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Question of the Week: Luck

by Susan Henderson on January 22, 2007

Is luck the biggest factor in a writer’s success? Tell me what you think.

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Wednesday, L.A. Times bestselling author, Brad Listi, will talk about luck in the career of a writer.

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A few (very dark and blurry) pictures from the past week – Mr. Henderson’s gig following Saturday’s Global Warming BBQ and the boys playing at open mic last Thursday:

Mr. H and Kenny; Kathy and Kenny

And sorry but I’ve somehow misplaced the photos of the boys performing “I’m a Believer” and “Let It Be” with Kenny joining in with the tamborine.

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Lance Reynald January 22, 2007 at 6:16 am

certainly luck can open some doors and perhaps get your first book in place. But true talent and craft gives you the leverage to stay.

but, it’s always good to have a bit of luck.

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Simon Haynes January 22, 2007 at 11:57 am

No, luck isn’t the biggest factor. Now, if you’d said the biggest factor for a published author‘s success…

Anyway, to address the question:

First, you need talent. And persistance. Then you need to need to work your butt off for years until … you have a first draft.

Next, polishing, edits, rewrites. On and on until that sucker shines.

At this stage your manuscript has to be better than 95% of the others waiting in the slushpile, else it’ll come back again.

Once you’re in the top 5%, then you can use some luck. The right desk at the right publishing house at the right time. The agent whose major client just gave up writing for ballet.

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Betsy January 22, 2007 at 2:19 pm

The biggest? No. A factor? I think it is, to the extent that when you start submitting stuff, sometimes it’s a matter of landing on the right desk on the right day. But I agree,I feel strongly that talent will find a place – if you put the effort in.

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Jon Armstrong January 22, 2007 at 2:40 pm

I believe luck is one of the smallest portions in the recipe of success. Mostly, as Simon says, it’s persistence. Add to that a pint objectivity to hear criticism, a cup of personal connections, a pinch of talent, and just a squeeze of luck.

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Gail Siegel January 22, 2007 at 3:17 pm

Yes, yes and yes. Whether you call it luck or good karma, it’s what gives us a leg up. Luck brings money, time, connections, education–and for us to take credit for that kind of good fortune is naive.

I have two friends from Bennington, both brilliant writers. One is married to a successful publisher and her novel just sold at auction for a king’s ransom. The other — whose first published story won a huge award — has never had the time to write anything more because her husband died an untimely death and she’s stuck saving the kids and the family business. The difference between the two? Utter luck.

Just look at Tillie Olsen. If she’d hadn’t been stuck taking care of her family for decades, she would have been far more prolific.

Another person at Bennington has a fatally ill child and has been unable to complete the program or continue writing. These are all things outside of people’s control. When you have that kind of bad luck, a truckload of talent can’t save you. It’s just that those of us with better luck don’t necessarily see the bullets we’ve dodged.

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Richard January 22, 2007 at 4:49 pm

Tillie Olsen is a great example. If you read her _Silences_, you see how writers throughout the years had difficulties which made it harder for them to produce writing.

Luck certainly plays a role, though not necessarily a major one, in many writers’ careers. The best way to illustrate that is not by comparing writers, but by looking at the relative successes of a single author’s work. Fitzgerald’s _The Great Gatsby_ is today considered his masterpiece, but it sold very poorly compared to his first novel, which had the advantage of being touted as the voice of a new generation. That may not be luck, but sometimes a book comes along that, for whatever reason, hits a nerve with the public.

John Kennedy Toole had posthumous luck.

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Kaytie January 22, 2007 at 5:13 pm

Since others have addressed the topic generally, I’ll offer my specific experiences with luck.

It was talent (I assume) that got me into the grad program I completed but luck that I met Brad in one of my first classes (a non-fiction course with Noel Riley Fitch).

Courage and talent got me into TC Boyle’s PhD department class but I was lucky to overhear a fellow MPW student say that Boyle would accept non PhD students in his workshop.

It was persistance and talent that got me an agent but pure luck (or coincidence?) that we have the same favorite novel.

So far I’d say that, barring the kind of life-luck that Gail Siegel mentions, luck helps make persistance easier but talent, after all, is what brings success.

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Heather McElhatton January 22, 2007 at 6:16 pm

I think you make your own luck. You have to have an uncommon belief in yourself.

Once, just before he was about to go onstage and face a huge crowd, I asked Rick Moody, “All these people – all this pressure, How do you do it?”

He smiled and said, “You’ve just got to believe you can walk on water,” and with that he marched out on stage and faced the crowd.

