5th July 2024

The Big Breaks are Small

Or why you should stop waiting for success.

The concept of the big break is as old as that of the artist itself. True, it likely had a different name a thousand years ago, but the idea was there – that there was a point when a writer, musician, actor, playwright, or painter gets that one opportunity, that one break that catapults them from drudging obscurity to success. Everyone knows about it. We talk about it. We ask successful artists about it – ‘what was your big break?’ If we are a creator, we wait and hope for our own big break to happen. And they happen, they really do, but they are not big in the way we expect, and we can usually only see them in retrospect. They are very difficult to recognise in the moment. But it is possible. Before we get onto that, let’s just be clear with what a big break means.

Breaking Big

A big break is the moment when an artist or creative goes from relative obscurity/low earning from their work/difficulty placing their work, to having a large audience/earning well from their work/being in demand. It’s what a lot of people would consider success. It’s also often framed as a dramatic, sudden shift in fortune and opportunity.

It’s also a myth. Now of course, there are examples that do exist – exceptions that prove the rule, or rather examples that create the story. Because that is what the Big Break is; a story about creativity and success, and one we love to tell. It shares DNA with the rags-to-riches story, with the gods reaching down and plucking a mortal from obscurity and placing them into fortune. It’s a cousin to the myth of inspiration, and the idea of ‘making it’ rather than moving down a corridor of success.

Why is it a myth? Because it happens very, very rarely. The author that comes from nowhere, only to have a best-selling series, has been working on their craft for years. They have been grinding through the agent/publisher machine, inching towards publication. The actor who is suddenly everywhere and picking up all those awards has years of small parts in repertory theatre, or one-line appearances in daytime dramas. There is a huge amount of work that has already gone into the art and work that is now being seen. The break is the point where they get acknowledgement and reward. It is the point where we become aware of them and their work, where their success becomes public. As far as we are concerned, this person’s work hasn’t really existed up until this point. They seem to spring up into being, and so of course the story that we tell is that this is the moment that made them. This is their big break. Except it isn’t. That’s down to something else entirely.

“the moments that have a huge impact on a creative career […] arrive quietly, often with so much understatement that they are invisible.”

That moment of success, acknowledgement, or reward is usually made by small breaks. They are the moments that have a huge impact on a creative career, but that arrive quietly, often with so much understatement that they are invisible. What does a small break look like? Let me give you a personal example.

A long while ago, I was writing for tabletop role playing games (similar to Dungeons and Dragons if you are wondering). I was working on a small section from a book. There were a lot of other writers on that book, and most with more experience and credits. I did not realise it at the time, but it was a tricky book for the line editor and developer: deadlines were stretched, scope was changing, there were pressures and problems. Then one of the other writers had to pull out. The line developer mentioned this, and I said, ‘I can do that section, if you like.’ They said OK. The section wasn’t long. I did it and got it in on deadline. The line developer got in touch – another section had lost its writer, could I do that too? Yes, I absolutely could.

What happened next? Well, I got the work in. There was a bit of editing. Then it went into the book, and eventually came out. When I asked if there was something I could do in the next book, they said maybe, and that they would let me know nearer the time. All very mundane. All very routine. No fireworks. No sudden shift in profile or offers of lucrative jobs. Just a ‘thanks’ and a ‘sure, not right now’ answer about doing more.

This was a big break, but I did not know it at the time. From there, the work would become regular. My portfolio of published work would grow. I was asked to do bigger and bigger pieces of work. It was the moment that I went from being a writer who had written a couple of sections in role play game books, to someone who did that all the time. It was  huge, in retrospect, but it was also tiny, a moment that you would miss if you blinked.

How to Break Through

So, is it actually all down to luck? Just like the story of the spectacular big break, are we just waiting and hoping? To an extent, yes – luck is a huge part of ‘success’, but if we know that small openings, contacts and opportunities can make a big difference, we can be ready for them, create circumstances that favour them coming along, and we can be persistent so that they have time to appear and to work out. Pay attention to people. Be interested. Be good to work with, both inside your creative vocation and outside it – I and a close friend worked with someone in a factory who later became a senior developer for tabletop games and RPGs. You don’t know where you or anyone else will end up, so be good, and genuine, and work hard.

So, is it actually all down to luck? Just like the story of the spectacular big break, are we just waiting and hoping? To an extent, yes.”

And on the work – If you have said yes to something, it is worth your full attention and best effort. That piece might be the one that gives you one of those small but big breaks. Also, given how little we control of when, where or how a break may come, always be giving your best in your work. You never know when you’ll be working on the one that makes all the difference.

These small but big breaks are always there. They are huge, not because of the immediate effect, but because of where they take us. These are the moments that genuinely make careers. If and when the spectacular big break comes, it happens because of the small breaks. Those small breaks come because of luck – that editor you met at a party. They come because of consistent hard work – that short piece that seemed nothing at the time, but you made sure was polished and tight. They come because of persistence – that exhibition that you contribute to every summer. The big break that seems to come from nowhere is the summation of the real, smaller breaks that happened before that. Or perhaps the big break as it is usually thought of never comes, you just turn around one day and realise that you have arrived, without fanfare, the path paved by small breaks that were huge, and whose size you can only appreciate by looking back.

If you have any questions on notes and writing, drop them in the comments.

John French

July 2024

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Edited by Greg Smith

Written without AI

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