On overnight success (Surprise! It’s a lot like failure.)

Both of last week’s posts here were about failure, or at least the constant perceived threat of failure that so often makes it hard for us to move forward. I’m going to continue the theme, but on a slightly different note. Our own Emu Empress, Erin MUrphy, once said something along the lines of, “For every success, there is a waiting period that feels like failure.” And in a post on this very blog almost three years ago, she followed that up with, “But it’s NOT! It’s just waiting!”

When she wrote that post back in 2011, I’d only been with the agency for a few months. One year from now, I’ll have three books published. That doesn’t seem like very much waiting, especially to those familiar with the pace of the publishing industry. Many of my writer friends have walked up to me and said something to the effect of, “Wow, you’re on FIRE!” Some say things like, “I guess you’ve been busy lately!” Others ask, “So, what’s your secret?” as if I’m holding out on them. A few say, “Boy, did you get lucky!” never thinking that some authors might be a little bit offended by that. (I never am: Yes, indeed, I have gotten very, very lucky!)

So, in the interests of dispelling myths and keeping things real, I thought it might be helpful to break down my “overnight success:”

  • Early 1970s: I fell in love with reading: books, magazines, encyclopedias, cereal boxes, shampoo bottles, you name it, I read it.
  • Somewhere around 1980: I sent away for the application to the Institute of Children’s Literature, filled it out and was accepted! Sadly, my parents didn’t think I was quite ready for a literary career, since I was still in elementary school.
  • Late 1980s: I wrote lots of angsty teen poetry, got my first word processor, and discovered term papers – what fun!
  • Early 1990s: I minored in technical writing and grammar in college and took honors English courses, even while I went for a “sensible” career in software engineering.
  • 2000: A good friend told me I should stop telling her about all the things I was learning and just write my explanations down for everyone to read. I suspect she might have just been trying to shut me up, but I jumped at the suggestion.
  • 2004: My first article was published by a regional parenting magazine.
  • 2004: I started working on the manuscript that would become both EMMANUEL’S DREAM and BE A CHANGEMAKER (yes, a picture-book biography and a teen how-to guide both evolved from the same project).
  • 2006: I enrolled in the Institute of Children’s Literature course… finally!
  • 2006: My first magazine article for kids was published.
  • 2008: I joined SCBWI.
  • 2009: I wrote MY DOG IS THE BEST for an online workshop with Anastasia Suen.
  • 2011: I signed with my amazing agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary.
  • 2012: EMMANUEL’S DREAM sold.
  • 2013: BE A CHANGEMAKER and MY DOG IS THE BEST sold.

You can see that there was an awful lot of waiting that felt like failure in there. Of course, I wasn’t just sitting around doing nothing in those spaces between the bullet points, either. I was constantly taking classes, reading, studying, writing, getting feedback, revising, submitting… I have dozens of manuscripts and proposals that will never become books and hundreds of ideas that will never even become manuscripts. I’ve collected what feels like thousands of rejections, and still that number continues to grow!

Each one of those could be seen as failure (and, believe me, some days they sure do feel like it), but I try to look at them more as necessary delays, like with air traffic control… or Frogger. Remember how you had to ride the log until another one came by and then jump at just the right moment? Having just the right wait time will eventually put me on the right track with the right skills and life experience for the right idea for the right editor at the right time (hopefully!). After all, what can we do but keep working, putting our work out there, and hoping, even if that means to perpetually risk failure? It’s the only way I know of to get to success.


Laurie Ann Thompson head shotLaurie Ann Thompson’s debut young-adult nonfiction, BE A CHANGEMAKER: HOW TO START SOMETHING THAT MATTERS, will be published by Beyond Words/Simon Pulse in September, 2014. She also has two upcoming picture books: EMMANUEL’S DREAM, a picture-book biography with Schwartz & Wade/Penguin Random House (January 2015), and MY DOG IS THE BEST, a fiction picture book with Farrar, Straus, & Giroux/Macmillan (May 2015). Please visit her website, follow her on Twitter, and like her Facebook page.

