It’ll happen when I point out an overly familiar phrase, something that pounds, pumps, or beats. Or raise the issue of a story problem’s sudden, yet perfectly-timed solution. An author with a large audience and many books will be invoked — sometimes from within the genre being written, but usually not. “I saw that exact sentence or plot resolution in his last book.”
Wrong moment for the plagiarism discussion, although that will come, too. “Your agent and readers are waiting?”
“No agent. No readers — yet.” Cue the face in bloom, followed by (healthy) resistance. “Why should that matter?”
“Because I can’t teach lucky.” As a writing teacher and coach, it’s one of my go-to pieces of wisdom. I can’t teach lucky, but develop a story arc? Let’s talk action and consequence. Deepen characters and connections? Let’s water some seeds you’ve scattered across the page. Refine prose, word-by-painful-word? Cue Debbie Allen in Fame, pounding her rhythm stick on the dance floor. “Got big dreams? Right here is where you start paying: in sweat!”
I can’t teach lucky has served me well, but I’m afraid it’s time to let it go. Why?
While some writers undoubtedly benefit from powerful connections and fortuitous timing, I believe luck in the arts is made more often than bestowed, even when it appears otherwise in press materials or social media.
My students, for example, believe I’m lucky. This notion creates a short burst of nervous laughter, followed by a search for the hidden camera. Someone obviously wants to catch me in a moment of deluded arrogance. However, my students quote the book and story prizes I’ve won, not the many invisible losses in between. They count my eight Pushcart Prize nominations, while I focus on my lone appearance in the anthology — as a special mention at the back. While I know how often my work is rejected, they see journals publish my stories a second or fourth time, extend invitations to read or speak on panels, and judge contests. As one student put it, “Even my mother’s heard of a Fulbright.”
If my job as mentor is to steer their lives as writers, I need to embrace my victories as they do. I have received some lovely accolades, and that does make me lucky.
But luck in any competitive field is a by-product of effort and discipline. My acceptance tab on Submittable has a satisfying scroll bar, but my declined tab is seven pages long. Lucky is not my daily experience as a writer. It accrues over the long haul.
On Duotrope, my acceptance ratio has rarely entered double-digits, although I am in their lingo either (1) an outlier or (2) above-average for the markets I’ve targeted. That ratio was zero for the first half of 2019. While my attention was on novel-writing rather than submitting, I launched one new story and revised two others without quick success. I had to trust their future homes would appear, that a pending response would shift to yes, as it did recently for one piece. That faith is an aspect of luck overlooked by my students, who shift too swiftly to doubt when their work isn’t snapped up quickly by quality magazines, agents, or publishers. We all want the big guns to love us, but the competition is fiercest at the top, where the rewards are greatest. If you want to aim high, as I do, rejection is a necessary part of the process. My lived experience is no, no, no, no, no, no, no, yes, no, no. That yes can feel hard won sometimes, but it’s worth the effort.
I know writers with careers I consider luckier than my own, but it turns out lucky still looks different from the outside. They can see it, yes, but only from the prism of execution, failure, and evolution. A friend of mine won a major book prize this year. The same day she received this news, she received three form rejections. Turns out, her luck looks a lot like mine. We talked for an hour about the fits and starts of a writing life, how a year or two can be fallow, followed by a string of opportunities at once.
If you’re a dispirited writer wading chin deep in rejection, every professional writer I know has been where you are — and persevered. Question narratives designed to sell books. That novelist with the lightning debut began writing a dozen or more years ago. She may look twenty-five in that polished author photo, but she’s approaching forty. Every profile or interview makes her sound lucky without ever delving into all the ways she actively contributed to her own good fortune or fought through her many doubts.
Perhaps your writing’s not all it could be. Keep writing. Seek out other writers and share your work. Keep writing. Find opportunities, resources, and professionals to help you grow. Keep writing.
Oh, and I can’t teach lucky? It’s a great line to use whenever I want to urge a writer to look at their own work and habits rather than someone else’s. However, lucky’s exactly what I teach — in the classroom and through my daily experience as a dogged writer at work.