A noted story consultant and movie screenwriter recently passed along his conclusion that the most important attribute for somebody trying to break into the screenwriting and fiction writing biz is tenacity.
The craft can be learned, the social/PR network built over time, the manuscript buffed and buffed again, but—says this respected fellow—if you’re going to wedge your foot into the commercial fiction door, you must be long on try, try again.
Of course, with any complicated endeavor, tenacity is important, but I don’t consider it the most important attribute we bring to the tough undertakings.
You can try, try, try and try again, but if the market isn’t ready for what you’re selling, if the market is glutted with what you’re selling, then success isn’t likely. If your approach to the craft—be it screenwriting, novel writing, computer programming, or playing Chopin ballades—doesn’t jive with popular tastes, then your tenacity will only earn you that many more rejections.
And yes, popular tastes change, markets evolve. Those who persist are more likely to eventually see financial reward, but I’d argue that financial reward in any subjective undertaking is the wrong goal, and thus tenacity isn’t quite the top priority.
The most important attribute, says me, is that you love what you’re doing. The tenacity that’s borne of love will keep you going when the market is wrong and the trends against you. Love will keep you producing when no money, approval, or moral support is sustaining you. Love will keep you focused when success or failure try to derail your focus or threaten your confidence.
And I don’t think loving what you do should be limited to romance novelists. As a musician, you can spend months with your behonkis on the piano bench mastering a particularly difficult Chopin ballade, only to find three other fine pianists have put it on their concert repertoire for the year, and they’re ALL playing the same cities are you are, and two months before you get there.
And don’t get me started on the bewilderment and heartache that is parenting.You cannot parent optimally from any place except your heart, you cannot pursue music seriously unless you truly enjoy the music itself, and you cannot write love stories that connect with readers unless those stories come from your heart, too.
This is my theory, that we’re happier if we allow ourselves to care about what we do, and to pursue the things that reach our hearts. It’s counter-intuitive in some sense, because a life of ups and downs, repeated rejections, and successes that only flash in the pan, can be scary and painful—particularly if you’re focused on the ups and downs, rather than the privilege of indulging what you love to do.
Even if it’s only for thirty minutes a day, which is how some writers finish their first novels.
Which brings us to my question: What defines success for you? Is it keeping the bills paid, staying on good terms with the boss? With your family? Maintaining physical health? Guarding your free time? Can you be successful if you aren’t happy?
To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of “Once Upon a Tartan.”
If you feel good about what you’ve done or are doing, whether or not the feedback is a pat on the shoulder, that is success. I was a teacher to Speakers of Other Languages. Most people reacted as if that was an awful job to have. I loved it! Yes, it could be challenging since I couldn’t possibly speak every language that the students in my classroom spoke. But, what I received from the job brought me so much pleasure that no amount of administrative grief could take away.
You make a good point, Trudy. Even with the dream job comes a certain percentage of “administrative grief,” be it dirty dipes, dirty windows, or dirty tricks from the lawyer in the other side. But we don’t focus on that aspect of the job, we focus on the flow moments, instead.
All of the above. I need to have some of everything to feel good in my life. My husband and I made a decision when our children were young, that we weren’t willing to give up our time with our kid just to make more money. Now they are adults and we have never regretted our decision. We are not rich with money, but we are vey rich in our amazing memories of time with our kids.
I wouldn’t be surprised if your grandchildren and greatgrandchildren didn’t enjoy the same kind of wealth. My family wasn’t wealthy either, we never took a family vacation all together than I can recall, but we made much of every birthday and holiday, and our table always had room for one more. Those are good memories.
I don’t think success is the person who makes the most money or has the most important job, etc. I think success is that you’re happy with what you have, you might have to juggle a bit to make things work, but they do work and you aren’t in want, and you have things that you enjoy in your life, be it work, hobbies, family, friends, pets, etc.
Barbara, your comment pre-supposes we give ourselves permission to HAVE wants and to know what they are. It took me a looooong time to separate what I want from what I thought I should want, but thorough attention to that process has made me a happier lady. MUCH happier.
I have considered success much at all since I no longer am able to work. I agree with you completely that you must love what you do, otherwise you won’t be happy to my way of thinking.
