Tuesday 29 June 2010


I've been thinking about luck a lot recently. Partly because my new novel, Wasted, is about huge and unpredictable effects of tiny “lucky” chances on our lives, and because, luckily, it's gaining wonderful reviews and feedback. And partly ...

Hang on a sec - did I say "luckily"? Why do we talk about luck so loosely? Doesn't a book get good reviews because people liked it? Unless I bribed the reviewers, which I didn't, or even asked my friends or relatives to write them, which I didn't. 

Our lives and successes are a tangled mixture of luck - from the moment of our conception, and before that from the moment when our parents met, and back to when their parents met, and ... - combined with effort and talent. And you could even say that having the personality to make the effort or the genes and environment to produce the luck are down to luck. You could take this argument to an absurd and dangerous conclusion. So, I won't.

When I was doing my blog tour for Wasted, one of the guest posts I did was for Kath Langrish, a fabulous and thoughtful writer. She asked me to write about the part that luck plays in how to be published. As I said there, "Everyone says you need luck to get published. If you’re struggling / failing, it’s tempting to blame bad luck: you’re talented, hard-working, and deserving, but the luck fairy hasn’t sprinkled stardust on you yet." I then go on to point out that,
"Actually you don’t NEED luck. Of the three elements of getting published – talent, perseverance and luck – you only need two, any two. If you have talent and you persevere for long enough, you won’t need luck. Think about throwing dice, trying to throw a double six. You could be lucky first time; but otherwise, if you throw the dice often enough, eventually you WILL throw a double six. That’s not luck: it’s perseverance."
Before you contradict that, do go and see how I argue it and what I say next.

But that's not what I want to say about luck today.

I'd like you to consider two important things you need in order to become published, and the part luck plays in them. And,more importantly, how you can and must control that luck.
  1. The initial talent - the existence of which you can't control, but you can certainly control how you develop that talent and what use you make of it: you do this through practice, through listening, through reading and through adapting it to the task in hand.
  2. The idea - the difference between a book that's easy to sell and one that isn't is mainly the idea, or concept. To some extent we don't control the ideas that come into our head. There's luck involved, but practice as well. There are two main controls we can have over the idea:
  • giving ourselves time and space to think. I mean that rather literally - in my experience the best way to come up with good ideas is to go for a walk in open spaces. I've blogged about this here, and there's science behind it.
  • knowledge as to whether this idea is one which will properly work as a story and one which a publisher will want. For this, you have to understand something of how publishers think and what they want.
You'd think that one way to discover this would be to ask them. Well, forget that. Why? Because they don't know. Publishers haven't a clue what they want - though they'll know what it is when they see it. So, let me tell you.

Publishers want something which is:
  • different but not too different
  • quirky but not too quirky, although wacky is fine as long as it's really wacky
  • about a hamster
  • sad but uplifting
  • topical but not topical today - topical tomorrow
  • following a trend - but not any trend that exists now, just whatever is going to be the next trend
  • a fresh voice
  • or a traditional one
  • something that's never been done before
  • as long as it's something which everyone agrees should have been done before
  • and not something which hasn't been done before because it's stupid
  • something that taps into the zeitgeist
  • and something that makes us think
  • but not too much
  • something that will sell in vast numbers
  • and which Tesco can sell along with cucumbers
  • or something which very few people will want to read but will Be Important and which might, if it's a full moon, win the Man Booker, but if it doesn't will die
  • the next big thing
  • a book from a ten-year-old
  • or an 82-year-old from Wales
  • or a leggy blonde
  • or a raspy-voiced unshaven young man with sexy eyes
  • or, preferably, a celebrity with many plastic bits, who will not interfere with the writing of the book
  • a trilogy but only if each is written as a stand-alone in case they have to drop Books 2 & 3
  • a book they can sell really, really, really easily
  • or something entirely different from any of the above but which ticks some boxes as yet unknowm to man.
And if you have the talent to guess what the answer might be, you are very lucky indeed.

