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The "Sure-Fire" Way to a Successful Writing Career: Expect the Unexpected

 Transform your writing life one day at a time with free strategies from Writing a Sacred Path.
Here's an oldie from 2011. 
Several years ago, an ambitious student asked if I would mind discussing my career path with her. How had I gotten ahead as a writer? What decisions had I made? How had I planned my writing career? If she hadn’t been looking at me with such earnestness, I might have laughed. "Plan?” I said. “What plan?”
In the list of unpredictable professions, writing falls just below acting, talk-show hosting, and mime. Of course, few career paths are the nice, straight lines we imagine when we’re training for them. But writing is downright capricious.Over the years, I’d done secretarial work, traveled the world, trained as an anthropological linguist, written a lot of unpublished fiction, taught college, made a little money penning magazine articles, and spent ten years living in the back bedroom of my parents’ house while I struggled to “make it.” And, while my route may have been especially tortuous, most of the writers I know have traveled paths full of backtracks, U-turns, and detours.
No one knows what makes a writer successful. One finds fame as a teenager then never publishes again. Another spends a lifetime working, only to achieve success in old age—or death. Many writers who died failures are now considered luminaries—F. Scott Fitzgerald and Herman Melville to name two. And some who are successful during their lifetimes fade into obscurity a generation or two later. (Ever hear of Selma Lagerlof? Didn’t think so).

When success does come, it often arrives in a way you don’t expect. The late Omar S. Castaneda struggled for years to get published until, on a whim, he sent a hastily written outline for a young adult novel to an editor at E. P. Dutton. He was an unknown writer with a handful of publications who had never written a word of YA fiction before. But three weeks later, he was signing a book contract, and Under the Volcanoes set his career in motion.

The point I’m making isn’t that you shouldn’t plan, or that hard work won’t pay off. It’s that you never know how or when success will come. One of my coaching clients recently asked me a question I’ve heard often, “How do I know all my work on this novel is going to pay off?” The only honest answer is: “You don’t.”

So what do you do in the face of such uncertainty? You have two choices.

On the one hand, you can find the unpredictability of the writing life maddeningly unfair and excruciating. You can rail against writers who find easy success and curse the editors who refuse to see the value of your work. You can get depressed and frustrated and angry. You can even give up.

Or, you can decide that the whole thing is liberating. You can realize that there are only three things you can do to advance yourself as a writer—1) write, 2) submit, 3) repeat—and the rest is up to the Universe. If you’re doing those three things with conviction, you can pretty much relax. Rage and despair aren’t going to help move things along, so why not just sit back and enjoy the process?

Of course, the desire for renown is real—and rejection hurts. But one of the best things you can do for your writing life is accept the fact that success happens without regard to your own personal agenda. Try reminding yourself of that when the frustration demon bites. Work with joy and patience—and realize that your career will probably happen when you aren’t looking.