One of the themes that emerged from the Chronscast interview with Stephen Palmer which will be released in January was the extent to which luck influences the career path of a writer.
Stephen is the author of sixteen novels, so he should have some idea of how things work. Looking at his publication history, he’s chopped and changed publishers quite a bit, releasing books with different people with not much of a discernible pattern. And, to my mock-frustration, Stephen insisted that the overriding factor is getting most of these books published was luck. I pushed back on this. There must be more to it than that, I said.
So we talked around this for a while, but the thought about luck remained. In the last week I’d decided to send a reminding nudge to the final agent to whom I’d sent a query for back in February. I fully expected a pass, and instead I got a prompt reply, asking for a full manuscript. The agent in question said they’d had a baby over the summer, had parental leave, as well as having to deal with staff shortages at the agency. It struck me that we are beholden to luck, even if we do happen to have written a great book. Agents and publishers are beholden to mad, external events just as much as the rest of us, and who knows what the prevailing winds will be like on the day your submission gets to the top of the slush pile? An agent may have priorities at home, or be on leave for whatever reason, or overworked – all things that can affect mood and responsiveness. Of course we’d like to be able to perfectly compartmentalise our professional and personal lives, but we’re all human and it’s not so easy.
That’s not to be disparaging towards agents; if anything, it’s riding to their defence. To the amateur writer, nose pressed longingly against the window of the publishing industry, it’s easy to think that the inside of the building is filled with success and champagne and awards and critical acclaim, but it’s rarely like that, and is subject to the random flux and circumstance of the rest of the world.
Ok, so what to do about the thorny issue of luck? It seems tremendously unfair to reduce something that necessitates such profound degrees of effort, creativity, isolation, and vocation, to something as wilfully tricksy as luck, and yet I think we’d be acting disingenuously if we didn’t acknowledge it. I discussed this with one of my buddies, The Big Peat, in PMs recently, and we seemed to hit upon the idea that if you can’t negate the influence of luck, you can try and help it along a little.
To try and reduce the effects of luck you need to give yourself a bigger target to hit. In short, you need to write more stuff, and open yourself up to more avenues of opportunity. More stories + more avenues of opportunity = more chances of success. But this isn’t just a rehashed, wordy version of “throw enough mud, some of it will stick.” There is still art and craft involved; you could write more manuscripts than Barbara Cartland, but it’ll mean zip if they’re all hopeless. But having a cadre of several manuscripts under your belt does give you options, to perhaps try different approaches with different stories.
As for opening oneself to other avenues of opportunity, that means engaging with the world. Stephen mentioned that he’d arranged publishing deals in Facebook, by being a member of groups and thus in the right place at the right time. Engaging with writing groups, circles, communities. Then there are also self-publishing routes, including publishing to a blog, in the way I’ve done for a couple of my novellas. The more routes you have of spotting the opportunity, the more likely one will be able to present itself.
Finally, there are the opportunities you can carve out for yourself. Hugh Howie started out by publishing to his blog, as did Andy Weir. Perhaps there are initiatives that you can start, and from which you can build a platform. I would say that lots of people have that within themselves, if they can find the right sort of thing on which to focus. That’s the driving motivation behind starting Chronscast. The only caveat I’d add here is that it helps to try and build something bigger than yourself. There’s a world out there trying to promote itself, and most self-promotion is lost in the noise. What can you really offer people that’s of value? Make a name for yourself, and maybe the writing will stick in ways that you didn’t expect.
All of this gives Luck a bigger area on which to land. Perseverance can overcome the vagaries of luck. Of course, if you do work hard enough for an opportunity to present itself, you then have to be able to take it, or even discern if it’s the right one for you – but that’s another story.
Yes, I know I keep banging on about it, but Chronscast Episode 1 will be released in early January. In-keeping with the general sentiment of the post above, there’s a monthly opportunity for Chrons members to have their own writing featured on each episode. The winners of the SFF Chronicles Writing Challenges will have the opportunity to record themselves reading their winning entries; any Chrons member can enter, and becoming is a member is free.