By the way, I am quite sure that one of my favourite blog-readers, Dan Holloway, is now jumping up and down. He is going to make a comment to the effect that this is precisely why he chooses not to use traditional publishers. But the thing is, Dan, it's not just publishers who don't know what they want until they see it: it's readers.

Publishers, like readers, really want something quite simple: a rattling good book to get stuck into. And they don't know what it is until we write it.

So, off you go, everyone. Go for a long walk, come back with a fab idea, apply your talent, and then hope for luck.

(Apologies for any typos - I had to rush this post out because I'd accidentally hit publish instead of save before dashing off to do some school events - but several people on Twitter had already seen the title and were clamouring for the post, so I've rushed it out....And now I MUST GO).


Thomas Taylor said...

I often get 'accused' of being lucky because my very first professional illustration job, just out of art school, was for a then-unknown book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Apparantly I'm jammy, and I still get disapproving looks. But as I like to point out, if I hadn't had the ability and motivation to be an ilustrator in the first place, if I hadn't deliberately targeted Bloomsbury because I happened to know (research!) they were hiring, and if I hadn't got off my bum and actually gone to London with samples, that stroke of luck would have fallen on someone else, wouldn't it?

I'm a great believer in making your own luck.

Dan Holloway said...

Gosh, that felt like those BBC ads - you know, the one where Connie from Holby is doing an op and then looks at the screen and talks to the viewer direct. Actually, I wouldn't dream of it (well, I would dream of Amanda Mealing talking through the screen at me, but that's a whole other thing...). May I start by linking to a post I did for Jane at hprw on luck:


Well, it wasn't on luck it was on your other points - my argument is that everyone who succeeds has perevered and has talent, but that's not the same as saying everyone who perseveres and has talent will succeed (and, of course, it's just not true that if you keep rolling the dice you WILL roll a double 6 - didn't Stoppard cover that in Rosenwaht'sit & Guildernface?) - one is a subset of t'other.

Anyhoo, as an 82 year-old Welsh leggy blonde my comment is irrelevant because my success is assured.

I think what I want to say is:
1. the fact that readers don't know what they want is more a reason I self-publish than the fact publishers don't - if readers don't know what they want until they see it, isn't that an argument to get one's work out to readers?

2. I am 100% with you on the importance of the idea, and of an idea that translates. Funnly enough I've been thinking a lot about this recently as I've been doing a fair bit of reading and reviewing of anthologies (partly because I've been putting my own together and there's no better practice than casting a critical eye over what others do - er, plugily mentioning (life:) razorblades included is £5, available from my website - if you click my name that'll take you there, and has the rather publisher-unfriendly idea behind it of celebrating the glorious impossibility of waking up each morning and deciding not to kill oneself).

One thing I've found is that many anthologies (unlike novels) lack a great idea. They are "best of"s - but best ofs ofetn by people who've not done anything else. They are collctions of work plonked (often chronologically) on a page. And yet the whole point of a collection is that it is more than the sum of its parts, that tthe curation of the pieces gives the reader more than if the pieces were discovered individually (my own anthology is intended to replicate the journey of a single long dark night of the soul - from the moment of utter despeair to the morning of determiniation to live life to the full - that's something you'd never get from the pieces, although it's there in all of them - it makes the readers look at the pieces differently - forces them to read one in the light of the next/previous, and slowly builds an idea in their head as a result).

I think one (non-pluggy) reason I've burbled on about anthologies, is actually some of THE strongest ideas a writer can have are best put across in collections and, no matter how hard one perseveres and ahs talent, a major publisher won't pick that up - unless you're David Vann, in which case they'll hoodwink people that it's a novel

Dan Holloway said...

