Business Musings: How Writers Fail Part 13: Success Kills Them

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When I was at Clarion years ago, one of my classmates (and now lifelong friend) had a verbal altercation with a waitress. Something was not cooked to his liking, and he had to send the food back. The second attempt didn’t work well either, and he decided to order something else. He took his time. The waitress, annoyed at a long day already, snapped, “What do you want?”

He looked up at her and said calmly, “I want to be rich and never have to work again.”

We laughed, she got angrier, and that sentence became one of our Clarion catchphrases. (We had a lot of Clarion catchphrases. Most of them came from him.)

The sentence is one I think of often, especially when someone asks me what I want in a tone that means they’re not going to give it to me if they can at all help it. The assumption in that sentence is pretty astonishing. I want to be rich and never have to work again.

Rich people do work. Many of them work at managing their money or their investments, but just as many of them work at the job that made them rich, mostly because they love what they do.

I didn’t know that at the time, though, and neither did my classmates. We believed that rich people were idle people who had it made.

That’s a terrible assumption, because we all have a different definition of rich. Some writers will only achieve “rich” when they make several million dollars. Others will achieve “rich” when they make half a million. Still others will achieve “rich” when they make three times their salary…in one lump sum.

It’s the windfall that hurts a lot of writers. That’s winning the lottery to many of them, and as the statistics show, 70% of big lottery winners go broke within three to five years. Among the myriad reasons for that are bad financial decision-making, including failing to calculate how their increased spending will deplete their windfall.

Writers will often think that the windfalls will continue. Not even the major bestsellers have a steady income. Their income streams vary year to year, making the kind of financial planning that people with day jobs do impossible. There’s a different kind of financial planning—one that Dean and I do, one that many business owners do—that looks at the possible earnings from several angles, such as what happens if the money comes in later than expected or not at all. Or, sometimes worse (for tax reasons) what happens if it’s more than expected.

Financial success often stops writers cold, particularly those who write hoping for money. They don’t see a need to continue writing because they have “enough money.” That there is no such thing as enough money (all levels of money can be squandered) doesn’t factor in for them.

And if they’re young and don’t know how to invest, that million dollars they received won’t last ten years ($100,000 per year plus new bigger bills).

I know a lot of writers who won the writer equivalent of the lottery: they got several hundred thousand or maybe a million from a movie or TV deal, but didn’t ask for proper credit. If the writer is good at managing money, as one of my friends was, they buy their home outright and pay cash for a decent car or two so they have transportation. They put a lot of money in savings or safe investments, and keep writing.

But even then, at the most conservative, those writer-lottery payments fizzle out. Do the math. Half a million dollars lasts ten years if the writer spends $50,000 a year, five years if they spend $100,000. Money is finite and writers often forget that.

I’ve talked about this kind of success hurting writers in the past. But that’s not the way that success kills writers and a writer’s career. When most of these writer-lottery winners spend all of their money, they find themselves on comfortable footing again. They know how to earn from a position of not having enough money. They put their head down and write, write, write.

Success, though, can destroy that desire to write.

The first way is really subtle, and it comes from my friend’s statement: I want to be rich and never have to work again. If the writer has that idea of wealth, then they’ll stop writing altogether as long as they’re rich (in their own mind, anyway).

It’s tough to ferret that one out, because the writer feels like they’ll get to the writing at some point. But they never do. They don’t see the reason.

Achieving a goal often kills the desire to create, especially if the creative person used that goal as a carrot to get ahead. It’s tough to figure that out, even tougher to solve it, because the writer is goal-oriented. Now the writer needs a bigger goal, and damn, that goal better be close to impossible so the writer might have a chance of continuing forward for a long time.

Another way that success destroys a writer is something Dean, former professional golfer that he is, calls “protecting the lead.” When an athlete in a solo sport (golf, tennis) has the lead, that athlete will often change their style of play mid-game to make sure they don’t lose. If they were playing wildly, they tame down. Or they get in their head.

The problem is, when the athlete protects their lead, they’re actually hurting it. Because they become conservative and toss away whatever it was that got them the lead in the first place. Athletes who protect their lead usually lose by the end of the game.

