08 March 2014

Luck or Talent? Sweet or Sour? Can I Have an And?

Is there such a thing as a true binary--a real yes/no, on/off situation--in nature or society?  Probably, but the publishing industry isn't it.

Sure, creators everywhere want to believe we'll succeed on our astounding merits.  Why keep polishing your craft if it doesn't matter?

But I only discovered my first publication thirty years after the fact.  If that isn't luck, I don't know what is.  It's not great luck, but hey, I didn't lose any money on the deal.  The publication in question was only a short poem.

My situation wasn't nearly as bad as other writers of my acquaintance--undermined by their agents, orphaned when their editors change jobs, subject to market pressures beyond their control...  Back in the days when Forthcoming Books in Print was the distribution bible for every book retailer in the country, one romance writer of my acquaintance found her first romance novel listed as a horror title.  The sales never recovered.

On the flip side, you have tales of accidental pitches in elevators resulting in fat book contracts, or manuscripts submitted "over the transom" (unrequested, unagented submissions mailed to an old school New York publisher) becoming runaway bestsellers.  My personal favorite is the tale of J.K. Rowling's first break.

Her first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the U.S.) was rejected by a dozen publishers, and was in line for another rejection at Bloomsbury.  But as a lark, the company chairman gave the first chapter to his eight-year-old daughter.  She read it in one sitting and demanded more.

Luck.  That little girl's response could've just as easily gone the other way.  What if she'd been coming down with a cold, or had an argument with a boy who wore glasses the day before?  What if her father hadn't asked her to read at all?

Even so, Ms. Rowling's future was hardly secure.  The contract was for less than $15,000, and the print run was modest.  The publisher even advised Ms. Rowling to get a day job.  It was the work itself, its quality and the resonance of her seven-volume epic that cemented her place in modern literature.

That pattern is repeated over and over again.  A writer gets that all important lucky break--a first reader who loves the work, or an editor with a hole in his or her schedule that a manuscript on hand just happens to fill.  But staying power depends on the quality of the story.  We're not necessarily talking literary quality here.  The language may be simple, or the plot clich├ęd.  But something about the concept, the situation, the characters or the moment resonates with readers.

You can do it once by accident.  You can't sustain it without hard work and talent.  That's why we work so hard to hone our craft.

But it still doesn't hurt to have Lady Luck on your side.

Jean Marie Ward

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