How do you know when you've gotten your big break?
This will be my last post for Ask an Author. Thanks y’all for sticking with me. It’s been a good year of columns, and I’ve really felt good doing it. I hope you all have gotten some insights out of it!
One question — or sentiment — I see a lot is about getting one’s “big break” in writing. Or how you know when you’ve “made it.”
Weirdly, here are a whole long list of things that don’t mean that. Or at least, they certainly haven’t felt that way after the fact to me or to friends of mine who’ve gotten them — they may be nice milestones, but they haven’t meant it’s suddenly going to be smooth sailing from here on out. Far from it:
A book deal
A large six-figure multi-book deal
Hitting the NYT Bestseller List
Getting a bunch of starred reviews
Earning enough to quit the day job
Regularly hitting best-of anthologies
Getting a major award nomination
Winning a major award
Getting a movie option
Having your movie go into production
Having been a professional writer for a decade
I’m not going to deny that these can be desirable things. Of course they are. But… at this point in my career, I know quite a lot of people who’ve earned a solid handful of these things, including myself.
And it’s still so fucking hard.
It still often feels like we’re only as good as our last success.
Like each small victory is a blip that fades too fast, and we’re hitting exponential decay until our next release. I still know so many people — who have had quite a few successes like these! — playing “advance arithmetic” with their finances, or tiredly trying to keep up with the Amazon algorithms, or looking worriedly at every new update to health insurance legislation.
Maybe there does exist some turning-point event at which point it’s possible to feel like you’ve “made it.” Maybe it’s with the seven-figure deals, or hitting the bestseller list for a year, or the movie that spawns a wildly successful franchise. Who knows? I don’t know enough of those people to say. ;)
But here’s where this post gets more optimistic, as promised in the column before this one.
Because yeah… career and financial security do increase. They do! Just — slowly. And not at all steadily. It very, very, very rarely happens in a single moment, a single huge book deal, a single runaway bestseller. Instead…
Here’s the way I think about it. It’s like pecking one’s way up a mountain. And sometimes having to backtrack. And sometimes slipping down on a load of scree, or taking a tumble into a crevasse and having to find one’s way out. And sometimes having to take a very circuitous route to get only a few meters more of altitude. But slowly, over time, on average… slowly starting to make it higher and higher.
And the good news is, it’s not just the “big” stuff that gets you up another few steps. It’s everything. Every victory, no matter how small. Some might get you a little farther than others, but they’re all accumulating, adding a bit more onto that total.
Even if a success might feel less consequential in the moment, it’ll still give another small boost, another step forward. They may not be the “big break” that means you’ve “made it”, but they give you another meter up that path, or another five, or another ten. Or they may be some rope out of the next crevasse, or some more strength for the next fall. And every one of these victories, from the bigger feathers in one’s cap to the very smallest successes — begins to accumulate, until you look back and you realize you’re a lot higher above ground than you expected.
There’s a word we use in math — “monotonic” — to mean a graph that increases without ever decreasing (i.e., goes steadily upward with no dips down) or, the reverse, that it decreases without ever increasing. I think about this characterization often with regard to writing.
A writing career can almost never be graphed as a monotonically increasing function. It doesn’t only go up without dipping back down now and then along the way.
But it is, more often than not, an increasing graph, if you zoom out far enough. One with bad days, or bad months, or bad years, but if you look at it over a long enough time, you’ll see it going up. Slowly and non-monotonically. As every one of those victories, no matter how small — every short story sale, every event, every reprint request, every subrights sale — as everything builds, and builds, and builds.
So no, I don’t think the big break is something that should be expected, or even really aimed at as an achievable goal. But the small accumulations over time, until you’ve built up and up and up? That’s achievable. That, I think we can all aim for, and not think about it like an unlikely lottery win, but something we can attain. Something we can keep attaining, over time, slowly and in a way that might not look like we expected — but we can.
We can make it.
Thanks for taking this year’s journey of writing columns with me. And here’s to continued, mounting writing victories for all of us.