@Thomas - "making your own luck" is one of those double-edged phrases, of course - absolutely one should put oneself in the right place and have one's ear to the ground. But of course, it's not "luck" if you can make it. To some extent all of us reading this blog are genuinely "lucky" - we were born in places where access to the internet is a possibility - if we were an only child in a slum ion Bogota walking hours each day for clean water and working the rest of one's waking hours just to feed parents too ill to do so, then no matter how much the talent or perseverence we'd be buggered. We all of us need to remember we are at one end of a spectrum that goes a long way beyond what we can imagine and that what we see as being a result of our own hard work is only on the cards at all because of a monumental initial slice of luck. Whilst of course we must work hard in order to succeed, every injunction to others to work hard and make their own luck must be placed in this context. Er, sorry, social message over

Colette Martin said...

Great post Nicola! I will say that I agree it's not luck that helps one find a publisher, but that those who do are lucky.

Daniel Blythe said...

"it's not just publishers who don't know what they want until they see it: it's readers." Such an important point. I have several times been asked by publishers who I think a book will appeal to, and my hackles immediately rise at this. Am I expected to say "30something blokes with extensive record collection?" Well, what if a 62-year-old woman who likes nothing but Bach wants to read my book? Publishers and booksellers - the people "in the middle" of the book production/sale process - are obsessed by what your book "is", by which they mean how neatly they can pigeonhole it and which shelf they file it under. Writers are not bothered about that, and nor are readers - the two groups of people at the beginning and the end of the book production/sale process.

I want my books to appeal to people who like to read. Readers want to read stuff they will enjoy.

It's worth pointing out (depressingly) that one unnamed editor, officially Rudest Woman In Publishing, spent longer talking to me about the colour of the cover, and the supposed appeal of different colours to different genders, than anything to do with the contents.

Jill said...

I pretty subscribe to the Rube Goldberg method of writing novels, the details of which are on my blog. Yes, it might take me an eternity to write a few pages, but that's the whole point of the Goldberg method, right? No luck necessary, just a very expensive contraption.

Clair Humphries said...

I think your point about needing time out and space to think of new ideas is spot on. So often I sit at the keyboard, frustrated, willing the ideas to come, but then once I go off for that long walk in the fresh air or whatever, inspiration strikes.

Maybe one of those ideas might end up on a shelf in Tesco's next to the cucumbers, who knows?

Thomas Taylor said...

Of course, you are quite right Dan. I hope it goes without saying that I don't think we're all created equal in a fair world, and that some deserve to struggle because they have failed to learn some trick or other. Merely that according to our own lights and using what we have, we can put ourselves in positions where positive (within context) things could happen. Whether or not we choose to label that being lucky, though, isn't really important.

I've suffered some hefty setbacks in my career too, but not dwelling on them and trying to keep a positive outlook, come what may, is I suppose another part of 'making your own luck'. In the end though, it's mostly smoke and mirrors.

Teresa Stenson said...

It's the word 'persevere' that resonates with me - I just wrote a mini blog about Bridport and linked to your ace post here.

Alleged Author said...

About a hamster...LOL!

Ellie Garratt said...

I was thinking hedgehog!

Hart Johnson said...

this is a FABULOUS post! I love the any 2 of 3 idea, and am willing to buy it RIGHT NOW because I think it explains so much (though will reserve the right to claim some very rare birds out there get by with JUST luck because once in a blue moon, a bad book is bought right off the bat, though I won't site any recent supertrends about paranormal romance). But for mere mortals, 2 out of 3 sounds good!

Katherine Langrish said...

I was struck from the beginning by the enormous good sense of Nicola's guest post for me: "Of the three elements of getting published – talent, perseverance and luck – you only need two, any two."

And this is true: but the greatest of these is perseverance.

Persephone SC said...

I've read the reviews on Amazon and recognized many of the names from this blog. You may not have bribed them but you gave out a lot of books to review. Does it not come down to sales figures in the end, not luck?

Dan Holloway said...

@Thomas - yes, not dwelling on one's bad luck is certainly an invaluable skill - and one way of ensuring its effects are minimised.

@Nicola - I am happy to agree to disagree

What really needs saying is how come no one's mentioned Meat Loaf yet.