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Maria Headley January 22, 2007 at 7:13 pm

I love that Rick Moody line…it’s true of the whole business of being a writer. I think it’s one part belief in yourself (that would be a HUGE part, because it enables you first to have enough balls to write something in the first place, and then to have enough balls to go out and push your work on the people who need to see it…if you don’t, then you’re just stuck with a pile of pages) and belief that you can, quite simply, do anything. You have to have that much belief to deal with the general stress of rejection and (more typically) ambivalence. Other vital ingredients: Grit. Luck. And of course, talent. Talent alone, while I consider it vital, can’t make a career without any of the other components – because being a successful writer is not just about the writing.

Richard Hugo says the following in The Triggering Town – accurately, I think.

“Once a spectator said, after Jack Nicklaus had chipped a shot in from a sand trap, “That’s pretty lucky.” Nicklaus is supposed to have replied, “Right. But I notice the more I practice, the luckier I get.” If you write often, perhaps every day, you will stay in shape and will be better able to receive those good poems, which are finally a matter of luck, and get them down.Lucky accidents seldom happen to writers who don’t work.”

He’s talking about inspiration, but I think it applies to publication too – and to all the other components of a writing career.

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amy January 22, 2007 at 9:28 pm

The biggest factor? God, I hope not.

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Paula January 22, 2007 at 10:23 pm

I think it is about the same as asking “Is beauty the biggest factor in a successful career on the pageant circuit?”

It’s not supposed to be, right?

There are supposed to be other personality aspects and character strengths and whatnot in the winners, so they say.

And they, the pageant winners, reportedly, have worked long and hard to succeed in that business.

But doesn’t it all (genetics, connections, supporters) just seem like a lot of very charmed luck?

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Carolyn Burns Bass January 22, 2007 at 10:41 pm

Effort and persistence are the tangible elements of craft; luck is the intangible blessing of opportunity.

Luck is capricious. It may ring the doorbell, but if you’re not dressed and ready to go out, it’s going to visit someone who is.

Lucky me.

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LaurenBaratz-Logsted January 22, 2007 at 10:42 pm

Luck, talent, pluck, intelligence, determination to keep going even when most of the world seems to be yelling at you to “STOP!” – it all has its place and it all can come into play, but there’s no mathematical formula for predicting which percentages of each will provide the winning ticket for any particular writer.

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Aimee January 22, 2007 at 11:05 pm

A palm reader told me I have no luck. He also knew I was a writer before I did. And he knew I’d have two boys. So, going by his reading I’ll say I have no luck but I am due to publish a huge novel in the next year or two.
Luck is only a small part of the equation. A lot of people who seem lucky really just bust ass all the time. But then, some people honestly have horrible luck and face set back after set back.

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Robin Slick January 22, 2007 at 11:53 pm

These are all great answers but I especially like Heather’s/Rick Moody’s.

Now. How does one go about getting that kind of confidence and self-esteem?

Ha ha – it’d be nice to believe I could walk on water. I’m more inclined to worry about drowning. Hmmm. I must go think on this.

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Gail Siegel January 23, 2007 at 12:29 am

We all walk on water in the winter. Just like Carolyn describes luck, it’s a matter of timing.

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mikel k poet January 23, 2007 at 4:53 am

“You got lucky baby, when I found you.”–Tom Petty

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Julie Ann Shapiro January 23, 2007 at 5:31 am

Luck really depends on your notion of fate. I could say it’s lucky when the photographer who has the same kind of collection as my main character in my soon to be serialized novel contacts me. Or maybe it’s just fate, or the Twilight Zone of our merging lives, or that life really is stranger than fiction.

Or you could say it’s all just a wild ride in the One Shoe Diaries TM – The Novel and Photo collection. http://www.oneshoediaries.com.

Whatever the case the two of us have formed a relationship and are helping each other. Our artisitic vision does mirror each other and maybe that’s what luck is too. It’s a mirror of our intentions, that the world recognizes.

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Lance Reynald January 23, 2007 at 5:38 am

this walking on water bit amuses me…

my money is on those that walk through fire though… less about luck and more about… I dunno, something special.

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mattilda January 23, 2007 at 9:12 am

Luck? 19 comments and no one has mentioned connections, or wait people have mentioned connections but not the unfortunate reality that who you know and who those people know determines way more than talent, whatever that is, or even persistence, which of course is also important, but luck?

Yes, it is lucky that a few marginal writers creating brilliant and challenging work actually manage to get any attention in a publishing world that prides itself on formula “marketability” over anything else…

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Gail Siegel January 23, 2007 at 1:42 pm

I think of connections, who you know, as a kind of luck.

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Ronlyn Domingue January 23, 2007 at 4:02 pm

A writing professor once told me that the world is awash in talent; what it takes is luck to get anywhere. I spent half the semester horrified, and every moment after that convinced he’s right. As a writer, I’ve lived the truth of his words–in the best and worst ways possible.

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Kimberly January 23, 2007 at 4:24 pm

To one extent or another, I believe everyone here has touched on this, but a friend of mine uses this signature on his e-mails and I think it neatly sums up the consensus of beliefs on this topic:

“What we call luck, what we call chance, is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.”