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26 Comments

Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Discipline, Faith, Rejection, rejection and success, Writing and Life

26 responses to “On overnight success (Surprise! It’s a lot like failure.)

  1. I totally understand the gist of this work. I am an artist as well as interior designer and success has been a grateful companion.
    It would always amaze and delight me when asked ‘How long did it take you to paint that work?’referring to a recently exhibited work.
    My answer would always be ‘About 20 years!’
    This is indeed how it could be summed up. Things seldom just get finished and then sell. It is a process of study, referencing and long hours of doing un-related drawings to just keep one’s hand in. Thanks for the post it is quite relevant.B.

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  2. Great post, Laurie. I actually wrote a similar timeline for myself recently, which made me realize how much work I’d put in over the last 10 years to get to the point of publication. It definitely hasn’t been overnight success for me, either.

    Can’t wait for all 3 of your books!

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  3. This is important to share. Sustained hard work over a long period of time is what it’s all about – but the end product makes it look so much easier than that. And I think I might be guilty of saying “Wow, you’re on fire!” to you – but you deserve it! Sometimes when all that hard work catches up to you, it really catches up! Three books by next year is an amazing achievement.

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    • Yes, there is definitely an element of being “on fire” when things start finally clicking, but it really has more to do with having a big backlog of manuscripts ready to hand to my awesome agent than about anything I’m doing right now. In fact, right now I’m feeling a little panicky that it’ll take me another ten years to write anything worth submitting! 😉

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  4. annastan

    My timeline is also very similar. I get the same questions and comments you do, and I have to laugh when people ask what my secret is. I think the secret is eternal patience. 🙂

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  5. Rebecca Van Slyke

    Oh, this feels very familiar! Who’da thunk that a picture book could take seven YEARS to write? (Well, Maurice Sendak, for one! And me!) The important takeaway from your post: “Of course, I wasn’t just sitting around doing nothing in those spaces between the bullet points, either. I was constantly taking classes, reading, studying, writing, getting feedback, revising, submitting…” It’s never failure when you’re improving your craft. Congratulations on your “overnight success!”

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  6. Laurie, Great perspective on the “magic” produced by
    the long haul. Thanks.

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  7. kevanjatt

    Sounds like a typical ‘overnight success’. I’m still working on mine…
    Great post, Laurie!

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  8. Kelly Ramsdell Fineman

    Terrific post – thanks so much for this. It’s what I needed to hear today!

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  9. Lindsey Lane

    I love how wise you are, Laurie. Thank you for this post. I firmly believe success happens just when it is meant to and that the waiting, however nerve-wracking it is (and it is), is part of the preparation for the moments of success.

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  10. I’m going to keep working on my own ‘overnight success.’ Thanks so much for sharing your story with us.

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  11. Wonderful post, Laurie. I currently have a manuscript almost ready. I have saved 91 drafts. Some just have a few sentences tweaked. Some are complete rewrites. It is a picture book around 700 words. But work goes into our words…every word. Loved seeing your realistic timeline.

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  12. I think it helps to shed light on the reality of it all, both for the up-and-comers behind us so they can set realistic expectations and for each other so we know we’re not the only one who needs 91 drafts to get 700 words just right (right there with you!). So much of this business is hidden behind a veil of secrecy. The more we can give everyone a peek behind the curtain, the better for all!

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  13. Thank you for sharing your journey! It’s always encouraging to hear.

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  14. OHMYGOSH, I signed up for the Institute of Children’s Literature in 1980, too! (But I was a tad older than you!) Assignment #6 was my first sold piece. Of course it took 7 years before the second one sold . . . long process, long years, long decades, lotta practice, lotta rejections, but this year will see my 7th and 8th books pubbed by Scholastic and Harpercollins. Whew! I’ve always said I must be the world’s slowest learner. The curve has been very loooooong. 🙂

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