Same with writers. Their first standalone novel sells a bajillion copies, so they figure that book has “the formula” and they replicate that formula over and over again.

Readers are complicit in this one, because readers say they want the writer to write the same thing that they wrote before. But readers hate it when a writer does that too much, thinking the writer is a one-trick pony. Eventually the readers get bored and move on to other writers…who bring a sense of freshness and surprise to everything they write.

You see, readers do want the same thing from the writer. They want to be surprised. They want to be highly entertained. They want a reading experience that they’ve never had before.

What brings them back to the writer is trust. Trust that the writer will tell a good story. Trust that the writer knows how to entertain. Trust that the writer will surprise them, both from a plot perspective and from an emotional perspective.

Protecting the lead—for the writer—is the worst thing because that destroys the trust with the reader. A reader will give a writer two or three or four books before giving up on that writer. Readers understand that writers go through bad patches, just like other artists. Readers trust the good writer will eventually return.

But if the writer continues to write to formula, the reader eventually thinks the writer had only one good book in them. The readers fade away slowly, so the writer’s books sell fewer and fewer copies until the writer’s success is far in the past. The writer has no idea what happened, because the writer believed they were doing the right thing.

It’s tough to be creative and original when everyone is clamoring for the same-old same-old, but the writer needs to be creative and original all the time.

Another way that success kills a writer? Success ignites the critical voice. Suddenly, the writer is no longer alone in their office making shit up. That writer feels the crowd of millions of readers, all clamoring for this plot twist or that character to survive. This happens a lot to writers who work in series. Later books get harder and harder to finish because of the weight of all that has come before.

The worst thing writers can do is read reviews of any kind, from reader reviews to critical reviews. A friend of mine once had a huge Twitter following (probably still does), but had to go offline 95% of the time because his followers had daily opinions about what he should write next, how he should write that book, and what he did wrong with a previous book.

When I published the nonfiction book Women of Futures Past about the history of women in sf, I started to get a lot of hateful comments on Twitter—from young women sf writers, who claimed that I was lying about women being part of sf from the beginning. The personal attacks were hard and offensive and painful, coming as they did from people I thought would be allies. Instead, these women were angry at me because I had threatened what they believed (without evidence) to be true. It shook me.

I liked Twitter. I enjoyed the interactions, I used to get a lot of news links from it (because I follow major journalists and old journalist friends). I decided not to leave Twitter as my bestselling friend did. Instead, I blocked the haters, even though (at the time) conventional wisdom was that a follower is a follower is a follower, someone who had value to me for my career.

Um, nope. I’ll sacrifice a follower to save my own sanity, thank you.

Now, if you want to follow me somewhere other than Facebook, please go to Spoutible.  I’m there as Kristine Rusch.

At millions of copies sold, though, as it is for some writers, it’s hard to block all those negative voices. And the positive ones are even harder. After every Diving book of mine gets released, I get great letters from readers, many of whom are guessing where I’m going to go next. Some of those readers demand that I write about this character or that character in the upcoming book.

Fortunately for me, I don’t work that way. I’m a major contrarian so of someone demands that I do X, I’ll most likely do R. I’ve been that way since childhood. (Imagine living with stubborn little me.) I ceased being a people pleaser long ago.

But most writers are people pleasers and when they have millions of people (readers) to please, those writers freeze. They simply can’t muster up the will to write more, because they know, deep down, that some of their readers will be angry.

It’s easier not to write at all than it is to face the wrath of thousands of readers.

Writers have to figure out for themselves what success is, and what will happen to them when they achieve that success. Writers have to plan for everything from losing their goals to protecting their offices from the cacophony of a million reader voices.

That protection starts before the massive success—or should start before, if possible. Because then the writer will survive. Figuring out how to manage money that arrives in large, intermittent waves will help as well.

And so will a reality check.

Just because you’ve written something big and successful doesn’t make you the greatest writer in the world. It doesn’t make you any better than anyone else.

You’ve become successful. Congratulations. Now, figure out how to stay humble and hungry while dealing with your success. Because humble will stop you from becoming one of those rich assholes that no one can talk to. Hungry will help you continue with your first love, writing.

