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May
8
2016

Writers Can Help Themselves Get Lucky -- by Allison Maruska

Don't worry, this post is still approved for general audiences. Though if you're looking for the more adult definition, this is the interwebs. Just don't be gone too long, because that might not help your career advancement.

Anyway.

This post is about writers who make it, the ones who find the magical combination of timing and the right eyes and whatever else it takes to make it - you know, the writers who get lucky.

I participate in a weekly Twitter chat called #storysocial. Last night's topic was traditional vs. indie pub, and someone made this comment in response to a question about what we think are the biggest challenges in the publishing world:

luck

I had to disagree a little.

get lucky

To me, luck implies good fortune that outweighs the effort it takes to get it. If I go to the gas station, buy a lottery ticket, and win ten million dollars, that's luck. Statistically, I'm more likely to get hit by a car on the way to the station than to win the jackpot, and spending two dollars on a ticket was virtually no effort on my part.

Simply put, writing and publishing a book takes more effort than that.

Yes, there are elements of a Big Writing Break that are out of our control. Some writers are better set up for success out of the gate - for example, anecdotal studies (like this one) show women are less likely to land an agent and get traditionally published than men. That's why many women writers use initials (J.K. Rowling, anyone?).

So some of us have to work harder than others, but that doesn't mean writing success is off the table. Let's examine the experiences of Writers A and B, fictional wordsmiths based on the stories of real people.

Writer A writes a masterpiece, works on perfecting it with a critique group and editor, spends hours constructing an effective query, and sends it out to agents. While she waits, she works on building her social media platform. After sixty rejections, one New York agent asks to see the full MS and eventually signs writer A. Would you say Writer A is lucky?

Writer B opts to self-publish her masterpiece. She spends her own money on an editor, works with a critique group, hires a cover designer, arranges for advance review copies to go out, and promotes the pre-order period widely across social media. On launch day she sells...twenty copies. So she re-evaluates. She learns where her audience hangs out and schedules signings there. She revises her blurb. Maybe she redoes the cover. Eventually, after some well timed posts in promotional newsletters, her book reaches #1 in two categories on Amazon and she's making some decent money. Is Writer B lucky?

From the outside, it may look like Writers A and B are lucky. Landing an agent is hard. Hitting number one in a category is amazing. But from the outside, we don't see all the stuff that came before the big break. Writer A had sixty rejections? Man, that's tough. And I bet Writer B didn't get much else done while preparing her book for public consumption.

Their success didn't come from luck. It came from sheer tenacity.

What if Writer A had given up after fifty-five rejections? What if Writer B decided her book was a failure after only twenty sales on launch day and did nothing else with it? They might have holed up in their writer dens, bitter against those whose fortunes were better than their own.

Here's the thing about attributing success to luck: it invalidates any hard work that contributed to the success. 

I doubt there's a successful writer out there who made it on the first book they slopped together. And even if you've had some success, agents won't be beating down your door, desperate to represent the next Stephen King. You have to want it badly enough to stick with it for however long it takes to make it (whatever that means for you), making adjustments along the way if you don't see the results you want.

Personally, I think we give luck too much credit.

Posted by Allison Maruska 8 May 2016 at 01:16
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Responses to this blog

Jbarton 8 May 2016 at 07:49  
Thanks for this post. Writing is all about doing the work and putting yourself in a position to publish. (Now, back to work...) ~jb
Trevose 8 May 2016 at 09:14  
Love this post! Yes, a few people in life win the lottery, but overwhelmingly, success is the result of hard work and "sheer tenacity" (as you said), and this is just as true about every human endeavor. Thank you for writing this one.

One of the confounding factors in all of this is that cause and effect are often hard to figure out. For instance, in your example of the writer who submitted 60 times before being accepted, beforehand it was impossible for that writer to know if they were going to break through at 60 or 600 submissions. The problem is we just don't know when we are going to "get lucky". But what we all can be sure of is if we don't try — really hard — we won't get lucky.

A story from another sphere to further illustrate the point: In the 1970s the Dallas Cowboys, an Amerian Football team, did consistently well for a number of years. When their coach was asked why the team was so "lucky". He simply responded that "good luck" is the residual of hard work. Indeed, it is.

