Are Successful Writers Just Lucky?
Anyone crazy enough to write 60-100,000 words doesn’t attempt such an endeavor on a whim. Most of us, at least in the back of our minds, envision being the writer who beats the odds. We want to make it to the top. As we head into National Novel Writing Month, it might be a good idea to look at the real chance we stand at being successful. What are the odds….really?
I didn’t even consider becoming a writer until 1999 after my father passed away suddenly. Funny how death can make us take a hard look at life, right? Anyway, I recall feeling soooo overwhelmed. I mean my odds of even getting published were about as good as winning the lottery. And the odds of becoming a best-selling author? Well, mathematically speaking, I had a slightly greater chance of being mauled by a black bear and polar bear on the same day.
It was all I could do not to give up before I began.
But, after almost 12 years doing this “writer thing,” I have a new perspective. Often it feels like we are the victims of fate, at the mercy of the universe, when actually it is pretty shocking how much of our own destiny we control. The good news is that if we can get in a habit of making good choices, it is staggering how certain habits can tip the odds of success in our favor. I have talked about this before, but it is always helpful to get an attitude check. This job is tough, and there is very little validation along the way. We have to keep our head in the game, or we will give up.
Time to take a REAL look at our odds of success. Just so you know, this is highly unscientific, but I still think it will paint a pretty accurate picture. I will show you a bit of my own journey. It has been statistically demonstrated that only 5% of any population is capable of sustained change. Thus, with that in mind…
When we start out wanting to write, we are up against presumably millions of other people who want the same dream. We very literally have better odds of being elected to Congress than hitting the NY Times best-selling list. But I think that statement is biased and doesn’t take into account the choices we make.
As I just said, in the beginning, we are up against presumably millions of others who desire to write. Yes, millions. It is estimated that over ¾ of Americans say that they would one day like to write a book. That’s a LOT of people. Ah, but how many do? How many decide to look beyond that day job? How many dare to take that next step?
So only 5% of the millions of people who desire to write will ever even take the notion seriously. This brings us to the hundreds of thousands. But of the hundreds of thousands, how many who start writing a book will actually FINISH a book? How many will be able to take their dream seriously enough to lay boundaries for friends and family and hold themselves to a self-imposed deadline?
Okay, well now we are down to the tens of thousands. Looking a bit better. But, finishing a book isn’t all that is required. We have to be able to write a book that is publishable and meets industry standards. When I first started writing, I thought that everyone who attended a writing critique group would be published. I mean they were saying they wanted to be best-selling authors.
But did they? Or, were they more in love with the idea of being a best-selling author than actually doing whatever it took to succeed? I would love to say that I was a doer and not a talker, but I don’t want to get hit by lightning. There were a number of years that I grew very comfortable with being in a writing group as a writer…but not necessarily a professional writer. I was still querying the same book that had been rejected time and time and time again. I wrote when I felt inspired and didn’t approach my craft like a professional. I was, at best, a hobbyist and, at worst, hopelessly delusional.
I didn’t need craft books *snort* I knew how to write. Geesh!
I was a member of two writing groups, and had grown very fond of this “writer life.” We hung out at I-Hop and drank lots of coffee. We’d all chat about what we’d do with our millions once we were bigger than Dan Brown. We talked about new ideas for books that never seemed to get written. Or if we ever did sit to write one of these ideas, we would get about 30,000 words in and then hit a wall.
Hmmm…and I thought that idea had so much promise.
Yet, after four years hearing the same talk from the same people shopping the same novels, I had a rude awakening. Maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. Maybe being a copy writer and technical writer and editor didn’t automatically make me a novel-writing genius. Maybe I needed to take this dream of being a best-selling writer a tad more seriously and not rely on bluster, BS and glitter. Maybe I needed to read craft books and scrape up enough money to go to a conference.
So, of the tens of thousands of writers who write a novel, how many read craft books and get serious enough to attend conferences?
You guys are good….5%
And of those who attend a conference, who are asked to send in page requests, how many follow through?
How many will land an agent right away?
And of all of those authors rejected, how many writers, determined to impress, are willing to GUT their novel and wage wholesale slaughter on entire villages of Little Darlings? How many are willing to put that first novel in a drawer, learn from the experience and move forward with a new book…which they FINISH?
And of the writers good enough to get an agent, how many of them get dead-serious about building a large social media platform?
Again? Probably 5%.
And of those writers who are published or agented and doing social media, how many of them are effectively branding their names so their name alone will become a bankable asset?
Thus, when we really put this dream under some scrutiny, it is shocking to see all the different legs we control.
Taking the Decision Seriously
Writing the Book
Finishing the Book
Learning the Craft
Not Giving Up in the Face of Rejection
Doing Everything in Our Power to Lay a Foundation for a Successful Career
I am not saying that finishing a book is easy. I’m not even saying that getting an agent or being published is a piece of cake. I know, first-hand that becoming a best-selling author is one of the hardest things you could ever attempt. Sometimes I think law school or climbing Everest in flip-flops and a mini-skirt might have been the easy way out. None of this is easy.
It is a lot of hard work and sacrifice, which is exactly why most people will never be genuine competition. When we start out and see all the millions of other writers I think we are in danger of giving up or getting overwhelmed. Actually, if we focus on the decisions we control, our odds improve drastically.
Same with blogging. You guys know I am a huge fan of writers having a blog. Out of everyone who desires to start a blog, only 5% will. And of those, how many will continue blogging more than a few weeks? How many will post every week for years? How many will be self-disciplined enough to post multiple times a week no matter what? How many will have content that is tooled to excite readers and also keep the writer/blogger enthusiastic, too? How many writer-bloggers will write in ways that create a community and help build a brand? How many writers will be able to effectively balance social media, blogging AND still be disciplined enough to write really awesome books?
Again, about 5%.
How many will complain about having to do social media AND write great books? ….hmmm. I won’t go there.
I teach how to balance writing, blogging and social media in my popular book, Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer, but how many people will buy this book and put every step to blog success in place and be able to sustain long-term? See, the competition isn’t nearly as steep if we look at how much of our future success is in our control.
I want everyone reading this to feel encouraged. Yes, your family thinks you have better odds of being the next Queen of England than being a successful novelist. Hey, at this point, maybe you even believe it, too. But the odds are actually better than we might believe when we really take an honest look.
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.
In the Sahara there is a particularly long stretch of desert that is completely flat. There are no distinguishing landmarks and it is very easy to get lost. To combat the problem, the French Foreign Legion placed large black oil drums every mile so that travelers could find their way across this massive expanse of wasteland one oil drum at a time.
Are we there yet?
Want to be a successful author?
Take it one oil drum at a time.
Want to finish 50K words for NaNoWriMo?
Yep…one oil drum at a time.
What are some oil drums you now see ahead? Does your journey to author success seem easier now? What makes you feel overwhelmed? What inspires you?
I do want to hear from you guys!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left.