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It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

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A few months back, a writing friend was trying to make a difficult decision regarding her career – the kind of no-easy-answer decision aspiring authors make every day in pursuit of the dream (who to submit to, to agent or not to agent, indie/traditional… the choices are dizzying and every day there seem to be more of them). In an attempt to help her decide, I asked her what her ultimate goal was – to just get published so she can be over that psychological hurdle? To share her work with readers? To be rich and famous and marry Jason Segel? (Okay, that’s my goal…) Her goal? To be Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

That seemed like a pretty kickass goal to me, so to get tips on how to become Susan Elizabeth Phillips, I went to the source. Her website. (The woman can tell a story and her bio is fabulous reading.) She says that she began to write with a friend “completely by accident” while she was a SAHM in 1976. The very first book they wrote was published under a pseudonym in 1983. (Instant success! Right? But let’s read on…) Transitioning to writing on her own she did another historical (under her own name this time) and then wrote Glitter Baby (1987), at which point she “had a real career going” but she doesn’t say “readers finally knew who [she] was” until It Had to Be You (1994), Heaven, Texas (1995) and Kiss An Angel (1996), AND she didn’t hit The Lists of Awesome Sales Velocity until Nobody’s Baby But Mine (1997, USA Today) and Dream a Little Dream (1998, NYT). So… 1976 to 1998. Overnight success?

The moral of the story? Not even SEP was SEP overnight. (Though, okay, yes, she was always Susan Elizabeth Phillips because that was her NAME, but you know what I mean.)

Now don’t be discouraged! This does not mean if you start writing your first word today that it will be twenty-odd years before you hit the NYT list (if it exists in 20 years… we might all be too busy battling zombies to notice which books are the top sellers for each week). Instant success is awesome and IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU. But if it doesn’t, remember that taking time to find your audience puts you in the same camp as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.

We can have a distorted view of how instantly successful authors are because by the time we hear about most of them, they are Big News. But even the Greats don’t find their audiences instantly. They are iconic to us now, but they struggled and built their careers slowly, just like many of us will.

If your first book is a best seller, we will all cheer for you (though we will be green with jealousy as we cheer wildly), but if your first book is a slow starter, or publishers don’t know where you fit in the market, or your option book gets un-optioned, or you are sick of getting “good” rejections, or your royalty check is barely enough to buy groceries – just remember, that doesn’t make you any less awesome than Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Persevere. Keep running the race. It’s a marathon; don’t be disappointed if you aren’t in first place after the first hundred meters.

**I have the Olympics on the brain. Hence all the talk of hurdles and sprints and marathons.**

Do you have a story of perseverance that inspires you to push on? Who is your favorite author and how long had they been toiling by the time you discovered their awesomeness?

48 Responses to “It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint”

  1. Hope Ramsay says:

    Everyone knows my story of perseverance. I finished my first novel in 1982 (it took me 5 years to write). I made my first sale in 2010. You can count the years.

    And even though my first book sold exceptionally well, my subsequent books, while doing well, have not sold AS well. So even after that long climb, there is yet more climbing to do.

    But, hey, I was thinking this morning before I read Vivi’s blog, that despite the fact that I don’t make enough writing income to give up my day job, and even though my books haven’t propelled me to the NYT list, I can still hold my head up and tell everyone that I AM an author. And I’ve wanted to be an author almost my whole life. I’ve achieved that goal. It took me decades to do it.

    And now, curiously, I need to find a new goal. I suppose getting onto a best seller list will have to do. But I doubt that achieving that goal will be anywhere as sweet as getting that call from my agent with the news that, yes, I would finally have a book in print and people would be able to read it.

  2. Kat Cantrell says:

    Vivi, I love that I can hear your voice in my head as I read this and picture your face. :) Thank you for this post! I too dream of being the next SEP and I’m ashamed to admit I did not know her story. It’s very inspirational. It’s also interesting to find out Dream A Little Dream was her first NYTBS, which is also the first book of hers I read. So I guess that’s a good way to reach readers, huh? LOL

    Oh, and like Hope, I’ve been writing for decades. So we both get perseverance awards. :)

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Kat, it was so great meeting you at Nationals!! I love looking at the stories of my favorite authors. It reminds me that by the time I realized how awesome they were, they’d already put in a ton of work – so I’d better keep working! :) Congrats on your sale. Keep persevering!

  3. Amanda Brice says:

    Vivi, I needed this post. Thank you!

    Robyn Carr spoke at our chapter retreat this year and she likes to say it took her nearly 25 years to become an overnight success. (Similar story to SEP.)

  4. Gwyn says:

    Thanks for the boot in the butt, Vivi. Now I’m wondering if I have enough energy for an entire marathon! *G* I’ve been at this, off and on, since 1982. Life has demanded a few water breaks on my route, but I’m still here. I think I’ll make Elton John’s I’m Still Standing my theme song. ;-)

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      This is a tricky marathon because you never know how close you are to the finish line. All you know is that you’ll never get there if you stop now. So sing it with Sir Elton and keep on keepin’ on! :)

  5. Dani Wade says:

    I so needed to hear this today! And you are so right, Vivi. It is tricky because we never can tell how close we are to the goal. So many things happen off stage, and we never know they’re happening until their done.

