By Stephen Jay Schwartz

It was a lesson I learned over twenty years ago. Or I thought I had, although I’m not sure I ever will. It was shortly after Steven Soderbergh’s directorial debut, “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” which was a small, indie film that met with huge critical and box office success. Soderbergh published his diary shortly thereafter, recounting the steps he took to get the project – which he wrote, directed, photographed and edited – off the ground.

At that time I had just completed the screenplay for a small, indie film that I hoped to direct. Called “A Little Sexual Contract,” it told the story of two couples, long-time friends, who wrote a contract allowing them to switch partners for a night. The screenplay dramatized the growing excitement and tension leading up to the “event” then examined how the night changed their lives. In the end, one couple’s relationship was strengthened while the other’s dissolved.

I had an indie producer attached and we were looking for financing to make the film. I remember telling the producer – a man with much more experience in the business than me – that I wanted to follow the path taken by Steven Soderbergh. The film subjects were similar, the budget was basically the same, the path to distribution identical.

The producer gave me the following advice: “Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t follow someone else’s path. What worked for them cannot be duplicated. You’re on a different trajectory.”

Wow. I wondered if I really had the life-experience to take this to heart. How could I not “compare myself to others?” Isn’t this human nature?

It’s like a survival instinct our limbic brains tap into to protect us. I’m sure it goes back to the cave. “Cold outside…Og has bear skin…Og is warm…I not feel fingers…should I get bear skin?”

Og will survive. If Og was an author, what would he do?

As a new author I tend to look around at what everyone else is doing. I judge my success or failure based on what I perceive to be the success or failure of others.

What are the guide-posts that signal success?

Edgars, Anthonys, Macavitys, Agathas, Daggers, Neros, Shamuses, Hammetts, Dilys, Barrys, Thrillers, Gumshoes. Best-seller lists, high-profile panels, book fairs. Audio book deals, foreign language deals, film and television deals. Sales figures.

Deep inside, I think we all know…none of it matters.

It’s all great. It’s validation. And it adds up, keeps our careers in play, enables us to pay the bills and keep on writing. But I think we – new authors and veterans alike – spend a lot of time judging ourselves, our talents, and our careers based on the nomination we didn’t receive for the latest award. Or the fact that we didn’t get a French publication deal. Or that we’re writing the next book without a contract.

Sometimes we take all the great things we do have, add them up, then try to compare them to the bundled accomplishments of other authors. In this way we can either pat ourselves on the back or beat ourselves up for falling behind.

I think it’s all rather arbitrary. I think a really good book will find its fans. A really good book might not get any awards. It might not become a best-seller. It might even complicate our career growth by appealing to too small an audience. But if you’ve succeeded in writing a good book…that’s the accomplishment. How do you define a good book? That’s an entirely different blog. But, ultimately, you have to know in your heart that the book is good, and hopefully you’ve listened to the criticisms of other writers whose opinions you respect, and you’ve done the work required to write a good book.

I’ve decided that I will not be depressed by awards or nominations not received. On the other hand, I am happy for my friends who are nominated and do receive awards, just as I would be happy if I received the same validation. And if a book is good, if I really LOVE someone’s book, I want it to receive the awards. I want to promote the recognition of great writing.

What do I want, ultimately? I want the freedom to always write full-time. I want to create a strong body of work. I want to support my family. And I want to connect with others through the examination of life in stories.

Anything else is icing. I’ll take it, but I won’t obsess over it. Anymore. Because, despite the fact that I learned this lesson twenty years ago, it seems I needed to learn it again, as an author. My path is my path. My trajectory my own. Trajectory unknown.

Maybe I’m thinking these thoughts because I’m reading Bukowski again. Whenever I feel myself drifting, I read Bukowski and I’m grounded. This was a man who wrote, every day, every night. He didn’t care about reviews or criticism or peer recognition. The path he followed was his own. He knew himself and, somehow, he succeeded. He could just as easily have failed. But his writing would have been the same, regardless. It was unaffected by the world’s reaction. That takes a kind of confidence I admire. It’s a path I hope to follow. There I go again…will this lesson ever be learned?

On a different note – I’m at Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe this week. Pari, you’ve done an outstanding job. What a perfect event. And the setting is unparalleled. Thank you for all your hard work. I know I will remember this conference forever.



  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    If it's Stephen it must be Friday. Yay to both!
    Oh the comparison game is a mean trap. But we're human. I think it's okay as far using comparisons as a way to urge us to do or be better as in a healthy competition or to use them as a mentor either to guide as a launching pad to our own greatness or to use as a warning of how not to do something.
    What do I want? I want to be able to pay my bills and have enough left over to buy books without guilt and to put some away in savings every time. I want the development director job for which I've applied and have a first interview on Monday. I want to re-learn how to write pieces that I can sell. I want my newsletter to find subscribers. More simply, I want this freakin' day to be done so my weekend can start. Longest week ever, seemingly. 🙂
    Have a great time at LCC, Stephen. Wish I coulda made it there this year.

  2. Mike Dennis

    Great post, Stephen. Your trajectory is your own. That's something none of us can afford to forget.

    Wish I could be a LCC this year, but I've moved back to Key West, so it's just not practical. I will, however, see you at Bouchercon in September.

