I can’t tell you how many times someone’s said this to me or posted it as a reply to a comment I made about my writing on social media. It might have been in response to an announcement about a new publishing contract I’d landed, or a new book release, or something as innocuous as a post about how I was sitting in Starbucks writing in the afternoon.
Many writers – myself included – find the phrase more than a little insulting. It implies that everything we’ve achieved is merely a result of chance and that all the hard work we’ve put in over the years, all the sacrifices we’ve made, had nothing to do with our success. And if we point out that talent and hard work might’ve had just a little to do with our success, we get responses from folks saying we’ve forgotten what it was like to be a beginning writer or insisting that luck has to be the main factor in success. Otherwise, they would be successful, too. After all, they’re brilliant and talented. If no one’s publishing their writing, it has to be because they’ve had rotten luck. What else could it be?
Now, I am in no way suggesting luck is unimportant in writing and publishing success. But there are two kinds of luck: the kind you have no control over and the kind you have at least some control over. And if you can learn to maximize the latter, you can increase your chances for success.
I was born a white male to a middle-class American family, with a father who read a lot of science fiction and fantasy (and a little horror) and who was happy to let me read his books when he was finished with them. My family was supportive when I told them I was thinking about becoming a writer, and I had an inheritance that allowed me pay for college. I was also born with a vivid imagination and a talent for language. I had no control over any of those things. (By the way, all of this is what the kids are calling "privilege" these days, just in case you're fuzzy on the concept.)
But I chose to read the books my father left lying around the house. I chose to start writing and drawing my own comic book when I was in sixth grade. I chose to use my inheritance for college, and I chose – after a short period of indecision – to major in English. I also chose to major in education so I could support myself by teaching while I wrote. I chose to start writing and submitting stories seriously at eighteen, and I chose to start my first novel then and I finished it when I was nineteen. And when the rejections kept coming in, I chose to keep writing. I chose to start reading Writer’s Digest and The Writer. I chose to take as many creative writing classes in college as I could. I chose to work in the Writing Center as a tutor to earn money while sharpening my skills as both a writer and teacher, and during my senior year I chose to apply to be the editor of the college’s literary magazine and I got the job. I chose to go to graduate school and major in English with a creative writing concentration, and while I waited for school to start, I chose to apply for a job as a reporter for a small-town newspaper to learn more about writing to deadline, and I got that job, too.
Sometimes luck was involved in these choices. For example, I had no idea that my college had a Writing Center until one day when I was standing at the drinking fountain when a student who was in the same creative writing class as I was stepped into the hallway, saw me, said, “Hey, you’re a good writer. You want a job?” and beckoned me to step into the Writing Center with him because they were hiring. His seeing me at that precise moment and speaking to me was luck. My accompanying him into the Writing Center was a choice.
So let’s talk about some ways that you can get some measure of control over luck – and maybe even generate some for yourself as well.
1) Examine (or Re-Examine) Your Dedication and Focus
In high school, I explored art, music, and theatre as well as writing as possible career paths. But once I hit college and decided that I wanted to be a writer, everything else was left by the wayside. With the exception of three days working for K-Mart and one summer working for a company that packaged and distributed Olympic commemorative coins and pewter products, every job I’ve held has been related to writing in some way.
Here’s an old piece of writer’s advice: make a list of everything that’s more important to you than writing. The shorter the list, the greater your chances for success. There’s only one item on my last that’s more important than writing: my family.
Ask yourself: How dedicated and focused am I? How could I arrange my life to make more room for writing? Set up regular writing times for yourself, go on weekend writing retreats, do whatever you can to increase your focus on your writing.
2) Maximize Your Talent
We have no control over the amount of talent we’re born with. But we can control what we do to hone it. Take as many classes and workshops as you can, read as many how-to-write books and articles as you can, read interviews with successful writers, go hear them talk at events, go to conferences and attend every panel that you can. If time and money are limiting factors, instead of asking for presents for Christmas or birthdays, ask for money to attend a workshop or take a class. Consider starting/joining a writers’ group – face-to-face or online – with serious, dedicated, talented writers who provide useful feedback. Keep reading and read widely, not just in your genre. Keep striving to do better with each story you write and never stop pushing yourself to hone whatever talent you possess to its finest, sharpest edge possible.
3) Make Choices That Further Your Writing
The above is so much easier said than done, but we only get so much time to live. It’s up to you what you do with that time. I don’t go out with friends as often as I’d like, I don’t travel as much as I want, and I don’t watch much TV. Most of my trips are writing-related somehow. I won’t miss kids’ soccer games or band concerts (remember, Family is Number One on my list), but otherwise, most of my non-teaching and non-family time is used for writing. Choosing writing may mean giving up some things you enjoy. It may mean being a bit more selfish that you’re used to. But the choices you make on a daily, hourly, and even moment-by-moment basis can make all the difference when it comes to maximizing your luck.
4) Learn to Say Yes to Writing Opportunities
Someone asks you to edit the company newsletter? Say yes. Your church needs someone to write a holiday play for the youth group? Volunteer. Whatever writing and publishing opportunities come up, say yes to them – especially when you’re starting out. You never know what you’ll learn or where these opportunities will lead unless you explore them.
A few words of warning here. Be careful not to say yes to anything that will end up harming you – an exploitative contract, unethical reading fees for faux agents, etc. Also, don’t say yes to so many things that you become overburdened and unable to deliver on your promises. (Something I’m still working on learning.)