You can’t always know how you will respond to success before you have it. So the best thing you can do is study other successful people. See what they do right and what they do wrong.

And remember, that sometimes “right” and “wrong” are value judgements, not actual facts. You might not like how  Mega Bestseller writes or handles his fans, but you can learn something from him. Watch everything from money management (that you can see) to writing behavior to publishing behavior.

I personally prefer writers who keep writing in the face of incredible success. That’s harder than it looks. It’s easier to be a one-hit wonder and dine out on that one success than it is to keep writing and risking never achieving that “peak” again.

Remember one last thing: sometimes what you consider to be a success is not what the writer considers to be a success. Frederick Faust wanted to be a poet, and managed to publish a few terrible poems in his lifetime.

To support his poetry habit, he wrote what he considered to be pulp fiction…and published an estimated thirty million words under many pen names including Max Brand. Brand was a familiar name for decades for the Westerns he wrote, many of them becoming films, but he also created iconic characters like Dr. Kildare.

Only Faust didn’t really value his fiction writing. He wanted to be a poet. He called his Westerns “old melodramatic junk.”

Three hundred novels and thirty million words looks like success to me. It didn’t look like success to him.

So sometimes writers can be tripped up by achieving what they consider to be success even though others can’t see it.

Be careful. No one teaches you that success can be deadly, but it can.

Does that mean you shouldn’t try to be successful? Hell, no. Strive. Do the best you can. Watch what comes out of your mouth. It can be more revealing than you know.

Do you want to be rich and never have to work again? Do you have some assumptions like that? They’ll bite you down the road if you do.

Realize that you will have some difficulties when you achieve success. Prepare for them. Plan for them.

You’ll be better off if you do.


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“Business Musings: How Writers Fail Part 12: Success Kills Them,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / akarnaushenko

11 thoughts on “Business Musings: How Writers Fail Part 13: Success Kills Them

  1. It’s funny how 2 million doesn’t seem like that much when you shift your thinking to living off the dividends (or the 3%s as they say in historical novels).

    It seems being a writer is a form of resilience, especially in these days of world-wide markets for fiction. We live in a rare time of peace, where our wealth (at least in the US) has not been completely wiped out in anyone’s living memory. If something happened here, at least as a writer, that IP can be taken elsewhere. Storytelling will never not be needed. I’ve read Nabokov, even though he lost a great deal of tangible assets over and over again in his lifetime. What was most valuable in the end?

    This might seem off-topic, but I think it falls inline with a good mental shift about how to keep writing, and why, beyond the sheer joy of it, whether money is currently there or not.

  2. I finally noticed the book thumbnail at the top of the page for:

    – Lessons From The Writing of The Fey

    I stayed up late reading it last night and I wanted to let you know that you don’t have to worry about “spoilers”. It was all about the Journey not the story itself.

    I need to read the book many times. It answers so many questions.


    Now I know why I only have the first four Fey books. I was lucky to catch them as they appeared on the shelves when they came out. The rest never got to the indie store in Albuquerque. So many authors vanished after the 90s.

    This is like what happened to David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series when they came out in mass market. They butchered the last book, number 8. Now in starts and stops he is slowly getting the whole series out.

    Chung Kuo (novel series)

    He got the rights back for the originals. He rewrote and expanded what he already had since his editor limited what he was trying to write the first time. Then the series stopped again with 8 new books. He had to get those rights back, and is moving forward.

    Here is the original note on the WayBackMachine about the first reissue.

    “Fallow Years: a reflection on time and success”

    Now the latest in the story since having to start again.

    Of The Passing Hours – Endings And New Beginnings

    There are so many more stories out there like your’s and Wingrove’s that we may never know.

  3. I used to dream about the ‘never have to’ part when I was living paycheck to paycheck, and there never seemed to be enough. Then I lost the day job, nearly lost my health, and was hit with several life rolls that drained what money I had managed to save. Then I remembered some excellent advice I read here about No Debt. And I got serious about that.

