24 June 2017

How I Became an Overnight Success in 26 years


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Three years ago, I wrote a crazy little book that won two crime writing awards. (Okay, not three years ago. It won the Derringer and Arthur Ellis three years ago, which means I wrote it two years before that. Trad publishing takes time…but I digress.)

That year, I also won a national short story contest, with prize money of $3000. The year after, I was shortlisted along with Margaret Atwood, for another fiction award. (That was the year pigs learned to fly in Canada.)

The Toronto Sun called to interview me. They titled the article, “Queen of Comedy.”

“You’re famous!” said an interviewer. “How does it feel to become an overnight success?”

“That was one long night,” I said. “It lasted 26 years.”

This blog post was inspired by Anne R. Allen

Not long ago, Anne had a post on her Top 100 blog: 10 Reason Why You Shouldn’t Publish that 1st Novel

(It’s terrific. Check it out.)

But that got me thinking about my own “overnight success.”

Here’s the thing. I started writing fiction for money in 1987. (Nineteen Eighty-Seven!! Big shoulders and big hair. Wasn’t that two years before the Berlin Wall came down?)

I won my first award (Canadian Living Magazine) in 1989. By the time my first novel hit bookshelves, I already had 24 short stories published, and had won six awards.

Plus The Goddaughter’s Revenge – the book that won the Derringer and Arthur – wasn’t my first novel published. It was my fifth.

My Point:

I’ll drill down even more. It wasn’t even my fifth novel written. It was my seventh. The first two will never see the light of day. One has gone on to floppy disk heaven. Although if God reads it up there, he may send it to hell.

I would never want ANYONE to read my first two novels. Writing them taught me how to write. I got rid of bad habits with those books. I learned about the necessity of motivation. The annoyance of head-hopping. And the importance of having a protagonist that people can like and care about.

Yes, my first novel had a TSTL heroine who was naive, demanding, and constantly had to be rescued. (For those who don’t know, TSTL stands for Too Stupid To Live. Which may occur when the author is too stupid to write.) Even I got sick of my protagonist. Why would anyone else want to make her acquaintance?

In my first two novels, I learned about plot bunnies. Plot bunnies are those extraneous side trips your book takes away from the main plot. Each book should have an overall plot goal, and ALL subplots should meander back to support that one plot goal in the end. My first book had everything but aliens in it. All sorts of bunnies that needed to be corralled and removed.

Speaking of bunnies, I’m wandering. So back to the point:

IN 2015, some people saw me as an overnight success. I was getting international recognition and bestseller status. One of my books hit the Amazon Top 100 (all books) at number 47, between Tom Clancy and Nora Roberts.

But that overnight success took 26 years. I had one long apprenticeship.

I tell my students to keep in mind that being an author is a journey. No one is born knowing how to write a great novel. You get better as you write more. You get better as you read more. You get better as you learn from others.

Being an author is a commitment. You aren’t just writing ‘one book.’ You are going to be a writer for the rest of your life. Commit to it. Find the genre you love. Write lots.

And you too can be an overnight success in 26 years.

(The Goddaughter. She’s a much more likeable protagonist, even if she is a bit naughty.)


On Amazon

14 comments:

Steve Liskow said...

A marvelous fun (and funny) post, Melodie, and it's a lot like my own journey, except that I'm not an overnight success yet...and I started writing my first novel in 1972.

I have seven or eight unpublished novels and 25 or 30 short stories that taught me to write but were too awful to submit anywhere.

I also have several awards, and I've come to the painful conclusion that they mean practically nothing. The average reader doesn't know what they are or what them mean, and the majority of them offer bragging rights but no money. Your winning cash is huge. I'll bet it helped keep you going, didn't it? Not that you would have stopped writing, really.

I tell everyone who voices that vague "I should write a book..." nonsense to sign up for NANO. Having to produce 50000 words in 30 days teaches them to put up or shut up. If they actually produce (yeah, right), it gives us another editing client.

Oh, and congratulations on your overnight success. Finally.

