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IWSG: The comparison game

From an early age, my writing life was all about comparisons.

When I was a little kid I said, “I want to write a classic that will be remembered forever, like Charles Dickens.”

When I was in grade school, I aspired to be like Gordon Korman, who published his first book at age fourteen.

By high school, my writing teacher was calling me Stephanie Queen.

As an adult, one of the nicest things anyone ever said about my writing was that it read like a “young Gillian Flynn’s.”

It’s only human to play the comparison game–to look up to the people who are much higher on the ladder to mythical writing success. I say mythical because you never really get there. As soon as you achieve that agent, that publishing contract, that movie deal, there will be something new to strive for.

The comparison game can be a good thing…if it inspires you. Let’s face it–it can be difficult to put your butt in that chair day after day, writing novels that no one may ever read. Or, if they read, may not like. Sometimes seeing someone else’s success can motivate us to push on through the difficult middle. Through the days and weeks we don’t feel like writing. It may help us say no to distractions and excuses when we learn Stephen King writes every single day, including his birthday and Christmas.

The problem starts when the comparison game turns dark. Why not me? Why can’t these amazing things ever happen to me? I work hard; I’m a good writer. Where’s my seven-figure contract?

Maybe you have been working hard. But the thing to keep in mind is–no matter who you’re envying, you have no idea how hard they worked. For some reason, our industry loves to make success seem easy. How often do we hear about the bestselling debut? The overnight success? Debut, my ass. I bet you my imaginary seven-figure book contract that the “overnight success” has several novels gathering dust in a closet somewhere. Maybe they even published a few flops under a different pen name.

A lot of writers succeed in part because they have no choice. Think of J.K. Rowling, supposedly only a few food stamps away from homelessness when she feverishly wrote her first Harry Potter book. Stephen King was struggling to support his wife and kids on a low teacher’s salary. Jasinda Wilder, who has made millions from her self-published books, was laid off. She told herself she had a year to become successful. With no other alternative, that’s exactly what she did.

When writer envy rears its ugly head, one of my friends uses it as an opportunity to ask herself what she really wants. Then she can go after her own success with renewed vigour. I’d go one step further and ask, “Are you willing to do what it takes to get there?”

King was submitting his stories for publication when he was still in high school. His writing output is legendary. Even when he was in the hospital, recovering from a near-fatal accident, he still managed to finish a book or two. You can envy his success–many people do–but are you willing to have that level of dedication, day in and day out? That singleminded sense of purpose, that obsession? Very, very few of us are.

Instead of beating yourself up because you aren’t as successful as the J.K. Rowlings of the world, decide what success means to you. Is it more books on the shelf? More words written each day? A consistent writing schedule that you will actually stick to? Awards? An agent? A movie deal? Once you know what it is, you can go after it with King-like obsession.

It never hurts to research how others achieved the success you crave. Armed with that knowledge, you can go out and create your own path.

My writing group’s podcast is all about the comparison game this month. Check it out for more strategies on how to keep envy from being a destructive force, plus all the things that personally make each of us go green now and then.

Do you ever compare your success to other writers’? Does it depress you or motivate you? How do you keep yourself from getting the comparison-game blues?

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group’s purpose is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.

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53 Comments

  1. Talk about taking a hit between the eyes!

    I play this game far too often. And it distracts, brings me down I tell myself that writing EVERY day would be boring to me, so it’s okay if I spend a day working on my upcoming class or do research for another project, or draw, or whatever.

    We’re all unique. Our paths are unique. It’s just so hard to remember that when someone else’s successes blind you. Maybe that podcast will shed some light on the matter!

    Reply
    • JH

      I hope it helps, Chris! I can relate to your struggle with consistency. With me, it’s the fact that my day job is also writing. Sometimes I let my client work get in the way of the dream.

      If writing every day is boring, what about submitting, marketing, editing? Is there something related you could do, even for a half hour or so, on the days you don’t write?

      Thanks so much for commenting!

      Reply
  2. There’s no such thing as overnight success. A lot of time and effort went into getting to that point. We don’t see that though, just the success. And for every level of success, there’s another level above it.

    Reply
    • JH

      So true, Alex!