    I’ve been writing now for 10 years, actively submitting for about 7 of those 10, and sometimes I’ve found myself very tired. My current goals are to keep writing, keep submitting, but protect my joy in the process. If that means submitting less, writing stories outside of the accepted box because I love the idea, and self-pubbing some of my work, then that’s what I’ll do. Because *I* enjoy it, and I never want to get back to the point where I’m just forcing words on the page to get them done.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Such a good point, Dani. The invisible, behind-the-scenes stuff can make you crazy wondering and it’s too easy for it to turn into work if we don’t protect our passion for what we do. Here’s to the joy!

    • Anne Barton says:

      Oh my gosh, Dani–I think you are absolutely right about “protecting the joy.” If we lose that, not only will we be miserable, but our writing will suffer.

      Thanks for the reminder to enjoy the journey!

  6. Vivi, I’ve been at the this for a decade plus and I’ve yet met an established author who hasn’t worked their buns off for many, many years to get where they are standing. That fact is both encouraging and depressing, depending where you stand on the timeline and whether you see the road up the mountain as a steep path or a gentle grade. Me, I like the gentle grade. You see so much more beauty, have the opportunity to learn and observe new things, and best of all, talk to friends without gasping for breath. Yup, I’m a half-full kinda girl. Great post!

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      I love the half full optimism! We will scale that mountain, one step at a time.

      That reminds me of something Neil Gaiman said – how he viewed his career goals as a distant mountain and made decisions on what to do based on whether that action would take him closer or farther away from the mountain. I loved that visualization because then you stop beating yourself up for not being on the summit already. It’s a long journey… and the journey’s half the fun. Enjoy it! :)

  7. Liz Talley says:

    Wonderful post, Vivi, and a good reminder that to get to where we’re going we must put one foot in front of the other. The path is short for some, longer for others.

    I often worry about if I’m making the right decisions. With the rise of self-publishing and the rise of sales in that arena, I’m constantly doubting my choices. But I tell myself I’m the tortiose and I will win my race. None of my books are climbing charts or shattering barriers, but they are well-written (at least imo, lol) and I’m building my audience and career so that I will have longevity in the business. I can be patient. Kinda. And if I want to be around for a while, I have to be patient and bear out the holes in the road and the sharp hairpin curves.

    Thanks for an encouraging post.

    • Liz Talley says:

      Oh, and what’s up with that steeplechase event in the Olympics? Watched that the other night and it looked like something my kids dreamed up – “Okay, and then they’ll come around the corner and we’ll shoot them with nerf guns! No? Okay, well, at least make them jump some hurdles. Then how about we slime them! NO? Okay, make them run off the track, jump a wall and splash through water. Yes! Cool! I just invented an Olympic sport!”

      Seriously…that was weird and I though Steeplechase was only for horses.

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      It’s hard not to question whether our path would have been shorter if we made different choices, but we can only do the best we can with the choices we’ve made and trust that we will get there in the end as long as we keep on. And once in a while, take a glance back and pat yourself on the back for how far you’ve already come.

  8. Great post, Vivi! Just what I needed to hear today as I’m struggling to motivate myself. It’s easy to forget there once was a time when readers didn’t know who SEP or Nora Roberts were. They’re such huge forces in the biz, it’s automatically assumed they were insta-successes.

    I try to remind myself that it’s the writing that matters. That I need to concentrate on the next book instead of stagnating with worry on the one I just finished. Backlist is super important, but so is frontlist. They feed off each other, and you can’t build up name recognition without books. But sometimes it’s hard not to feel like I’m standing in the Mojave Desert just hoping someone, anyone, will come along and find me. :)

    As for who I wanted to be…Judith McNaught. Her books reminded me that, once upon a time, way back in Junior High, I dreamed of being an author. Of course, I write nothing like her, but she’s a huge inspiration to me. Her story about how many times Whitney, My Love, was rejected taught me a thing or two about perseverance. And she once told me that the only reason something is not believable in a book is because an author hasn’t grounded the reader enough to make it so. That advice really stuck with me.

    • June Love says:

      I wanted to be JM, too! I’d always wanted to write, but it wasn’t until I read Whitney that I knew HAD to write and that it HAD to be romance. Then, several years and one book later, I met her at my first RWA conference and remember thinking, “Wow! One day…”

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Wow, that is a fabulous tip from JM, Cynthia. I love that!

      I’m a mountain climbing chickie, so that’s my metaphor of choice (when I’m not ODing on Olympic events), but you cross a desert the say way you scale a mountain or run a race – one step at a time. I stall out sometimes, getting sucked into “Does this book really matter to anyone?” self-doubt, but that’s just a sign that I need to remember to write something that matters to ME and then it will be a success no matter how many readers it does or doesn’t get. Less worry about frontlists and backlists and NYT lists and more about Making Good Art. That’s who we really are. The creators.