I just got back from Sundance, where a few pitch sessions sprung up out of nowhere (well, not nowhere, it was Sundance after all) but honestly, I wasn’t expecting to go there to ‘work’, I was going for a ‘looksee’. Thank god my single-sentence pitch has been well-honed for months and months now (yes, I neglected to contribute) because when the opportunity presented itself, I was able to just talk about the script without actually ‘pitching’ it. Call it ‘luck’ if you like, but I think because of that relaxed presentation – I started a bidding war between two sales agents. Of course, letting the other one know that someone else was also interested in the script didn’t hurt anything… but that was proof that a solid year of very hard work made me ready for when “luck” presented the moment. If I had met those same people last year at the festival, it would not have been so “lucky” because I wouldn’t have been prepared for that opportunity.

Crediting/blaming “luck” to our successes/failures, I feel discounts our own essential contribution to the equation.

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Juliet January 23, 2007 at 4:54 pm

All the luck in the world doesn’t make up for lack of talent, or gifting.
And yet all the gifting in the world is nothing without proper business sense (your own, or an agent’s).
Luck factors in, certainly. But luck, I believe is made and earned more than just magically happens.

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Cherie Burbach January 24, 2007 at 3:51 am

Let’s just put it this way – luck doesn’t hurt. I believe some people are awesome writers, work hard, and for some reason just don’t get the attention they deserve, while others do. Sure, the harder you work the more opportunities you’ll create for yourself, but that’s not LUCK. And there ARE writers who have been extraordinarily lucky.

The best thing writers can do is keep writing – and not hope for luck, but welcome and jump on it if it comes. If it doesn’t…. just keep writing.

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Dennis Mahagin January 24, 2007 at 6:13 am

I prefer the term synchronicity, to luck.

The concept is the same, though: Making the wrong move at the right time, as a response to a tingly scalp or quaver in the gut— and nothing much else. Otherwise, how does an original piece of art even get conceived, let alone composed?
If not through the grace of a faithful gambler’s gall? A moment ago I had nothing; now suddenly–a paragraph, an opening… Blessed Leverage!

I love the way Raymond Carver romanced his day-to-day reality, calling it “coin of the realm”, because he knew every waking moment to be a precious-yet-expendable poker chip–the veritable stuff of his incendiary fictions, stockpiled like powder keg primer, “ammunition” for the master.

A line from one of Carver’s poems:

Use the things that are around you.

My translation:

Get hip to that scalp tingle, because it’s trying to tell you: How one thing leads to another. How it’s already happened, and you, the artist, are merely following. William Stafford called it the “Golden Thread.” A minute ago I had nothing. Then…

Luck is huge. Maybe the biggest factor of all, in the Success Equation. Synchronicity though, is how I choose to perceive it: The mercury in the molar of your Gift Horse, that tells you–when she cracks a grin, don’t go there, but instead write down those peripheral scraps of table talk that rang out, as you raked in your highline pot. As if you could distill the quicksilver–by transcribing it. By learning to recognize it. And sometimes, yes. It feels as though you can.

–DM

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Julie Ann Shapiro January 24, 2007 at 6:53 am

I think intution also is a side of luck no one has explored much here. How often do we as writers, artists, musicians channel our characters and/or feel them intuitively on some level? I question again is it luck or fate or maybe something like tuning into the right channel on the TV.

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Julie Ann Shapiro January 24, 2007 at 6:56 am

Does intuition play a role in success? I think so. Learning to listen to that gut instinct helps in anything – so why not in publishing. I’ve had hunches before…about magazines that have later said yes to stories of mine. I’m sure many of us have had that same feeling.

Or what about the nothing feeling, the ho-hum, that too tells us something.

Off to ponder all this is sleep and see where my night time travels may take me.

Happy writing and dreaming everyone,
Julie

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Jason Boog January 25, 2007 at 8:45 pm

I loved Dennis Mahagin’s gambling metaphor (and the Carver poem, I still need to read his poems). If we are talking about luck like gambling, then I think a writing career depends on luck.

The best gamblers do get lucky, but they also have an amazing set of card-playing skills and keen intuition that they have developed over the years.

You need to be lucky in writing and gambling, but you also need years and years of practice to get to the point where getting lucky matters.

Does that make sense?

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n.l. belardes January 26, 2007 at 11:31 pm

Luckily I stumbled onto this blog today. It’s made me think about my goals, which I should have been thinking about when the day started.

I was sitting with a friend recently, joking around as usual. I grabbed a deck of cards from a nearby table. “Let’s see if you have special powers,” I said. I’d only played that game one other time. After about ten tries she got this funny look in her eyes, like she could see through me all along. It was a definite switch into a mode of mysterious beauty and staring.

“Six of hearts,” she smiled.

I think that was last Sunday.

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