Maybe “luck” isn’t the perfect word here. But it’s way less clunky than, “The strategic optimization of your odds of success.”
Yes, there is an element of random chance at play in almost anything we aspire to. But in my experience, it’s also true that the harder you work, the luckier you get.
In other words, there are odds, but there are also ways to increase the odds. How…?
First off, you not only need to be willing to work long and hard, but smart. (And of the three, smart may be the most important. Imagine some dude who spends years on his manuscript, then simply shotguns the whole thing to every single agent he can find in Writer’s Market—literally hundreds of them—no matter their requirements or list. And each with the same cover letter, which probably starts with, “Dear Agent…” No matter what, this guy isn’t likely to ever have “good luck.”)
Awareness of your field will greatly increase your “luck.” Study the market—not because you’re going to write to it, but because you’re going to sell what you’ve written into it—and figure out who’s buying what. Then target the best “who” with your best “what” as intelligently and professionally as you can.
In other words, pay attention.
To agents. To editors. To publishers. To art directors (if you’re an illustrator). To School & Library marketing personnel (if you’re a kidlit author). All these people are industry gurus who work in the field every day, and have the straight info. And pay attention to authors. Including those who are repped by agents you’d like to be repped by, selling to editors you’d like to sell to, published by houses you’d like to be published by, and—especially—writing the types of books you’d like to write. (The way you pay attention to these is to read those books, of course. It’s a subject for another post, but I can’t imagine anyone succeeding in a specific genre without reading pretty widely in that genre. Yet I see the opposite of this all the time… not exactly the definition of “working smarter,” is it?)
Industry personnel are people. With literary likes and dislikes. And they sometimes discuss these on social media. Follow them. Pay attention to who’s repping what. PW regularly puts out roundup reports of recent book deals, including editor/author/agent/house/etc. Editors (and agents) frequently post their "manuscript wish list" desires using #MSWL. (Some may say “agented submissions only.” That’s fine. If you have a manuscript that really fits what a legit editor is looking for, this is definitely worth a mention in your query to an agent. Just get on it—these things all have a “use by” date…)
I had a writer describe his completed manuscript to me—a political thriller—and ask for advice on next steps. I said it sounded a lot like a certain popular TV series. He agreed it was in the same ballpark. I said, “Well, agent so-and-so’s favorite TV series happens to be that show. She tweets about it regularly. I would read three or four books she’s repped which you think are in a similar genre, then polish the heck out of your manuscript, write a brief, compelling, complimentary-yet-professional query letter, and submit to her. Then go through the same process with at least a dozen more good agent candidates. That might be a good first step…”
I guess the takeaway here is, there is so much useful, actionable information available these days about the workings of the publishing industry that you’re doing yourself a major disservice if you don’t do a little research before trying to place your hard-won manuscript.
4.1 (bonus) Talent…
This comes up a lot: But what about talent? Yes, talent is absolutely a factor, and I think we can all agree that at least a modicum of it is required in order to commit successful writing.
But what is it?
That’s an age-old question. My personal answer is that it resides somewhere at the intersection of Heart and Craft, honed with desire over time (Persistence)… and the more you apply these factors, the more likely you are to have “Luck.”
Some regard talent as inborn, some as a mysterious proclivity toward certain art forms, some as a gift from on high, visited upon the lucky. So instead of those vague definitions, let’s talk about other words. Facility. Skill. Mastery. And perhaps the most important… Affinity.
Because really, it’s largely about desire and effort, over time. You rarely hear someone say, “I don’t care at all about playing the violin and I’ve never really put any time or effort into it, yet for some reason I’m a virtuoso.”
I think it’s largely a circular self-fulfilling prophecy… you think you might like something so you try it, you find you enjoy it so you continue doing it, the practice helps you get better at it, which makes you like it even more, so you do it even more, so you get even better, and… Voila! You’ve acquired a certain amount of skill at it, and if you truly enjoy it (and we tend to enjoy things we excel at), you’re likely to continue the practice until you’ve gained a level of mastery at it.
Yes, people’s minds all work differently, and may be drawn toward different things… perhaps language, or music, or visual arts, or physical expression. And this can add to the early “you find you enjoy it” factor, making it more likely that not only do you practice it, but you also tend to think about it when not practicing it. Which adds not only to the enjoyment of it, but the facility at it.
Because through this you’ve developed an affinity for your chosen art form, which is a definite advantage in acquiring mastery. (People rarely get really good at something they don’t truly enjoy, which is why people who take up something as a route to fame and fortune—as opposed to having a love of the art form itself—rarely achieve success. Because the “Heart” factor is missing.)
So, that sums up our four attributes of successful writing. This is obviously experiential opinion, not concrete fact. Because writing is art, not science. And these attributes are not always separate, discreet steps—they combine to form a unified mindset which will help you get to wherever it is you want to go. They feed into each other…
Without Heart, you won’t have enough emotional investment to spend the time to fully invest your Craft into the story, and without Persistence, you won’t give Luck a fighting chance to come through for you.
Best of luck!
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.