I’m a psychologist, so I like to believe there are a set of characteristics that can predict author success. Sure, like any subset of the population—and I’m going to define ‘successful authors’ as those who generate a full-time income from their writing—there’s always going to be diversity, surprises, and outliers. But like any good bell curve (that wavy line that most psychometric tools are based on), there are going to be some characteristics, some traits, that are predictive of the majority.
That’s what every author dreaming of success wants to tap into.
To be a writer who generates a decent income from your creations, you need to do two things. Firstly, you need to craft a story lots of readers will love. The most successful authors have woven together all the intricate pieces of a good story so well that millions of people pay to experience their literary offerings. Secondly, you need to get that book in front of enough readers for it to hit critical mass. Whether you’re trad, hybrid, or indie, marketing and promotion is a challenge every author will face.
Writing and marketing are two essential and interdependent skills you’ll need to reach successful author mecca.
So, could there be a cluster of traits that predict which author can reach those heights? I’m proposing that one such cluster is emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the capacity to monitor your own emotions as well as the emotions of others, to distinguish between and label different emotions correctly, and to use emotional information to guide our thinking and behavior and influence that of others. Emotional Intelligence (EI) has been found to be correlated with better social relations, being perceived more positively by others, better academic achievement, and better psychological well-being.
Now, you’re probably wondering how this relates to writing, while at the same time, already seeing some links to your author life. Fascinating, huh? Let’s break down EI into its components, and explore them in terms of a successful author.
According to Daniel Goleman (one of the founding fathers of EI) there are five components of EI:
The ability to recognize and understand our own emotions is infinitely useful as a writer because emotion is a central part of any good book. Emotions are what drive your characters, and therefore your plot. How are you going to label, capture, and convey emotions on the page if you struggle do it in real life? What’s more, to be a writer in the long-term takes a particular mindset. Successful writers have passion and perseverance, and look after their psychological well-being. To do that, you need to be self-aware.
Anyone who has written beyond the first flush of excitement of an amazing-gotta-write-it-right-now story idea, knows that writing is hard. It’s takes a whole lot of time and a whole lot of perseverance. To keep creating, day after day, week after week, a successful author knows they need to regulate and manage their emotions. There are times when getting words out and onto the screen is like pulling teeth (the molars waaaay at the back), when vacuuming is more enticing (I’ve even cleaned toilets rather than write), and rejections and negative reviews are downright demoralizing. Those days, successful authors will demonstrate self-control, conscientiousness, and flexibility.
There are two types of motivation: extrinsic—being motivated by external rewards, which in the land of writing would include riches, fame, and a spot on the Ellen Show; and intrinsic—motivation powered by personal reward, which looks a whole lot different. Writers high in intrinsic motivation are driven to return to their writing cave over and over because they gain personal satisfaction from the process of creating. The successful author? Well, they’re totally wanting to regularly milk the cash cow, but that’s not their only driving purpose. They wouldn’t dream of silencing the characters in their head because they’re driven to share and to give. The process of literary creation is a reward in itself.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand how other people are feeling, and recognizing, on some deeper level, how you would feel in their shoes. You need to empathize with your characters, so you can capture the nuances that are part of any emotional experiences. Writers who do that convey rich and authentic experiences. They blur the line between reality and the story world for the reader. Empathy is also a great skill to have when we engage with readers and fellow writers…
The final piece of the EI puzzle, social skills are possibly the component that seems least relevant to being a successful author. After all, we write alone, right? The truth is, every word we write has been influenced, motivated, or touched by another human being. The truth is our creativity is a product of community. And so is your writing success.
Social skills allow people to successfully navigate social situations. Successful writers, those high in EI, are great communicators (on and off the page), they can successfully negotiate and resolve conflicts, they build bonds and nurture instrumental relationships, and they collaborate and cooperate. Every successful author I’ve ever spoken to has talked of the connections and support they received from writers and non-writers. They often attribute their success to them.
The great news is that EI can be harnessed and developed. Consider any of the following strategies to improve your emotional intelligence:
- Getting fluent in the “language of emotions,” or learning how to identify, differentiate between, and explore different-but-related emotions.
- Observe how you react to others, making a concerted effort to put yourself in their place. Note how you can use this with your characters.
- Examine how you react to stressful situations and work on staying calm, collected, and under control. Note when you’re motivated to stop writing, and why (and then keep writing).
- Consider why your write. What are the extrinsic motivators, but what are the intrinsic motivators? The intrinsic motivators are the ones that will keep you writing over the long haul.
- Notice how you engage with others. Does this help your writing career? How can you capture these social interactions on the page?
What do you think? Do you know any successful authors, and do you think they are high in emotional intelligence? I don’t suppose you’ve spent time with Stephen King or Nora Roberts, and wouldn’t mind passing on my details for a little study I’d like to perform…?
Tamar Sloan is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers.Tamar is also an award-winning author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.