In our society, we’re inundated with easy solutions. Advertising tells us we can master any skill in ten easy lessons, fix anything that’s broken with just one application of Stupendous-Incredible Glue, or learn the secrets of financial security by following three simple guidelines. We expect that there is a goal, that it is reachable, and that once we reach our goal, we’re finished with the process.
None of that is true. As is the case with nearly every art, there’s never an “end point” you reach as a writer: you just continue working, which in turn increases your skill with each story. The concept of ‘Mastery’ is a chimera, always receding away from you no matter where you stand. You can set secondary goals if you like -- “I’m going to sell my first novel by the time I’m thirty” -- but sometimes you don’t or can’t reach those goals. Even if you achieve a ‘success’ such as selling a few novels, there’s no guarantee that it’s a replicable process. Each new book is a new challenge. You’re never, ever, done.
But it doesn’t surprise me, as a working writer and as a teacher of creative writing, that writers commonly get asked this: “What’s the secret to being successful?” The question might be framed less blatantly, but that’s essentially it: as if the person suspects there’s a store of hidden knowledge that the insiders have gained and which we deliberately keep from the common rabble. If there is such a Masters’ Fount of Wisdom, I’ve yet to discover it. Still, some version of The Inevitable Question comes to me often enough when I talk to new writers that I’ve given a fair amount of thought as to my answer.
And I’ve come to the conclusion that there actually is a formula for success for writers. And I’m going to give it to you.
But first, let me wander a bit and talk about a new writer’s odds of getting published...
When I teach creative writing, I always spend at least one class session talking about the nuts-and-bolts of manuscript submission. I show the students proper manuscript form, talk about how important it is that mistakes are kept to a minimum, and so on — all the technical issues that can get a manuscript bounced regardless of the quality of the writing. I also address the fact that a given market might receive 100 - 1,000+ unsolicited manuscripts a month, and that your manuscript is crammed somewhere in the slush pile that resembles the leaning tower of Pisa.
When I say that, I will inevitably hear a comment along the lines of: "So if a market’s receiving 500 manuscripts a month, my odds are 1 in 500 I'll get accepted?” [Student punches buttons on a handy calculator and looks up in dismay.] "Wow. That's only a .2% chance. No wonder new writers can't get published."
My reply is always, always, the same: "There are no odds. It's not a lottery."
But the misconception persists. You hear it all the time: the publishing industry is a closed shop, a private club. They're not open to new writers. Your odds of getting published are miniscule. And the people who say this know it to be true, of course, because their manuscripts are getting rejected right and left.
Sorry. It's not a lottery. If it were, the editors would dump all the slush manuscripts into a big bin, give it a good spin, and reach inside to pluck out a single brown envelope, proclaiming "Here's the one we're going to publish this month!"
That's not how they do it. They actually begin to read each manuscript... until they know they don't need to read any more.
If your manuscript is poorly done -- if it isn't in proper manuscript form; if it has five grammatical mistakes in the first paragraph; if the prose is riddled with cliches; if the characters are constructed of pine, the dialogue is riddled with lines from made-for-TV movies, and the plot depends on a sequence of deus ex machinas or is invisible; if you can't write a complete sentence or you switch tense and viewpoint at will -- then your chance of being published is effectively zero. Persistence won't change anything, because no matter how many times you send the story out to the professional markets, the story will bounce back to you. Your work will never sell... because it isn't good enough. Period.
Note that many of the qualities I've just cited are simple technical aspects that anyone can learn, like 'proper manuscript form.' I've heard from editors that a surprisingly high percentage of manuscripts coming in over the transom ignore that one little rule, and as a result, are rejected immediately upon opening the envelope. In fact, I tell my students this: want to substantially increase your mythical 'odds'? Then learn how to put your manuscript in proper manuscript form.
On the other hand, if your story is well written and compelling and you've done all the technical stuff right, I'm fairly confident that your story will sell. Maybe not to the first place you send it, or the second or third or twelfth (because literary tastes differ from person to person, because markets are sometimes closed, or your story’s too long or short, or because -- despite the rumors -- editors are people too and sometimes display gaps in judgment), but it will get placed somewhere. At worst, I would say that your 'odds' of selling are in the 90% range.
If your story is "pretty good but not perfect" and you've managed to follow proper manuscript form, can write grammatically and correctly, and the story has a flow and a halfway-interesting voice, it might sell -- if you hit the right editor at the right time. Or it might not. By the time it comes back to you after twenty rejections, maybe you'll have figured out why it's only "pretty good" and not "compelling."
When a manuscript I send out comes back rejected (and some still do), I'm far better off believing that the reason doesn't lie with the editor, but with my manuscript and my writing. I can fix my writing; as much as I might want to, I can’t fix the editor. I could instead believe that my writing is perfect and the stupid editor just can't see the genius in the pages I sent... but the odds are high that I'm being delusional and I simply don't have a grasp on my actual level of ability.
There's a simple, single reason the vast majority of manuscripts don't sell: they’re really awful. Sorry if that offends some who read this. I'll guarantee that it's why none of my early stories ever sold. I can see it now, even if I couldn't see it then: they were awful. Terrible. Boring. Terrifically flawed. The proper response to rejection isn't to rail about how the publishing industry is unfair; the proper response is to look at your own work and figure out what you're doing wrong -- because, frankly, you are doing something wrong -- and fix it.
If writing fiction were easy, everyone could do it.
