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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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).