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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2007-12-28 06:48
Subject: [process] On luck
Security: Public
Location:Nuevo Rancho Lake
Mood:thoughtful
Music:house noises
Tags:process, writing
In the recent thread about productivity and career arcs, tchernabyelo said:

I think you need three things to make it in this industry, and without any of them, you're screwed. Talent is one, persistence is another, and frankly, luck is the third

I'd rank persistence first and foremost. It is possible to substitute diligent craft for talent, though talent helps like crazy. Diligent craft is pretty essential in its own right as well, with or without talent, but that probably falls under persistence. Luck is funny concept, though.

The thing about luck is that you have to be ready to be lucky. If I find an original copy of the Constitution behind a picture frame, and I don't recognize it for what it is, how lucky is that? I've certainly been lucky in my career, but it hasn't been random luck. I've worked very hard to put myself in the position catch a break, and to know what to do with that break when it came my way.

Luck, for a writer, has a substantial component of business knowledge, craft awareness, and rational expectation embedded in it. All this natter about writing process and networking and the business of the field is in a very real sense, preparation for being lucky.

Specific example: What if you get in an elevator with arcaedia one day at a con, and she asks you what you're working on? If you're prepared, you know who she is (an agent with a good client roster including that clever fellow jaylake). If you're prepared you have a high concept, one line pitch for your novel on the tip of your tongue, which you spent the two days before the con rehearsing in the bathroom mirror. If you're prepared you can answer a followup question or two.

Now, was it lucky to run into an agent in a quiet, receptive moment? Sure. But if you weren't ready for it, that luck meant nothing.

Sometimes people say "luck" and they mean "I found a $100 bill in the street." That's random chance, and it happens too. The luck of my career has been almost entirely the luck of preparation and quick thinking. In others words, luck I have some control and influence over. How lucky are you? Are you prepared to be lucky?
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2007-12-28 15:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I like using the image of lightning striking rather than luck, myself, although I'm not sure how accurate an image that is.

But yes. One reason why you prepare yourself and kill yourself over the marketing possibilities is that when you do get the opportunity to seize some luck in your hands, you can make use of it. The lucky part of the whole thing is when your hard work puts you in the place where the timing is right for your work. Say, for example--the novel you've been sweating over just happens to be part of a new trend that one editor is looking for something--anything--on. Or you end up starting a new subgenre because of the work you're doing.
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Rafe
User: etcet
Date: 2007-12-28 15:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I would fail spectacularly in your example of luck, because I wouldn't recognize her. I might be nimble enough to riposte and parry into a position of learning who this friendly stranger is, but that's not always a safe bet.

Is that "bad luck"? "No luck"?

I understand the notion of "making your own luck," but it's not always possible.
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S. Boyd Taylor
User: sboydtaylor
Date: 2007-12-28 15:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I understand the notion of "making your own luck," but it's not always possible.

If everyone was lucky all the time, then it wouldn't be luck :)
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S. Boyd Taylor
User: sboydtaylor
Date: 2007-12-28 15:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
100% with you on this one, Jay.

Even that $100 bill in the street isn't completely random. Funny thing is, you have to be mentally ready to find that bill. If you're not in an upbeat mood -- if you don't believe you're lucky -- your chances of spotting the bill go way down.

Optimisim. Preparation. Knowing where the "right places" are at the "right time". Networking (better yet: just plain "being friendly"). That's what luck is about. :)
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-12-28 16:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Having seen lots of writers more talented, from high school on, go by the wayside, I have to agree about the persistence issue. You must have core talent, but it's useless without persistence, whereas persistence can *create* talent. Persistence in practice and in improving. Persistence in being bloody-minded about not giving in when things go badly.

I know some writers who stop submitting a story after it's rejected three or four times. To me, that's ridiculous. There's a Romanian saying--"Every kick in the ass is a step forward."--that applies here.

I agree with Jay about making your own luck, although his example is pretty specific and you don't really have to be prepped in that situation to make it useful for you--just as good to *not* have anything prepared and be relaxed and personable and ask if you can send them a pitch later. (I know Jay's not saying this isn't a possibility, just noting his own approach.)

Making one's luck isn't even as much about random events like that one but about day in and day out doing things to achieve your goals. Having tactical plans that aid an overall strategy. To know what you want and what you want to do with it.

Perversely, if you have genuine talent, you may take longer to reach an audience, so it's even more important to plan, to make your own luck.

For my part, I decided early on I wasn't going to have children because I wasn't prepared to make the sacrifice of my writing time. That's a pretty big commitment. (Although I lucked into having a marvelous stepdaughter, I have to say.) At various times, I turned down jobs that would have meant more money but less time to write. Sometimes I turned down writing gigs that would've meant more money but wouldn't have furthered my own goals. Etc., etc.

I guess the point is, not only do you make your own luck but you control your own destiny to some extent. I never had much money growing up--I went to conventions on credit cards, which I regretted later, and then would spend the month or two afterwards basically living on noodles and gruel. At one time, for a few months, it was just me and my typewriter and a couch I'd gotten off the sidewalk and a chair I'd had since I was kid and a mattress and no electricity so I had to stop writing at dusk.

It's convenient to blame external events for not being able to write or not being as far along as you want, and in some cases bad luck may indeed conspire to genuinely rob you of opportunity, but I've found that attitude is everything and any goal I've set my mind to I've eventually attained, no matter what setbacks occurred along the way.

JeffV
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Rafe
User: etcet
Date: 2007-12-28 16:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think that, as a corollary to what Jeff's saying, we can sum this up as "Really Wanting It Helps You Succeed."

