It All Comes Down to Luck

by wjw on June 9, 2019

So after forty years earning a living in the creative arts, I have one primary insight to offer:

It all comes down to luck.

Luck matters more than talent.  I know any number of extremely gifted writers who just had shitty luck, and whose careers failed on takeoff or blew up in midair.  Likewise I know any number of less-than-gifted writers who just wrote the one right book at the right time, and whose career took off.  I know others who basically blundered their way to success— they were never in charge of anything, they just jumped in the pool and hit their nose on a gold brick.

I’ve known writers who had a carefully-built career plan that cratered.  I know other writers who followed a well worked-out plan that succeeded.

My own career has had wild, unpredictable luck swings.  I was lucky enough to be paid for writing my journeyman fiction, and then that whole career crashed when there was a shift in the market and I had to find another career.

I never set out to be a science fiction writer. (I didn’t think I was good enough, for one thing.  Grow up reading Delany and Zelazny and Russ and Disch and you might just find yourself a wee bit intimidated at the prospect of joining that company.)  That I’m a science fiction writer, and not a mystery writer or a writer of literary fiction or a writer of epic historical fiction is entirely a matter of luck.

But if I was going to be an SF writer, the 1980s was the best time to do it.  Publishers were putting money into science fiction, starting SF lines with a host of savvy editors.  Tor was a new company, and my career grew with Tor.  But Tor, it seemed to me, realized at some point that it was easier to poach another company’s successful writers than to try to build new writers of its own (which is always an iffy business).

So I jumped to another publisher, for more money.  Good luck, right?  But the bad luck outweighed the good, because the new publisher’s publisher was batshit crazy, and I had to hire a lawyer to get my ass free.

Also, I ended up in a multi-year trademark litigation with Wired Magazine over the word “Hardwired,” which they claimed they owned.  I lost all the savings I’d built up over the years and was barely hanging on, but I really had no choice— you have to defend your intellectual property, or get out of the game.  Fortunately Wired went bankrupt before I did, which must have surprised us both.

So was that good luck, bad luck, weird luck, what?  All I know is that it was luck.

And then there was The Rift, which was my shot at the big time bestseller— and it would have been a bestseller, if the Powers That Be at the publisher hadn’t deliberately sabotaged the book, and in fact the entire SF line, and cost their company millions of dollars for reasons that surely must have seemed good to them.

(It’s my bestselling ebook, now it’s an ebook.  So, y’know, fuck them.)

So.  Luck.

I won’t go into my subsequent career, save to point out that one publisher had a nervous breakdown and forgot to send my manuscript to the printer, and that another book which was expected to do well came out at the height of the 2008 recession when nobody was buying hardbacks, and that fiasco took down two other books with it.

Yah, go right ahead, make a plan for your fabulous writing career.  Don’t forget to factor in publishers’ nervous breakdowns, the malice of strangers, the incompetence of a whole other set of strangers, and the economic cycle.  Factor your agent dropping dead while you’re at it.  And be sure to predict all those factors five or six years ahead off time, and be ready for them.

But speaking of being ready— there are ways to sort of tilt the luck factor in your favor, and they come down to readiness.  You can’t predict when you’ll get lucky, but you have to be ready for the piece of luck when it happens.  I had no idea of becoming a science fiction writer, but when my career tilted that way, I took the ball and ran with it.  (Mixed metaphor but what the hell)

Likewise you might not be able to predict what specific disaster might happen to you, but you can be reasonably confident that, over the course of a long career, disasters will happen, and you should try to be flexible enough to survive the bad luck when it finally catches you.

When bad luck happened to me, I didn’t give up.  I had faith in my talent and faith in my writing, and even if nobody was buying my work at the moment, I kept increasing my page count.

And by all means make a plan.  It won’t do any harm, and it might work.  (My plan was to write whatever the hell I wanted, and it worked for quite a number of years, right up till the moment it didn’t.)

But while you’re making a plan, don’t forget to make a backup plan.  When some catastrophe happens to your career, have some idea what your next career is going to be, and what new name you’ll use for a pseudonym. (Carrie Vaughn wrote a very entertaining Facebook post a while back about what happened when her career plan blew up on her, and she had to improvise a new plan that took advantage of the fact that she was in a complete panic.  Panic can work for you, if you can just direct it in the right way.)

I’m not the sort of person that panics easily.  Instead I just get pissed off.  That’ll show you, asshole, I think as my keyboard slams into overdrive.

And be sure to take nothing for granted.  Because it can all be taken away in an instant.

