HOW TO SUCCEED IN PUBLISHING BY REALLY, REALLY TRYING AND GETTING LUCKY

How do you define superstitious?

We all have a convenient definition at our fingertips. It usually involves lucky socks or good luck rituals or avoiding behavior that “jinxes” us. That sort of superstitious is obvious, and even people who employ it tend to acknowledge that it’s more of a feeling than real world effect. It’s not that people don’t sincerely believe in these things. It’s just that they aren’t surprised when they don’t work consistently. Luck is a fickle ally, even when we throw offerings her way.

I’m pretty low on the superstitious index, but I did own a car for over a decade that I refused to ever fill up completely with gas because twice it had a maintenance issue soon after I did. Neither issue had anything to do with the fuel system in any way, but once the association was made I couldn’t ditch it. So I never filled the tank above halfway and never had another problem with the car until it finally broke an axle. Guess I filled the tank too full one day.

Intellectually, I knew that my half-tank policy had nothing to do with the car’s functioning, but I still did followed the rule I made up in my own head.

Beyond that example though I’ve become less superstitious over time. I don’t just mean about classic good luck rituals. My skepticism towards our control of the world around us has grown, and while there’s probably some confirmation bias is at work, I don’t think much of what we do in our lives really makes much difference in our successes and failures.

I’m not saying what we do is irrelevant. I’m just convinced that MOST of what we do is irrelevant. Which leads to my controversial take upon how to be a successful novelist.

Write. Edit. Publish. Repeat.

Everything else is superstitious bullshit. Some of it is peddled by con artists. Much of it is by genuine believers. The source doesn’t matter. Their intentions don’t matter. The truth is that we’re all just guessing. Nobody likes guessing. Nobody likes feeling out-of-control. And rejection of that is where superstitions come from.

It’s hard being an artist. When you’re starting out, it can feel overwhelming and confusing and impossible. Whether you go the traditional publishing route or the self-publishing road or something in-between, there’s no end to the uncertainties.

That never goes away.

I’d love to tell you that as a writer with a mild level of success that I knew the answers, but I’m often flummoxed. Maybe not quite as flummoxed as when I started, but pretty close.

The only true path to success I’ve discovered is to Write, Edit, Publish, Repeat.

WRITE.

Write regularly. It doesn’t have to be daily, but find a routine that works. Don’t focus on when you don’t meet your goals. Adjust until you find what works. And when that stops working, adjust again.

EDIT.

By The Glowing Sword of The Mighty Robot King, Edit! Good editing makes good writing great, great writing even better, and bad writing much more tolerable. It’s not always fun, and everyone has a different process. Wait until you’re done or do most of it along the way. But edit it until the garbage is gone, the tin is silver, the silver is gold. But don’t get stuck because it’ll probably never be perfect, and that gets to step three.

PUBLISH.

If your choice is traditional publishing then learn how to submit properly. And do it. Do it a lot. Expect a lot of rejections, a lot of close-but-no-cigar moments. It will not be a smooth road, but persistence is key. If you self-pub, learn how to do it properly. Self-pub continues to become more viable, but it also puts a ton of pressure on you as a creator to do most of the work. So do it right. Either way, expect the road to be long and full of starts and stops.

REPEAT.

So you’ve written your first book. Congratulations. It probably sucks. An assumption, I know, but not a big one. Even if you are incredibly talented and manage to create a great book on your first go, you can always create a better one next time. It’s not impossible for a writer to make a career off of one book, but it’s close enough that it feels like I shouldn’t have to say this. But I’m saying it anyway.

This assumes you want to write as a career, build an audience. If you just want to write one book, put it out in the universe, and carry on with your life, good on you. You did it, and I’m very happy for you.

But for everyone else, being a writer is a series of long-term projects. Writing. Editing. Publishing. Repeat. All these steps take time. But if you stick with it, if you persevere, you might make it.

Big emphasis on the MIGHT.

I can’t make promises. My own success is due to no small amount of luck, and if that luck dries up, I don’t know if that success would continue. Most writers I know acknowledge the fickle whims of fate in their career. Most acknowledge that sticking with it was the only way they managed to find any success at all.

So when I say the rest is superstitious bull, what part of the rest do I mean?

I mean ALL THE REST.

ALL OF IT.

There is no secret formula for a “Can’t Miss” novel. There is no perfect way to word a query letter to get an agent or editor’s attention. There’s no real way of predicting what trends will come and which will go. There is no predictable way to market your book. You don’t need to build a social media platform to have a career. You don’t have to figure out how to sell your book in advance. You can’t outwit the market, the algorithms, the advertising machine that pushes two or three books while ignoring yours.

That last one bears repeating. I hear more and more about how successful novelists these days spend half their time on marketing and promotion. And more power to them if that’s what they want to do, but I see this just as easily being a distraction.

I’m sure that there are success stories to point to by doing all the above, but the problem with success stories is that there are countless more failing novelists who do all the above as well. It’s like listening to lottery winners, and then assuming that the best way to get rich is to buy a lottery ticket. The proof is right there. It worked for someone. It could work for you.

But probably not.

Write, Edit, Publish, Repeat isn’t a guarantee. You can do all that and still not manage to have a career. I only offer it as advice because it is the absolute minimum required. When I reflect on the role of luck in my own career I always come back to one truth. The one thing that I can definitely say I did that made it all possible.

I wrote the books.

As a lifelong procrastinator, I give myself credit for that. The rest is anyone’s guess.  

So decide on what you’re willing to do, and don’t be afraid to reassess. Life changes. We change. The writing biz changes. Everything changes.

But the one thing that hasn’t changed yet is Write, Edit, Publish, Repeat.

Good luck out there. We can all use it now and then.

FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT, WRITING THE GOOD WRITE,

LEE

4 Replies to “HOW TO SUCCEED IN PUBLISHING BY REALLY, REALLY TRYING AND GETTING LUCKY”

  1. Amen, Brother!
    BTW, the limerick-about-a-wizard I recited to you at SoonerCon 30 in OKC last June is:
    There once was a wonderful wizard
    Who had a small pain in his gizzard.
    So he ate wind and snow
    At thirty below
    And farted a forty-day blizzard.
    So thrilled to see you then, and happy to ruminate over your stuff. Thanks for your sense of humor and cogitations!
    PS I got into publishing by being a nitpicker in my Amazon reviews. Now I is a big-time non-fiction editor at Jacobs/Brown!
    All the best — Mark Alfred

  2. To the point. Concise, encouraging and true.
    As a fellow procrastinator who flails around in conundrums and dead end plot trajectories, only to swim in the balm of Tic Tok and minute pieces of lint, this was very refreshing. Taking up the mantra. Write. Edit. Publish. Repeat. There is hope. Thank you!

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