Talent ≠ Success

tal-ent (/’talǝnt/)
natural aptitude or skill.

Oxford English Dictionary

When I was very young, I was always told by my parents that I was exceptional, talented, and full of potential. There was no doubt that I would go on to be a great musician, or film composer, or physicist, or … something. I would defy the expectations of everyone around me, and I’m fairly certain people saw me as a somewhat precocious, and probably very pretentious, little kid.

You see, I grew up as as child in rural, backwater Switzerland, where the talent pool was small, and I was a big fish in a tiny little pond. My first exposure to the limits of my talent came when we moved to England, and I was suddenly in classes with people who were genuinely as talented, and in some cases far more talented, than I could ever hope to be. Pianists who could play Bach’s C#-minor fugue, and cellists who could play Elgar; English students who could write better than me, and math students who understood differentials better than me.

This was a blow to my young ego, which had unto that point been stroked egregiously by everyone around me. Yet I weathered it, and came to the realization that, in most endeavors, there would always be someone in the world who could do it better. That’s the nature of life.

As a side note, this became a factor in my worsening teenage depression, as I assumed that I would never amount to anything if I couldn’t be the best at anything.

And yet, I’ve continued on through decades assuming that my lack of success (and let’s be clear, in this context success means money) was due to a lack of talent – that I really am not very good at very much. I have a low-skill job at mediocre pay, I frequently live paycheck-to-paycheck, and the art I create is not spread wide across the literary or musical worlds.

The funny thing is that, to myself, I really enjoy what I create. I listen to my own songs on repeat; I re-read my own books frequently. My background wallpaper is a photo I took – one of my favorites. In my own mind – from a failed childhood or some other delusion – I am still talented.

And perhaps this isn’t necessarily wrong, per se; if talent is a natural aptitude or skill – key word being ‘natural’ – then I am at least somewhat talented. Whilst I’ve enjoyed a musical upbringing and education, I’ve never been taught anything more than high school English, and yet have written four full-length novels. In my own subjective opinion, at least some of my songs are as good as number one chart hits – within genres, at least.

Maybe it’s okay to be talented; maybe it’s okay to think I’m talented. What I might consider a lack of success doesn’t have to mean a lack of talent.

You see, it’s taken me a long time to realize that talent and success don’t go hand-in-hand. I might be talented; I might write good songs and passable novels. But talent doesn’t guarantee success (and frequently, success doesn’t guarantee talent). In fact, I would go as far as to argue they aren’t even two sides of the same coin, but literally separate coins entirely.

I wrote three fantasy novels. They’ve amassed – in the five years since publication – fewer than 30 reviews and ratings. In the grand scheme of things, no one’s read them, and I certainly haven’t recouped my editing costs through sales. The same is true for my young adult novel, although it’s spread has been somewhat wider than my fantasy.

What I’ve learned is that writing a book is hard, tedious, laborious and and thankless work. It’s the fruit of hundreds of hours of labor, sweat, tears, depressions and other terrible emotional free-falls, and to create a worthy book – one that stands toe to toe with ‘real’ (read: established) authors – is an incredibly difficult and daunting task.

But selling a book is even harder.

Selling a book – that is to say, marketing a book – is a whole different world. A completely different set of skills are required, a different world view and knowledge, different insights and connections, and is often subject to the mercy of individuals who may simply not like your work. Getting significant sales from a book you wrote is a different beast altogether, and one that I most certainly don’t have a talent for.

Yet what I’ve discovered is … that’s okay. Just like I learned as a child that I’m not ever going to be the best at anything, and to focus on the things I am somewhat good at, I’ve learned that marketing and selling is something I’m just not very good at. And that’s okay.

Success – and its definition – is highly subjective. To succeed means to achieve a goal, and in the sense that, when I started writing I had a goal to write a novel, I have succeeded. I’ve succeeded, in fact, four times over. And not only did I write four novels, I wrote four damn good novels – maybe no Harper Lee or Tolkien, but perhaps at least as engaging and well-written as Stephen King (or maybe Jay Asher). I like my books.

Whether they ever lead to a career or not isn’t necessarily what I care about; I didn’t set out to write a best-seller. If I had, I would have written a by-the-numbers thriller or romance novel, and sold it to the first publisher wanting to tack it on to the countless thousands of other books out there exactly like it. No; I’m much happier having written a complex, character-driven young adult novel, or dark, unpredictable fantasy stories, knowing that I’m personally pleased with how they turned out.

If, in some years, someone discovers these books and makes me an offer I can’t refuse, well then that’l be the icing on the cake. Until then, I’ll keep writing, because the satisfaction of finishing a story is in itself a success. The fact that there are people in the world who I know have been touched by my work is all the nicer.

Talent doesn’t equal success, but then again, success doesn’t require talent.

Best to put talent to good use.

What It Means to Self-Publish

Yesterday marked the launch of the third book of The Redemption of Erâth, entitled Ancients & Death. And whilst I’m excited as can be about it, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The Redemption of Erâth is an ongoing fantasy series chronicling the journey of Brandyé and his friend Elven through the fantastic and dark world of Erâth, in an effort to save their world from the overriding forces of Darkness. Volumes 1 & 2 are on sale for $0.99, and the third, Ancients & Death, is now available through Kindle and Apple Books.

