Is Writing Success Like a Lottery System?

 Hugh Howey, Luck, self publishing, the writing life  Comments Off on Is Writing Success Like a Lottery System?
Mar 302014


There’s been a lot of blogosphere chatter about writing success being like a lottery. Something about that metaphor has always bothered me. For in a true lottery you can’t really affect your odds (except by buying more tickets, of course). But is that true for writers?
I don’t think it is. Just putting more books out there (“buying more tickets”) won’t help your chances if the books don’t generate reader interest and loyalty. Productivity and prolificacy are certainly virtues, but to them must be added value.
Hugh Howey had some interesting thoughts recently on timing and luck. Citing Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Howey highlighted a fascinating factoid:
A list of the 75 wealthiest people in history, which goes all the way back to Cleopatra, shows that 20% were Americans born within 9 years of each other. Between 1831 to 1840, a group that includes Rockefeller, Carnegie, Armour, J.P. Morgan, George Pullman, Marshall Field, and Jay Gould were born. They all became fabulously wealthy in the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, just as the railroad and Wall Street and other industries were exploding.
From this Howey explains how he benefitted greatly from being in the right place at the right time, Kindle-wise. He had started writing in earnest in 2009, just as the neo-self-publishing movement was taking off. He did some things right, like early adoption of KDP Select and serialization. Look at him now.
But there is one thing he says I disagree with: “I know I’m not that good.”
Wrong. He is good. Very good. Woolwould not be what it is without the quality. Which Howey has worked hard to achieve.
Reminds me of the old adage, “Luck is where hard work meets opportunity.” I believe that wholeheartedly.
I went to school with a kid named Robin Yount. He was a natural athlete and an incredible Little League baseball player. In fact, my greatest athletic moment was the day Robin Yount intentionally walked me. Because Yount is now a member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
But it wasn’t just his natural giftedness that made him what he was. He happened to have an older brother named Larry, who made it to the big show as a pitcher. I remember riding my bike down to the Little League field one day and seeing Larry pitching ball after ball to his little brother. Robin Yount was lucky in the body and brother he was given. But he still had to work hard. Because he did,he was ready when, at age 18, he got the call from the Milwaukee Brewers.
Hard work meeting opportunity.
So I wouldn’t call the publishing biz a lottery system. What metaphor would I use? It hit me the other day: writing success is more like my favorite game, backgammon.
Backgammon, which has been around for 5,000 years, is brilliantly conceived. Dice are involved, so there’s always an

element of chance. Someone who is way behind still might win if the dice give him a roll he needs at a crucial moment.

On the other hand, someone who knows how to think strategically, can calculate odds, and takes risks at the right time, will win more often than the average player who depends mostly on the rolling bones.
Early on I studied the game by reading books. I memorized the best opening moves for each roll. I learned how to think about what’s called the “back game,” what the best “points” are to cover, and when it might pay off to leave a “blot.”
And I played a lot of games with friends and, later, on a computer. I discovered a couple of killer, though risky, opening moves. I use them because they can pay off big time, though when they don’t I find myself behind. But I’m willing to take these early chances because they are not foolhardy and I’m confident enough in my skills that I can still come back.
This, it seems to me, is more analogous to the writing life than a lottery. Yes, there is chance involved. I sold my first novel because I happened to be at a convention with an author I had met on the plane. This new acquaintance showed me around the floor, introduced me to people. One of them was a publisher he knew. That publisher just happened to be starting a new publishing house and was looking for material. I pitched him my book and he bought it a few weeks later.
But I was also ready for that moment. I had been studying the craft diligently for several years and was committed to a weekly quota of words. I’d written several screenplays and at least one messy novel before completing the project I had with me at the convention.
Thus, as in backgammon, the greater your skill, the better your chances. The harder you work, the more skill you acquire. Sure, there are different talent levels, and that’s not something we have any control over.
But biology is not destiny, as they say. Unrewarded genius is almost a cliché. Someone with less talent who works hard often outperforms the gifted.
Now, that doesn’t mean you’ll always win big in any one game. If the dice are not your friends, things might not turn out as planned. That book you thought was a sure winner might sink. Or even stink.
But that doesn’t mean you have to stop playing.
Don’t ever worry about the dice. You cannot control them, not even if you shake them hard and shout, “Baby needs a new pair of shoes!” The vagaries of the book market are out of your hands. You can, however, control your work ethic and awareness of opportunity.
Writing success is therefore not a lottery. It’s a game.
Play intelligently, play a lot and try to have some fun, too.

So what about you? Do you believe in pure luck? Or do you believe there is something you can do to goose it?