      Reply
  3. Sure I’ve compared myself once or twice to local writer friends who have accomplished way more than me. But it blows by pretty quick and I salute and applaud each writer’s success. It’s not a competition. When I read the contributors list of anthologies I’ve been lucky enough to be published, I am amazed at the quality of talent that my work sits along side. In this game, one doesn’t have to look very far to see someone working harder, learning more, and going that one step further than me. Which is awesome because it shows me what is possible.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s such a healthy way to look at it, Dean. I figure good news for one writer is good news for all writers.

      Welcome back, and thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  4. I always try to remember everything has a double-edged sword. One side is all the success in the world and the other is what they sacrificed to get there. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    Reply
    • JH

      So true, Anna. I for one know I will never be as dedicated and obsessive as King, so I can’t expect to be that successful.

      Reply
  5. This is a great motivational post! I think a great thing about knowing other writers is seeing how much work and self-doubt goes into every work. Seeing others struggle for that word count, for that confidence to hit ‘send’ makes me feel less alone. I try to avoid the comparison game because I worry it could get toxic. I’m me. That’s the best I can hope to maintain.

    Reply
    • JH

      So true, Somer. I actually started to really get sucked into it when I got published by Samhain. I was suddenly surrounded by people who were writing a lot more books and getting them published–writers who had dozens of books out already.

      Suddenly, “What else have you gotten published?” and “Why don’t you have anything else published?” were questions I was facing on a daily basis. It’s hard not to beat yourself up sometimes.

      Reply
  6. It is such a tricky balancing act, using comparison to inspire and not derail. I like to try and see what it is that successful person is doing that might also work for me. What’s their process, their schedule, their plan? Maybe I can utilize the way they outline with index cards or set the same word count goal for myself.

    “Read like a young Gillian Flynn’s” is a great compliment! 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s a great idea, Madeline, and thank you. Even though that compliment came with a rejection, it still had me over the moon.

      Getting called a young anything is pretty awesome! 😀

      Reply
  7. I always hope comparisons will inspire me, but in fact they tend to depress. Part of what I have to do is take time to think clearly about what I’m doing. I’m not hungry; I don’t need to succeed for any financial reasons. So maybe that means that I end up being a dilettante. Trouble is, I’m not cmfortable with that–any more than I’m willing to give up goofing off and work harder!

    Reply
    • JH

      They definitely can be depressing, Rebecca. Sounds like you’re in a Catch-22 situation.

      Can you split the difference?

      Reply
  8. The comparison game is such an easy one to get sucked into! I know because I play it all the time 🙂 In some ways, it can help motivate me to have an external benchmark to measure my progress against (if they can do it, I can to) but other times it’s just plain unhelpful. The trick is knowing when comparing yourself to someone else is useful. I’ll have to check out the podcast – sound very interesting.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks so much, Ellen! I hope you like it.

      Whenever this side of the writing game is too much for me, I find taking a break from social media helps a lot.

      Reply
  9. I tell myself that if God wanted me to be another Stephen King, he would have made him twins! Compete with ourselves is the best way to grow, right? 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      True enough, but sometimes we need to reach beyond ourselves, especially in times of rejection and discouragement. When I’ve received yet another rejection, it helps me to know a bestselling famous author got XX many rejections too.

      Reply
  10. I don’t really get caught up in the comparison or envy game much. My urban old school demeanor says “don’t be a hater” and if envy creeps up on you, “don’t envy the player, love the game.” Like everyone, I want my piece of the pie, but I’d never bash someone or try to take theirs away to get it. I may want to know how they got theirs so I can figure out how to earn mine.

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree, Toinette…bashing another author is never cool, and it always looks ugly. Even when I see famous authors bashing other famous authors, I cringe. It’s just so petty and small.

      I don’t always love the game, but I’d never stoop to that level. When I’m envious, I keep it to myself or a small circle of trusted friends.

      Great to see you back here! I’ve missed you.

      Reply
  11. It’s one of my standing jokes that I want to be someone when I grow up. Like at school, I always say that I want to be Miss Mabry (one of the 7th grade science teachers) when I grow up. My author bio says I want to be Amy Tan.

    But it’s just a game. I admire Miss Mabry in my teaching life, just as I admire many writers in my writing life, for many things. But I don’t really want to be her. I want to be the best me. Which might mean emulating someone who does it well, or trying to analyze what it is they are doing.