Oh, and I hope although tiring it was a good day, Nicola

catdownunder said...

Oh yes, it all makes purrfect sense but...if you are the wrong size, shape and age even talent and perseverance are not going to help. A large dose of luck? Unlikely but then so is winning a lottery. Keep trying? Oh, I see, back to purrseverance? :-)

Unknown said...

Great post!!! Luck isn't everything people make it out to be... I believe you make your own luck... hard work comes first!

Nicola Morgan said...

Persephone - I am not sure that I gave any books "for review". I gave away some copies when people won some competitions on my blog, and my publishers obviously gave copies away to people who might or might not review (and might review negatively!) - I didn't do that - but if anyone chose to review on Amazon or elsewhere that was their own choice.

When anyone gives a book away, even if specifically for review, the risk is hugely that the reviewer won't like it - and would be quite entitled to say so. I'm lucky that they have seemed to like it.

Anyway, back to the main point about luck - Dan, I think your point to Thomas, and Thomas's point itself, underscore how complex the idea of luck is. I do think we can affect our own luck, but we are still all at the mercy of good or bad luck, and, as I said, it's all very tangled. Thomas's situation re the HP is a prime example: yes, he did the work and he put himself in the right place at the right time, but there was luck there too because he couldn't have predicted the hugely beneficial effect. It's a bit like free-will - another double-edged proposition.

We have to believe in free-will and that we make our own luck, I think, even if it doesn't always make logical sense.

Teresa - thank you.

Others - thank you, too. Sorry can't reply to each individually but it's been a tiring day. been doing school events, which went really well. Or was that luck?

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - (Sorry - my previous comment should be before yours - I deleted it and put it back without the typo, and with one alteration.) I'm not sure that we do disagree fundamentally. I also agree that not everyone who has talent and perseveres "succeeds" though I think we can also define success in different ways. For example, I have not yet succeeded, by my own definition. Yes, I'm published, but there are always more mountains to climb. Re the dice-rolling - you are right, technically; but in practice, we "know" that we will throw a double six eventually, because life works like that even if mathematics doesn't; whereas, I do agree that my extrapolating that to success in publishing was inaccurate.

BUT, actually, it could be right - because when I say talent and perseverance I don't just mean carrying on writing the same brilliant thing in the same way and sending it off in the same way - I mean applying your talent to working out how to write something which enough readers want so that a publisher will publish it. IF you want that - which you don't!!

I am going to write a post about the pointlessness of perseverance very soon! I wonder if you'll agree with it. Thanks so much for coming on here and being so interesting and thoughtful.

catdownunder said...

The pointlessness of perseverance? Just when I thought I had it all sorted out! No, wait a moment I had included talant in the equation. Phew...faint hope still.
Luck in this instance is probably 99% perspiration and 1% something unexplainable. Perseverance = being intelligently obstinate. Hmmm...I wonder what Ms Morgan thinks...looking forward to it.

Dan Holloway said...

Nicola, I shall very much look forward to that. I wrote something a while back called Believe in Youself but also Believe in the Evidence (for jane, I think) about the pointlessness of that relentless plugging away and the need sometimes to reframe either one's goals or what one does. It's always lovely when people make those encouragng "keep going and I know you'll get there" comments - but it's not true. And absolutely - part of talent is knowing where to direct that perseverance

DavidKThorpe said...

Why does the 82 year old have to be from Wales?

Nicola Morgan said...

Low Carbon Kid - erm, I assume you realise that this was a joke?! But also, it was referring to a story in the papers the other day about an 82 year-old debut writer from Wales.

Kath McGurl said...

Great post. Of course the harder you work, the luckier you get - didn't someone say this once?

sheryl gwyther said...

Excellent thought-provoking post, Nicola. Definitely talent and perservence make a difference, but isn't it a touch of luck if the right editor is sitting at the right desk to pick up your manuscript - then again, that could be destiny. And if one didn't have the persevence to keep rewriting and sending out stories, they wouldn't have a chance at a bit of luck.