Balls of Steel: What is Success?

In an interview I recently did for the acclaimed UCLA screenwriting professor Richard Walter, he posed the question, “How do you define success as a screenwriter today?

My response was immediate.

For me, success is simply waking up every single day and making the decision not to quit but to sit down and write instead. The day I hang up my pencil is the day success will evade me forever. That’s just not an option.”

Days after I answered that question, I’m haunted by what others might define as “success.”

Is it money? Fame? Validation? Is “success” even possible to define, or do our definitions of it change throughout our writing careers?

In order to achieve success, we first need a goal.

Any major success I have achieved has been accomplished in baby steps – one small goal at a time. Take my new job as Editor and Online Community Manager of Even that was achieved in small milestones. Three years ago, I didn’t have one published clip or any social media experience. But now I have many clips, all written one post at a time, and an enormous online community of support.

If I can do it, so can you. That’s not meant as cliché. I mean it. I believe it.

But that’s not screenwriting. Screenwriting is an entirely different beast to conquer.

Screenwriters juggle multiple projects, overwhelm ourselves by sneaking in writing time between our day jobs and life (though some would argue there’s no time for a life). Many days, insecurity and exhaustion from self-promotion and hard work plague us.

At some point in our careers we all feel the weight of the insurmountable odds. Rejection heaped upon us, over and over, hitting us like bullets. On those days, just getting out of bed is a “success,” or forcing ourselves to put pen to paper for a 30-minute writing sprint when we really want to throw in the towel.

Rejection, disappointment, and impossible odds are a part of this business. Accept it. Build a tough skin. Expect to be told “no” countless times. Go Into The Story posted a great article recently about how to handle those insane odds. Give it a read. Bottom-line, you need to let harsh criticism and rejection propel you to work harder. Consider it a double-dog dare to beat the odds.

Even if I don’t make it as a screenwriter, I will never consider myself a failure. Never. At the end of my life, whether I’m produced or not, I will not say “what if?” because I know I left no stone unturned in my efforts.

For me, success is putting it all out there, giving it everything you’ve got, doing the very best you possibly can, despite the odds, and doing what you can to control your own destiny.

Above all, success is self-fulfilling. Don’t let anyone else define what success means to you and your life.

Please share your definition of success in the comments. I’m dying to hear what you all use as the bar!

For tips on how I navigate outside of Hollywood, my webinar Breaking in Outside of Hollywood is available On Demand at The Writers Store.

17 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: What is Success?

  1. Tom Haines

    Success for me is setting goals, both large and small, and doing everything possible to achieve them. Note, I said…do everything possible to achieve them. If you do that, then you will have a degree of success in just the attempt. At the end of the year look back at your accomplishments and your failures. Bask in the accomplishments, learn from the failures. Set new goals using what made your previous projects successful and try not to repeat those things that lead to your failures. And, be realistic. Don’t set yourself up for failure. I’ve spent over forty years in the entertainment industry (rock n’ roll and comedy), so I’ve had lots of experience at climbing up and falling down. A few scuffed knees never kept me from setting new and more exciting goals. I finished writing the first draft of my first screenplay at sixty-six and I’m starting on number two in the fall. Some key elements to success…be reasonable, focus, do your research, learn from the experts, and don’t give up…and, oh yeah…have fun.

  2. Jeff McMahon

    Uplifting. I told my aspiring actor son that I consider myself successful because I have written what I know to be a damn good screenplay. It hasn’t sold (yet) but I still feel I have been successful..and that’s what matters.

  3. Michael O'Daniel

    Success as a writer/creator — which I differentiate from success as a human being — means having control over your vision and the means/leverage to see it realized on the screen. This is usually accomplished through ownership of the material and either the financial resources or the track record to demand final cut, casting approval, some say over the marketing & distribution, etc.

    I encourage all readers of this column to aim MUCH higher than (a) gee, if I just had time to write, (b) gee, if I could just sell my screenplay, (c) gee, if I could just write for a living. All those are noble, baby-step goals, but they still leave you way down the food chain.

    Having once managed a major television artist at the peak of his career, and seeing from the inside how the business really works, I can tell you that ownership of the material and creative/marketing/distribution control are where it’s at. Few people ever reach that plateau but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim for it.

    One of the most common mistakes people make is not thinking big. Corporate ownership and decision-making power in the film/TV industry have become much more concentrated, which means that individual ownership & creative control are much more difficult to achieve. On the other hand, there are new technologies that enable you to create, distribute and market your own material in ways that were previously not available. So you can choose to try to penetrate the monolith, or go the indie route, or both. It’s not an either-or proposition. To sum all this up, think like a producer and distributor, not just like a writer.

  4. Peter Chiverton

    Sucess for me as a scriptwriter is simply to write something that excites me and others that read it… and to enjoy what I’m doing. Thank you everyone for your comments that inspire. Peter from Down Under!

  5. Dekirk

    I like what is said here. It makes me feel good about being frustrated, shaking off failure, and still finding the drive to write. But, the bottom line to writing is to sell. I don’t write for some self gratifying, beyond esoteric pleasure that I know no one else will enjoy. This does not mean I am out for the money. No way. Who in their right mind would write for the money when there are other professions, easier in attaining, that would provide better odds at being successful. Let’s face it, writing is a curse. We have stories. They tug at us throughout the day, at night, and again in the morning. This tug drives us to write. To hopefully one day share with others the story we see. So bottom line folks, we all write to sell.

  6. Slippy G-19

    This is the first article that I’ve read now after just registering my profile. After reading this brilliant article, I’d say; ‘Successful decision!’

  7. The Rake

    Success is happiness. In writing or otherwise. If I am happy with what I have written, then I am successful. In almost all other ways it takes outside validation to achieve success (selling a script, getting work, etc.). Not saying that isn’t nice or wanted, but still. Success is very personal, writing is a personal thing. If my scripts don’t sell, and they sit on a shelf, that doesn’t make me any less proud of the work that I have done.

  8. Ian

    I think right now, success for me would be to afford to live on my own and be financially independent. I’m getting there.

    As for screenwriting, success would one day be actually making my own feature film. Being paid to write would also be great success.

  9. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    R. Kiki – thanks! Success is always sweeter when you have a strong community of support. I appreciate you’re encouragement!

    B. Rich – yes, the small milestones are one level of success, and writing for a livelihood another. All important.

    Brad – love your definition, amen!

  10. Brad Riddell

    For me, success is opportunity; possessing the relationships, resources, and infrastructure to give your work a chance. I think talent and determination are mostly innate to those who make it at any level in this business — but success is defined by having the ability to consistently get a read and have someone take your call.

  11. B Rich Adams

    Success has a unique definition for every screenwriter.
    To me, creating that one of a kind protagonist is a success.
    Finishing the outline that actually makes sense is a success.
    Nailing that 1st act is a success.
    And the list goes on.
    Ultimately, to be able to write every day and get paid well for it,
    That is success.
    The rest is gravy. 🙂

  12. Robert Dillon

    Funny, I was just listening to John August and Craig Mazin discuss this same topic on my way to work this morning. (scroll down towards the end)

    Craig referenced an article by Terry Rossio “Throw In The Towel” which I plan to read.

    For me, finishing my first screenplay was a success. Of course, that was a few years ago and it was awful. At this point, I’d consider finishing one that I felt ready to share with others a success. Getting optioned? A great success.