Rochester Teen Book Fest 2017 & What Makes a Successful Writer

Writers are, by nature, curious people. One of the biggest areas of curiosity for us is what is the difference between a successful writer and one that is not. Is it talent? Is it persistence? Is it connections and slippery palms? What better way to answer this question than by meeting super successful writers in real life and analyzing their success.

Last week, I went to the Rochester Teen Book Festival, and here’s what I learned.

Successful writers are:

(1) Not the ones with the most degrees. They are the ones who never stop writing. A.G. Howard, author of Splintered, talked about how she only did one semester of college before realizing it wasn’t for her. Instead, she did her own thing. And she wrote. Like, a ton. She wrote her first book 12 times in two years. She wrote another 6 books after that before she finally got one published. If you don’t have that kind of stamina, and that kind of belief in yourself, you need to find it.

(2) The ones who get carried away by what is possible, not inhibited by what is not. Sarah J. Maas spoke about a book that she had meant to write as a novella–you know, a little 30k word piece, about a side character who gets to be the star of his own story. The result? She wrote a 100k+ novel that may be spinning into its own series. If she had been the “checkbox” type writer, that paint-by-number type writer who only wants to do what will make them $$, she never would have written that book. But she let herself be carried away by something different. As a result, she got to enjoy the act of writing and create something truly unique.

(3) The ones who know how to connect with their readers. Whether it was Sara Shepard, author of Pretty Little Liars, giving props to the fashion sense of the girls on her show, or Renee Ahdieh swooning over girls who kill, all these successful authors knew why readers came to their books, and they harnessed those qualities when speaking. It was a sight to see–watching all of these young girls go all fan girl on these authors because they were exactly the people who, from reading their books, the readers expected them to be. The cynical may call it successful branding. I call it knowing how to connect. Because as an author, you represent something more to your readers than just your book. You are their friend too.

“The higher a monkey climbs, the more exposed is his backside.” ―Jamaican Proverb

I know that Writing is Hard, but what I sometimes forget is that it is humiliating too. This is especially true the more you write and the better you get at it because now people are actually reading your work! They are giving you feedback! And they have opinions. So many opinions. And you have to fight against those opinions or accept them or shut them out. And it is hard work.

But, as with anything, the thing that keeps me sane is to remember that everyone feels exposed like this, even the best writers I know. Here is a gem from an interview with Sabaa Tahir:

Washington Post: Where did you get the confidence to go forward with your idea?

Sabaa Tahir: I didn’t have a lot of confidence. It was almost like it was stubbornness more than anything else. If you are willing to sit down and spend time on a story and make it work, no matter how unconfident you are on the surface, deep down somewhere you think this story is worth telling [so it’s] worth the effort, the blood, the sweat, the tears, the embarrassment, the humiliation.

And even if its total schadenfreude, I got a secret thrill out of reading that. By writing and by exposing my truth, I too am engaged in this act of bravery, armored with the feeling that even if my words fail me, even if they expose me, even if they humiliate me, the point of what I’m trying to say is so important that it will protect me. Though with every word + word, with every request for feedback, I reveal more for public scrutiny, I am also closer to expressing my truth.

That makes it worth it.

That’s what makes us writers.