The Myth of Overnight Success (and why it’s bad for writers)

JordanBusiness of Writing, Craft, Writing. Practice.11 Comments

by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

You know it when you see it: that author everyone is talking about all of a sudden. One day, you’ve never heard of him or her, the next minute, J.K. Rowling or Jonathan Franzen or someone whose name is now almost household appears out of the void of obscurity (to you). And because of the explosive nature of success, it looks as though t this success happened instantaneously. This person tossed off a book, found an agent and bam, a month later: bestselling magic!

But…it’s a myth. Overnight success is an especially damaging myth to writers.

Many years back I had the pleasure of interviewing authors for my radio show Word by Word, and as a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest Magazine. For a writer who is also a groupie of writers, it was one of the highpoints of my writing life. I spoke with hundreds of writers (including some of my faves: Aimee Bender, Isabelle Allende, Tess Gerritsen, Chuck Pahlaniuk Louise Erdrich, TC Boyle, Yann Martel). What I learned both from speaking to them, and also in my own long slog toward publication of my three books, is that overnight success is an utter myth. Not only is it a myth, and I mean for writers specifically, it’s a dangerous one to any writer who truly wants to make a career (by which I don’t necessarily mean money), and here is why:

Practice: Writing is a craft, and though talent can take you far, the only true way to produce anything good is through practice. Lots of it. A painter of landscapes I met once said she had to paint “miles of canvas” for every finished painting, and I think it is the same for writers. We must write libraries of words. Even if you are a beacon of shining raw talent, you probably have a trick or two to learn, a habit to curb, or a new way of writing you’d like to try out. I think writers age like fine wines, personally, and the more you polish, the better. And there’s all this pressure in the digital age to get books up fast and then faster, which often does you a disservice. First drafts can be written in a rush, but subsequent drafts need a bit of time.

Polish (with help): All of the authors I interviewed had a writing partner, a writing critique group, or an editor they worked closely with. They did not rely upon their own eyes at all times to catch what wasn’t working. Because they sought feedback, these authors also did revisions of their work. Some of them did many, many revisions. And while the word often terrifies newer writers, I firmly believe that real writing—real craft and certainly polish—happens in the revision.

Persist. Every writer I interviewed was famous for a “breakout” book; while this was their first published book, it was actually the author’s third or ninth written novel. Which was all to say if your first book doesn’t make magic, I beseech you, by the mother of all holy things, keep writing!

The moral of the story is: Overnight success comes after walking a road over time of practice, and persistence. Nothing is ever wasted as a writer. You’ve walked another step toward another mile. Anything else is rushing, and you know what your mother taught you about haste making…




JordanThe Myth of Overnight Success (and why it’s bad for writers)

11 Comments on “The Myth of Overnight Success (and why it’s bad for writers)”

  1. Stephanie Noel

    Great post. It’s true that we tend to think that overnight success is common to every best seller writer. I sometimes wonder if this thought is encouraged by the industry, to creat a gap between the writers and the readers. We tend to see the writers as some kind of geniuses, we admire them in awe. I guess this is good for sales.

    1. Jordan

      Well the thought is certainly encouraged by the industry, whether on purpose or by the nature of the beast. I think that writers are encouraged to write marketable fiction, with the lure of “hitting it big.” And that is about the publishing houses hoping to hit it big.

  2. Deborah Taylor-French

    I have been thinking and mentally writing on this topic because my inner coach wants me to keep writing. I love the rush when I finally understand or automatically use a new writing skill in my nonfiction or fiction work.

    No overnight successes. I’m reading Hemmingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” He mentions that some of his “successful writing days” he only produced one good sentence. I do not love the majority of Hemmingway’s fiction, yet I love his honesty and hard effort. He writes of protecting the “well” of his writing so that he could go back each day and continue the fiction he was creating. I am more conscious of the ‘well” of my writing requiring physical stammina and mental balance, so I want to have the staying power it takes beyond a first book.

    1. Jordan

      Deborah, I think you should absolutely keep writing. The writing itself is crucial and powerful and the only thing that CAN get you published, after all 😉

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