Melodie Campbell said...

Steve, I'm smiling at your comments. My personal belief is that if you can live and be happy *not* being a writer, then you should do that. Because being a writer is hard work, and painful. The rewards are largely internal. And it all comes with crippling self-doubt.

Re awards: I think they help with the crippling self-doubt. Usually these awards are juried by more established writers, and editors. It's a Jury of your Peers (to paraphrase that brilliant short story by Susan G.) So I treasure them for that.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

B.K. Stevens said...

I enjoyed your post, Melodie. Like you, I have first novels--four or five of them, I think--that will probably never see the light of day. (I still think the very first one had promise, though, and I think I now may know how to rescue it. Maybe some day.)I haven't achieved your level of success, but I have a respectable publication record now, I've learned a lot, and I've spent a lot of satisfying hours at the word processor (and also, of course, spent a lot of hours gripped by crippling self-doubt). And every once in a while I meet someone who's actually read and enjoyed something I've written. On the whole, I don't envy people who aren't driven to write, or to accomplish something else that's challenging but exciting. Life's a lot fuller and more interesting this way.

R.T. Lawton said...

Melodie, I loved your article. Like most writers, I have that first novel in the computer drawer where it will never see the light of day. But, since I am mainly a short story writer and don't believe in totally throwing any writing away, I have cannibalized that novel and its characters into several short stories. Perhaps some day I'll finish one of my other novel starts, however, with over a 100 published short stories to include 37 sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and 10 to Woman's World magazine, I think the die is cast. Two things do give me hope for finishing a novel in the future. One is your current blog article and the second is after being an Edgar judge for Best Novel a couple of years ago, I read a lot of Best Novel entries and ended up thinking I can do better than that. Of course, that feeling could have just been my ego. We'll have to see how it all comes out. In any case, thanks for the boost from your blog article.

Eve Fisher said...

Great post, Melodie - I have hopes of being an overnight success before 2100.
I, too, have two unpublished, unpublishable novels moldering in a box somewhere. I'm a short story gal, but RT, I agree - when I was an Edgar judge, I saw traditionally published hard-back novels that were so bad, I could not believe they were accepted by anyone. And I couldn't help but think I could do better than that. Maybe some day I'll find out.

Melodie Campbell said...

BK, I live in fear that someone will even trip across some earlier work of mine! I made all the same mistakes all new writers make - the difference is, in my day, there was no way to publish a work that bad. I thank my lucky stars for that! Thanks for commenting :)

Melodie Campbell said...

RT, I am envious of your Hitchcock record - I don`t have near that many. And I SO understand what you are saying: Years ago, when I was asked why I hadn`t written a novel, I said, `Because they might want me to write a second one.` It took me a long long time to get over my fear of writing long. ANd I started to write long because our short story markets were disappearing. If we still had the same number of markets as we had in the 90s, I probably would never have attempted novels.

Melodie Campbell said...

Eve, short story writers are the most brilliant of writers, in my opinion (*ducking*) They have learned to use the best words, and care about every one of them. They must concentrate on plot, and not get distracted. I come across more original crime ideas in short stories, than I do in crime novels.

Leigh Lundin said...

You're such a good bad girl! Well done and congratulations 26 times over. Also, you're internationally famous and read on three continents I know of. That's superb!

Barb Goffman said...

You've got it exactly right, Mel. Writing is a journey, and you better enjoy doing it, because the writing is all you can count on. Not publication. Not readers. Not fame or riches. Just the joy of writing.

Melodie Campbell said...

Leigh, how kind of you! Not sure about the fame, but you are a prince for suggesting it.

Melodie Campbell said...

Barb, so true. And also - the joy of the people you meet through writing. I always say to my class on the last day, that the best thing about being a writer is the other writers you meet. They are the most exciting people in the world.

Art Taylor said...

Great post, Melodie -- insightful and inspiring. And yes, congrats on our overnight success!

Melodie Campbell said...

Thanks, Art. I am always baffled by the people who think success comes easy.