The Happy Writer

The odds of success

Kristen Lamb wrote this piece about the odds of success, and one of the things that stuck out for me was this:

This job is like one giant funnel. Toss in a few million people with a dream and only a handful will shake out at the end. Is it because fortune smiled on them? A few, yes. But, for most, the harder they worked, the “luckier” they got. They stuck it out and made the tough choices.

It reminded me of this article by Robert J. Sawyer on Heinlein’s rules. In addendum to the rules, he includes a hypothetical writer drop out rate:

Of our original hundred wannabe writers, only one or two will follow all six rules. The question is: will you be one of them? I hope so, because if you have at least a modicum of talent and if you live by these six rules, you will make it.

Sometimes it feels like writing success is one giant crapshoot. There are so many external factors involved and so many reasons to be rejected. However, what I like about these two articles, is that they break down the parts we can control, and it’s more than we think.

And I know it’s been said many times, but a reminder is sometimes good, these two articles really boil down to one thing: you will succeed if you keep trying.

Never give up. Never stop learning. It may happen tomorrow, or ten years, or twenty years from now, but it will happen as long as you don’t give up.

And, what if I don’t really have talent? you ask. Well, I believe talent it’s helpful, but hard work goes a long way.

Talent in cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work ~ Stephen King

But it also helps to have a little encouragement along the way, which is why being part of the writing community is such a great thing 🙂

23 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. I’m having kind of a crummy day (related to money, not writing directly — but hey if I were making money off my writing…) so this is a good reminder to just hang in there.

  2. I agree that it’s great, maybe even vital, to have the writing community to support and encourage each other.

    I have to say, though… I think I disagree with Sawyer’s coda.

    For one… the whole idea that “only x% of writers will follow through to the next step”… is founded on speculation. Nobody really knows. The fact that it’s less than 100% is certain… but how much less than 100%?

    Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter, though… Certainly nobody can’t reach success without following through, of course, but at the end of the day one’s success at the point (assuming one has followed through) will not be determined by themselves – it will be determined by a host of uncontrollable factors.

    Frankly, that seems a little depressing. But there’s nothing we can do about that… and that’s why it is important to focus on the things we can control, because if we think too much about the things we can’t, we’ll despair. But I firmly believe that there are many, many talented individuals who failed to succeed not because they didn’t follow through, but because their number just never came up… they never caught the attention of the right people at the right time.

    So, to me… I keep that in mind too, as a reminder that, well, if I never make it, if I never succeed, even if I’ve given it my best effort, that doesn’t reflect on me or the quality of my work. It’s just: them’s the breaks. There is a lot of luck to this, and there’s no two ways around that.

    1. I should point out: I’m not attempting to be negative or contrarian, here. My overall point is to remain positive. I just like to make sure that I’m not setting myself up for disappointment by saying “if I only just follow these rules, I’ll be successful” only then to fail… I just want to say: I’ve done everything I could, and at the end of the day I’m proud of what I’ve written, and I did everything I could to get it published.

      1. T. S. Bazelli Author

        There are multiple definitions of success, and only we can define what it means to us. For some people it might just mean being read, reaching as many readers as possible, paid or not, for others it might be seeing books in stores, or even being happy selling books on their own through self-pub.

        I think though, it’s good to be reminded that we should not sell ourselves short and give up… because, irregardless of hypothetical percentages, that means 0% chance of success, rather than some.

      2. Yes, exactly. As my dad is fond of saying: “You can’t win if you don’t play”, and here playing means keeping it at, keeping writing and submitting and trying to sell what you’ve written, no matter what.

        (Of course, my dad means that about the lottery… which while still technically true, the odds are so astronomically against you that you can’t really win even if you do play, statistically speaking. The odds of success in writing, if you stick to it, even if they aren’t very good are still significantly better than playing the lottery…)

  3. I’m kind of with Han Solo here when he says, “Never tell me the odds!” Haha.

    But realistically, it is good to know the odds, though it’s better to know that persistence pays off.

    Eventually, heh. (Even if I do move more like a tortoise, lol.)

    Thanks for the reminder, Theresa. 🙂

    1. “I’m kind of with Han Solo here when he says, ‘Never tell me the odds!’ Haha.”

      Which brings us back to Heinlein, actually. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (which I do need to write about at some point), three people are considering starting a revolution in a lunar colony. They are told the odds of success, which are very low (one in ten, one in twenty, I don’t remember). Their reaction is, “The odds are that good? We should do this.” 🙂

      If the results are desirable enough, it’s worth trying even with long odds.

      Oh, and Stephen is right about the “odds” being purely speculative. As Rax Stout said, “There are two kinds of statistics: the kind you look up, and the kind you make up.”

  4. Whenever I think about the odds, I get discouraged. This is why I avoid dwelling on it. I agree with Stephen’s comment that external factors will determine our success. Even if we work hard and write well, there is no guarantee that what we write will ever be published.

    But there is a chance. That’s all I need to keep writing.

    1. Hehe I suppose I am an optimist. I don’t think the odds are as bad as we think. I know some things are out of our control, but I do believe luck and opportunity favor the prepared. I can’t imagine that after putting so much effort into writing and continuing to learn/improve for say… 20 years… that a person will not have published at least something by then.

  5. I think the difference is it used to be the publishers who go to decide who to take a chance on and rvrn though they got it wrong in the majority of cases (i.e. most books don’t make money) they kept being the only players at the table. At least now there’s a way for people who believe in themselves to get a roll of the dice. They may still turn out to be unsuccessful, but at least they get to play the game.

    1. I think the changes happening in publishing right now are a good thing. It opens up more routes to success than before. No, self-pub is not a guarantee to make money, but I think it’s a legitimate way to get in the game 🙂 It’s not easy either.

  6. This reminds me of the motivation to write…do we write in order to please others or are we writing exclusively for ourselves? When we write the type of stories that we like to read, I think we will draw like-minded people and this in turn will bless them.

  7. There’s a crucial divide between those who succeed, and those who create worthwhile fiction. Hard work, hammering out your flaws and revising your babies can create the latter. They may help you win the former, but so too will connections, personal charisma, meeting the right people, having personal funding and freedom, etc. If only it were a field that seriously supported the latter. I know many who try to delude themselves with economics, to believe that whatever sells validates true quality. That’s a hard one to swallow.

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