    • That is super advice. You wanted to be Judith and I wanted to be Emma Bombeck and look at us now. LOL

    • Amanda Brice says:

      I wanted to be Carolyn Keene, so I guess it’s no surprise I write what I write!

  9. June Love says:

    Vivi, you’re at the top of the list of Things I Needed To Hear Today. It does us good to remember that we’re not alone in our struggles. It doesn’t happen overnight. I finished my first book eleven years ago. It took me two years to write it. That was when I got serious about writing. So, eleven years ago. Hmm…by my calculations, I should be hitting the NYT’s Best Seller’s list before too long. Right? Yeah, I know. You actually have to write “that” book to achieve that goal. Okay. So, maybe my immediate goal is to finish the book…

  10. Elisa Beatty says:

    Great post, Vivi!

    I does help to hear this–though what I really need to do is just FINISH stuff.

    I probably shouldn’t mention this, but I was on an email loop for romance writers some years ago when a very excited young woman popped in to say her name was Julia Quinn and she’d just been offered a $279,000 advance (I think that was the number) for her very first book. So there are occasional overnight successes…

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Yes, but is a big advance the definition of success? I ADORE Julia Quinn, but I didn’t discover her until midway through the Bridgertons and though she now has had 13 consecutive NYT best sellers, her first half dozen books did not hit The Lists (if that’s how you define success). So if you want to be Julia Quinn, be ready when your agent sells your first pair in a bidding war to work your Insanely Talented butt off for five or six years before people start revering you as a god as you deserve.

  11. Great post, Vivi!!! My favorite author of all time–LaVyrle Spencer. Favorite author still publishing–SEP, followed closely by Susan Mallery and Suzanne Brockman and Linda Howard! They are my MUST READS.

    My goal as an author is to be a hybrid of all my favorites. I loved LaVyrle’s incredible conflicts, I’m crazy about SEP’s voice and characterization, love Susan Mallery’s plots, and no one mixes voice with romance and suspense better than Suz Brockmann and Linda Howard.

    IMHO, though, no one creates three-dimensional characters better than SEP.

    Something I’d like to add about SEP that a lot of authors don’t think about. SEP only releases a new book every 1-2 years. In 28 years, she’s only published 21 books. She claims to be a slow writer. However, I don’t believe she’s slow. I believe she’s thorough.

    One of the reasons SEP’s books are as incredible as they are is because she’s a marathon author, and she isn’t trying to sprint to the finish line to publish her next title. She takes the time to make sure her books are the very best they can be.

  12. Kate Parker says:

    Even Dr. Seuss received 25 or so rejections before someone took a chance on Green Eggs and Ham. It can be a marathon to write something a 4 year old can read.

    My favorites are authors you’ve probably never heard of, like Margaret Frazer and Simon Brett, so multi-published authors can still be running marathons.

    Great post, Vivi. You’re my inspiration today.

  13. Great inspiration (and much-needed), Vivi. Cherry Adair makes no secret of the fact she wrote 16 manuscripts (I believe that was the number) before she published. Talk about persistence!

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      But just because you get published doesn’t mean the work is over either. It’s still about finishing the damn book. :)

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Cherry Adair spoke at the Golden Network Retreat at Nationals in Anaheim, and told her story of heartbreaking rejection after rejection and how she literally picked herself up off the floor after one that nearly made her quit, printed out a new copy, and walked miles PAST SWAT TEAMS DEALING WITH A HOSTAGE CRISIS to get it in the mail to one last editor….and THAT was when she sold.

  14. Very inspiring, for sure.

    I love both SEP and Cherry Adair, so their stories give me hope. I think I’m writing MS nine or ten right now — someday, I’m going to throw one at the wall that will stick.

  15. Wonderful post, Vivi. And worth noting that goal will always keep moving, because that’s the nature of this business. I try really hard to set attainable goals, that I use as stepping stones to the next goal.

    But the real goal is to always write the absolute best book I can at this moment, to invest as much of myself as I possibly can into each and every word, and then each and every chapter, until the book is the best I can make it.

    And this goal will never change, and if I’m really, really lucky, it will never stop. :)

    My shorter-term goal this year is to stop being afraid of what other people think of my books, and write them for myself and my readers, and do more to connect directly with readers. We’ll see how that goes.

    In the meantime, I’ll keep writing.

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      >>But the real goal is to always write the absolute best book I can at this moment, to invest as much of myself as I possibly can into each and every word, and then each and every chapter, until the book is the best I can make it.

      YES! THIS. I agree 100%.

  16. Anne Barton says:

    What a wonderful post, Vivi! I never get tired of hearing these stories. One that I really like is Stephen King’s–I can’t remember how long it took him to sell a book but he kept all his rejections on a nail on the wall of his office and he was really struggling financially when he finally got the call that would be the first of MANY. :)

    My goals are: enjoy the journey, keep getting better, and make good friends.

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