By Karen DeBonis
“That’s a fine piece,” the editor of my local newspaper wrote in his email.
It was my piece he referenced, my op-ed I’d submitted a month before the 2016 presidential elections.
“I can use this,” he continued.
I jumped up from the table and ran, blubbering and breathless, to tell my husband. It was my first acceptance as a “real” writer, and it indicated—as hard as it was for me to believe—that I could actually write.
As writers, we have many firsts. First finished piece, accepted piece, finished chapter. Shitty first draft. First 100 followers, 1,000 followers, 5,000 followers. First query submitted, query rejected, and—if we’re lucky and worked our tails off—first book published.
Like a baby’s first tooth or his first day of college, our writing lives are a sequence of milestones. The early milestones may seem less important than the big ones, like our books being published, but we’d never have that book if we hadn’t walked through the other firsts. And every first, every writing milestone deserves a celebration.
Recently, in preparation of my memoir’s release in May 2023, I sent out my first book launch team letter. It was a marketing task I’d prepared for and read about for several years. I had amassed a group of almost 70 team members from 22 US states and 4 countries. The anticipation of hitting “send” flooded me with happiness.
As a writer, I’m sure you’ve experienced this flooding of emotion. It’s caused by the activation of reward centers in our brain, which release dopamine, one of the “feel good” neurotransmitters.
With challenging tasks that we work hard to achieve—think writing an essay, story or book—the reward centers ignite a feeling of accomplishment and reward.
But our brain doesn’t stop there. Multiple reward pathways involving myriad parts of our brain “work together to encourage repetition of the rewarding behaviors.” Essentially our brain “tells us to repeat what just happened in order to feel the rewarding sensation.”
For you science and physiology geeks, here’s a 2-minute video explaining in more depth our brain’s reward centers.
When I received and accepted an offer of publication from a small press earlier this year, I popped the cork on a bottle of Prosecco which I’d kept around specifically for that occasion. But bubbly is not required for every milestone.
For the kickoff of my launch team, I didn’t celebrate with champagne, a bowl of ice cream, or retail therapy, but with mindfulness of the moment. In other words, I sat with the feeling, soaking in that dopamine like a hot bath, and it felt every bit as good as the real thing.
Anytime I finish a creative project, whether it’s painting a wall in my house, reviving a garden, or sewing curtains, I like to spend time in the milieu I’ve created. I think of it as my afterglow.
After a rush of dopamine, if we hurry on to our next writing task, we cheat ourselves of our well-earned reward. It’s like eating birthday cake but scraping off the frosting. (Really- who does that?)
Before I queried small presses, I queried 85 agents, and only two requested a full manuscript before summarily ghosting me. The other agents either didn’t respond, sent me a form letter rejection, or kindly told me the project wasn’t right for them. Sound familiar? And don’t even get me started on my Submittable page with its endless list of “declined.”
Writers face rejection more often than phone scammers get disconnected. To return to understanding our physiology: rejection causes our adrenal glands to release the stress hormones epinephrine (otherwise known as adrenaline), and cortisol, which may cause aches, pains, and digestive troubles, among other symptoms. In other words, our "brain processes a rejection the same way it processes physical pain.”
Many writers have a creative strategy for handling the “downs” of our occupation. Here’s mine. In addition, we must capitalize on our brain’s dopamine production anytime we can. One way to do that is to celebrate the “ups,” the wins, the milestones.
What was one of your most memorable early milestones and how did you celebrate? Please share with us in the comments!
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Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, an entangled mix told in her debut memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived, forthcoming from Apprentice House Press in 2023. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, HuffPost, The Insider, AARP, and numerous literary journals. A happy empty-nester, Karen lives in upstate New York with her husband of forty years. You can see more of her work at www.karendebonis.com.
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What you say is quite rational, but at times it's hard to motivate, particularly through consistent knock backs.
I had a couple of early successes six years ago, straight out of completing my Masters in Nonfiction Writing. I was thrilled, thinking I was on a roll. I wasnt. Since then, my only 'success' has been inclusion of a short story in my writers group anthology where the only criterion for acceptance was to submit a piece.
My memoir was rejected by eight small publishers two years ago, and my Submittable rejection list is longer than my arm. I got a special mention in a competition in August, but I wasn't short-listed so my piece won't be included in an anthology of selected stories.
Seriously, there have been times over the last six years where I've wanted to quit, but this voice in my head says, 'keep going, your writing isn't bad.'
I blog to stay sane - at least, that's a dead cert publication opportunity - but dream of the day when someone, anyone, accepts my work and, goddamit, pays me something to publish it
Rose, truly I hear you. When I hit that brick wall, I walk away for a bit, seek out workshops and classes, get tough feedback from other writers. I'm sure you've done all of that. It sounds like you still find joy in the writing, at least your blogging, even with all the other rejections. In that case, I say keep going. I still feel too new to offer much advice, but simply from a life-purpose perspective, I'd say that if the day comes when you don't feel joy, take a longer break. Then return. Try this a few times, and if the joy is really gone, reevaluate. Maybe your writing purpose comes in a different form than you imagined. Technical writing? Marketing copy? Non-profit support? Creative writing for children? I believe it's out there, and I hope you find it! All the best to you.
I have always kept a memory book that I fill with positive reviews and other memorabilia associated with my writing. But celebrating my milestones wasn't part of my mindset until after my second book. I'm still inconsistent about celebrating milestones but you are right about the positive effects of those celebrations. Now I try to take a moment to celebrate even the smallest milestones.
My most memorable celebration was an online launch party for my second book. It was the first time I really celebrated my accomplishments and it turned my mindset about celebrations completely around.