Being a self-published author is a double-edged sword, because whilst it gives me the flexibility to create exactly what I want in a timeframe that suits me (although I must admit, some kind of deadline might’ve helped along the way), it also means the onus is entirely on me to succeed. And that success is difficult. Very, very difficult.

The thing is, pretty much anyone can self-publish these days. The quality of self-published novels can be dubious, from poor editing to outright terrible writing, and it’s into this crashing sea of mediocrity that most self-published books are launched. And even if the quality of the book is above-average (as most authors think their writing is), you’re then faced with the challenge of convincing readers of that fact.

And good luck with that, because gaining readership as a self-published author comes with its own unique challenges. Very few people are willing to part with their hard-earned cash on an author they’ve never heard of, and even less so when they learn that the author published themselves. There’s a kind of reassurance that comes with knowing a publishing house backed an author – even though there is a lot of traditionally-published trash out there, too.

I have enough insight into my novels to know that they are good, if not necessarily great; I’ve had enough feedback from publishers, professional editors and readers to know this. I’m not worried about the quality of my writing. But the goal of any author is to be read, and this is where the great difficulty lies. I’m not in it to make money – not outright. There’s no way I could sell enough copies to equal anything resembling a salary for the past three years. But if I can just get people to read it, I’ll be happy.

So most of my readership comes from free copies that I’ve given away, either through personal contact with readers or through giveaway websites such as Prolific Works or Voracious Readers Only. And I don’t mind – it gets the books into people’s hands.

But for every hundred copies given away, perhaps ten people will actually end up reading it. And for every ten reads, perhaps one person will review it. And of that 1% return-on-investment, it’s a toss-up whether they’ll even like it or not. And it becomes discouraging, because of course I want people to read it, but I also want them to like it. Really, I want them to let me know that they liked it. It does wonders for the ego.

So what does it mean, truly, to self-publish? It means endless effort and work, constant anxiety, hit-or-miss advertising, sales in the single-digits, and readers who don’t read or review. It means a lifetime of crippling self-doubt, until every once in a while someone posts somewhere in the annals of the world wide web, and just maybe, you come across it.

And every single review – each one out of a hundred – becomes so meaningful that it gets you back to the drawing board, the keyboard or the pen and paper, and you start it all over again.

Because sometimes you just have to write.

Cognitive Dissonance & Fighting the Mind

One of the difficulties for me as an author is the deep-seated belief that I cannot be successful. As odd as it sounds, I find myself unable to comprehend the success of authors such as J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. There’s a disconnect in my mind between sitting down day after day, week after week, typing word after word, and the multi-million dollar revenue of someone whose words are devoured lovingly by millions of people across the world. (Not that money necessarily equals success, but you get the point.)

Cognitive dissonance is a strange phenomenon, and one I’m all-too familiar with. In essence, the concept is that an individual person can hold two contradictory beliefs, and can’t come to terms with the conflict. An example would be that one believes sea levels are rising, but also believes climate change is a hoax.

A more practical example in my life is my medication. Sometimes I run low, and I don’t have time to get it refilled. In my mind I know it’s bad to run out of medication, so I stop taking it … so I don’t run out.

People have a lot of cognitive dissonances in their lives, and often are unaware of them until forced into a position where they have to consider both sides of the argument. With writing, for me, I used to simply not believe that people like King and Rowling were real. Despite reading (and enjoying) their words, I simply couldn’t attach the words to an individual, to a person like me or you.

When I started writing myself – seriously writing, writing tens of thousands of words and ordering them into something called a novel – it helped my cognitive dissonance a little. When I wrote the final words to The Redemption of Erâth: Consolation (“And so it was that, unknown to him, Darkness followed behind and laughed.”), I realized that it was actually possible for a single person to write over 100,000 sequential words. And when I published it – not the disastrous 2014 publication through iUniverse, but rather when I republished it myself in early 2016 – and people started to read it, it connected the dots just a little more.

But I still find myself in a place of dissonance nonetheless, be it less than before. I liken my fantasy work to Tolkien, in terms of scope and style, and it is a pipe dream for me that my books might one day be adapted for the big screen. I would absolutely love to see my fierundé rendered in high-quality CGI, blood sunsets descending behind dark storm clouds, the sweeping devastation of a world on fire on a fifty-foot screen. I wonder if it will happen in my lifetime, or if, like Tolkien, the fame of my works might come after my death.

Or perhaps what I write is doomed to obscurity for all eternity, like so many others. Perhaps I will never get more than a handful of reviews, and my readers will dwindle as interest slowly wanes.

I believe that I can write just as much as just as well (at my best, perhaps) as the literary giants of the world. I also believe that I will never be recognized for my writing. I believe such a thing is, quite literary, impossible. That it has in fact never happened (to anyone), and therefore cannot happen to me. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and Tolkien, for all I know, don’t actually exist.

This dissonance is something I have to fight daily, in my writing, in my mental health, and in my everyday life. It’s a strange phenomenon, and it’s frustrating as hell.

What dissonances do you have? What exists, that you can’t quite believe? Let me know below!