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The Naked Page

Author Jamie Sobrato's Diary


What's Luck Got to Do With It?

Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect. --Ralph Waldo Emerson

This quote made me think about the struggle to become published and how often we attribute luck to being a big factor in whether we sell our work. I do believe luck is a factor, but it's a smaller one than many people realize. We have lots of control over how much of our success is determined by luck and how much of it is determined by our own actions.

What I mean is, sometimes authors happen to be at the right place at the right time with the right book, and great things happen to their careers. People tend to call that luck. But that's dismissing the hard work and talent that went into writing the book and the work that went into putting the book in the right place at the right time.

Luck may have been a factor (say, if you happen to be writing great paranormal novels today, when the market is hot for them, instead of ten years ago when no one wanted them), but it does the author a disservice to focus on it. Even in the example of writing paranormal, we could eliminate the luck factor to a large extent by saying that if anyone chose to persist in writing paranormal books when the market for them was dead, they were creating their own bad luck, and if they were smart enough to jump on their passion for vampires when the market was on the upswing, then they made a smart business move.

I can think of one author whose career took off in a huge way a few years ago, and lots of people said she'd just gotten lucky. What really happened though was that she was a smart, talented woman who wrote for years and years, paid her dues, kept her eye out for opportunities, wrote the best books she could, and when she spotted what had the potential to be a huge opportunity, she worked as hard as she could to get it, and then she made the most of it.

Was that luck? No. It might look like luck on the surface, but it was really hard work and dedication and good business sense.

The authors who keep writing and keep improving and keep learning from their mistakes and keep sending their work out as much as they can are the ones who sell. If you find yourself frustrated that you aren't making progress, then you may need to take a hard look and what you're doing and assess what you might be doing wrong. If you can't figure out on your own, recruit the help of a trusted friend to offer their brutally honest opinion.

Don't succumb to writing it all off as luck (or lack thereof). We don't have the fates of our careers totally within our control, but we can control the most important thing--the writing itself.


At 12:53 PM, Anonymous Cindy Procter-King said...

I don't call it luck, but I do call it Timing, and I think it's a very important factor. You can have talent and keep putting your work out there, and you NEED you to do that, but if the timing isn't right, it isn't right, and it's something we have little control over, unless perhaps you're agented and the agent can get the right manuscript to the right editor at the right time. Unagented authors can submit and then, while they're waiting six or 12 or 18 months, the market changes, and the timing isn't right, and the opportunity is lost. Or the editor leaves, and the next editor doesn't like the work, and the timing is lost. I think about my sale to Red Sage, and a lot of it was due to timing. I just happened to submit when my old editor was hankering for a light erotic novella. I could have submitted immediately after attending the Red Sage workshop at a National conference, but I didn't. For some reason I don't understand, I waited several months. But that waiting helped put timing on my side. If I'd subbed earlier, would I have been assigned the same editor? Who knows? I do believe a little bit of magic fairy dust exists to hook us up with the right industry professionals at the right time, providing we're doing all we can to make that come about.

Okay, my editor left shortly after my sale, and there's nothing I could have done to prevent that. Since she left, a novella she recommended as a buy wound up getting rejected by my new editor. If I'd submitted it sooner, while my old editor was still fully engaged in her role, I might have had a second RS sale instead of a rejection. To me, that's timing. But the first two--working hard and getting your work out there--undoubtedly have to occur. After that, we're left with timing, which some people do mistakenly confuse with luck, but they aren't the same thing.

Luck is when you write your first book, and the market is ripe for it and it gets picked up right away. The writer isn't necessarily any more talented than another writer who might have been slaving away for five years, but the timing really super worked in the Author 1's favor. IMO, that's one lucky writer, because her experience is SO not the norm.


At 1:33 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

But is it really luck when you get your first sale very easily? Not always. Lots of authors get tripped up by that later, because it came too easily the first time around, so later failures feel even bigger than they otherwise would.

I personally think success that comes too easily is more often a roadblock than it is a stroke of luck.

As far as timing goes, yes, it's a big factor, but it's only partly within our control, so we have to remember that. One of the best gifts we can give ourselves as writers is to let go of the things we can't control, and work our asses off at the things we can.

At 1:44 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

One other thing. I hope my post doesn't come across as "if everyone just worked harder they'd sell a book." That's not what I feel.

All I was really hoping to get across was, 1) the idea that we shouldn't dismiss other people's successes as luck, but rather we should see what we can learn from them, and 2) all we can do is focus on the work and let go of the rest.

I'll try to find a link and post it later, to an article I recently read by a successful author. She talked about how the universe doesn't owe us anything as creative types. It doesn't owe us a book contract, so if we're in it for the long haul, it has to be about the writing--that's our job. To do the writing, and send it out there, and let go.

At 5:46 PM, Anonymous Cindy Procter-King said...