I haven't been good about keeping track of those positive comments. Thanks for the reminder, Lynette! A book launch party is definitely in my plans--virtual and IRL. In fact, my critique partners from various parts of the country are planning on flying in for it, so I'd better make it memorable!
Critique partners flying in? How wonderful is that? Someday you need to blog about how you found such true fans.
There's not much to tell, Lynette. I just got lucky!!
"May I have this? What else do you have?" The editor of Arizona Highways was the speaker sitting across the table. Fortunately, I had two additional pieces. He took all of them!
I got a dopamine rush imagining it, Sam! And you were a smart writer - prepared for the "What else ya got" question. Definitely worth celebrating. Did you? If so, tell us!
That's really awesome! Really drives home that "be prepared" part of marketing. You never know who or where you will make that connection. Very cool for you.
I agree. It's like having that elevator pitch in case your dream agent rides up to the 4th floor with you. You never know!
Wow! That's awesome, Sam.
I love this. I agree that the dopamine centers need to be cultivated and appreciated for what they can do to help with positive reinforcement. I have been fortunate enough to have several scientific research papers published in peer review journals over the years. With each one I was absolutely ecstatic. Last year when I signed with an agent for my current craft book for writers, I definitely celebrated. Those moments make the years of rejection and late nights editing meaningful.
Lots of congrats to you, Miffie! You have a wide range of writing skills, it seems. I hope your next celebration will be a book publishing contract. My fingers are crossed for you!
My most memorable early milestone came in two phases: one muted, the other ecstatic. Years ago, I submitted two poems to a popular regional magazine and had one accepted. I was offered immediate publication for no pay and later publication (months later!) for $50. I held out for the $50; the poem appeared many months later, along with the check. Of course I was very happy to be paid, knowing full well that poetry is not a road to wealth. But that happiness was muted compared with the joy I felt at a friend's housewarming party, when the host, in the midst of unrelated general conversation, opened up a magazine whose cover was concealed and read my poem, with perfect intonation and articulation, and after the appreciative comments identified me as the author. What a boost! to have a friend showcase my work to a group of friends.
What a thrill, Anna! And your friend is gold. Her thoughtful gesture would make up for dozens of rejections. Thanks for sharing that story.
I got shivers over that story, Anna. What a moment!
I love this article, Karen! And truly, I feel like this is why a writing community (aka cheer squad) is so important. Most of us are always looking forward to the next task. It's your cheer squad who will say, "Stop and celebrate this!"
Thanks Jenny! I so agree about our cheer squads. There's no way I would have continued on this path without the support and encouragement of many, many writers, present company included. If I have a win that seems inconsequential, my peeps will celebrate it for me. It makes success feel possible.
I love this post!!! I especially liked when you mentioned sharing successes with our followers. That is powerful and something I often forget to do, especially when the win seems small to me... even though I know it matters.
In some industries, part of this process is also called "gamification" - tying into the sense of fun and reward that can make games so addicting and using that to help us succeed in other areas.
I'm terrible about not taking that time to celebrate. Recently my publishing house had a big win, something I'd fought for years to achieve. My reaction? Well... what shall I tackle next?
Thanks Deleyna! I was a complete newbie when I first started blogging 6 years ago and sharing my stories on Medium (which I'd never heard of). Little by little my skills improved, and I had an essay published here and there. My virtual friends supported me and watched me grow. Some of those friends who I've never met IRL are now on my launch team. They feel like they watched me grow up and are super excited for my book to come out. I can't share details here, but I'm running a contest with my team, too. So I guess it is gamification! As for your recent big win, yes, go out and tackle more big things AFTER you take at least 1 hour to celebrate. You earned it!
I don't celebrate release days, but I did celebrate when three of my books reached 500 reviews on Amazon. I know celebrating all kinds of successes is important, but those of us with imposter syndrome have a problem doing that. Good post. Thanks for the encouragement.
500 reviews on Amazon?! Holy moly, Pamela, you are anything but an imposter!! I double dare you to celebrate your next release. Congrats on all your well-earned successes!
Reflecting on the value of celebrating a success: As fellow writers we can congratulate our succeeding authors or share that news with others. That would amplify the writer's celebration.
Absolutely, Ken. That's being a good literary citizen. Thanks for reminding us!
I've never actually celebrated any of my milestones.
Time to start, Denise! Remember--a celebration doesn't have to be flashy, expensive, or time-consuming. One hour to sit with the glow. Ten minutes, even. It's a matter of recognizing the accomplishment. You deserve it. You earned it. Give yourself that gift.
Thank you for this, Karen. I need to study up on book launch teams!
Thanks Ellen. Good luck setting up your launch team!
This was a very helpful post, Karen. I salute you for sending to 85 agents. Your persistence has certainly paid off. It encouraged me to hear your experience and read the comments also. I get so discouraged, especially after 12 years of writing a historical novel. When I get down, I write poetry and finally over the past two years, I have a few acceptances on Submittable! That spurred me on to enter a “first chapters” contest, and I made the finalists’ list. I agree with your advice to try other entry points, rather than quit entirely. If you’re a writer, you gotta write. Your memoir sounds fascinating. Best wishes!
I'm so glad it was helpful, Lisa. You are another example of how persistence pays off! All of your small (and not so small!) wins are celebrations in their own right, paving stones to finishing and publishing your novel, and helpful breathers from the very real discouragement I completely get. It sounds to me like you're taking all the necessary steps toward your goal. Kudos!
Wonderful article, Karen. Thank you.
Thank you, Eileen! We are fortunate to share our journey with a group who will not let even the tiniest accomplishment pass without a yahoo!