I enjoy cooking and at one time was in training to be a chef. I didn’t want one of the top “executive chef” positions, I just hoped to become a competent one and find work where I could make a decent living in the latter part of my life. Thanks to the twists of fate in the health department I no longer have the desire, or the drive to finish my schooling and become a chef.
I’m now retired/disabled and am enjoying myself as a grandmother. My oldest granddaughters recently told me that their two year old sister said I was her “favorite grandmother”. I loved being told that but I also realize I’m around her a lot more than her paternal grandmother is able to be so she knows me a lot better.
So, I feel I’m successful as a grandmother where I was never what people would call “a success” in any of the fields I worked in during my work life. I did the best I could and that’s all anyone can do. Perseverance is good as it helps to make a person successful, no matter what their endeavor is, be it work, schooling, or being a parent/grandparent.
Sorry, that first sentence should say “I have not considered”. Didn’t mean to leave out the not.
Molly, I attribute to children an innocent honesty we lose as we grow older If she said you’re her favorite grandmother, you ARE, and I suspect you are for her older sister too, though that one–being older–has a sense she ought not to choose between the people she loves.
And I bet you are one heck of cook, even if executive chef was never your title.
Success…..finally your children are grown and they have all become good adults and decent members of the community, and are passing their goodness on to their children.
You remind me of something my dad used to say, “You aren’t grown up until your children are grown up.” Only I think you said it better.
Success to me is to be at a place where you feel a sense of security in your relationships, your job, your finances, and your health.
Wow, Janie. We could unpack that wisdom all day, because so much of what we aspire to do and be assumes our loved ones will stay right with us, our health will be rock solid or at least reliable up to a point, and we’ll have the survival needs met.
At some point in life, for most of us, at least one of those gets shakey, and for many of us, they’re never all dependable at the same time.
Thanks for your comment. It puts things in perspective.
Maintaining physical health definitely does not define success for me, if it did I would be very unsuccessful. Of course some of that you have no control over.
I would have to say that right now I feel most successful when my boys are doing well in life or make some small accomplishment that I wasn’t sure was ever going to happen. Every three months a representative (support coordinator) from the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities comes to the house to review the boys’ case. They always ask what progress the boys have made in the three months since they were last here. This week the support coordinator was here for my three year old and I was really surprised by the amount of things he has accomplished in three months. Once a year they also ask us for our long term goals for the boys and I always have a hard time answering that question because really I just want them to do the best that they can in life and be happy and loving. And at the end of the day or early in the morning, like today, if one of my boys comes up to me and hugs me and tells me he loves me I feel very successful.
I’m around those support coordinator types a lot Sarah, and they start prosing on about specific, measurable, time limited, blah, blah, blah. They mean well, and accountability is not a bad thing, but I wonder how they’d react if you told them your goal for Age Three would be that he hug you, Dad or a brother two days out five.
I would like to say being a part of a family is pretty darn successful. Even through hard times can we be better because of it.
Belinda, I agree, provided it’s a family with a healthy definition of love. Some of the families I see in foster care court… you would snatch those children away so fast and never want to give them back. And there are families just as troubled in some of the best neighborhoods.
I worked for many years in “cubicle hell”. I made good money. I did a good job, I was promoted, blah blah and blah. In my mind, I was not successful, because I was not content. I was always looking out for a better job, a better house, ect.
When I decided to go to culinary school, finish with my name on the President’s List, get a job and keep it, then I started to feel successful. I make less money, my living situation is not ideal, but I consider myself in a successful place. I am so stinkin’ happy!! And, watching my son become a young man, and be happy…that gives my the very best of successful feelings. While there are areas of my life that need lots of work, I am more content and have a center-of-peace than I have ever been. That is my measure of success; a peaceful heart.
I love that: a peaceful heart. The peace in my heart is at times elusive. I get to fretting over sales, over cases at court, over what’s to become of me and wherefore shall I be clothed. I will recall your comment, Tracey, when I’m tempted to stop taking the risks of being an author, and content myself with predictability and benefits of a cubicle.
I do think you can be successful and not be happy. I try to keep my goals simple and short term but to be honest. As long has my kids are happy and safe I am content.
