The Three-legged Altar of Luck

- by E. C. Ambrose

Cover image by Cliff Nielsen, book 1 of The Dark Apostle, now available!

Cover image by Cliff Nielsen, book 1 of The Dark Apostle, now available!

I was enjoying a meal with a large group of current writing students, and describing my pathway to publication, culminating in the recent release of Elisha Barber, first in a new dark historical fantasy series from DAW books.  Needless to say, I’m pretty excited!

I remarked that I was surprised to find several people I’d known for years suddenly in just the right places when I needed to reach out for promotional help.  One of the students chuckled and said something about luck. As if luck had anything to do with it.

I am one of those who strongly believes in making my own “luck”–mostly through planning, research and pursuit of the right opportunities.  First of all, you have to know what you want.

This sounds like a no-brainer, right?  If you’re reading this blog, you probably want to be a novelist (if you’re not already) or you want to improve your career in some fashion.  In short, you want to be a successful novelist.  But what kind of success?  You need to define your goal somewhere between, “I’d like to finish a book some day,” and “I’d like to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.”  Even at the high end of the spectrum, there’s a big difference between the book likely to win that Nobel, and the one likely to be a New York Times Bestseller.  What kind of books do you write?  What kind (and how large) an audience do you reach for?  I’m the last person to discourage a dream, but the dream should have some basis is reality as well.  Look at the books and authors you want to be–what are they like?  What do they have in common?

Hey, wait a minute, we’ve just slid from knowing what you want (having a dream) to researching what that dream looks like.  The more detailed you can make your dream, the more likely you can achieve it, because the next stage is working out all the steps between you and the dream.  What, specifically, do you need in order to get from here to there.  This is when your dream becomes a goal.

No luck so far, just planning.  So, you plan out the steps you need to take.  Write 500 pages.  Cool, that’s less than 1 and a half pages a day, and in a year, you’ve got it.  Step by step, to the first benchmark.  I’m assuming you can write a pretty good book, even if it’s not the first one you finish–keep working on the craft and you’ll likely write something others would be happy to read.

Great, E. C., anybody can figure that out, but how about actually getting published?

Well, if you want to get the book out to where readers can find it, and ideally make some money on it, you can take the manuscript and pop it on the web as an ebook, hopefully with some editing and revision, a nice cover, and some good promotional tactics–and that’s all just planning, too.  Does it take luck for your book to be noticed after publication?  Here’s where things get more complicated.  You can’t just research and plan that, too, can you?  Sure.  Where do readers find books like yours?  can you send it to bloggers for reviews?  post an ad, do a blog tour with similar authors, run a Goodreads giveaway?  Research, and planning.

And if you want to submit to agents and editors?  Remember how you looked at books like yours to research your definition of success?  Many of them probably gave thanks to their agents and editors.  You can query.  Is it easy to write a good query?  Not much easier than writing a good book, but there are workshops, articles, critique groups and contests to help you learn how.  Agents and editors get an oodle of queries–isn’t it just luck that they pick yours from the slushpile?

Here’s where the third leg of that tripod comes in:  opportunity.  There are conventions where you can get an appointment to meet with an agent or editor to pitch your novel.  Which ones do your targeted agents/editors attend?  If you’re in a genre, you have the whole world of genre conventions where these industry pros are likely to go. Even if they don’t have pitch sessions, there are chances to hear what they like, what they’re looking for, perhaps to have a casual conversation.  Even if they don’t go to conventions, maybe you know an author who works with them and thinks enough of your work to recommend you. Opportunities.

But the most exciting opportunities, the ones that have paid off for me, aren’t those I was even actively pursuing, but those I cultivated in the meantime, the authors I spoke with and got to know through workshops, online groups or conventions; the convention runners, media pros and bookstore owners I met during my research phases.  I found, when I was ready to move on to the next phase in submitting the book that I knew who to ask about editors at DAW–I had already made that connection.  When I researched who to contact about certain readings, conventions or media appearances, again, I knew who to ask-and often, I knew the person they referred me to.

These aren’t connections I was cultivating because I knew I’d use them or wanted something from them.  Sometimes, they had been people who wanted something from me.  Most often, they were just the folks I was interacting with anyway, because I love writing, reading, meeting people who share my interests.  Ten years worth of being invested in the world of fantasy writing resulted in a huge web of connections and resources, and I’m just as much a part of the web as I am reliant upon it.  I’m well-placed to become someone else’s “lucky” break.  I placed myself in the way of opportunity, I did enough research to recognize the chances, I had done enough planning to know where they fit on my pathway to success, and I was bold enough to step up and ask for the chance.

Henry Ford said that good things come to those who hustle while they wait.  Was Ford lucky to create and market the Model-T?  He was a hard-working, forward-thinking, researching, refining and participating entrepreneur.  Just like me.  And, maybe, just like you.


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