Reader Friday: Quote Respond

 Luck, Reader Friday  Comments Off on Reader Friday: Quote Respond
Sep 062013

Occasionally we’ll run a quote from a provocative post and ask you, dear readers, to respond to it. Today’s comes from author Lara Schiffbauer:

“Now, as we know, some writers have (what appears to be) lucky success. I’m not saying they don’t work hard, or aren’t talented. But, how many hard-working, talented writers do you know? That’s right. Quite a few, huh? And what makes any one writer who has that crazy-good success better than any of the others that you know? See what I mean? For every one lucky hard-working, talented writer there are many hard-working, talented authors who just didn’t have the stars align in quite the same way.”

Start a conversation in the comments!

Mar 212012


By David

And another one bites the dust.

Just as I was getting utterly full-throated in my admiration for HBO’s thoroughbred racing drama Luck, I learned the series was cancelled after a third horse died on the set.

PETA was exploring a lawsuit and had referred the matter to the Los Angeles District Attorney. HBO issued a statement with executive producers Michael Mann and David Milch that quickly got hosed on the Internet for alleged hypocrisy in the first degree.

I’m reluctant to judge the motives of people I don’t know on the basis of evidence I don’t have. I’m funny that way.

But if animals are dying, the show’s gotta close. Absolutely. That’s not, however, why I’m bringing this up here. Luck also was suffering from bad ratings, which makes it only the most recent in a string of shows that have stolen my heart only to vanish before the romance could get beyond the moony sighs—all of them critical darlings. All of them struggling for viewers. All of them gone baby gone. In an eyeblink.

Last year’s Lights Out, the FX program about heavyweight boxer Patrick Leary making a fateful comeback, was a show I made sure I was home for. (No, I don’t have Tivo or a DVR. Nitwit.) Incredible breakout performance by Holt McCallany, and Stacy Keach doing his best work since Fat City. Great reviews! One season. Over. (On reflection, maybe it wasn’t the wisest idea to name the program Lights Out.)

That wasn’t the only series FX had last year that bit it quick, though.

The quirky crime drama Terriers went down so hard and fast I didn’t even have time to figure out how much I liked it. Kickass title song, too:


Again, the title didn’t help. The show had nothing to do with dogs—it was the two heroes’ “scrappy” temperament that inspired the name. Its audience base was passionately loyal, just unacceptably small. Some claim the show’s demise was due to lame marketing, but there were those who thought its low ratings were due to the most unforgivable element a show can possess: subtlety.

Prior to those one-and-done knockouts, I was smitten by:

CBS’s Robbery Homicide Division (another Michael Mann effort).


NBC’s Boomtown—once again, rave reviews but poor ratings. So the network heads played Einstein and neutered the program’s unique, ingenious premise: Telling the same story from multiple, contrasting, at times irreconcilable points of view. After the boneheaded tweaking, the numbers tanked even further, and the show died two episodes into its second season.

Before that?

The excellent Canadian crime drama Intelligence, from the same team that created the equally superb DaVinci’s Inquest. Intelligence did indeed live up to its name, and managed to survive a comparatively interminable two seasons.

All of these programs were inspired, smart, well-written, critically acclaimed efforts with great performances by gifted actors—and as soon as you can say “ratings whore” they were chasing tumbleweeds into the abyss.

I feel like a jinx. If I love it, it’s doomed.

Then again, it’s hardly a stunning surprise I fall for programs typically described by TV Guide as “the best show nobody’s watching”—the outliers, the best-kept secrets, the obscurities, the forgotten gems.

The highly respected and widely unknown.

That’s pretty much the lowdown on my books.

You read what you love, you watch what you love, you write what you love, verdad? And take your chances. Roll the dice for the thrill of the game. Or you step away from the table, and let the next guy try his luck.

What say you, Murderateros: Which TV programs have you simply loved only to find out they weren’t going to make it past the honeymoon?

What critically acclaimed but overlooked films or out-of-print books would you like to tout?

Sound off! Augment the audience! Crank up the crowd!

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BREAKING NEWS: My short story “What the Creature Hath Built” kicks off the new collection Scoundrels: Tales of Greed, Murder and Financial Crimes edited by the inimitable Gary Phillips and featuring stories from Reed Farrel Coleman, SJ Rozan, Kelli Stanley, Eric Stone, Seth Harwood, Lolo Waiwaiole and more! It’s available now (as of March 19th):

The Kindle version at $5.99. The Trade Paperback (POD) at $16.95. 

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Jukebox Hero of the Week: Speaking of highly respected but widely unknown, here’s a tune from a musician I’ll bet a number of you have never heard of—I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t till recently—but he’s been around for quite a while and he’s sneakily, eerily, jaw-droppingly good: Otis Taylor.