Tammy, would love to sit down with you over a cup of tea and get a better understanding of “successful but unhappy,” because I don’t you’re alluding to simply financial security as your definition of success
When my daughter hit major rocky shoals in late adolescence, my law practice was thriving, I was in pretty good health, and the books were beginning to catch some interest, but I went to be every night worried for her.
Maybe that’s what you mean? Everybody would have said Grace was hitting on all eight cylinders, the writing dream coming true, the professional confidence as an attorney notching up, the bills paid… but a corner of my heart was not happy. Not happy at all.
Success to me was/is conquering the roadblocks in life. To be able to see the problems and issues and to rise above them. To set goals and to meet them and go forward to more and better goals.
Betty my mom would agree a thousand percent. She’s a very forward moving lady, and has much to show for her attitude. At 89, she can still go for a couple mile walk, and enjoy every flower in every yard, every dog she meets, and most of the people.
It’s frightening to realize that despite my being “downsized” twice out of jobs, my husband and I are the most financially stable among our friends. Since we don’t have children, I believe our success is that we have realistic goals, just enough to have occasional treats and we both have creative outlets. While we joke we were “born to win the lottery,” neither of us hate our jobs, the house is almost paid off and we’re getting ready to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. Pretty darn successful in my mind.
Congratulations on your successes, too. Please keep ’em coming!
Julee J, hats off to you! Well done, and well deserved. Sometimes, success is the result of many modest, prudent decisions, or plain old good luck. Maybe hard work and behaving yourself isn’t enough to ensure success, but they certainly make it a lot more probable.
I think it is all entwined. We chose employment that enabled us to be present in our kids lives when they were younger. It did not provide the monetary benefits that other jobs would have, but the time spent with our kids, their friends and activities was invaluable. These jobs have turned into incredibly rewarding endeavors themselves, our kids are independent, successful at what they have chosen and happy caring adults. We now are wealthy in our family and friends. We take pleasure in the work we do and the impact we have on others.
I agree, Mickey. I wouldn’t go far as to say, “Do what you love and money will follow,” (Deepak Chopra?), but maybe, do what you love, and contentment will follow.
An example: It’s very hard in law school to understand what practicing law will be like, and I know any number of people who bounce into an area of practice–criminal law and family law being the most likely in a small town–and after about twenty years of misery and marital mayhem, their own marriages are a neglected mess, they’ve bought sail boats and condos they hard ever use, and because this kid has to go to rehab, and the wife insists on counseling that insurance won’t cover, and sailboats ain’t cheap (or easy to resell), all the lawyer money is just walking right back out the door.
You chose more wisely, and now… don’t you love it when a plan comes together?
One of the greatest myths circulated is that you can do anything you want as long as you try hard enough. No. If you can’t sing, you can’t sing.
I came up against the scenario you described. I worked long and hard and got my product to the market only to have the market crash. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell says you may have done it all, worked hard and long and produced great work, but if the stars didn’t align, they didn’t align and it’s not about you. Yes.
Which means that if we let any kind of external factor be the measure, we are never going to be happy nor feel successful. In my life, coming to terms with that is one marker of success.
Myrna, sorry the market crash had to land on your dream, but you’re the wiser and happier for it. I heard Julia Quinn once address a bunch of authors, some published, some aspiring, and what she said stuck with me: Ability affects how far you CAN go in this business, but LUCK affects how far you DO go. If you focus on the things you can’t control–sales, reviews, covers, who else hits the shelves the same month you do–you will be miserable.
You chose sane. Go you.
Success is when I feel content in all that is around me. When I can go to sleep at night and not feel one ounce of stress. To fall asleep deeply and wake up refreshed. When I see my family happy with what we have. I don’t have to have a lot of money, but success to me is when I know I make it, and can spend it comfortably without worrying about when I’ll have money next. I don’t mind the struggle to provide, I just want to be comfortably living with people I love.
I once asked my brother when he knew his hips were going to be a problem. His response: When ANYTHING is consistently costing you sleep, be it your marriage, your job, your right hip, your finances, then it’s a problem.
You’re right, Xoun. Sleeping well is a form of success and wealth.
Success to me always means having a clean home, just in case we have visitors. Sadly, none ever show up. However, I do love my home to be clean, so it really doesn’t matter.
