You know the drill. Someone’s ordained an “Overnight Success” yet a little digging uncovers a far different reality.
Namely, years of hard work.
In one of those Harmonic Convergence moments, I read a no-holds-barred blog post on the Sex In a Submarine blog about overnight successes, read a similar post on a screenwriting blog, then listened quietly (licking my lips like I do when I’m quietly disagreeing) while a somewhat clueless acquaintance congratulated me for being “lucky” enough to transition my business from (mostly) copywriter to marketing consultant “in just a few months.”
I was, she said, an “overnight success.”
She meant well, but I needed a drink.
The Only Overnight Successes I Know Are…
Those holding winning lottery tickets are the only real overnight successes; pretty much everyone else – at least in the “creative” fields – typically works their asses off for their “overnight success.”
William Martel – a real live working Hollywood screenwriter for twenty years – opened fire on the whole concept of “overnight success” in his Sex in A Submarine blog, which included this passage:
There are lots of people on message boards who think they will sell their first screenplay for a million bucks and date underwear models while sipping champagne and floating around in Spielberg’s pool. That’s the LIMITLESS version. The more realistic version involves writing a stack of scripts, rewriting them, doing all kinds of hard work and networking, and maybe landing an assignment that never gets made. Sure, I know a couple of people from message boards who worked their asses off and actually sold their scripts (not the first scripts for either one) and the scripts actually got made into theatrical movies with stars. Cool. Those are the couple that I know who *seem* like overnight successes – and I know a whole lotta people.
Martel referenced another blog post at JohnAugust.com (a screenwriting blog), where Allison Schroeder (also a working screenwriter who’s “making it” after two years of working as a gopher) posted her story, which – like most writer’s stories – included the typing of lot of words which never saw the light of day:
And that was it. I met with the network soon after; they read Stickgirls and approved me. I met with UTA that same day; they became my agents ten minutes after I walked out of the network meeting.
It happened “overnight.” Well, if “overnight” means after two years of hard work, building relationships, and endless writing.
People often want to know how much I wrote during my assistant years. In terms of time: many hours a week. In terms of material generated: two original pilots, one TV spec, two features, a novel, and a pile of tossed out pages. I meet many aspiring writers who haven’t finished a single script. That’s not going to be a path to success.
That’s a lot of unpublished, never-going-to-see-the-light-of-day words. And we’re overlooking all the words typed while Ms. Schroeder worked her way through film school.
Makes you wonder how many “overnight successes” suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome.
“I’m a Writer”
“Some day I’d like to write” is a refrain often heard by working writers, and the one thing I’ve learned that doesn’t advance the conversation is “Yeah, which day is that?”
There are approximately a bazillion “writers” out there, and the only thing preventing the writing industry from collapsing under all that weight is this fact: most are far happier labeling themselves “writers” than they are actually sitting down and typing through the rough patches.
I once suggested that every writer should probably blog, at the very least because it forces them to write more than they otherwise would.
I’m hardly the most productive writer on the planet, but between my Top Two fly fishing blog and the Writer Underground, I’ve published very close to one million words.
That’s not to say they were all artfully arranged or even intelligible, but that’s one million words I might not have written, and we all know I’m the better writer for having done it.
You could suggest that time would have been better spent pounding out a bunch of novels and spec scripts, and it’s hard to argue that little reality, but those weren’t goals.
And the real point is this: to an observer lacking historical perspective, my already-too-busy-to-finish-my-own-website marketing consulting business might seem like an overnight success.
But only if you ignore the 25 years I’ve invested writing marketing copy and learning the ins and outs of marketing, and not always in the most glamorous of trenches.
I can think of a dozen different moments when I stretched – and wrote my way through projects I simply didn’t know how to write, but did the work and learned (look for an upcoming post about screenwriting – something I haven’t done in over a decade, but will do again soon).
I’m not an overnight success and neither are the two writers mentioned above, and in fact, I don’t know a single “overnight” success in any creative field.
You work hard for years – stretching yourself in the process (doing the same thing over and over is a prescription for premature brain death), and one day you realize what you wanted is within your grasp.
It’s often been within your grasp without you realizing it, but let’s face it, most writers need to be hit over the head before they’ll recognize the trees and the forest are on fire.
You want to be a writer?
Then write. And not the same shit you wrote the prior 12 months.
Not sure you’ll stay committed? Then do what copywriter/aspiring novelist Graham Strong did and hold yourself publicly accountable.
One day – if you work hard and you’re lucky – you’ll become an overnight success.
Keep writing, Tom Chandler.