    I think you’ve hit it right on the nose: looking up to someone is great, so long as it inspires you. If it hurts more than it helps, then quit it!

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree, Samantha. And it may sound cheesy, but you have always been Someone to me.

      Reply
  12. You are so correct. Find out what you want, decide what you want, and pick a plausible, reasonable goal and build a plan toward it. You can’t say “I want to be as rich and famous as Stephen King” because he’s a once-in-a-lifetime perfect storm of talent, luck, determination (and drugs). But pick what YOU want to be. Whether that’s just to finish your first manuscript or being able to live off your writing. Make a plan and stick to it.

    People are so disappointed and discouraged because they don’t have a clear goal of what they want. Know what you want and aim for it. Then every step along the way will be a small, satisfying victory.

    http://www.cdgallantking.ca

    Reply
    • JH

      Very well said, Gallant King! I’m glad you weighed in. That’s very sound advice.

      Hope to “see” you again.

      Reply
  13. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve done this. We’re each on our path. Now, I have authors that I’ve read and liked and I look into their career paths–Courtney Milan and Libby Hawker come to mind, because they write great books, but they’ve also self-published books and so I’m interested in how they’ve grown as writers and self-publishers, to see if I can glean anything about publishing historical fiction-esque books.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good for you, Michelle! That’s awesome. It’s very difficult to avoid the comparison game sometimes, but if you can, you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache.

      I think my path has a big ol’ fork in it. 😀

      Reply
  14. Great post! You’re so right that it’s easy to fall into the trap of making comparisons. I would love to be as dedicated as Stephen King. Maybe it’s time to figure out what’s holding me back from that.
    @DoreeWeller from
    Doree Weller’s Blog

    Reply
    • JH

      I’m guessing you’re human and have a life, Doree. 😀 The man is superhuman. I have no idea how he does it, even after studying him for years. He’s an Outlier, that’s for sure.

      Welcome to my blog! Hope to see you back here.

      Reply
  15. Strange, but I never compare my success to that of other writers, because I believe success is primarily luck and timing. The two things 99.9% of all successful writers have in common are a highly developed work ethic and talent, but there are plenty of unsuccessful writers who are just as talented and work just as hard.

    I do compare my writing to that of authors I admire. Those who offer a well-written, ripping good story, are an inspiration. But those who are poets, who have a way with language I’ll never have no matter how long I’m at this—they can spur envy.

    Reply
    • JH

      I feel the same way about Elizabeth Berg’s work…she has the soul of a poet. Her writing is so beautiful it makes me want to give up.

      Well, not really–but almost. It is a gift I’ll never have.

      Reply
  16. Writer’s envy both depresses me and reaffirms my determination. The hardest thing I have to deal with is accepting differences in people’s tastes. What 10 people love, others won’t. I wish I could find things that would appeal to everyone–some people do it–but it’s very hard. Still, it gives me something to work toward. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      I don’t know of a single person whose work appeals to everyone, Lexa. Concentrate on the people who love what you do, and you can’t go wrong. *hugs*

      Reply
  17. A Gillian Flynn comparison? That is to die for. Haha. And I can totally see why someone said that.

    I am always happy for my fellow writers, but I’ve definitely had those “why not me” moments. I’ve been working on not having them and telling myself instead that it will happen when it’s meant to. I’ve also been putting my wishes out into the universe by saying “I will.” I will get an agent. I will publish XYZ. I will…I will….

    Reply
    • JH

      Aww, thanks so much, Chrys! That’s very kind of you to say.

      I’ve heard that putting-yourself-out-there stuff really works. I have to start trying it. Have you noticed any success yet?

      Reply
  18. I hear overnight success with authors, singers/bands and actors and it’s all hooey! They have usually been struggling for quite a long time before hitting it big. I believe perseverance is the key and it’s not easy. I have done, often, the comparison game and I’m usually beating myself up. I see what others are doing and see the beautiful wrk involved and think( I was writing realize here before replacing that word) how great they are and so much better than what I have done. Before I know it I am down in the dumps because I just feel that I’m not as good as so many others…I know bad, bad.

    Reply
    • JH

      But hard to avoid sometimes, Birgit. When I really beat myself up, it’s because I’ve been failing in some way at my personal goals, but I can see how the comparison game would make it so much worse.

      How do you break yourself out of that mindset when it occurs? And btw, you do beautiful work too! Lots of it! <3

      Reply
  19. Hello, J.H., and thanks for a very well-written post. I received another “no thanks” from an agent today, but I continue to slog onward. It doesn’t help to see novels that seem (to me, of course) less interesting than my work but are nevertheless sitting on bookstore shelves. Then again, if they can do it, so can I–eventually.

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome, Rhonda. Of course you can do it! I’m sorry to hear about the rejection, though, but they really are a necessary evil. And they make those future acceptances that much sweeter.

      Good luck!

      Reply
  20. I am so happy I gave up comparing a few years ago, I promise it is freeing.
    You are so right, there really is no such thing as overnight success. There is always back story that involves hard work.

    Reply
    • JH

      How did you manage that, Doreen? Please share your secrets!

      Reply
  21. I do suffer from the comparison game blues sometimes, but I don’t blame anyone but myself. I am easily distracted and much of my time is taken up with family stuff. My output could be vastly improved, but I’m going to have to be the one to kick my butt in gear.

    Thank you for offering to help with my marketing of Heart Stopper!

    Reply
    • JH

      No problem, Tamara–sorry I haven’t read the email yet. I’m getting to it, I promise!

      I find accountability partners can help…do you know anyone who will kick your butt in exchange?

      Reply
  22. I have been compared to Jim Butcher and Robert Jordan style-wise, but it’s never been a goal of mine to achieve such status. I just wrote the stories the way I wanted to, and found it curious as to who I reminded people of. Success-wise, well, I know I’ll never make it big, so I just keep on plodding like I do. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      And that’s exactly why you just might, Loni. You have the right attitude, that’s for sure!

      Thanks for commenting.

      Reply
  23. Its easy just to look at other’s seemingly instant success and forget how long that process took. And yes, I do wish to bypass all that work, worry, and did I mention work?

    Reply
    • JH

      Me too, Dolorah! Wouldn’t that be nice? Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as an overnight success. 🙁

      Reply
  24. In these days of social media when it’s so easy to see the success of other writers, it’s almost impossible not to compare. My book got a great review — hurray! Hers gets 4 STARRED reviews. Her book is available as an audiobook, and now has sold translation rights in 2 languages. My book got on a state list! Her book is a NYT bestseller and has won 3 awards.

    These comparisons steal your joy in your own accomplishments. It is SO HARD to avoid making them, to just revel in your own quiet joy without sneaking a look sideways — just like your picture at the top of this post.

    Human nature …

    Reply
    • JH

      Definitely human nature, Dianne. I guess we just have to remember that somewhere, another writer is looking sideways at US.

      Reply
  25. It is human to compare yourself to others. I do, of course, I’m human on my good days. But beating myself up because I haven’t done what others have or resenting what others have achieved is so unproductive–IMHO. I get jealous. I get impatient to do what the other guy has done. But then I knuckle down and do what I can. The other choice is to be miserable. I don’t like being miserable.

    Reply
    • JH

      Me neither, Lee. If you can use envy to motivate yourself, it’s great, but once it turns ugly, it’s so not worth it!

      Reply
  26. I have loved reading and writing since I was little. 🙂 I even participated in a Young Author’s thing in either kindergarten or first grade. I enjoy writing songs, blogs and sometimes short stories. A part of me wishes I had pursued a writing career, but another part of me far more enjoys reading and supporting others. Authors are my heroes. I get emotional talking about it because I know what little I’ve tried to write, how much is poured into it with no promise of being published and no promise of anyone liking it if it is. I realize that as much as I do enjoy writing, I’d miss reading and doing other things and wouldn’t invest the time and effort needed. Even in photography, which I love doing as a hobby, it’s hard not to get caught up in the comparison game. 🙂 I hope you keep doing you, because I love your writings!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks so much, Nikki. I believe the most passionate readers are either writers or people who have dreamed of writing. The way you help authors is so needed and so appreciated, and I totally get where you are coming from. Please know that your impact is as great as any writer’s, and I for one feel blessed to know you. <3

      Reply
  27. I’m sad I missed the blog hop this month. At least I get to read this brilliant bit of insight. I needed to read this more than I’d like to admit.

    Reply

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