May 16, 2013

How Success Raises the Stakes…in Our Life

Graph line going up with text: How Success Raises the Our Life

In writing, we always want the stakes to increase over the course of a story. The problems get bigger, the risks get bigger, and the reasons the characters need to succeed get bigger.

The same concept can apply to real life. When we first start a blog, it doesn’t matter if we fall flat on our face because no one is watching. Who’s going to know? The problem comes if we artificially try to keep the stakes low, even as time goes on, or when higher stakes make us afraid of taking new risks.

For example, some authors try to minimize the stakes when they publish their stories, even though publication should be a time of raising the stakes. I’ve seen authors slide their book onto Amazon and slink away with barely an announcement. Anonymity can feel safe. They’d rather reduce their chance of success than risk a public failure.

Success and stakes and risk all work together. And sometimes we might not like that.

Success Creates New Fears

Last time, we talked about the fear and self-doubt that causes us to think that bad news is deserved and good news must be a fluke. Any success added to the mix raises the stakes.

The more blog readers we have, the more people there are to be disappointed when we write a “dud.” The more readers of our books, the more witnesses to that bad review. The more good reviews, the higher the expectations for future readers.

I know this fear quite well. Every blog post that people praise in the comments makes me wonder how I can possibly meet expectations the next time. (And the time after that, and the time after that…)

Successful authors speak of this fear as well. After a string of well-received books, rather than feel good, they instead worry about having that many more readers to disappoint. The higher we rise, the further we have to fall.

Succumbing to Fear Freezes Us in Place

Many of us are people-pleasers in some way. If people have expectations, we want to meet them. Fear of disappointing others can be a powerful force.

We might not want to experiment on our blogs or in our stories. Authors sick of a series or genre might feel stuck. Once we have success in one area, it can be a risk to “throw away” what brought us that success.

I suspect this fear leads some bestselling authors to take less risks with their writing over the years. Were they simply experimenting to find a formula that works, and now that they did, they’re happy to repeat themselves? Or do they not want to risk the livelihood of their family, their assistant’s family, their agent’s family, and their editor’s family by trying something new and different?

We Shouldn’t Fear Risk

We can’t let fear keep us from trying. Just as I still write new blog posts week after week, we need to push ourselves and our writing.

Sure, some blog posts or stories might resonate stronger than others, but the vast majority of the time, people forgive us for occasional “duds.” Readers tend to remove authors from their auto-buy lists only after several duds in a row.

This type of risk isn’t about jumping out of airplanes or swimming with sharks. This risk doesn’t have the inherent potential to kill us. *grin*

Writing Isn’t about Being Comfortable

Stories are at their most powerful when we delve into those dark corners of our minds to find the nugget of truth. Poking around in our insecurities and fears isn’t comfortable. It’s not supposed to be.

I’ve seen the advice from many writers that we’re not doing our job with a story unless something about it makes us uncomfortable. That’s true for life in general. Oodles of sayings about “not resting on our laurels” and “pushing the envelope” make that clear.

So while we might dream simply of being successful enough with our writing to be “comfortable,” we shouldn’t get too comfortable with our actual writing. We’ll be better able to write stories about risk and fear and stakes if we’re confronting those issues head on in our real life too. If we embrace the higher stakes that come with success, we might even be able to write our way to our happy ending. *smile*

Have you experienced success that raised the stakes? How did you react? Have you ever been afraid of change because of success? What other ways can this fear hold us back? Do you agree that writing isn’t about being comfortable?

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I don’t think that writing necessarily should make us uncomfortable. Rather depends on the purpose of a particular piece of writing, methinks.

For example, my novelette under contract? I’m actually comfortable with it, although it contains some disturbing extrapolations of big brother and genetic engineering. Preliminary reader reaction has matched what I was going for, too.

On the other hand, I’m working on the third book in a series wherein I…dislike the narrator. (Each book has a different narrator.) Her personality and situation are set—and I have to tell the story from her perspective—and I feel sorry for her, but…

She is seriously the kind of person I avoid spending much time with in real life, because they drive me up the wall.

Oh, she has some admirable qualities. And to be honest, she has reason to be the way she is; her personal situation is downright pitiable. I’m making sure to remember those things as I write about her.

But I’m having to be careful as I write, to avoid putting my personal dislike into all the characters around her. I actually don’t everyone to share my dislike of the character. I don’t want the same things that upset me to upset all my readers.

That brings the question… Can I pull it off? Conventional wisdom on writers’ forums would be “No, you can’t—your dislike will shine through.”

