Last 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