How Do You Define Success As A Writer?

As writers, we are often posed with questions about the legitimacy of our self-assigned titles such as, “When is it okay to call yourself a writer?” I personally think this line of questioning is nonsense. If you want to call yourself a writer, call yourself a writer. You put words on paper, you’re writing. If anything, I think the more pertinent question is, “How do you define success in your writing career?”
There are varying definitions of what people would call a successful writing career. I know there are those who say getting an agent is the mark of a successful writer. But then who is more successful? The agented writer who sells 30 copies of his book or the unagented self-published scribe who has a rabid following of 30,000 fans? And I’m not trying to bring the self-publishing vs legacy publishing debate into this post. I think that is a topic for another day (one that seems to change every day as both sides evolve). I know there are also those in literary fiction circles who will argue that readership numbers are irrelevant in accessing the success of a writer, reasoning that only schlock gets read by the masses while the true classics go unread, but again, a conversation for another day.
I’m not setting out to challenge any one individual’s personal definition of success. I believe that if you set goals for yourself and accomplish them, then you are a success in your own right. It doesn’t matter how trivial your accomplishments may be, if you met your expectations and extracted a fulfilling and meaningful experience in the process, who is to tell you that you’re not a success?
My personal definition of success would be to sustain myself financially as a full-time writer. It wouldn’t matter to me if it were under a pen name with no personal accolades or notable recognition. However, if I fail to reach the level of success I’ve set for myself, I don’t believe that it will diminish the fact that I loved writing every word, however terrible or ill received they may have been. I would happily write a dozen novels, even if I knew they would end up in bargain bins and only skimmed over by people on my Christmas card.
I hate to attach financial terms to my definition of success. I’m not driven by money. I’m not after wild success, solid gold yachts or in-house chocolate fountains. Rather, financial stability is necessary in this case because it would allow me the freedom to write full-time, go to matinees whenever I want, spend time with those I care about and wear sweatpants at least five days out of the week with minimal judgements issued against me. And that’s what I’m really after.
So, what is your personal definition of success as a writer? Have you met the goals that you’ve set for yourself? If so, has it been everything you hoped for? Do you introduce yourself as an aspiring writer instead of a writer if your work is unpublished? Do you think you would you stop writing today if you knew that you would never reach any sort of financial or critical success? What really keeps you writing?

"The Exiles of the New World" Cover

Today, I received a rough draft cover for The Exiles of the New World from talented artist Maciej Rebisz. I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s come out so far. I told myself I was going to be picky with my book cover, but so far this sketch has really captured all the things I wanted on the front and it really speaks to the passages I provided for inspiration. Needless to say, I can’t wait to see the finished product.
I’m also having Sam Alcarez, another talented artist and one of my very good friends, do an alternate cover/promotional art for the novel’s other intercutting storyline set in space and I know that will turn out just as well. But for now, here’s a preview of what the cover might look like. Let me know what you think!

Books Whose Film Adaptations Were Better Than The Source Material

The phrase, “The book is better than the movie,” is so commonplace, that the mere mention of these words will often draw moans from the average non-reader or easily annoyed theatergoer in nothing flat. It’s almost a cliche at this point. Chances are that books, video games, comic books or other adapted source material will always be held in higher regard than their movie counterpart for whatever reason.

Maybe it’s unfair to compare books and movies though. Despite both being artistic mediums, they differ greatly in their presentation of material to the intended audience. Books draw in their reader with a power that movies do not possess, and that’s the power of the reader’s imagination. Outside of the prose and description they’re provided with, the reader controls everything else that filters through their mind. Imagery, music, colors, landscapes, characters, it’s all up to the interpretation of the reader. So, it’s unavoidable that readers are more than likely going to be disappointed when they see their favorite books turned into movies, because the films will hardly ever match the expectations or preconceived images they entered the theater with.

But there are instances where film adaptations eclipse their source material by producing a superior product that actually improves upon the original. I don’t mean to imply that books in such cases are poorly written. In fact, I love some of these books. They’re well crafted, have won awards and captivated millions. But for whatever reason, the cinematic versions illicit certain emotions that were never extracted when reading the texts and in the process create a more fulfilling experience.