Don’t stop thinking.  Don’t stop writing.  And know that, whatever happens, luck will change.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Minx June 9, 2019 at 9:03 am

Oh, Implied Spaces was supposed to be a trilogy? With the way it ended I thought the next events were too big to write

Etaoin Shrdlu June 9, 2019 at 11:47 am

Speaking of mixed metaphors: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfU69_up02Y

And you’re a fantastic mystery writer. I don’t care what the market says, TINAG was your best work ever (so far). The Fourth Wall was amazing. And although I was initially put off by the murder-mystery subplot in Conventions of War, it’s become my favorite part of the series, especially with how everything resolved.

I don’t want to take your focus off the remainder of DEF and Quillifer (not to mention a third Metropolitan/CoF), but could you clone yourself to spin off a mystery/thriller line?

wjw June 9, 2019 at 3:02 pm

Minx, I was referring to the TINAG series, the worst-selling books of my entire career. Numbers so bad I didn’t sell another book for five years.

Etaoin, thanks for the kind words! Like I said, if the luck had dropped another way, I might well be a mystery writer now.

Jane Lindskold June 10, 2019 at 9:33 am

I really like the part about planning for things you can’t predict five or six years in advance.

DensityDuck June 11, 2019 at 9:25 am

“Fortunately Wired went bankrupt before I did, which must have surprised us both.”

The thing that always seemed weird to me about Wired was why those people weren’t just reading OMNI, but I guess the proximity to Penthouse Magazine just didn’t work for them.

Etaoin Shrdlu June 12, 2019 at 12:54 am

Waitasecond, “Hardwired” was published in 1986, “WIRED” magazine didn’t even exist until 1993. How the bleep were they suing you over the title of a book that preexisted them?

(DensityDuck’s comment made me go look up whether Omni was still in existence that late. Looks like they overlapped by a couple of years — the focus was completely different, though, general sci-tech plus some scifi vs. “look at this neat new Internet thing, that’s all we write about!”)

wjw June 12, 2019 at 1:03 pm

Etaoin, them with money and lawyers can assert whatever they want.

Shirley June 12, 2019 at 2:35 pm

I always wondered why Rift didn’t do better, because it was fascinating. Traveling and talking to diverse people paid off big. Usually I don’t like really long books, but Rift completely held my attention all the way through.

Rift’s story reminded me of an administrative practice in the oil and gas industry about the same time: the engineering and geology departments were pitted against each other to see which one could bring in more money. It was totally stupid. As far as I could tell, it did not increase revenues. Instead of working together, they stopped sharing information. In a natural division of labor, the two departments would support and supplement each other.

Etaoin Shrdlu June 13, 2019 at 11:18 am

WJW, a prosecutor may be allowed to indict a ham sandwich (or dismiss criminal charges against Jussie Smollett just because politics), but it tends to be career suicide as Kim Foxx is learning. Likewise, asserting trademark rights against a preexisting trademark is basically futile and should be automatically thrown out on summary judgment — not even getting into asserting trademark rights against a preexisting BOOK TITLE when the plaintiff is a magazine and the title is substantially different from the name of the magazine. We’re well into the territory of summary judgment plus an award of all legal fees to the defendant. I’d argue hard for bad faith sanctions against the plaintiff’s attorneys, too, for being such utter fuckwits as to let their client bring such an obvious loser of a claim.

I can’t even count all the duplicate titles I’ve seen come up lately, mostly for “mystery” novels. And those are just within the exact same genre of fiction books. It seems like everyone wants to name their book “What She Saw” or “Ihr Kampf” or “Something Stupidly Generic That You’re Going to Have to Look Up By Author or Else You’ll Buy the Wrong Book”. (I just looked it up, there are a minimum of six recent “What She Saw” novels. I think that’s at least two low because the dates are all pre-2019 and I know I’ve seen two so far this year alone.)

If it happens again, and if I’m alive and able to practice, I’ll take you on pro bono just to enjoy watching the other side bleed.

wjw June 13, 2019 at 1:53 pm

Etoin, they didn’t file against a preexisting trademark because I didn’t have one. You can’t trademark single titles.

What happened was that I sold game rights, and Wired filed against the game rights company who bungled their original filing, and the whole thing went into a vast morass of incompetence.

The early Internet companies asserted they owned everything because why not? They were Internet companies! They owned the future anyway. The weird thing is that a magazine publisher convinced everyone they were an Internet company for so fucking long.

Etaoin Shrdlu June 14, 2019 at 12:13 pm

My bad. :-( I’ve seen the morass of incompetence before. :-( More of a spiral, really.

Etaoin Shrdlu June 14, 2019 at 12:15 pm

BTW, I know about the titles thing. Can’t usually copyright a title either. Which is why it seemed so thoroughly insane.

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