How to Succeed in Writing While Trying Pretty Hard, Actually

personshandwavingacheckeredflagLast week The Debutantes shared their darkest moments as writers. This week, in celebration of the Winter Solstice or what have you, we’re looking at the bright side: When did we think that maybe—just maybe—we were going to succeed?

You see the problem with this topic right away, don’t you?

What the heck does success mean? And when do you know you’ve reached it?

I’m sure that when the Debs considered this topic originally we meant that our success was publishing a book. That’s a pretty major standard of success, and we’d come together to keep The Ball only because we’d each reached that milestone.

But of course success is personal, and fleeting. As I write this, my first novel, THE BLACK HOUR, is still seven months away. If that’s the only finish line out there, I’m in for seven months of heavy lifting, and then a very brief victory lap (I’m from Indiana, so picture the Indy 500 here). Publishing is personal and fleeting—that can’t be all there is.

Giving this topic some thought, I came up with a few milestones that seemed to fit the mold: The first story acceptance letter I received (thanks, Big Muddy!). The first story to get put into print (thanks, After Hours!). The first writing contest I won (tip of the hat, Madison Review!). And then the biggie: when I got the call saying that Jodi Picoult (it’s Pee-KOE, if you get the chance to say howdy) had chosen my short story as the grand prize winner of Good Housekeeping’s first fiction contest.

At each of these points, I knew I was moving into a new phase of my writing career, and I was completely, stupidly blissed out. But I also knew that no single moment of success ensured the next. Even after finishing the draft of The Black Hour. Even after finding an agent who loved my book. Even after signing on with a publisher. None of these moments meant that I could sit back with my feet up.

(I really like to sit back with my feet up.)

When I won the Good Housekeeping contest, I had a novel draft. The contest sent a couple of high-profile agents my way, but the problem with this success was that I wasn’t ready for it. My novel wasn’t ready for it. In the end, after only two rejections, I put that novel away and started a new one. Until very recently, one of my writer friends actually believed that this was the novel that was coming out in July, but the truth is that this first book might never see the light of day. It was a success to finish it, but can you see that it was also a success to put it away and start fresh?

No, it didn’t feel like it at the time. But it was a success, to me, to know what I had to do, and to do it.

The writer I was before I wrote that draft couldn’t have imagined putting a full novel draft away, but I wasn’t that writer anymore. Each milestone made me want something new. We’re greedy, greedy people, aren’t we? But we learn along the way that success isn’t a finish line. It’s the opposite. It’s knowing that there’s no end in sight, and racing anyway.

The good news is that there isn’t just one moment when you’ll know you’re succeeding. You’re likely to have many. Take them gratefully, and celebrate them (bottle of milk, bottle of champagne, whatever). Wave the checkered flag over your own head, and then get back out there, Champ.

What are some of your milestones?

Photo from keyposters.com

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Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh Street Books, July 2014). She grew up in central Indiana, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and very spoiled dog.

12 thoughts on “How to Succeed in Writing While Trying Pretty Hard, Actually

  1. Lori,

    Your last paragraph resonates with me. It’s a little like a ladder in that each success can lead to the next. The agent, the publishing deal… for me, a big one was my first review. I was terrified to read it but when it was good, it was a delight because it was the first time that someone who wasn’t invested in my career gave me the thumbs up.

    I think this is why we watch rankings on Amazon, and keep our eyes peeled for other markers of sales success, because we’re still insecure as writers, and we’re worried it’ll be fleeting. I’m getting past that now, to some degree, and the one thing I try to do is look behind me and remember to enjoy those successes I’ve had. Even if, for some reason, no more come my way, those successes will always be mine.

    Merry Christmas to you and the Debs, to a happy and success-packed 2014!
    Mark

  2. Thanks, Mark! I still have that milestone, the first review, in the future. I’m sort of terrified. But I was terrified of other things before I went through them, too, so I’ll probably live. Happy holidays to you and yours!

  3. This is a wonderful post, Lori. Sometimes we don’t realize our successes — like starting fresh — until after the fact. Sometimes WAY after the fact. And, while we’re on the topic, why is it human nature to dwell on our so-called failures?

    Agreeing with Heather!!

  4. Great take on this topic, Lori. You’re right about the “no feet up” thing, by the way…
    Last year at this time, I was the “seven months out” Deb, and my release seemed FOREVER away. Now? I’m not sure where the time has gone, but I’m prepping for release #2 (currently 7 months away, though that time will evaporate in an instant the moment I turn around), writing books #3 and 4, and looking back on an absolutely amazing year.

    I’m so excited for you, and for all of the debs – you have such wonderful, happy days in store. Savor each and every one!

    • It’s felt like forever for, well, forever. I have a feeling things are about to start speeding up after the calendar flips. The to-do list needs to start getting to-done.

      • I remember this point SO well. Partly because I’m sitting right there with you again (my second mystery releases out July 15). We’re both perched on the spot between “wow, I have forever-worth of time” and “holy crap, where did the time go” – and sadly, it’s not a linear progression between them. One morning you’re going to wake up and it will be happening. Not that this has motivated me properly to get ahead on things … I just realize I need to do it and haven’t gotten around to it yet….

        • I’m trying to get ahead on things, but then I keep getting the “well, you have PLENTY of time.” Yes—but I’m trying to use the time I have well. I expect to be busy with my day job in the spring, so trying to work smart. Ah, well. Good-bye, sleep.

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