Defining Success For Writers

By Mark Alpert

Blogs like The Kill Zone often emphasize the obstacles that writers face. We want to offer helpful advice to fiction writers who may be struggling to start or finish a manuscript or trying to navigate the publishing process, so it makes sense to focus on the hurdles that all aspiring novelists have to confront. But I think it’s also helpful to look at the rewards that lie at the end of the race.

I’m not talking about the rewards of money or fame. For the most part, those are unrealistic expectations. The majority of published novelists earn less than the minimum wage for their fiction, once you factor in all the time they put into it. No, I’m talking about a more subtle and satisfying kind of compensation: the joy of seeing your words have a positive impact on your audience, even if you have only a handful of readers.

I got a chance to experience this joy last weekend when I went to Patchogue, N.Y., to attend an event called Authors Unlimited. It’s organized by Derek Ivie, the youth services coordinator for Suffolk County’s Cooperative Library System, and he leads a great team of librarians from all over Long Island. At this year’s event, they invited eight authors of Young Adult and middle-grade books, and I was proud to be among them (see photo above).

Hundreds of kids gathered in an auditorium on the campus of St. Joseph’s College, and a dozen student volunteers holding pom-poms lined up in front of the stage. Derek introduced the authors in grand fashion: as he announced each name, the honoree dashed down the aisle to the front of the auditorium, like a football player rushing onto the field. At the same time, the student volunteers waved their pom-poms like cheerleaders, and the loudspeakers blared a snatch of music that was relevant to that particular author’s books. (I think they played something spacey or otherworldly when I ran to the stage, but I was so full of adrenalin at the time that I didn’t recognize it.)

All this hoopla might seem a little ridiculous, but I think it sent a powerful message to the kids: that books should be important to their lives, and that the creators of those books deserve the same kind of admiration that most people give only to sports heroes. And I could tell that the students were receiving this message loud and clear. They crowded into the question-and-answer sessions at the Authors Unlimited event and purchased an extraordinary number of books from their limited amount of spending money.

The impact of this message was probably strongest on the student volunteers. They were selected in a rigorous process that even required a letter of recommendation, and as a result they took their responsibilities very seriously. The volunteer assigned to help me — he directed me to the rooms where the question-and-answer sessions were held — was somewhat awed by his selection; he said something like, “I can’t believe that both my sister and me were picked.” This kind of realization can have an enormous impact on a kid; in fact, seeing yourself in a new, positive light can change the course of your life.

This goal, to get kids to look at themselves in a new way, is one of the main reasons why we Young Adult authors write for teenagers. When I was a teen, I loved reading science fiction and nonfiction because the books made me feel smart. When I finished a book by Isaac Asimov, I would say to myself, “Wow, I understood that book and really enjoyed it, so that must mean I’m a genius like Asimov!” I’m not a genius, unfortunately, but at least I thought I was for a while, and that alone had a positive effect on my life. And I can tell that my YA novels are having a similar effect on at least a few of my teenage readers. I can see it in their proud, self-confident eyes.

That’s the kind of reward I’m talking about.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website:

3 thoughts on “Defining Success For Writers

  1. As I type this, I’m at a casual retreat of authors and at our jam session last night (oh, man, did I just date myself??), we were talking about this very thing. There is no judgment on how you define success, but the hard truth is, this profession can eviscerate your soul with twisted claws if you don’t learn how to claim the joy in the little things (and, of course, big things) along the way. I loved reading this, knowing that each generation finds its way to reading and writing, and that there are those who remember to reach around and help others up. I have been unbelievably blessed to have had amazing mentors and friends, and I hope that I have been and will be even a small measure of help to someone to pay it forward. Thanks, Mark!

  2. I’ve been reading this blog for about a year. This is my first post to it. I’ve benefitted greatly from the broad perspectives expressed here. I’m publishing my debut novel independently via Amazon on May 23. It is a YA story of redemption. I wrote it mainly for the reasons expressed by Mark Alpert, and I have no expectation of success beyond helping a few readers to navigate through their difficult teen years. It’s reassuring to see this blog’s established authors expressing similar aspirations. Thanks, TKZ folks.

  3. Pingback: Writing Links 5/1/17 – Where Genres Collide

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