet/story spinner Kaolin Fire. His advice just might light a fire under you to get writing short stories!


What is success, for a short story writer? Your first sale? Pro publication? Joining the SFWA, HWA, or other such organization? It’s easy to attach a lot to those moments, looking forward; but the ones I’ve hit, at least, don’t last long. It’s easy to look back at them and say, great, I did that—but I didn’t change, because of it; nothing changed. I’m still going to get nineteen rejections for every twenty submissions, I’m still going to get pennies on the dollar for the hours I work, I’m still most likely to only be read by a few hundred (admittedly, awesome) people.

I imagine rock-star-dom along the lines of Neil Gaiman has to feel like success, but if that’s your measure, you’re likely to fall short, and if you don’t, well, pat yourself on the back and keep with. Or, perhaps your measure of success is being able to make a living on your writing—I can certainly empathize with that, but, for me, at least, that’s so far out of the ballpark that I’d have to just give up.

It’s a common mantra that success has to be something you find in yourself, that you can’t rely on external validation. That’s true for any creative art, I think, but more so for writing, because writing is one of the few creative arts that takes some sort of effort for others to attempt to enjoy. Though I’m tempted, now, to try framing some of my best (imo) flash pieces and posting them on the wall. 😉

That said I can only get so far looking at what I’ve written, cheering myself with the thought that some day, somebody might appreciate it as much (or more than) I do. More often, I know, some day I’ll see what all those somebodies were rejecting in a given piece, not have a clue how to fix it, and trunk it.

The moment of writing may be one of the purer joys, but even with “butt-in-chair” mantras, and “internet off”, and “write, just write!”, sometimes it just doesn’t happen (or if it happens, it’s a flesh-rending pain that’s far from a joy, and even further from a feeling of success). “Writing going well” isn’t something that can really be controlled, I find.

Finishing a story or poem (first draft, anyway) is closer to something that’s achievable without too much internal variability, but even that moment is fleeting, and strongly tied to “this growing pile of stories that may never be published”. So I find I can’t just feed that fire; and the joy is also too strongly tied to my impression of the story, good, bad, or indifferent. So I need a measure of success that’s a step removed from that, still.

The main thing I find that keeps me going (outside of “hope”, “need”, or the occasional publication) is deadlines—and here I think it’s perfectly safe to rely on external deadlines, at least as a short story writer. I have ten thousand (okay, maybe 7) to-do lists, where when one grows too absurd for me to deal with, I find a new service and move on. But on my latest, I’ve been tracking submission deadlines. A success is submitting something; a failure is failing to submit something. As simple as that.

A small selection:

Jun 01—“great little big poems” at Every Day Poets
Aug 30—Cthulhurotica 2
Aug 31—Unidentified Funny Objects


Jun 30—F&SF “Skilled Labor” antho
Jun 30—Extreme Planets antho
Jul 20—Geek Love

Mind you, my successes have by and large been rejections. I wound up submitting eleven different pieces to UFO; one at the very last minute, struggling to find something funny. I think the piece is hilarious, of course, but it was turned around the next day, with apologies. Still, I have to count that a success, and hope it will find some other home. I expect a rejection from Cthulhurotica 2. And “great little big poems” was six rejections from Every Day Poets (where my hit rate is usually better than that, but success was submitting; bonus was writing a few new pieces that I’m shopping around).

I don’t always wind up submitting “my best possible work” for a deadline; I submit what I’ve managed to put together, or what I have lying around, as edited as I’ve been able to get it. That may account for a good chunk of the rejections, but even those, where I don’t have the satisfaction of knowing I created something wondrous, I call a success. I can’t control how well I’ll write a piece, how brilliant an idea or how entertaining the characters I may manage to embed in them; what I can control is the submission. And maybe someone will see something better in what I’ve written than I do. The deadline means it gets submitted, and it has a chance—more of a chance than sitting on my hard drive, anyway.

The failures, well—those are there to goad me on; in one case, I’m still working on a piece for an antho that closed almost two years ago. It will have to be submitted somewhere else, obviously, but that just goes to show that even failure-to-submit doesn’t mean it has to be a complete failure. Write on!

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  1. Hilaire Smith
    25/09/2012 at 11:28 am Permalink

    “Like”I tried giving you stars…lots, but instead it says negative stars. The star button doesn’t like me. 🙁
    I second the statement that we each have to define our own idea of success. I think finding that creative motivation is a never-ending, ongoing process, not unlike writing itself. 🙂

  2. Kaolin Fire
    26/09/2012 at 10:48 am Permalink

    Evil, evil stars. Thanks =)