I’m unconvinced.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Hi jami! First of all, I’ve never, ever read a “dud” when it comes to your posts. You always amaze me with your grip on so many aspects of being an author, whether you’re teaching us plot, or teaching us how to build a better website, you’ve got it goin’ on! So don’t worry, you’ll always have my undivided attention because you always get better and better. As far as I go, hmm, yes, I suppose I have experienced success that ultimately raised the stakes. This has nothing to do with writing, but when I was in HS and college, I played water polo…and I was AWESOME at it. I was the top pick in Fla to go to the Olympic Training Center to try out for the Olympic Festival Games in New Zealand (that was back before women’s water polo had earned its place in the Olympics) Anywho, I was so good that a girl that I was in competition with (there was only one hole spot-that’s like the quarter back-left) decided she wanted me out of the picture (and after the fact told me so) So she kicked me in the ribs and broke two on the left lower side of my body. Becasue of the injury (and the time I’d be out of the water) I didn’t get the position that up until that point had been mine. So, for me, success in the sport had raised the stakes high enough to make me the target of…  — Read More »

renée a. schuls-jacobson

Okay, this post? This one is for me though, right? Yes? Because aren’t you yelling at me now? Have you been lurking in my brain?

Because THIS:

The more blog readers we have, the more people there are to be disappointed when we write a “dud.”

OMG! When I first started writing, I was dangerously free. Now that I have several thousand people following me. Um, yikes. Scary. I hate when I write posts that are less than. I’m a HUGE perfectionist (H-U-G-E), and it has brought me to my knees.

*new paragraph because Jami likes shorter paragraphs*

I recently went to EMDR therapy to try to retrain myself to stop thinking about myself as a failure when I write kind of “meh” posts. Every single one doesn’t have to be perfect. I get it.

And yet.

It’s soooo hard for me.

And it paralyzes me in my WIP.

So I’m working on THAT in the background to my book.

Because “what if” it’s not good enough?


I’ll keep ploughing away at it. One day, it will be cleaner than it is now. And I’ll have *someone* look at it, and that someone might say “Stick a fork in it. It’s done.” Hopefully, I’ll feel that moment in my bones. I’m not there yet. Not yet.

Donna Hole
Donna Hole

I understand completely. Yes I have experienced – am experiencing – the fear of success phenomenon. I had a few short stories get published, and now my family is clamoring for me to get to work on a novel that will bring in the big bucks. Their expectations are seriously high due to me success in one other area.

While I know I should push myself out there and start writing for forums that actually pay, that scares me because I may never earn a dime for any published material. Its scary to think about having something up for sale, even at .99 and then not getting a single sale off the publication.


Kim Barton

This has nothing to do with writing, but I experienced that fear when I became a black belt in aikido. When I first started training in that martial art, it was not my intention to get rank. Rank didn’t matter to me, but after training for a few years it was time to take that black belt test. I trained hard for it. The test went well, and I got my belt. After I gained that rank and that belt, I became paralyzed. I didn’t want to train anymore. I was scared! I was afraid that because I had this higher and easily recognizable rank, that I was now a target. I was afraid that everyone would think I knew everything! I was afraid that everyone would test me to see if I deserved that rank. It actually took me a couple of *years* to get over that paralysis. I had to let go of theexpectation of myself that I had to be perfect for everyone. I came to realize that no one expected me to know everything, and if they did, then that was their problem, not mine. I was so careful when I started my blog. I was afraid to put myself into anything I wrote, so most of my posts are a bit remote. I’m sure many people who read it found it boring. I took some time off to rethink my process. If I want to connect to people, I have to open myself up. I’m…  — Read More »

Joanna Aislinn

Wow. You went deep into this girl’s heart and psyche with this one–made me “uncomfortable” b/c I’m feeling these things (though on the surface I like to think I’m not).

Denial stands for Don’t Even (K)Now I Am Lying–ever heard THAT one? I’m sure I do it on several levels, but I keep plugging away, letting go the outcome as often as I can and taking the occasional chance.

(I’m thinking the caffeine hasn’t really kicked in yet, as I’m getting a rambling feel as I key this…)

Great post, Jami, as always. Thank you!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Oh, good point about how when you have witnesses (readers), you have more pressure to meet higher and higher expectations, and how this can lead to the disadvantage of being afraid to take risks and experiment. That’s a dilemma I struggle with too. Yes, I want to be independent and always try new things when I feel like it (to express what I truly care about at the moment), but at the same time, I want to please my friends, so I can’t be too experimental: I’d probably never want to write anything like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, haha. So my desire to please my friends (it’s so hard to please them all in the first place) would curb my ability to take risks. And my desire to be more daring and novel (ha–pun) may also hinder my ability to please my friends. I don’t know how to work my way out of this one, lol. So for now, I just write whatever kind of story I want, in whatever style I want, whilst still keeping within the bounds of some conventions that people feel comfortable with. For instance, I used to like using wonky expressions or word choices, not for the sake of appearing cool, but because I felt those expressed what was in me more accurately and vividly; but I learned through experience that sadly, a lot of people react negatively to such “unusual expressions and word choices”. (I used to have no qualms making up my own words…  — Read More »


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