Thursday, February 16, 2006

What’s Luck Got to Do With It?

We all know that feeling. You start reading a book, even perhaps a best seller, and after a few pages you think to yourself, ‘How on earth did this ever get into print? I could do better!’

When you’re unpublished, it seems unfair that someone who peppers their prose with exclamation marks and clich├ęs, or poor grammar and clunky sentences, can find a publisher. And when you are published, it seems just as unfair that the author of that same shoddy writing gets millions while you worry about whether you’ll earn out the modest advance you got.

So how come a book like that gets published in the first place? And once published, how come it sells millions? Is it luck?

No, of course not, but it sure helps to be in the right place at the right time for the right person. And the only way you ensure that is by getting your book – the best work you can write - out there to as many people as possible. I am an object lesson when it comes to this.

My first novel was accepted by an agent just after I turned forty-five. It should have been earlier – after all, I was only seven or eight when I decided I was going to be a writer. Well, authoress was the word I used, I believe! So what the hell took me so long? I did write. I even finished books. A number of them. But I never got anywhere with them. Why not?

Because the sheer dogged determination was not there. I was too caught up in all the paraphernalia of everyday life, earning a living, raising kids…you know the story. But in this business you make your own luck by stubborn persistence, and without that drive, my books weren’t out there being seen by enough people. In effect, I wasn’t making my own luck.

Then the kids grew older and my husband took a job in Vienna, Austria. We moved into a smaller house where the housework could be done in one tenth the time and there was no wildlife sharing our living space necessitating constant cleaning (people who live in the tropics will know what I mean!). I had no full-time job so I had time to write; we weren’t earning third world salaries any more and so I had the cash to sent out a manuscript repeatedly. I got serious. I changed my luck.

That poorly written work by the now bestselling author I mentioned above? That may not have appealed to 99% of the publisher and agents who saw it originally - but it hit the right person at the right time, someone for whom the story resonated, or who realised it would resonate with the reading public. Just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean other people won’t like it either.

We have to accept that sometimes good writing doesn’t sell, whereas a good story can sometimes survive poor writing. It’s annoying to those who take care to craft good novels, but hey, this is a business as well as a creative art, and we have to live with it. And the best advice remains: make your own luck.

Be a stubborn son-of-a-bitch as well as a good craftsman.

5 comments:

Satima said...

Thanks for that encouragement, Glenda! It is so easy to give up trying, especially when one sees badly written work making it into print while one's own deathless prose languishes in the slush pile.

I am reminded of something Tim Powers said at Swancon 2004 (and I'm paraphrasing because I can't remember his exact words) - If you have a good story, well-written and well presented, it's only a matter of time before someone likes it enough to buy it. So keep on sending it out, over and over again, for as long as it takes.

You're living proof that a woman of mature years who has talent and tenacity can Get Published - so I, too, will keep trying.

Mind you, having less talent, I will need even more tenacity:-)

Glenda Larke said...

Ah, but Satima, if you could read my early efforts, you probably wouldn't think I had much talent!

One fault I think some unpublished authors make is this: they keep trying to rework a first or second book for far too long. Sure, try rewriting it, especially if you get feedback which seems to make good sense, but there does come a point where a writer should toss their early work up on to the top of the wardrobe and start afresh with a totally new idea, a new book, and a fresh load of enthusiasm.

If I told you how many books I wrote before I even sent one to a publisher, you'd have a heart attack.

So stubborness has a number of facets: keep sending a work out again and again; keep rewriting something till you get it right; and keep writing - but try something new and (you hope) even better.

The problem is always judging when is the right time to a) stop shopping the same work b)stop rewriting the same work c) start something new. And no one can tell you that because there's no easy answer.

Good luck!

Satima said...

I've only written two books so far and I still love them both:-) I doubt if the first one will ever see the light of day, but the WIP, I feel, is worth working with until I "get it right":-)

I hope I'll have the nouse to realise when it's as right as it's ever gonna get and move on if that's what's needed!

Hard to know when we are so close to the work:-(

Anonymous said...

Thanks... I'm nine years old and trying to complete my stories, but I always seem to get writer's block. The latest is getting on well, though.
I doubt I will ever become a true author just like you, but after reading that I was encouraged to continue. Thanks so much again...

Glenda Larke said...

You'll get there ...

if you work at it,
read and write a lot,
never lose sight of the dream the way I did for a long while,
and have the patience not to expect it to happen too soon.

You've got lots of exciting things to do with your life. This one is going to take a while. It's worth it.