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    PK – I wish you were here. I agree with you on the books. Not only do I wish I could buy all the books I want, I wish I had time to read them. You gotta tell us about this development job you're up for. What's that about? I hope you get it. And…here's to a long weekend!

    JD – he's d-man! I used to love his poetry, until I found his novels. Then I loved his novels, until I rediscovered his poetry. Thank God he wrote so much. My favorite is "Ham on Rye." And I own the documentary "Born Into This." Great stuff. I gave him a cameo in my book "Beat," although you'd have to be a real fan of his to catch it.

    Alafair – Agreed! We're missing you here at LCC – you're name has come up a number of times, usually with the Duffer attached.

    Mike – damn, I wish you were here, man. But Key West ain't a bad place to be. Next year at Bouchercon!

    billie – Get yer ass to Santa Fe, pronto!

  4. Debbie

    For me, success is contentment. No matter what is going on, good or bad, contentmant makes it easier to see the needs of others and truely celebrate others joy, without those same things defining you as you attempt to avoid or attain them.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Debbie – I'm with you 100%. Since I left my day job I've found that I'm truly content, for the first time in….well, perhaps ever. And because I'm content, I feel successful. That's a great way to define success.

  6. James Scott Bell

    Love is a dog from hell, right Stephen? And comparison and envy are two dogs from the same place. Worthless, but with sharp teeth.

    You're right on, man. Do the writing. Get the words down. Hear from readers. Awards are nice, of course. Recognition tastes good. But so does cotton candy. And both disappear quickly.

    What remains are your fingers on the keyboard.

    Have a safe trip home.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    James…so true, so true. And what remains are those fingers on the keyboard, typing "drunk like a percussion instrument until the fingers begin to bleed a bit." I love the cotton candy metaphor.

    Grace – hard if not impossible. But worth the effort.

    Louise – thanks, sweetie. That means a lot, and is that much more special coming from you.

  8. Chuck

    When do I get to read the screenplay????

    Thanks for the cool blog today, SJS. We all need something to "go home" to.

    Have fun at Left Coast!

  9. Allison Brennan

    What amazing advice you received!!! And hard advice to apply. I think we all (humans, not just writers) have the need to compare ourselves to our peers. We can't help it. It's almost like we need that external validation that we're not writing crap or that we're successful or that our kids are better students/athletes than the other kids.

    Lists and awards are validations, but they're not the only validation. I take the praise of my editor far more to heart than the praise of a reviewer. Because I know she's not going to hand it out until I've earned it. A heart-felt fan letter means more than a glowing review. I simply love writing, warts and all, and like you, I just want to make a living telling stories. To me, that is the ultimate validation–that I get to do what I love to do.

    I keep going back to the trajectory — that is really fabulous advice. I think publishing has a fatal flaw in that something works for one author, they think it will work for everyone — and it doesn't. Or, if something fails, they won't try it again, even if it might work for something else.

  10. JT Ellison

    I agree about LCC – Pari has outdone herself. We are in good hands and the con is running smoother than any I've attended before.

    And Stephen, BRAVO! So many young authors never find this enlightenment, and end up bitter and ugly. But comparing your trajectory to anothers is comparing apples and oranges. When you can be happy for a friend's nomination, foreign deal, etc. and not feel jealousy or regret, you have achieved the right state of mind to have longevity in this career. And know that when you have these achievements of your own, you WILL have people genuinely thrilled for you as well.

    (And a quick congrats to our Allison, who was nominated for a Rita today – well-deserved!)

  11. KDJames

    Appropriate timing on this one, Stephen, on a day when the finalists are announced for RWA's RITA and Golden Heart awards. (Congratulations, Allison!) Even though I'm absolutely thrilled for everyone (5 noms in my RWA chapter!), there's a dark putrid little corner in my mind that is squirming uncomfortably with doubt and self-loathing as I watch the congrats flood my email loop knowing that if I do decide to self-pub, that's not something I'll ever achieve. Not that I would have, but you know. I hate to acknowledge it, but it's there and there's no point in denying it.

    But if you let other people determine what constitutes success, you are destined to live out a life of misery and bitterness and regret. Because there will always always ALWAYS be someone whose definition of success is just out of your reach. No matter how good you are. So knock it off. You are so much more awesome than you give yourself credit for being.

    And stop beating yourself up over lessons not yet learned. None of us learn the first time around. Or even the second or tenth. Frankly, life would be pretty damned boring if we did.

    Very happy to hear LCC is such a success and hope everyone is overwhelming Pari with praise. She has certainly earned it.

    …an hour later
    [Well hell. Second night in a row I can't post a comment here. Is it just me? Should I be taking this personally? :sobs: Should I even keep trying? :sobs harder: Murderati has banished me to eternal lurkerdom. Oh noes!!!!]

    …another hour
    [Seriously, this is pretty frustrating.]

    …two more hours
    [Can you hear me swearing? No? Good.]

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    KD – I hear you loud and clear – got your wonderful comment and am reading it now. Thanks for the encouraging words. Thank you for the lovely things you said. I'm having a great time at LCC, though I'm not getting enough sleep. That's par for the course.

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