    Budgeting helped get me out of debt. I have a better day job, and I’m still budgeting because now I have an older house needing repairs and upgrades. I will still budget, even after the mortgage is gone and I have the 12 months’ living expenses paid, because if I don’t give every dollar a job to do, they have a tendency to disappear into thin air. I think the best thing writers can do to prepare for success (and failure) is to read your business blog and Freelancer’s Guide, and then go over to Dean’s website and read his posts about finances and IP.

    I never planned to be a full time writer—my books were always going to be the ‘something else’ I did after I was forced to leave the day job at some point in the future. Every year I talk with my accountant about taxes, withholding, and maxing out pre tax contributions. And every year I do my budgets out for 12 months and look at where I need to put money to keep emergencies and annual expenses covered. I also read as much as possible about finances and writing, including the excellent talks at 20Books, so I learn a little bit more than I need to know, and prepare the ground for when it becomes reality.

    For someone who once lived paycheck to paycheck, it’s an awesome feeling to have a veterinary emergency and be able to cover everything (X-rays, bloodwork, minor surgery to place feeding tube) in cash right there. But it takes changing the mindset, and the spending behaviors, and being disciplined to get there. It’s not easy, but it is definitely worth it.

  4. “I want to be rich and never have to work again.”

    I think the important word is “have”. When you don’t *have* to work anymore, you can still do it because you like it. Rich people do work, but they usually don’t have a job that bores them to death or destroys their health. Precisely because they don’t *have* to.

    And I feel the difference is especially important to a writer or any artist. If you create something because you *have* to, because you desperately need the money, then critical voice is ready to bite you hard. Am I writing something commercial enough? Maybe I should kill my pet project and work on what’s trendy now, shouldn’t I? I have bills to pay!

    When you’re a rich artist (no matter how you got rich, it might have nothing to do with your art) and know the bills will get paid no matter what, you don’t *have* to worry about all of that. You do what you want to do.

    1. And there you are, believing the myth.

      It doesn’t matter how much money you have. You can squander it or someone can embezzle it all from you. See M.C. Hammer, if you don’t believe me. And that’s just one example. (If you follow that link, you’ll see that he learned how to manage money.)

      I know, I know. From the perspective of a person living paycheck to paycheck, the idea that there’s the magical sum of money after which you don’t need to ever pay attention to bills is very tempting. And so very untrue.

      1. OTOH, having enough money that you don’t have to be stuck in an abusive or soul-destroying job situation is a very real thing. It’s sometimes called FU Money, for a certain NSFW expression.

        Back in the early 90’s I was in a bad job for about a year that felt like an eternity. The work itself wasn’t bad, but the boss was a real Problem. Not the stereotypical abusive boss — she was exquisitely polite about everything. But it became explicitly clear that she Did Not Have My Back. She’d tell me to enforce policy, but when I tried, would not back me, and in fact would often cut me off at the knees, taking the part of the people who objected to having policy enforced on them and telling me I was Doing It Wrong.

        But I was flat broke and jobs were hard to come by. So I was living in terror that she’d carry out her continual threat to not renew my contract because I couldn’t figure out how to enforce policy without anyone complaining about it. Having even a few months’ money in reserve would’ve made a huge difference in that situation, rather than having to endure it until Ms Boss had to take medical leave and we got a more reasonable boss who made it clear that yes, she had our backs and the complainers were the problem, not us.

        1. I believe strongly in FU money. Of course, I’m the person who has walked off many a job without a dime in my bank account, because I believe more in the FU than in the $$. Not everyone has that luxury, especially people with kids and other dependents. I was lucky that way.

  5. That writer classmate with the waitress sounded like a super petulant, self-absorbed and infantile jerk. Just had to say that. I’m sure the waitress didn’t need to hear his Ozymandias aspirations, he couldn’t even answer a simple question, goodness.

    As for success, I think simply being able to pay my regular bills is a decent measure. I like writing so it would be nice to putter around my house and write new books while being able to manage my bills.

    1. Wow. You judged a person based on one incident that happened 38 years ago, with no other evidence and no knowledge of who they were or are. None of those things describe that writer, whom I’ve known and loved all of those 38 years. He’s an honorable man who is a great friend and who has helped a lot of people.

      Amazing how quick we all are to judge online.

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