The Luck Myth

- by Laura Resnick

rrrAdapted from
Rejection, Romance, & Royalties: The Wacky World of a Working Writer

I once read a letter to the editor in a publishing trade journal wherein an aspiring writer, amidst various complaints about her hard lot, expressed hope that she would someday be among those of us who are “lucky enough to have sold a book.”

I see this sort of thing often. (And not just from aspirants, alas.) Someone’s “lucky” to be a pro, to sell novels, to break into hardcover, to crack the bestseller lists, to get a six-figure advance, to have two publishers, to be under contract for four books, to work steadily for years, and so on.

Newsflash: Luck is the least of the things you need to survive and succeed as a professional writer. Few things are more self-defeating in the aspiring writer, more pointless in the embittered pro, and more insulting to the steadily working novelist than perpetuating “the Luck Myth.”
The Luck Myth is the rationalization whereby a dissatisfied writer blames bad luck and an unfair world for his not having what he wants, whether it’s a first professional sale or a string of hardcover bestsellers; as a corollary, the Luck Myth also involves attributing someone else’s success, whether it’s a modest short story sale or a six-figure advance for a novel, to luck (and an unfair world, of course).

Now don’t get me wrong: I think luck is wonderful! Send me a bushel, I won’t turn it down. But luck is very elusive—far too elusive to form the foundation of a career plan—and therefore mostly irrelevant in the overall scheme of a filthy pro’s life. As award-winning science fiction novelist Catherine Asaro says, “I wouldn’t say luck played any part in my writing career. Persistence and hard work were the determining factors. I never gave up, no matter how many times I was told, ‘You can’t do that.’”

Bestselling romance novelist Mary Jo Putney once remarked to me that “luck” is really a matter of a writer working hard and creating chances for opportunities to come her way. Or, as Victoria Thompson reminds me, “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” Thompson was cast off by a down-sizing publisher years ago, an event that forced her to get a day job after years of writing romance full-time. It was dogged persistence, not luck, she explains, that helped her resurrect her writing career and, after a couple of years, become an Edgar-nominated mystery novelist. As Jennifer Roberson, author of numerous historical and fantasy novels, says, “Without persistence, ninety-nine percent of us wouldn’t have careers.”

Which is not to negate the importance of talent, of course. Mary Jo Putney and I occasionally ponder together, “What’s more important: talent or persistence?” We invariably come to the conclusion that talent is more important—but useless, in the majority of cases, without persistence. As Jennifer Roberson, who spent fifteen years trying to break into the business, notes, “Without persistence, the most brilliantly talented writer in the world may never be published.” Meanwhile, Putney and I have often agreed that real persistence combined with only very modest talent can keep you working for years. Luck, we both admit, is really nice, and a little luck occurs in most careers (including both of ours); but luck runs far behind talent and persistence as a very distant third-place finish.

New York Times bestseller Kevin J. Anderson—author of more than seventy published novels, with more than fifteen million copies of his books in print—collected eighty rejection slips before making his first sale. As Anderson notes, most aspiring writers give up well before they acquire eighty rejection slips; and his collection now has a total of about 800 rejection slips in it.

As bestseller John Jakes once said, “Too many beginning writers give up too easily.” Or, to quote Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

Scratch the surface of steadily working professional writers, and you’ll find many who wrote numerous books before selling one, who spent years trying to break in, who collected piles of rejection slips before making that first sale. Get any successful writer into deep discussion about her career (and her friends’ careers), and you’ll hear tales of six-figure contracts canceled because books were deemed “unpublishable,” high-profile releases that descended into plummeting sales figures and two years without work, promising publishing relationships which petered out into bad marketing plans and unreturned phone calls, rejection letters of withering distaste, revision letters of soul-crushing negativity, publishers folding, imprints crashing, etc., etc.

This is the business; and you stay active in it by persisting, not by being lucky.

Meanwhile, if all you do is talk about writing without actually writing and submitting a whole lot, or if your first couple of books are rejected everywhere you send them and you stop writing and submitting, or if no professional market will buy your first six short stories and you stop writing so you can spend more time grumbling, or if your editor rejects your next book and you just sit around and mope about it for ten years, or if your publisher asks you never to darken their door again and you sob into your cashmere sweater about this for five years… guess what will happen?

That’s right: Nothing.

I, meanwhile, will still be getting “lucky.”

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