And as JBarton said, back to work. (I'm doing some SEO work this AM to get my blog up higher in the SERPS...which has nothing to do with luck.)

Peggyc 8 May 2016 at 11:42  
Thanks for a great read! Really enjoyed the article.

"Luck" and being an "Overnight Success" are two fantasies we're sold on a daily basis culturally. It's usually a time tested way for somebody to make a quick buck off the newbies.

Back in the "day" perseverance was quite honored and expected, but the tricky part of "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" is to not just become stubborn and repeat the same thing over and over, no matter the consequence. Discernment and recognizing where improvement is needed comes from failure often more than success. No magic pill. Personally, I've worked hard on a lot of things over a long life, lots never panned out for one reason or another. But taking lessons from each debacle eventually yields better results. And that, unlike luck, is guaranteed.

Amaruska 8 May 2016 at 16:07  
Quote by: Peggyc
the tricky part of "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" is to not just become stubborn and repeat the same thing over and over, no matter the consequence. Discernment and recognizing where improvement is needed comes from failure often more than success.



That's a great point. Sometimes - maybe even most of the time - the break isn't happening because something needs improvement. Accepting feedback and continuing to improve until it clicks is part of being tenacious.
Witchy 8 May 2016 at 17:20  
Perhaps "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" needs to be rewritten for modern times.

"If at first you don't succeed, reevaluate your approach and try, try again."
Spartucus 9 May 2016 at 10:03  
Thank you for your insightful observations. Even though there could be factors beyond our control that come into play with the writing game (just like any other endeavor), I do believe that is foolish to dismiss someones success to nothing more than luck. To put yourself in a position where you can be "lucky" takes a lot of work and to a certain extent individuals creates their own luck. I definitely agree with you that tenacity is important if you want to make it.
Sbeaulieu 9 May 2016 at 19:56  
This is so true! As is peggyc's comment on how we're trained to demand instant gratification, and somehow end up idolizing the idea of overnight success.
It is kind of pushed, in our society, that if you're truly good, success will find you — the ones seen as "role models" are the guys that get rich overnight with a start up or hit it big with an idea. There's a lot less glamour in working hard to get what you want — which is crazy! People do create their own luck, and that's something that everyone should be reminded of once in a while.
Thank you for a great blog post!
Luvrofinfo 10 May 2016 at 08:03  
Nicely said, Allison! Kudos!
Samanthas 10 May 2016 at 08:25  
Dean Koontz was a published author for years before he finally became a best seller.
__________________
Demonqueen 10 May 2016 at 12:14  
Ah, you should read Malcolm Caldwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success - he shows that most people who succeed do so because of a) seizing opportunity and b) doing their 10,000 hrs plus a few other variables.

The part about how Korean Air turned themselves around from having the worst track record for airline accidents to being the top airline in the world is particularly interesting (though only loosely related!).
Esparhawk 11 May 2016 at 18:09  
I like how you've used the word "tenacity."

The writers who've "made it" probably look back over the years, at all their writerly comrades who gave up when they hit a road block—perhaps some are friends they met along the way—and those successful writers say to themselves, "Wow. I'm glad I stuck it out instead of giving up."
Kusterer 11 May 2016 at 20:55  
Aren't there two paths to perseverance? You can put most of your energy into the 60 queries or louder beats on your social media drums. Or you can finish the novel you started the day after you pushed out the last one. And the novel after that. Each one better than the last because of what you learned from writing novels. Which is more likely to be "lucky," the 600th query or the tenth novel?
Amaruska 12 May 2016 at 14:21  
Quote by: Kusterer
Aren't there two paths to perseverance? You can put most of your energy into the 60 queries or louder beats on your social media drums. Or you can finish the novel you started the day after you pushed out the last one. And the novel after that. Each one better than the last because of what you learned from writing novels. Which is more likely to be "lucky," the 600th query or the tenth novel?


I absolutely agree, and I would venture to guess many writers do exactly that. There's always the next project to work on while querying the last one.
Forester 17 May 2016 at 11:05  
what about a gimmick??? throw a dead naked body off a skyscraper in New York with your book duct taped to it..

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