Become a better writer. Study. Explore. Write. Write some more. Write even more. Get good. Then you won't have to worry so much about those terrible, awful odds.
But you still want a formula to follow, don’t you? You want advice more concrete than just “keep practicing and you’ll get better.” You want ten easy steps. You want an article that reveals the inner secrets.
Fine. Here’s the simple formula you need to follow:
Success = Talent + Dedication + Passion + Luck
I honestly believe this can serve as a guide for someone looking to examine where they are in their own writing career. But before you can apply this formula, you need to know how these terms are defined. Let’s take them all, one by one.
“Success” is the goal, so let’s look at that first. My definition of "success" in this formula is as follows: reaching the point where you sell the majority of what you write to professional markets and make at least a substantial portion of your income from your writing. To my mind, that’s a reasonable definition for someone being a working writer. And since this is a formula expressed in mathematical terms, let’s carry our analogy further and assign a numerical value to that definition of success: “100.” What you want to do as a writer following the above formula is reach a score of 100 or better.
Obviously, then, we need to know the definitions and values for the components on the other side of the equation. But first we should take another brief side trip and talk about whether fiction writing is an "art" or a "craft" — because I’d argue that art can’t be taught, but craft can.
There are influential people who define an "art" is something that is largely driven by a hidden gift that you were other born with or you weren’t. It is, truly, a ‘gift.’ In their minds, you can create Capital-A Art if you have The Gift; if you don't, you can’t. Under this theory, you can take two people and give them the same education and upbringing, expose them to exactly the same teachers and give them the same opportunities, and one will be a Leonardo da Vinci and another will be a plumber. (Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with being a plumber -- anyone who’s ever been forced to do their own plumbing will tell you that there’s nothing simple or easy about it.)
Those same people would define a "craft" as something that doesn't particularly require inborn talent (though it’s still nice to have) -- the basic requirement for a craft is hard work: if you work diligently enough at a craft, you can do it. Talent is not particularly a requirement; it is possible to learn everything you need to know, whether you have a natural inclination for the skill or not. "Art" and "Craft" are, in that sense, nearly polar opposites...
I believe fiction writing is an arcane combination of both. Do I think that some people have a ‘gift’ for writing? I do, absolutely. Do I think that 'talent for writing' can be learned? No, I don't. But I also think that a goodly percentage of the population has some of that talent residing within them.
With that in mind, here's how I define and value the components on the right side of our equation.
Talent: I believe you can achieve a “score” of somewhere between 0 and 40 here, with the average run of people in the 10 - 15 range. I'd also argue that there's nothing you can do to change your score. Sorry. This is a Capital-G Gift that’s buried deep inside you, and you either have it in your genes or you don’t. Now, before people jump all over that statement as being elitist, everyone should also note that, even with a 'perfect' score of 40, you can't achieve 'success' by our equation.
Talent alone isn’t enough. Ever.
Dedication: As with Talent, you can have a score of 0 - 40 here, and this is an attribute entirely under your control. How hard are you willing to work at this? Will you do the reading and research you need to do to become a better writer? Will you study writing and push yourself to learn everything about it? The harder you're willing to work, the more time you're willing to invest, the more intense your study, the more you practice, the more that writing is a daily habit for you, then the higher your score is going to be. In fact, this attribute’s value might change frequently through your life as other interests arise or fade, or as the necessities of real life intrude on your writing. Sometimes, you just don’t have the time or energy to dedicate yourself to writing... but that will affect the final tally in our formula.
Dedication is the realm of the intellect. Dedication is knowledge. Dedication is experience. Dedication is understanding how the various components of writing fit together to create the whole. Dedication is the willingness to place your rear end in the chair, your fingers on the keyboard, and work, no matter what you feel like.
Passion: Again, you can achieve a score of 0 - 40 here, and again this is an attribute within your control. Do you love writing? Would you do it whether you ever published anything or not? Yes? Then maybe you have passion.
Passion can also be influenced by your current projects -- does your work-in-progress excite you? Are you writing what you want to write? With dedication, you can force yourself to stay up all night working on something, but with passion you don't even notice how tired you are because you're driven to do it. When you're not working with passion, the work you're doing becomes more difficult, and there's a strong temptation not to make it the best you can. As with dedication, this value can shift, sometimes quickly. With a pet project, it might be high; with a project you’re doing only for money or to complete a contract, it could be very low. I’ve experienced that myself: I’ve taken on writing projects I perhaps shouldn’t have, and as a result needed to kick up my Dedication to get through them successfully.
Passion is the emotional component. Passion is fire. Passion is feeling. Passion is captured in the soul of the writer and shines through in the words.
Luck: Too many would-be writers in my experience use luck as their excuse for failing: "I didn't succeed because I had bad luck." When they see someone else succeed, that gets attributed to luck, too: "She's just been incredibly lucky in her career, that’s all." Luck, in our formula, is scored from -25 to +25 -- there is indeed bad luck in the publishing world, and there are also people who happen to write just the right thing at the right time for the right editor. Your luck score can change, too -- but unfortunately you can’t change it. It’s out of your control. Most of the time, however, luck hovers somewhere in the vicinity of 0. Luck alone, like talent alone, can't get you success.
So let's look at the equation again, with our values attached: Success (100 or better) = Talent (0 to 40) + Dedication (0 to 40) + Passion (0 to 40) + Luck (-25 to +25)
There are some conclusions we can draw from this, if our equation holds... Let’s look at a sequence of potential scores and discuss the implications: