Buying Pain Wholesale: Comparing Yourself to Other Writers

When a book you adore by a writer you admire hits bestseller lists, makes insane amounts of money, and skyrockets your favorite into writing’s “A” list of superstars, it’s pretty easy to be gracious. After all, you can understand how and why this amazing success happened. The book and the writer both deserved the acclaim.

When a writer you know personally—and have known since the two of you were writing bad Buffy The Vampire Slayer fanfic together—has a sudden streak of success, digging deep into yourself and finding grace and genuine happiness for your colleague can be tougher. Too many writers smile through the pain of “It should have been me.”

But when an absolutely dreadful book goes interstellar, you may be tempted to scream to the heavens, “What in the blood-sucking Mary Sue universe were you THINKING, Generic Non-Religiously-Affiliated Patron Saint Of Writers?”

Where, after all, is the justice in running into heaps of such agonizing tripe in every supermarket and gas station you frequent—never mind the mountains of it you have to climb over in bookstores in order to get to the good stuff.

Envy can be tempting.

You may want to think, “If her, why not me? I’m a better writer than she is. My geriatric GERBIL is a better writer than she is, and all he does with paper is chew it up and poop on it. I’ve been writing for years. I have the scads of rejection slips, the near misses, the almosts…I’ve EARNED what she fell into.”

You have to let this go.

A writer I used to know kept score, poring over publishing industry info, reading bestsellers just to scream about how much they sucked, checking sales figures, advances, and anything else she could get her hands on to see if the books that weren’t as good as hers were making more money, selling more copies, or making their authors more famous.

The amount of time she spent doing this, and the foaming-at-the-mouth intensity with which she kept at it, came to be a lot like watching someone I cared about pour gasoline all over herself, then fumble around trying to find a match.

All of that crazy-making activity was time she could have spent writing. Time she could have spent being happy.

I could never convince her to let it go.

In the hopes I’ll have better luck convincing you, I’m going to give you my top three reasons for NOT comparing yourself to other
writers, your books to their books, or your careers to their careers.

Here, then, why you don’t ever want to envy anyone:

1. Envy is blinding.

Yes, the writer of self-centered, whining, thumb-sucking, angst-ridden teenagers with undead fetishes sells a helluva lotta books.

Guess who buys them.

Self-centered, whining, thumb-sucking, angst-ridden teenagers with undead fetishes.

How would you like to go to a convention and meet five thousand of your biggest fans, only to discover that they terrify you…or that
you can’t stand them.

Books draw the readers they deserve. Think about that.

I’ve met a lot of my fans. They kick ass. They’re smart and funny, they’re opinionated and well-read, they actually think…and if I don’t have one hundred million of them, I’m ALSO not afraid to ride in an elevator with them.

The world is not as full of people like MY readers as it is self-absorbed pity magnets. You might have noticed.

So POINT TO PONDER #1 is this:

Would I be happy having my name on Betty Author’s horrible bestseller, and would I be happy if her fans were my fans?

Or would I rather reach the people who care about the same things I do, with stories that matter to me?

2. Envy is a waste of energy.

Back to the writer who kept score. Who knew the names of the editors of the writers whose books she hated, knew what those editors had paid, knew who the agents who sold them were, dissected those authors’ books to try to understand why those books sold more copies than her books…

All that research and comparing took enormous time and effort and focus—all of which could have been spent on doing what she loved rather than on being furious at people who were doing what THEY loved.

(At least I hope they were. Even the authors of terrible books should be happy writing them.)

She was not alone in her mania for hating writers who succeeded beyond what she defined as her success.

Think of all the scathing reviews you’ve read by people envious of the success of such stars as J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Danielle Steel. To what end? The reviewers prove themselves petty and petulant, while the writers they hate just keep writing.

Don’t waste a minute of your life saying awful things about strangers who are doing something creative that they love. If you want to read a better book than what they wrote, then dammit, WRITE a better book.


If I knew exactly how long I had to live, and it wasn’t very long, would I be wasting my time being angry at someone else’s success?

Or would I be working to create my own?

Moment of truth—you DON’T know how long you have to live…but if you’re a mortal like the rest of us, it isn’t very long.

Half an our ago, I was sixteen. Now I’m over fifty. I blinked, and half my life (if I’m really lucky and way outside the actuarial tables) is gone.

But I haven’t wasted a minute of it.

3. Envy is self-destructive.

Life is too short. You only get this one, and if you spend it finding ways to make yourself sad, or angry, or to fill yourself full of hatred for other people, or full of self-loathing, you’re throwing your life away.

Why should you care who else succeeds? It isn’t as if there’s some sort of success-and-failure slider that pushes you down when someone else goes up.

You succeed when you decide what you want to do with your life, and then you do it. Whether you’re a huge success in anyone else’s eyes is irrelevant.

It is entirely possible for every person on this planet to be a success. It won’t happen, but it IS possible.

Learn to define success by what you want, and then to live by your own definition.

If you’re doing what you love, AND if you’re happy doing it, no one else’s success affects you at all.

POINT TO PONDER #3, then, is:

If success isn’t what I have, but what I do, and if I can do anything I want with my life, how am I going to define my own success? What do I want my life to be?

Your life is YOURS.

No one else’s.


Envy takes your life away from you and gives it to the people and things that matter least to you.

Don’t let it. Live with joy and write with joy.

Opposite how you look at the world is how the world looks at you.

So for the counterpoint to this article, here’s one on my personal site: Writing With Integrity: Why Everyone Shouldn’t Like You.


Tell A Writer
Holly Lisle

Novelist, writing-nerd, dissector of thought processes, writing course creator and site owner here, Holly Lisle has a cat that plays fetch and a whole lotta stuff on for both readers and writers.