Check out Writer Beware for advice on how not to get scammed:
5) Explore Different Avenues
I’ve written short stories, novels, novellas, plays, articles, essays, news stories, a regular column, and humor pieces. In fiction genres, I’ve written horror, science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, action-adventure, mystery, erotic romance, literary, and media tie-ins based on movies, TV series, cartoon characters, video games, and role-playing games. I’ve explored all these various types of writing not only to hone my talent and add new tools to my writer’s toolbox. I did it to expand my opportunities for success. In other words, to increase my luck. I figured the more I learned and the more versatile I became as a writer, the more opportunities would come my way and the more prepared I would be to take advantage of them.
So try everything. Submit your work to publishers, magazines, and contests. Respond to every open call for stories that you can find, even if it seems like a long-shot. Especially then. The more chances you take, the greater your odds of succeeding.
6) Make Connections
The more people you come to know and interact with, the more writing and publishing opportunities will present themselves to you – and more importantly, the more people you’ll have to learn from and the more emotional support you’ll have. (The more psychologically healthy you are, the more you’ll be ready to take advantages of opportunities when they occur and the more confident you’ll be about taking risks.) Not only will these connections benefit your career, they’re the best part of having a writing life, at least for me.
Get to know people in creative writing classes, at writing events, at your local library, at bookstores . . . Join a writers’ group, meet other writers at conferences, attend conferences as a panelist and get to know the writers, agents, and editors sitting beside you. Introduce the new people you meet to people you already know. Follow writers, agents, and editors on social media. Memorize their faces so you can say hi to them at conferences (but don’t be a Creepy McCreeperson and stalk them the entire weekend!).
Here’s an example of how I helped make a butt-load of luck for myself. Years ago, I was preparing to attend a local science fiction/fantasy convention, the very first where I would serve as a panelist. The newspaper carried a story about the con, featuring the local authors who would be in attendance. (I wasn’t included in the article; I’d only published a handful of short-stories at this point.) Fantasy authors Dennis McKiernan and J. Calvin Pierce were going to attend. I’d already read several of Dennis’ books, but I’d never read any of J. Calvin’s. I ran out, bought his first novel, and read it before the con, so I’d have something to talk to him about. (It was a well-written, humorous fantasy adventure called The Door to Ambermere.) I ended up on a panel with Jim (as he preferred to be called), and we chatted a bit. Afterward, he was headed to a nearby pub to have a beer with Dennis and he asked if I’d like to join them. I said yes (of course). Jim invited me to come to his place a couple weeks later, and it happened to be the night of his writers’ group – which included both Dennis and Lois McMaster Bujold. He asked if I’d like to come along with him. I said yes. Eventually, I became a member of that group and I learned a ton. I chose to go to the con, chose to ask if I could be on programming, and chose to prepare by reading Jim’s book . . . And when he asked if I wanted to have a drink with Dennis and him, asked if I’d like to come to his place and talk about writing, and asked if I’d like to go to his writers’ group, I said yes.
My mother used to tell me, “Go ahead and ask. The worst thing they can do is say no.” (Of course, it helps if you’re not a jerk when you ask. This is why everybody hates the writer on Facebook who immediately sends a request to Like his or her author page the instant you accept them as a friend.)
Querying agents and editors is of course asking. But if you learn of an invite-only anthology that’s in the works, ask the editor if you can submit on spec. (And once you make connections with editors, ask them now and again if they’re working on any projects you can submit to.) That’s how I managed to sell quite a few stories to anthologies Marty Greenberg edited. I just asked what anthos his company Tekno Books had coming up and if it was okay that I submit. Only one time did I get a story rejected from a Tekno antho, and I wrote another one over a weekend and that one was accepted. (It was for the anthology Alien Pets, if you’re curious.) Want someone to offer you a blurb? Ask. I get quite a few people asking me for blurbs these days. I just wish I had time to read all their books! Want advice on writing and publishing? Reach out to writers, editors, and agents on social media or via their websites. Attend panels at conferences and ask questions. And ask questions one-on-one when you run into folks outside of panels. Over the years, I’ve learned that editors and agents are happy to talk to you if they realize you don’t want anything from them other than to have a conversation. Treating editors and agents like human beings? Who knew that would work! Want to pitch a book project to an editor or agent? Ask if they’re willing to take pitches during the conference. Ask for their cards so you can follow-up.
But whatever you do, remember the Golden Rule about asking: Don’t be an obnoxious pain in the ass. And if you’re not sure you’re being one, ask!
8) Don’t Stop
This is a big part of the luck equation, in some ways maybe the biggest. You can’t prepare to take advantage of the opportunities that show up on their own and can’t create opportunities for yourself if you stop trying. Don’t stop writing, reading, learning, choosing, connecting, asking, and all the rest. You want to get lucky? Then never forget that get is a verb. (Yeah, I know it’s a noun, too. Don’t get picky with me.)
Department of Shameless Self-Promotion
My new young adult horror novel Dark Art is now available from Past-Curfew Press. Here’s a synopsis:
It began with a drawing.
High-school student Sarah Pennington is in art class one day when her desk mate, Ben Phelps, shows her a drawing he’s done of a sinister knife-wielding figure he calls Shrike.
Then came the dreams.
Sarah begins having strange dreams of Shrike in which he commits disturbing acts of vandalism. When she awakens, she discovers her dreams have come true. The destruction is real – and so is Shrike.
Now Shrike’s alive.
As Shrike grows stronger, his actions become increasingly violent, escalating to stalking, terrorizing, and ultimately, murder.
And he must be stopped.
Sarah must help Ben stop the monster he created. But how can they fight a being that was born from anger and shaped by imagination? A creature that lives halfway between dream and reality? They have to find a way – before it’s too late for them both.
They say art imitates life.
Sometimes, it imitates death.
Print and ebook editions are available direct from the publisher or via Amazon:
In October, I had two new novellas released:
The Last Mile:
A Strange and Savage Garden:
And two of my older novels have been released as ebooks: