Friday, February 17, 2012

Entry #39 - “Stacking the Odds: Luck, Skill & Strategic Persistence”

After a recent conversation with a writer friend I began thinking about how writers do what they do well enough to have others read, recognize and enjoy their work.  How do aspiring writers stack the odds so that their work will find publishers and readers? What factors contribute to success? 

It seems to me that successful writers depend upon a mixture of luck, skill (which includes talent & training), and strategic persistence, but what constitutes the best mix? Is there a magic or optimum formula?

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - October 2011
Luck seems to be the sketchiest of these because we can’t exert control over the randomness of it, so it seems to be something to minimize. And yet, if you don’t buy the lottery ticket, you will not win the lottery, even if you do (wisely) delete those weird spam-scam emails that say you’ve been left a sum of money by some distant cousin in India. But luck does happen, both good and bad luck. The universe does smile some days and frowns upon the best of us from time-to-time, although my yoga teacher sees this as a challenging opportunity presented by the universe. But the problem of depending too much on luck - as the gaunt gambling addict knows and can’t admit - is that your lucky number statistically is unlikely to pop up, so if you put all your hope on luck, you’re in for a truckload of disappointment. 

So what about skill? Clearly some writers have more talent and training than others. But talent seems a catchy word that suggests an innate ability to master language and get it on the page and, yes that’s probably true at some level.  Just as there are amazing athletics, there are those special writers who seem born to get it right on the page.  But the reality is most of those writers, like athletes, actually have a high level of skill developed over time from training, observing, thinking and practicing their skill until it looks easy. Just as a musical genius does need to be exposed to the idea of music and learn the “how to” skills of technique and practice, competent, successful writers combine training in technique, careful study of examples, and yes indeed, miles and miles of practice.  Skill, then, which includes talent and training should occupy a maximum percentage of the odds for successful writing.

And what of persistence? How essential is it?
Some writers believe that persistence is probably the second most essential component for success ranking closely behind skill. Writers who have plans about how to present and market their work are most likely to find suitable publishers and readers. That means these writers have a strategy for reading and researching appropriate publications and identify publishers who have an interest in the kind of work they write. And they must persist, even in the face of soul-jolting rejections. Persistent writers immediately follow every rejection with another query letter. They pop their submissions out again and again to a list of suitable publishers until a match is made. And at regular intervals, successful writers revisit their unpublished as well as published work, to revise it again with new insights learned from practicing their craft.

As a writer, I’m not sure what combination of luck, skill, and strategic persistence works best for others, but at this time, my mix looks something like this: luck 5%, skill 45%, and strategic persistence 45%.  I suppose the missing 5% might be left for some sort of challenge sent by the universe.  I am open to that.

It helps me to remember that while insanity is sometimes described as doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result; strategic persistence is doing the same thing over until it works.
Writer Diane Ackerman describes the odds as:
“…There are yards of writers…but not many who stay the course. The ones who do   aren’t necessarily the most gifted, but those who can focus well, discipline themselves, persevere through hard times, and spring back after rejections that would cripple others.”

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