Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

There Is No Such Thing as an Overnight Success Story

"Prophetess Anna" - Rembrandt
It seems like there are authors who come out of nowhere, get bazillion dollar book deals, make bazillions more dollars after the book comes out, and ride off into the sunset of legends.

We've all heard of Stephenie Meyer dreaming up Twilight, dashing it off in three months, and the rest is history.

It's tempting to think all it takes is an idea and a wisp of effort. Very tempting indeed.

The truth is a lot more banal: It takes a lot of work.

Stephenie Meyer is about as close to an overnight a success story as I've ever heard - she hadn't written before Twilight, and three months is not a long time to spend on a novel.

But she still had to write the book. And as anyone who has written a novel knows, it takes a whole lot of hours, whether those hours are compressed into three months or thirty-six months.

For most of us mere mortals, many of us are too old to be wunderkinds, we will not make any "best novelists under X" age list, we may be arriving at writing late, and many of us spent a lot of time writing novels that didn't work before we even approached writing something that did. Any success we've earned will be hard-earned rather than serendipitous.

And it's tempting to look at the people who spent less time than we did and begrudge them their seemingly "instant" success.

The thing is, there aren't any shortcuts in life, least of all in writing. Books don't just spring forth fully formed. Becoming a writer is a process and a journey and the result of, at minimum, a lifetime of reading, not something that falls from the sky. Books aren't written overnight.

Every endeavor worth doing takes time. 

Each journey is our own, and we're all the better for it. Rather than wishing for lightning to strike quickly, it's better to enjoy seeing it flash in the distance and know that our time will come.






69 comments:

Lori said...

From my point of view, it took only a few weeks to write my first full length novel, it has taken three years to get the revisions to where they need to be and even now, it may never see a traditional publication. Sometimes, writing is the easy part.

CourtLoveLeigh said...

Such an easy thing to forget.

And this was a much needed reminder that everything's okay. There's no rush. I am the tortoise, not the hare :]

Mr. D said...

Rome wasn't built in a day.

I heard that somewhere.

Cindy Little said...

Love it! What an encouraging (and apt!) post.

N. Rudolph said...

Thanks for the great post, Nathan!

"Success is the sum of small efforts--repeated day in and day out."-Robert Collier

G. P. Ching said...

No matter how you interpret that word success, it takes time to write, time to publish, time to sell. People forget about how much work happens AFTER the book is published to make it a success. And this "after" part occurs while you are writing the next book! But when you love what you do and people are connecting with your writing, it doesn't feel like work.

Arthur Slade said...

All you need is 10,000 hours of work to be an overnight success (with a wink and nod towards Malcolm Gladwell).

Sharon Wray said...

Thank you, Nathan. This is exactly what I needed to hear today.

Isabella Amaris said...

lol just blogged about this, albeit with a focus on an old Japanese bamboo parable:)

And yes, I definitely agree with you... Most successful authors have been writing for a long time (even if only in their heads) before they achieved their various successes...

MMRule said...

Most success seems sudden from our point of view because we go along not knowing that someone is in the world writing and laboring over the query process, and then out of nowhere we hear a new name making a big impression. I like to assume that there are many writers who are working harder and smarter than I am, and I use that feeling to motivate myself to stay current in the field and to push myself as hard as I can. It is a good feeling that writers who work hard can achieve something. Although it doesn't hurt that I still have a couple years of my 20s left! Selden Edwards's started writing his debut novel "The Little Book" in 1974 and it took him 30 years to complete and publish it!

Naomi Hart said...

How very timely. Thank you good sir!

Michelle @ The True Book Addict said...

Great post, Nathan! We writers need to hear this kind of insight and inspiration from time to time. Just knowing that there are others out there who are coming to novel writing late in life and struggling as I do is a comfort.

Marsha Sigman said...

Amen, my brother...amen.

I like to compare my writing career to dieting. Do I want the Atkins Diet or Weight Watchers? Sure you get almost instant success with the first but it's impossible to maintain and at some point you will fail.