Here are some examples:
Jaws (Peter Benchley)Peter Benchley’s Jaws was a successful and well received book. It is however, not as well received as Steven Speilberg’s movie of the same name, a movie that is credited with creating the modern blockbuster. Jaws is a perfect movie in my opinion. The cast, the score, the mood, the cinematography, it is all executed exceptionally well. Benchley’s Jaws, while well written and certainly suspenseful, has a certain bleakness in its characters that the movie does not possesses. The characters of Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) hate each other in the book. Brody’s wife cheats on him with Hooper and there’s a lot of added drama that distracts from the whole shark smorgasbord that happens to be going on in the background. As a result, the characters are highly unlikable, which is a sharp contrast to the movie version, where even Quint, the crazed Ahab archetype, is likable in his roguish manner (mostly because Robert Shaw was an amazing actor). So, when it comes down to it, I’ll take John Williams iconic score and a grey animatronic shark over curling up with Benchley’s paperback.

City of God (Paulo Lins) – Paulo Lins’ City of God is a dense, complex novel that introduces many characters and perspectives at an almost breakneck speed. The movie wisely condenses these narratives down and while still presenting a glut of characters and perspectives itself, it manages to make everything easily digestible to the viewer. The book is very well written and profound at times, but has enough viewpoints to rival an E.L. Doctorow novel. And I’m not a huge fan of books that require scribbling flow charts on napkins to keep up with the characters. I do like this book a lot though. The movie, however, I like a lot more as it happens to be one of my favorites of all time. I struggle to remember too many other movies that were the emotional gut punch this movie was. Brilliant stuff.

Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien) – Don’t get me wrong, I love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I do. But Tolkien’s somewhat bland prose (at least compared to modern fantasy writers like George R. R. Martin) is trumped by the world that Peter Jackson created for his epic three part adaptation. Jackson did many wise things with his movies. He chose a cast of mostly unknowns and low profile actors. He slightly modified the timelines of events for the three books, placing some things that happened in Two Towers in Return of the King and vice versa. The result was a more fluid narrative that improved upon the sluggish pace of Tolkien’s final book.

Honorable Mentions

I feel like there are also a number of movies which are solid adaptations that live up to their source material, but do not really surpass them. Shutter Island is one example. It’s a book that is skillfully written and consequently, skillfully directed. Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s thriller is faithful enough to not displease fans and tense enough to stimulate moviegoers. I also think some of the Harry Potter movies draw even with their source material (I know there are plenty of people who would argue with me on this, but I believe The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire were pretty close to matching Rowling’s novels).

I’d be interested to see if the ratio of favoring the book over the movie changes when someone sees the movie first and then reads the book. Have you ever found yourself doing it in this order? Were you disappointed when you read the book? Do you have any movies that you think are better than their book counterparts? If so, what are they?

Does The Internet Make Book Tours Irrelevant?

Book tours used to be mandatory for authors. If you wrote a book, you had to get out there to promote it, shake hands, kiss babies, pose for black and white photos of you staring off into the distance and maybe sign a couple of copies. But now with the power of the internet and sustained web presences, book tours have waned in importance. In fact, some authors almost refuse to do them anymore. Self published guru JA Konrath wrote a great post about why he really doesn’t do too many appearances anymore. Others cite financial costs and the convenience of promoting your novel from the comfort of your home/transcendentalist shack as reasons for saying no.

I would personally be afraid to go on a book tour. I think it’s because of a persisting fear of sitting in an empty room with no one to sign books for. That just scares me to death and I know it’s not an irrational fear. Even a superstar author like Neil Gaiman had an incident where he went to a signing and no one showed (apparently it was in France and the bookseller told no one about Neil’s appearance and had only set it up as a means to meet Tori Amos through Neil, but still…).

The expenses associated with a tour would also cause me to balk at going through with it. It can be very expensive depending on where you go, how you get there and how big your entourage (whichever of your friends/significant others you can convince to come along and pose as your publicist/bodyguard/adoring fan depending on what the situation calls for) is.

Then again, I think there is undeniable power in meeting someone in person, shaking their hand and exchanging a few words with them. Sure, receiving an email response from a prominent author is nice, but it can’t compare to good ol’ human interaction. And the seed placed in meeting just one person can have ramifications you may never fully understand. Maybe that one person recommends your book to an entire book club. Maybe they are Oprah’s doorman, who happens to be her go-to guy for book recommendations. You will never be able to tell unless everyone who buys your book fills out a survey of how they stumbled upon your work.

What about you? Do you believe you can promote your book effectively in your pajamas while watching reruns of Modern Family? What is your most effective internet/social media promotional tool? Have you ever been on a book tour? How was it? Did you feel like it paid off? Have you been tricked into any book appearance in France by manipulative booksellers, only to find out they really just wanted to meet Tori Amos?