By this, I mean that folks who dabble, or treat it as a hobby, or who are, for whatever reason, casual about having their writing published, are less likely to have it published than those folks who make it a priority.

This is why a lot of people know who Jay and Jeff are, and nobody knows who I am (assuming I'm not the no-talent hack my brain insists is probably the case about three o' clock some nights). :-)
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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2007-12-28 16:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting that you divorce "diligent craft" and "talent". On teh one hand I can kind of see what you mean, but ultimately, I have the suspicion there are some people who are perfectly intelligent and can try and and tray and try to learn the "diligent craft", but it just doesn't take. Me, I've long had a feel for words and an ability to make them do certain things. I've still had to learn a lot about writing, about the mechanics and methods and how to pace and how to handle POV and how to layer in meaning and how to foreshadow and yadda yadda yadda - and I still have WAY more I can and hopefully will learn on those subjects. But no matter how much I learn about the craft, I'm not sure I'd be achieving anything without the basic ability to bend words and make them do stuff. So while the talent alone without the craft won't get me anywhere, I'm not sure the craft is a full substitute. Some people clearly can be successful without having to learn the craft (those writers who get published in their teens - and I'm thinking of the Zadie Smiths of this world, not the Christopher Paolinis), but I don't know if there are successful writers who didn't/don't have some innate seed of "talent".

Difficult to prove either way, though. Partly at least a matter of definition.


You make some good points on luck. People talk about "making your own luck", and that's really what you're saying here. Odds are that you WILL get some "lucky opportunity" at some point - but you have to be able to recognise it and take it.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-12-28 16:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Are you familiar with the "box it came in" / "hand of cards" theory of talent?
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Rafe
User: etcet
Date: 2007-12-28 16:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Can we get this as a fleshed-out post? I'm admitting general ignorance on the subject.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-12-28 16:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You bet. However, in the mean time see mentions in these older posts:

http://jaylake.livejournal.com/457419.html

http://jaylake.livejournal.com/534101.html
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User: renatus
Date: 2007-12-28 16:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My take on Jay's saying that diligent craft can create talent is not that diligent craft can create something out of nothing, but that it can grow and nurture a small seed of innate ability into something greater than what someone with a lot of innate ability that isn't cultivated has.

Now, if an aspiring writer has no small seed of ability to work from--say they have a 'tin ear' for writing that's rather like being tonedeaf would be for a musician--then I don't think any amount of working at it is going to help. Most people have a better starting point than that, but it may take a lot of work to cultivate what they have into a flowering bush of talent.

I don't know that there is any easy way to tell if one has a tin ear for writing or not, other than to build up a body of work over a decent period of time and compare the first works to the most recent and see where the improvement is.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-12-28 16:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is where a good workshop can really help -- determining how well your stuff rings, and where/how you are improving.

See my comments in this thread:

http://jaylake.livejournal.com/1328304.html?thread=8641712#t8641712
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User: renatus
Date: 2007-12-29 13:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is true. Often such things don't occur to me because I've become accustomed to reading and working in a sort of cultural vacuum and it's only in the past few years that concepts of things like workshops and crit groups entered my consciousness!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-12-29 14:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Workshops and crit groups are not essential, just helpful. And for some people they're not helpful. For one thing, they tend toward the center (so to speak) -- if you're writing with an unusual voice or unusual structure, a workshop can be actively bad for you if they don't 'get' your work. But external validation and evaluation can be incredibly worthwhile. As with all writing advice, your mileage may vary.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-12-28 19:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I guess the point is that talent can take many different forms, and a lot of what a writer does is try to find out where their talent lies. And to bring that out, you have to persist and continue to practice and try to improve. So it's not so much that you can only have craft as it is that some people seem to have an innate gift and others only find they have a gift after a lot of struggle.

JeffV
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kenrand
User: kenrand
Date: 2007-12-28 16:51 (UTC)
Subject: three things
talent, persistence and luck--those three elements were first articulated to me by Fred Saberhagen in 1995 (or 1996?) when he was GOH here in Utah (at Conduit) and I interviewed him for Talebones. I believe the quote is in Human Visions, my interview book for Fairwood Press. But more: he said if you have only one of these elements, you cannot succeed. If you have two, you may. If you have all three, you will.
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jeffsoesbe: bald man thinking
User: jeffsoesbe
Date: 2007-12-28 17:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:bald man thinking
As Seneca said: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

That "persistence" thing - I'm realizing more and more that is so very crucial, along with regular reality checks (workshops, submission, etc). Both are forms of preparation, building towards the opportunity.

- yeff
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Keffy: eyeball
User: kehrli
Date: 2007-12-28 19:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:eyeball
I don't really think about luck when it comes to writing, because I somehow don't think it's any more important here than anywhere else in life.

More importantly, "be lucky" is very far down on my list of priorities.

I still need to learn how to write more, and write better. I have to write the best book I possibly can, and then write one better, etc. I need to learn how to sell the best book I've ever written. I need to learn how to tell which markets are likely to want it, and I need to take many MANY rejections in stride until either a) the book gets sold, or b) I run out of markets.

If b, then I need to write a better/different book, and repeat. (Although, I should hope that I am already writing it while I'm collecting rejections...)

As an aspiring writer, I don't care how important "luck" is. Worrying about it is a waste of my time because it's outside my control - and considering all the things that ARE within my control that need attention, well...

I like your process posts if only because as far as writing advice goes, I can't see how anybody can go wrong with, "Work really really hard at it. Then, work harder."
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Erin Cashier
User: therinth
Date: 2007-12-29 10:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Luck is the residue of design.
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