Weight Watchers is slow and steady but most maintain.

Easy choice.

Rick Daley said...

How very true...

I posted a write-up of my path to publication on my blog this week, if anyone is interested to read about the steps I took to get a book in readers' hands.

I'm happy with my current level of success (and remember, success is a very subjective term). I'm hopeful to enjoy even higher levels of success in the future. And by "the future" I don't mean "tomorrow."

My path was far from overnight. More like 40 years...

WORD VERIFICATION: cowsber. The sound made by a group of cold bovines.

Cathy Yardley said...

Not entirely related, but all I can think of is "don't call it a comeback... I've been here for years." :) It just looks like overnight success because people don't see it until it's huge, and then they say "wow, where did you come from?" Great post!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

I'm a big believer in the 10,000-hours-to-genius rule.

And if you write across, say, formats/genres/age levels, that benchmark just keeps moving higher.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Great post, especially for those of us getting into this really late in life. Gotta be realistic when I don't even buy green bananas. ;)

Anonymous said...

Wasn't there a story about the guy who wrote The Bridges of Madison County being an overnight success? And the guy who wrote The Christmas Box Miracle, did it, too.

The reason there aren't as many overnight success stories is because there aren't that many success stories to begin with in publishing. And there never have been.

Bryan Russell said...

And don't forget to turn off your computer before the lightning hits.

D.G. Hudson said...

If you can't reach the goal quickly, you can always enjoy the journey. Writing is a pleasure unto itself (it's the revisions that drive me crazy).

Some of my favorite writers had to earn their oats as well, some didn't. No one promises us anything in life, it depends on how much you want it, and how much time you invest.

I'd love to see my writing published, what writer wouldn't? Perhaps if I keep praying to the writing gods? Or do they require sacrifice?

Thanks for the post, Nathan, it helps. BTW - you were somewhat of an overnight success as well, weren't you? How many hours/months/years did you put in for your Wonderbar? I think you did mention it wasn't the first.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Sometimes you only have to be at the right place at the right time with the right idea. But it takes a lifetime of living to prepare you to take advantage of that startling window of opportunity.

As always, a thought provoking post. May your center always hold, Roland

Ben said...

That doesn't make the Meyer story less infuriating...:/

ROCCO LOTEMPIO said...

Over 30 years writing, 16 to get the agent and who knows how many more to a traditional publishing deal, the dream of every author, indie or not?
Never surrender, never give up. Great post.

Minx Malone said...

This was a much needed reminder. Thank you!

Taylor Napolsky said...

Ha Ben is right. And the thing is, even though you still have to put in the hours and dedication to write the book, there are are so many books out there, indy and traditionally published, that I feel writing the book has now become the easy part.

Adele Richards said...

I believe they say in the music industry that it takes ten years to be an overnight success.

Reassuring.

Scott Stillwell said...

Thanks for the great post! That last sentence was so good it made my week.

Wub2Write said...

Just spent nearly a decade working on my novel which I am now preparing to pub as an ebook. It's such a satisfying feeling when you hold your manuscript in your hands and reflect on the journey. So often it was daylight as my fingers flew across the keyboard, then suddenly it was the middle of the night and there I was, sitting in the dark, listening to the quiet, clicking away at the keys with only the glow of my computer screen. But I didn't go it alone. My book characters who filled the pages with their lives kept me company.

Thanks for your post! It comes at a great time as I venture into my next writing project!

All the best with everyone's writing!

Kasie West said...

So true. I think the harder we work, the more satisfying it is when it pays off. It may seem like it would be nice to have things handed to us, but the most amazing moments in my life have been when I've put sweat and tears into something.

Kevin Ott (www.kevinott.net) said...

To look at this whole thing from a martial arts perspective (I study Wing Chun kung fu in the lineage of Ip Man, which is Chinese martial arts), the term kung fu means "a skill learned over a long time through hard work." Cultures such as the Chinese value the process itself more than the material gain. They regard a lifetime spent developing a single skill as an extremely worthwhile effort (and in ancient China, they had six skills that all noble people were expected to master: music, calligraphy, rites, archery, chariot racing, and mathematics).

I've shelved two novels that I loved dearly, but after each novel was completed I could see a new shine in my skills that wasn't there before.

It's worth it to keep developing the skill.

But, I'd say, above all that, maintaining a posture of thanksgiving about my life has kept me strong when I felt depressed. We're all so lucky just to have the ability to read and write in general. We have a lot of gifts that we forget about, I think.

Matthew C Wood said...

Making the dream of becoming a professional author is like all things that are worth doing in life - something that takes time and effort. I would honestly say that the people who put in the work on the long haul, work which then pays off big time, is a far greater story than a tiny minority who managed to make it in a single stroke with little time on the clock.

J. T. Shea said...

I was a success overnight. Then I woke up. Damn!

But I disagree on several points, Nathan:-

Bazillions? Not enough! I want GAZILLIONS! And an asbestos ten gallon hat for riding off into the sunset of legend.

Nobody is too old to be a wunderkind. I'm aiming for 'best novelist under 100' myself.

Books not written overnight? You've clearly never heard of the Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe.

And the asbestos hat might come in handy when that distant lightning gets nearer.

Bryan Russell, good point!

Kevin Ott, maybe I'll take up chariot racing instead. I've seen BEN HUR many times, after all.

Robena Grant said...

Interesting post. I'll never be an overnight success but I'm good with that. : )

I have eight finished (but not fully revised) manuscripts, written over ten years. Each one has shown improvement on some level, but the biggest leap forward came with joining bookclubs. I belong to three, and two of those are online. I've always been an avid reader, but by reading and discussing books I would never choose, my inner world has expanded, imagination is growing in leaps and bounds, and the writing is getting better.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

As always, you say exactly the right thing at the right time. I needed this reminder. Thank you!!

Nancy Kelley said...

I'm reminded of the great truth, "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning."

When we hear about these "overnight" success stories, all that's told is the joy. Unless the story is particularly inspiring, no one talks about the weeping.

Night for an author can mean months or even years of long hours with little or no promise of any payoff. We work 40 hours a week at our day job and save our pennies to pay for writing conferences. Then we slave away on our books for 25, 30, or even 40 hours--working what amounts to two jobs.

Somewhere, we need time to ourselves as well. I've seen several blog posts this week on giving yourself permission to rest. When you haven't yet achieved your goal of representation or publication, taking a break feels like slacking off. The guilt I feel when I spend two full days away from my novel can be almost overwhelming--but my writing when I come back is always better for it.

So yes, in a sense success does come overnight. However, the content and length of that night is known only to the one who struggled through it.

Looking forward to morning,
Nancy

Ulysses said...

Huh.

At 45, I'm too old to be a child prodigy.

Smacks of ageism, that does. I shall speak to my lawyer.

Norma Beishir said...

I lucked out. I queried my agent in May 1984,she responded in June, asking for the manuscript. She signed me as a client in September, and we went to work on my unpublishable manuscript. She sent it out in March 1985 and sold it on April 26, 1985--with eight offers to choose from. Six months later, my publisher bought two more books from me.

Laura Pauling said...

Awesome! I love this. And so true.

Abby said...

So true and hard to remember at times.

Chuck H. said...

So this is what I come home to after a four day, 1500 mile bike trip? I'm too old to be a wunderkind and there really aren't any overnight successes? To heck with it. I'm gettin' back on the bike.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I think hard work leads to greater satisfaction, and I don't mind the time I've put in, even if I occasionally get people questioning why I'm taking so long. By the time I query, I'll feel as if I've sharpened my skills and gotten my story to the best place it can be, and like I've really earned any success I achieve than gotten lucky.

Let's be honest: Stephenie Meyer takes a lot of flack for her prose, and I imagine part of that is brought about by her overnight success story. It makes it easier to pick on any flaws when we know how quickly the project was completed. Perhaps, by taking my time, I'll be able to avoid some of that criticism when/if I ever get published, too.

Alivia said...

I love this post, first off.

