Thursday, August 21, 2008


Part of being human is trying to figure out what in our pasts have led to our present.

That means we often attribute significance to past occurrences and what we believe led up to those occurrences. After all, hindsight is 20/20.

Looking at successful people, we can make observations about their histories, compile similar data, and draw conclusions about what makes a successful person.

But unlike science, which uses controlled experiments that are repeatable, it's impossible to have a control group for a person's life. Good things that happen may indeed be a result of hard work and effort, or it may be the stars aligning. It's usually a little of both.

While an astute student of human behavior can find commonalities among the success stories, these are often vague rather than defined, and if repeated under similar conditions do not always result in success for other people.

When you add exceptions--people who do something other than what the majority do--to the mix, it becomes downright impossible to predict success.

Which brings us to writing.

We're supposed to write a good book, but the term "good" is subjective. Then we're supposed to promote it, even though only a small percentage of books actually become bestsellers, and bestselling authors may not do a lot of promotion.

Because there are no guarantees, no controlled way to study and repeat success, and not even a universal definition of "good", the majority of us spin our wheels in relative obscurity, while a select few make it big and then tell the rest of us exactly how they did it, even though they're often attributing significance after the fact, which simply isn't good science.

So what's a writer to do? Work hard self-promoting even though the odds are against it paying off? Struggle to write a good book, whatever that means? Study the market? Ignore the market? Listen to bestselling authors? Listen to their publisher?

Readers of this blog know my feelings about luck. It pervades the publishing industry, and life in general. I've blogged before about maximizing the potential for luck by working hard, but without specific instruction that's like a coach at half time telling his team that in order to win they have to play better.

So here's some specific instruction.

1. Study the situation. That means learning everything you can about writing and publishing. Read about it, talk to people in the industry, and seek answers.

2. Set attainable goals. Once you have a rudimentary understanding of how publishing works, you can figure out how to leverage your standing within it. Keep goals to things within your control.

3. Learn from both failure and success. Try things for yourself, try them again, and revise and evolve.While you can't control the experiment, you can test and hone tactics.

4. Don't compare yourself to other writers. No good can ever come of this. Ever. Writers aren't in competition with each other for contracts or fans, and one person's success doesn't hinge on another failing. Envy is poison.

5. Value yourself. If you don't have enough confidence to believe you're worth more, no one is going to give you more.

6. Bust your ass. If you aren't driven to succeed, you probably won't. How bad do you want this? If the answer is: really bad, then you have to prioritize accordingly.

7. Forgive. You'll make mistakes. People will screw you. Circumstances may conspire to keep you down. Regret, guilt, worry, and self-pity are all just as poisonous as envy. Let the past stay in the past and move on. You're better than that.

8. Dream. That's why you became a writer in the first place. It's the one thing you have complete control over, and the one thing that will keep you going when everything else is going to hell. The day you stop dreaming is the day you stop trying.

Did I miss anything?