Overnight Success is Never Overnight
June 14, 2012
I try to go to movies at least twice a year whether I need to or not. Last night, I saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which was every bit as good as advertised. It made you laugh a little, cry a little, cheer a little, and realize that there are good people in the world dealing with lost expectations, dashed hopes, and facing consequences that don’t include either a vampire or a zombie trailing them in the dark.
The plot was interesting, the story well written, the acting superb. But it was the theme of the movie that has been haunting me since I walked out of the theater. It was, roughly speaking, everything will turn out all right in the end, and if it’s not yet all right, then it’s not yet the end.
That should become the mantra of everyone thinking about a book, writing a book, editing a book, hoping to find an agent for a book, trying to publish a book, or marketing a book.
None of it comes easy. Nothing worthwhile ever does.
You spend six months writing a book, three months editing a book, three months looking for an agent before giving up, three months looking for a publisher before giving up, another three months trying to decide whether or not to travel the indie road to publishing, and, it seems, the rest of your life is spent blogging and tweeting and searching for the magic button that will unleash a ton of sales.
A year passes. Nothing. No agent. No publisher. No book reviews. No sales. And, by now, only a handful of the desperate with empty pockets have even bothered to grab copies of your novel on the days it is given away free.
It’s not all right, you say.
The punch line, however, is this: It’s not the end.
Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With The Wind in 1926. At least, she finished the novel in 1926. It sat around collecting dust for the next ten years before an editor from Macmillan chanced across her manuscript, thought it had potential, and had Margaret Mitchell invest the next six months of her life, checking the accuracy of her historical references and re-writing the opening chapter. She had written the novel’s final moments first, and then went back and pieced together the events necessary to make the story work.
Gone With the Wind is the only novel she ever wrote, and for a full decade, she felt as though she was a failure. There was no redemption until someone finally came around to publish it.
It worked out all right in the end.
But she had to wait.
Thomas Wolfe will long be remembered for his two brilliant novels: The Web and the Rock and You Can’t go Home Again.
He spent years writing The Hound of Darkness. The manuscript grew larger and more complicated as he frantically tried to present a series of scenes representative of American life as they occurred throughout the country on a single night. It was an ambitious project even for Wolfe, and he always leaped into the middle of ambitious projects. He never finished the novel. He had the audacity to die instead.
His editor painstakingly combed through the voluminous manuscript, removing two huge chunks of Wolfe’s lyrical writing. He published those chunks separately as The Web and The Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again.
The Hound of Darkness never saw the light of day.
But for Wolfe’s legacy, it worked out all right in the end.
Stephen King sold a few short stories, including I Was A Teenage Grave Robber, but he was fearful and terribly insecure, never forgetting the night his father left home to buy a package of cigarettes and never bothered to come back. He was afraid of the dark, afraid of things that go bump in the night, but mostly, he was afraid that his novels would never be published.
He wrote Getting It On, and the novel was promptly rejected. He took rejection hard, filed the manuscript away, and forgot it. King began writing The Dark Tower saga, but he was broke, had to find a job, and didn’t have the time to finish it. He filed that manuscript away as well, taking instead a job pumping gas for a dollar and a quarter an hour.
Years later, he was teaching at Hampden Academy in Maine, earning a little more than six thousand dollars a year when he wrote a few pages about a teenage girl named Carietta White. King decided that the story really wasn’t worth the trouble, so he wadded up the paper and threw it in the trash. His wife, however, rescued the pages from the garbage, encouraged her husband to keep writing, and eventually the novel, which could have easily been lost for the ages and never read by anyone, found a publisher. It was known as Carrie. He would never have money problems again.
For King, his earlier struggles hadn’t been all right. But the end had not yet come for him. He tried again. And again. He gave writing one more chance.
He could have quit. He didn’t.
And in the end, it worked out all right for him.
As an author, it is so easily to become tired and beaten down. It is a lonely world in which we live. The characters who become such close friends don’t even stay around for long or forever. And when a short story, a novel, or a work of nonfiction is rejected, it is not unlike someone saying something bad about our children. When a published book doesn’t sell, we feel like outcasts misplaced on a desert island where the ships don’t bother to go anymore.
“See him?” a friend says. “He’s an author.”
“What’s he published?”
“Nothing.” Or even worse: “Nothing you’ve ever heard of.”
It is a terrible albatross hanging around our necks.
Another theme from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel struck me as well. The line was, roughly speaking: The only real failure you ever have is the failure of not trying again.
It spoke to me. It speaks to all who are writing and making their way through the confusing and unpredictable maze of publishing, either traditional or indie.
Maybe it hasn’t yet worked out all right. But then, it’s not yet the end. As long as you can sit down at a keyboard and properly rearrange a few thousand words into a story or a novel, the end has not yet come. Your writing life still has a chance to work out all right.
The secret of success is not necessarily patience. It is perseverance.
You may make it big. Or maybe you won’t. But you’ll never know if you decide to take the easy way out and quit. If you do, the end will definitely come someday, and when you look around at those piles of unwritten words and untold stories locked away in a cobwebbed corner of your brain, you’ll know that nothing worked out all right, and the blame is staring back at you from the cracked mirror of your own conscience.
Just remember: Overnight success is never overnight.
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