Sunday, October 7, 2012

Does Luck Matter?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about the notion of talent and how people misapply the word to describe skillful authors who have worked endlessly to learn to write well. As with craftsmen in any profession, authors get where they are not through some natural talent but through uncountable hours of practice.
Having said that, there is nothing worse than a smug author who claims personal credit for everything good that has happened to their writing career. There are many successful writers who make insulting and inaccurate statements like, “If your book is good enough, someone will publish it.” Or the reverse, “If no one will publish your book, it obviously isn't good enough.”
Even some of the brightest and best authors fall for this self-aggrandizing and erroneous reasoning. I remember, for example, when NPR's Terry Gross interviewed Robert B. Parker of Spenser fame, and he uttered this arrogant tripe. I was amazed. Not only is Parker one of the gods we writers study – especially for his scintillating dialogue – but he was a beacon that reinforced our belief that producing a good novel is one of life's most worthy goals.
 Even our heroes like Robert B. Parker can be wrong

Despite his misguided statement, the truth is that hundreds, or even thousands, of good novels were finally published only after the author submitted it eighty times, or one hundred and eighty times. There are legendary novels that have been huge critical and commercial successes that come with this history attached.
You've all heard the stories.
But what about the authors who submitted their very good piece of writing only seventy-nine times, or one hundred and seventy-nine times, and when they got yet another rejection, they finally gave up. Are their novels less worthy than the novels of the writers who, through blind persistence, submitted once more? Are their novels simply not good enough as Robert Parker suggested?
You immediately see the fallacy of his statement.
You can write a fantastic novel and have no one discover it. Without a doubt there are many great novels sitting in the backs of closets and on hard drives everywhere.

When Tahoe Hijack sold to a publisher in Paris, I wondered how they came to want it.
Tahoé l'enlèvement
The French "Tahoe Hijack"
Why did it happen? Do I have the right to parade around claiming that my book was picked up because it is better than all the other books that didn't find a French publisher? Of course not.
Most of what determines writing success is hard work. But life is random and chaotic. Sometimes the cards fall our way, and sometimes they don't, and while we can legitimately claim credit for the results of our hard work, we can't claim credit for any success that comes from those random cards.
Likewise, when we fail to drive ourselves to produce our best work and the resulting mediocre effort falls flat, we should take responsibility for that failure. But hard, focused effort that is unrewarded because we were dealt bad cards isn't something that should make us feel shame.
My French publishing deal was luck.
Did I have a good book that will justify the publisher's investment? I believe so. And did my efforts at building a good series influence the publisher's decision to make me an offer? Probably.
But out of a world of publishers, why did this particular publisher step forward and make me an offer?
Luck. I, and other authors who have had similar good fortune, would be foolish to claim otherwise.

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