Second, even though Stephenie Meyer wrote her debut novel in three months, it was YEARS before she became the international selling sensation that has created the Twilight Saga franchise it is today. So even if she wrote the book with an increased speed, there was a huge layover of time before she did well from it.

I think in today's world, a lot of authors expect to send their queries out, have people scrambling to publish it, and then they lie cozy and make millions. Or, they self-publish and expect the world to find it in-between all the other self-published titles. What they don't realize is the work put into advertising, editing, and re-editing over and over and over.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

The thing about writing and publishing a successful first novel is that it's a tough act to follow. (Not that I would know.) I must admit that I do envy the people who lived "ordinary" lives before they got published, and then they were able to quit their day jobs and write full-time.

Bryan Russell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan Russell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darley said...

I hope no one actually expects overnight success. However, when I'm successful I'm going to tell people it was overnight just to annoy them.

Alyson said...

Great post--even Jo Rowling spent years slumming it through independent UK bookstores with Potter before it was picked up outside of England and reprinted. (She also spent years developing the idea...and therein lies the great difference between her and Mrs. Meyer.)

If you're ever in need of a literary pick-me-up, try reading the letters of famous authors. I have a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald's letters, and just listening to him agonize over how nobody appreciates/understands/will ever love and respect THE GREAT GATSBY makes me wildly optimistic.

Ellen said...

I sank a lot of time into a novel that didn't work before I started my current one. I resisted moving on for way too long, but now with every paragraph I can tell how much I've learned, which I'm not sure would have happened otherwise.

Marilynn Byerly said...

Stephanie Meyer wasn't ignorant of writing or the professional when she was writing her first novel. She belonged to RWA which has incredible training opportunities for new writers.

Ann Best said...

Amen to this post, Nathan. I'm 71. My first book was published in May. First full draft (first part of the book) was written in 1987. To get to this point: Well, I've read and read and read books, starting in 1946 in first grade. I've written and written and written stories and poetry. It's been a process and a journey. I might write a second memoir and I might not. Writing takes a lot of energy; it's WORK. I've both enjoyed and been frustrated with it. But now, since I don't have many years left to write or to read, I've become calm about it. It's okay. There's no rush. I HAVE enjoyed the journey, and now I'm content with my family and friends, and that for me, in the end, is what it's all about. (Though I think it would be awesome to "dash off" a bestseller in three months. Isn't that a dream of all serious writers?! :-)
Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror, A Memoir of Shattered Secrets

Drew said...

Sorry, but that's rubbish. Plenty of authors spew something lacklustre and unoriginal out in next to no time at all and get rich and famous off it. Look at most romance authors, who make the most money among us.

How good it is or how long they spent on it has no relationship to whether a demographic latches on to it and word of mouth gets around (like Twilight) or whether a publisher decides to throw massive marketing weight behind it and create success almost as a self fulfilling philosophy (like The Da Vinci Code).

This post is just the stuff those of us who haven't been as lucky tell ourselves to try to not feel bitter about people who are far less deserving.

Lisa Ahn said...

As always, your timing is perfect. This is exactly the post I needed. Thanks.

Kate Evangelista said...

Thank you for the perspective. I needed it.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Sometimes I wonder if I even WANT the lightning to strike. I read about The Night Circus and think, wow that author's under some serious pressure. Of course, we all dream of success, but there's the right kind of success for each of us. I think that's part of finding your path too. Great post!

Lucinda Bilya said...

I have heard...overnight success takes about 17 years.

That sounds about right to me.

Mira said...

This is a great post, and a very important topic for any artist. And your last line was profound and beautifully written.

I also really appreciate the comments. I thought there was alot of wisdom here.

I guess I want to add that I agree with Susan Quinn. We don't really know what impact her success had on Stephanie Meyers. I'm not sure I'd trade places with her. Yes, Meyers earned money and admiration from scores of fans, but she was also widely critiqued, held up as an example of poor literature and Stephen King came right out and said she was a bad writer. Who knows what kind of pressure is on her for her next book. And will her books have any lasting value, or will they fade away, and who knows how that will impact her.

