Why Most Writers Can’t Bear The Thought Of Luck
Luck is not a concept most people are happy with – at least, not when it really matters. Luck shows in the most unambiguous way that our lives in the real world depend upon far more than merely our actions. Luck is evidence for the existence of an independent reality running according to its own laws, which is something a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge.
It’s particularly interesting to see how writers and authors approach the topic of luck. The most agonised howls of outrage that I hear following my various suggestions and observations about the publishing world come after this topic. 90% of it, I claim, is random luck. Well, that 90% of course is an estimate based on my experience: it could be 50% or 99%. But it’s the principle that counts. So, why do those howls follow such a suggestion?
Luck as we know it is a concept essentially of the post scientific revolution world. In the Judeo-Christian worlds of history and of today there is an explicit or implicit assumption that events in human lives come down to choices. In other words, the moral outlook of such worlds is that there is a direct link between deed and reward. Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. How many Hollywood blockbusters have there been where the hero wasn’t rewarded for saving the world, while the villain was given the all money and adulation?
It is this simplistic view of moral choice that leads to an inability to accept the existence of random chance. The truth is, your manuscript might not be seen by a decent editor, however hard you slaved over it. Your first paragraph might not be read by a suitable agent, however many emails you sent. Or that email might get lost somewhere in the internet, and because of your lack of confidence – a consequence mostly of your parents’ parenting style and therefore also a consequence of luck – you might in frustration decide never to send another one out. You only have to browse the aspiring writers section of any literary forum to find innumerable examples of fragile writers all encouraging one another to find success – to make their dreams come true.
Dreams, though, are just dreams. They cede to the real world.
My own experience as an author illustrates this. In typical novice fashion my early novels were rubbish. However, I didn’t have the insight to see that at the time, so I carried on writing rubbish for a few years. Then something lucky happened. Attached to an inner page of a manuscript that had been rejected and returned to me I found a hand written post-it note, which was not meant to have been included, since it was a note from a reader to the editor I had approached. This note was brutal. It described how poor my writing was and how badly executed the narrative. Shocked, I took time out to look at myself and my work from a better perspective, which led me to up my game, write the second draft of a novel called Kray, and send that out.
Speaking of that second draft of Kray, it was the novel which four years later became my Orbit Books debut Memory Seed. The manuscript was taken from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one. Pure luck, in other words – the right book at the right time seen by the right man. And that’s just two random chance stories I could tell about my rollercoaster “career”…
People assume a connection between deed and reward because of cultural indoctrination. People assume a world of order because that’s what old books tell them. People assume individuals are ultimately responsible for their actions because, otherwise, you’d have to pass the buck up to the highest authority, and no religious person can ever do that. But free will is a slippery concept. In America it has been debased by libertarians into mere absence of authority, into unchecked consumerism by others. In Britain we have a more formal version, somewhere between the dark blandishments of Christianity and the ludicrous pronouncements of “heritage” and “tradition.”
Writers, likewise, usually assume they are free to develop themselves over time into brilliant wordsmiths. Well, some are: but some aren’t. Even if you believe something, even if you really really believe it like they do in Hollywood, that thing doesn’t necessarily come true. Everybody has nascent artistic ability, but not everyone can become an author. And even if you do become an author, the real world can put some enormous obstacles in your path. Cognitive dissonance is great for coping with the mental conflicts of desire versus reality, but cognitive dissonance isn’t a good way of interacting with the world.
Some people claim this attitude recognising chance is disrespectful to the huge amount of hard work put in by successful authors. I can speak on this issue because I know all about the hard work involved. The truism of literary advice is: persistence, persistence, persistence. It could be argued that by being persistent you make your own luck, and I myself have said as much. But persistence doesn’t work because you’re changing the odds over a long period of time; those 10,000-1 odds stay the same year after year after year because the individual components are all independent. Persistence works because to make the leap from writer to author you have to ditch your pride and learn from your mistakes. In that sense you’re making yourself more visible, by being better, and indeed by just being around. It’s the only way to effect change.
The facts about good luck and bad luck in the publishing world imply nothing about the preceding hard work. Writing a novel is overwhelmingly an intimate, solitary and private activity. The work of getting a novel published happens overwhelmingly out there in the public world. In the former case, you do need a little luck: in the latter case you need lots of luck. But at least in the former case there is a place for the realities of hard work. Success though has two sides, one positive, one negative. Authors shouldn’t be surprised by that, given how they’d all like their literary visions to resonate with others.