Grace, I have a print of that little girl that you have above, where she’s standing in a garden. 🙂
Diane, one of my sister is an art historian, and she gave me the “Girl with a Watering Can” because the child looks very much as my daughter did around age five. Where are you in Florida? I’ll be spending some time around Orlando. Maybe I should come admire your clean house, because where I live, a clean house is a rarity.
With my disability if I get up in the morning and my face doesn’t hit the floor I consider my day a sucess and full of good possibilities:)
Gail, bless your humor and grit–though I know you’re not teasing. Not by half.
I do think that the pursuit of money/power is what is wrong in our society and so many times it turns to greed. I was raised to get a good job, not to do what I enjoyed. Our school system stresses getting those A’s as the end goal. I’m afraid most people never even find out what it is they enjoy. Having a passion or finding that joy I believe that you could probably find a way to make a living, along with that tenacity/perserverance. And if you can’t support yourself and another job is necessary, hopefully you can still pursue your joy someway that may eventually lead to a happier way of life.
I have a whole, rabid rant on why education as we practice it is a disservice to our children (and probably our teachers, too). I’d love to hear what Sabrina has to say about the balance between equipping young people with the skills they need to find a dream, and protecting the dreams they already have (which, I venture to say, for many kids do not include the quadratic equation).
I have two jobs now, Cats, and the one feeds the pets while the other feeds my soul. It words for now.
Over the years, my benchmark for success has shifted.
In my teens, “success” meant getting top grades, getting the lead in the school play, getting a scholarship to a good college.
In my twenties, “success” meant graduating from college and grad school with honors, finding a good job that allowed me an independence, establishing myself as my own person.
In my thirties, “success” meant creating a home, continuing to challenge myself in my work, finding joy in the company of friends, and learning not to rely on “success” or “security” but on my willingness to make bold changes in my life and to be open to future potential.
Now in my forties, having set behind a solid-paying job with benefits to start my own business as well as to help start a larger local business, “success” to me means earning enough to be able to pay the bills while having free time to enjoy life — and to know that the work I have chosen is a joy as well. It means finding those moments when what I do (be it teaching someone how to cook or baking delicious bread that gives someone else pleasure or writing something that resonates with someone else) brings a light to someone else’s eyes. It means having more time for the people I love (especially my mother as she was dying and now my father as he relearns how to live alone) and more time to appreciate the world around me. It means loving myself and knowing that I have something positive to contribute to the world around me.
With all those changing meanings of success, I think perhaps success really comes down to having the openness of heart and mind to whatever may come, to making the best of a stressful situation and finding real joy in good times — to finding and dancing through that ever-shifting balance of life.
Thank you, Grace, for giving us all the chance to remind ourselves how we are successful in our individual lives.
Jennifer, excellent point. How helpful is a definition that admits of no flexibility and growth? You seems to be on a trajectory where each decade is lived from a more courageous place, and that to me, is a progression characterized by love. Betcha the next decades are even better.
My success comes from my family. I work hard to provide a good life for my family and I don’t sacrifice family for work. We always try to do something together, weather it’s a move, waterpark, etc. I am my happiest when I am cuddled up with my son on the recliner watching Disney Junior Channel.
Sheryl, I think a lot of families could be spared heartache (and maybe counseling) by a regular Disney movie night. For my family (no TV for a long time, than none allowed on school nights), dinner every night at six pm was non-negotiable, and I think that was a good thing too.
I think success comes in how you feel inside. If you are content with where you are and have enough to make sure your family is provided for, that is successful to me. I’m disabled now, but do have a sense of contentment.
Marcy, my mom’s rubric is, she wants to feel useful, and if she can’t feel useful, she at least doesn’t want to be a grouchy burden. She has the wisdom to know that even smiling at somebody can be a great kindness–for some of us, the only kindness we might receive in an entire week.
And in the sense that you can offer generous smiles, words of encouragement, or friendly blog posts, you may be a lot less disabled than many others.
Success? Breathing is success. My home and family represent success to me. They also represent blessings beyond belief. Every day that I walk is success after relearning how. My youngest daughter is a miracle. I define success as a life of love. I can’t explain it anymore clearly than that.
Got it in one, Mandy. Absolutely, WHAT YOU SAID.
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