Good point, Jamie. It might be luck if you get that first sale easily, but it's not always the best thing down the line. And I totally agree with you about working our butts off over the things we can control and learn the best we can not to worry so much about what we can't control.

The article sounds great. And I think your post came across fine.


At 6:02 PM, Blogger Avery Beck said...

There is a cover on the Cigar blog that looks *exactly* like a scene out of one of my mss. I mean, from the room they're in, to the position they're in, to the color of the clothes on the heroine. A few weeks ago when I first saw it, I could not believe it. I almost cried. That is the kind of thing I consider bad luck.

It's such a dumb thing. But when a writer does write and submit, and does get a lot of positive feedback yet still doesn't sell, I think all those out-of-our-control aspects of writing get lumped into "luck" because we just don't know what else to think. I've heard more than once on unpublished author loops that rejections come for a list of reasons that may have nothing to do with the story, but more to do with timing, etc. I don't know how true that is or if it's just what people say to console themselves, but with that in mind, writers like myself start freaking over every little thing--like the cover. Will this make me "unoriginal"? Will I get the "we just bought this" rejection? Etc, etc, etc.

I'd never blow off another writer's success as pure luck. Writing a publishable novel takes a LOT of work, and I believe most published authors have earned their status (um, except celebrities who can stamp their names on the cover of a book they didn't even write and become bestsellers. But I digress...)

Anyway, I just wanted to illustrate how a writer obsesses over things she can't control. ;-) But I'm still writing, I promise!

At 6:31 AM, Blogger Lori Borrill said...

What I see more often are people who think they can network their way into a sale. They're big in RWA and somehow manage to hook up with "their favorite editor" a couple times a year. They're on a first-name basis with a half dozen agents and editors, are constantly attending functions where they can pitch projects, and generally live by the notion that they'll get a sale because the editor likes them, or an author recommended them, or an agent had a drink with them....

I can't help but feel if they spent half that time honing their craft and taking the advice of their CPs they would have sold by now.

At 2:44 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Melissa/Avery (I don't know what to call you anymore!),

The last thing you should be worried about is that there's a Blaze cover that matches one of your scenes! That's so common, I mean, SO common that Harlequin often swaps the covers on international additions. I have a foreign edition that has a cover of one of Jeannie London's US books on my book, for instance, and it fits my book perfectly well. It happens all the time. there are only so many typical situations you can put two romantic characters in, after all, and you shouldn't feel pressured to have all your scenes take place in bizarre settings (hanging off the side of an airplane or something) to be original. :-)

At 2:48 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

And regarding the luck issue, yes, it's a factor--there are always instances of the universe being unfair (chronically ill children, bad things happening to good people...), so of course the publishing world is no different.

That's why we have to keep drilling it into our heads to stop worrying about the things we can't control. And I will admit, I NEVER accomplished that before I sold my first book...or even my first ten books...so I should be the last person to offer this advice. It's probably something we have to learn the hard way...or at least I did. :-)

At 2:52 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Hi Lori! Thanks for joining in the discussion. Wow, I would never have had the balls to do what you described. Are these the same people who are always foisting their un-asked-for business cards on me at conference? :-)

I'm kind of surprised anyone would think to put so much weight on networking in this business. Sure, it's a good skill to have, and it never hurts to know editors and agents...but it always, ALWAYS comes down to the writing itself.

A possible negative consequence of being a person who networks too much is that you could put off the very people you're trying to work with. I mean, it's possible to not know when we're coming off as a little too desperate or pushy or offensive, you know?

At 3:40 PM, Blogger Avery Beck said...

Okay, that cover-swapping thing makes me feel a lot better!

At 7:00 PM, Blogger Lori Borrill said...

Can I just say that what's REALLY screwing me up is that I work with a woman named Melissa Avery??

I'm actually kinda missing the rap name MJam. I thought that was cool, and personally, I think the romance industry could stand a Blaze written by MJam. :D

Jamie, I think people get caught up in the networking thing more when they belong to chapters, particularly good chapters that put on lots of functions where agents and editors are invited. I'll admit, I haven't joined a chapter only because I'm too lazy to drive to Oakland, and sometimes I wish I'd met some writers in person before I sold. But I do know of people who believe in the old adage that "who you know" can help you as much as "what you know". That might work in Hollywood, but I never see it working in this business.

Unless, of course, you know Brittany Spears and she's willing to let you ghost write her tell-all book. That might help. Yeah. Definitely.

At 7:18 PM, Blogger Avery Beck said...

Okay, for the sake of consistency, just use the new name! I received an email this morning that was clearly not meant for me, but rather for my published counterpart (this is the second time that's happened), and I wonder now if I should just legally change the damn thing. LOL!

Lori, I swear, if I ever go into rap, MJam will be the name. ;-)

At 1:54 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

We should all have rapper names, just in case...


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