It's very hard to really know what someone else is going through just from the outside. What may look like a blessing can still hold some difficult challenges.

I've found, when I'm really on my path, there's a feeling of righness that comes to me. This is where I should be, and this is what I'm supposed to be learning and doing.

I'm too tired to write more, unfortunately, because I find the issue of artist jealousy very interesting. I think we feel jealous of other artists when we are not fulfilling our own potential, but I'm not sure. Be fun to talk about that more sometime.

Thanks for the great topic and discussion!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Nathan. Rejections have been getting me down lately and this was just the thing I needed to cheer me up.

wendy said...

Aww, thanks, Nathan. Very uplifting and inspiring. Just the thing many aspiring writers needed to be reminded of. Sometimes, though, I wonder if just because we want to write does that mean we're meant to write. These days, I look after my elderly mother full-time, and without me her future would look very bleak. My writing was there when I needed it, needed to escape to wonderful worlds to wander about in, whereas otherwise I would have been bereft. I don't need to write now.

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

I agree with you Nathan. There ain't no such animal.

Marilyn Peake said...

I love that Cormac McCarthy thought about THE ROAD for a year, then wrote it in only three weeks and won the Pulitzer Prize for it. I don't begrudge him that success at all. I find that story inspirational. And, of course, McCarthy had been writing successful novels for years before he wrote THE ROAD. He's one brilliant writer!

James said...

If you ask Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer still hasn't written a novel. :)

Kathryn Magendie said...

And in reality, for some, big sales and huge recognition may never come or it may not come in the ways or figures you dreamed about - so best put on your "I'm in this for the duration no matter what" cap and do this thing we do for more reasons than money and recognition, else you may be sorely disappointed in the outcome. Of course, it's all relative . . .

There's always someone who wishes they had what you had because we're usually looking ahead to the kindle millionaires or NYT best-sellers or et ceteras instead of what really nice exciting things are happening to us at the moment.

I've learned to find positives and gratitude in this writing life -otherwise, it can eat you alive.

A.M Hudson said...

Love the line about lightening.

Emily Wenstrom said...

You said it Nathan. I try to remind myself constantly of this: Talent is only the beginning when it comes being a successfully published author … the prerequisite. It also takes a ton of hard work and persistence—and then it takes some luck. And that’s not to say that the Stephanie Meyers of the world don’t deserve all the success they get, just that there are many others who also deserve but haven’t been lucky enough for everything to align for them yet. So I keep telling myself—all I can do is keep working at it as hard as I can, whenever I can, and try and try and try until you find that little stroke of luck. But the only way to find the luck is to keep up with all the trying so that when the lucky break comes, I’m there and I’m ready for it.

Heidi said...

Thanks Nathan. Gentle reassurance mixed with encouragement.

I feel like someone just patted me on the back, told me everything was OK, and to keep going.

You rock.

Karen Peterson said...

I was at a meeting once where Steve Young talked about how many years it took him to become an overnight success. That always stuck with me.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Thanks for this, Nathan. For years I strove to be a wunderkind, as I'd been encouraged and declared one by my first agent.

Not having proven him correct by now, at the age of 52, has been my one regret with working at writing as an art.

So, like an old professor of mine who said he no longer worried about forgetting things, because he had a right to, because he was 87, I'm happy just publishing my novels, getting my ideas out for readers, and marvel at the success of others.

"Who ever said it would be easy?" was that agent's question to me once when I griped about how slow succcess was coming to me, at the ripe old age of 20-something.

Best,
T

alexclermont said...

Excellent point! Just read the article you posted on Stephenie Meyer. It's easy to look at that, then look at yourself in dismay.

I've recently been looking at the rejection letters written to classic authors and I've take the point of view that if it took Hemingway a couple dozen tries, I can keep myself motivated.

Karen Doniere said...

When pondering over the success of others, I get motivated and reassured that it can happen to me too. Thanks for the carefully thought out post to encourage us to keep on trying because our time will come.

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