It’s hardly an obscure word. I’m sure everyone knows what it means, but just in case, here is the definition from The New Oxford American Dictionary (2001):


adj. accomplishing an aim or purpose: a successful attack on the town.

having achieved popularity, profit, or distinction: a successful actor.

“Successful” is not the only word in the English language with two similar but distinct definitions, but this is why I brought it up.

Whether you’re an aspiring novelist, screenwriter, video game writer, or whatever, you’ve probably thought about what it must be like to be “successful.” And in those visions (I won’t call them “fantasies” because it’s neither frivolous nor inappropriate to visualize success) you’re likely focusing on the second definition. Everyone, including me, would love to be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Wouldn’t it be great to open up a check for a million dollars, and even better to bring it to the bank, laughing all the way? Wouldn’t it be great if a major studio built a theme park based on your fantasy series, or Hollywood paid millions of dollars for the movie rights to books you haven’t actually written yet? Those things happened to Rowling and King respectively, and I’m not going to front like it’s better to be some kind of starving artist, huddled against the cold with only the ruffled pages of your fading manuscript to shield you from the stinging chill of failure. It’s perfectly fine to expect to get paid for your talents, and paid well if your talents achieve broad appeal.

But you know what I’m going to say next. You know I’m going to tell you that success stories like Rowling’s and King’s are rare birds. Even the so-called “midlist” author—good, even great storytellers who never hit best seller status but were able to make a decent living writing a book a year—is an endangered species in the recession-era publishing business’s feast-or-famine climate. I’m going to tell you to write for any reason except money, and I’m going to tell you that because I really believe it, and because I’m utterly convinced that if you write for the right reasons, your work will be better, and money will follow.

On the other hand, why come to Fantasy Author’s Handbook if all I’m going to do is state the obvious, repeat the platitudes, and not at least try to help you break through into that most coveted of places, that inner sanctum inhabited by the franchise author, where both artistic fulfillment and royalty checks flow like cool mountain streams.

Set aside for a second the fact that if I knew exactly how to do that, I’d have done it myself, and I’d be writing this from the deck of my yacht surrounded by the azure seas of the Greek Isles, and not at a desk in the upstairs hallway of my 1700-square-foot house in suburban Seattle.

Actually, though, my house is pretty nice. You know where I got the down payment? R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen, Book V, Annihilation.


Good for a cozy little three bedroom place in a nice neighborhood…


That’s pretty good, actually. Thank you, everyone who bought that book, by the way.

In regards to the crass subject of coin, financial “success” can have as many specific definitions as there are authors. In the dictionary’s example, “a successful actor,” notice how that was left undefined? Who is a successful actor? Will Smith? How much money has he made in his career? I don’t know, but I know it’s lots. If you’re grading entirely on net worth he’s more successful than, say, Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush. But Rush won an Oscar and Will Smith hasn’t. If you define an actor’s success by the number and quality of awards then Geoffrey Rush is more successful than Will Smith, and Mike Resnick is more successful than J.K. Rowling…

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  2. Pingback: YOUR PILE OF FAILURES | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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