Mark Terry

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Want To Get Lucky?

May 22, 2008
I've been thinking a bit about the role of luck in being a successful writer. I'm not the only writer to suspect that the difference between a published writer and a bestseller is largely due to luck. The first time I met Joe Konrath at Magna cum Murder, his first novel had just come out and he was gaining a reputation for his promotional energies, but also for having received a six-figure contract for his first two  novels. I congratulated him and he commented that it was all luck, that the unpublished novel he wrote before WHISKEY SOUR was better.

I think it's possible he even believes that. I'm not sure. I've often wondered--especially lately--if bestsellers look in the mirror and think, "I'm sure lucky. I could be writing the exact same books and be selling 4000 copies on a good day." Or, deep down, do they think, "I'm a bestseller because I'm THAT much better than the rest. I really AM that good."

I don't know.

No, I really don't know. Most of the time I'm inclined to think they really are lucky, that they got hit by a bolt of lightning and, you know, they were the right person with the right book at the right time with the write editor, publisher, editor, etc. Sure, they had talent, but I got news for you, everyone who gets a novel published has talent. Even tons who don't get their novels published have talent. 

As you know, I am a full-time freelance writer. I've been full-time for almost four years. In that period my income has almost doubled. My first paid magazine article was in 1993. I was paid a whopping $50. When I charge per hour now, that's about what I charge--on a minimum. Times have changed.

Yesterday I was offered a contract gig, which I accepted, and it's going to change my life. The money's significant and it's possible it will be my exclusive job. I'm very well suited for it and I'm really excited about it.

But was I lucky?

Well, without going into too many details, here's what happened. At the end of last year, I went through a bit of a dry spell, so I got aggressive about looking for work and sent out a bunch of queries and responded to writing ads. On January 2nd I was called by a gentleman who was the former president of a large publisher and he and the president of another large publisher were pulling together a new venture to write business reports. Would I be interested in writing one?

Sure. We haggled for a while, then I got the contract and went to work. I was underpaid for the report I wrote, but I gave them a helluva report for their money. Rather early on in the work, I was contacted by the president of the other publisher to tell me that the guy who had hired me was no longer with their venture and I would be dealing with her. Fine. I knew of her company, it was large and prestigious and very much along the lines of where my expertise lies. So I worked my butt off and I think the report, which will be published shortly, is great.

What seems to have happened is she passed the report around to a number of her staffers--editors, etc--and said, "Find something for him to do." One of them is having me write an article. But another guy contacted me with a contract managing editor position for their publication's website. And that's eventually the position they pitched me yesterday and which I accepted. I'll be flying out to New York in a couple weeks to meet everybody, but in the meantime, I start doing the work on June 2.

So, was it luck?

Yes. Luck was definitely involved.

Was it skill and talent? Absolutely. I hired on to do a project that could have gone south in any number of ways and I worked very, very hard to give them a knock-out project. And then, when the opportunity came my way, I leveraged all my other skills and talents and experience to come across as the top-level pro I think I am and want to be.

But I don't want to diminish the role of luck here. Because this first gig could have gone to someone else. I'm somewhat suspicious that the reason I got it was because I was willing to do the work for the price they offered and more experienced report writers might have--and probably did--balk. But I needed the work at the time more than I needed to negotiate up. (And as originally pitched to me, the price was about right, but the project's complexity itself was undersold. Having said that, I had to force him to focus the project and it would have been impossible to cover the subject in the amount of space the project was originally described as).

In fact, if one of my other clients hadn't been so damned slow to pay an advance that I had contracted for at the end of October, and if the same client had gotten their act together about another project I'd been working on, I wouldn't have been looking for work at all at the end of the year. I would have received the advanced at the beginning of January instead of April; I would have finished the other project in September when I expected it to be completed and gotten paid for it in October instead of finishing it in late November and getting paid for it in January.

The expression is: it's better to be lucky than good.

Well, I don't know if it's better to be lucky than good, but I guarantee you it's good to be lucky at least some of the time.

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

Congratulations! That's awesome. It's funny how when a person works hard and does quality work, they stumble across luck.

(And not so funny when they don't, LOL.)

6:32 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I do think in the long-run hard work, a little talent and persistent will win out. But bad lucks happens, no doubt about it.

6:35 AM  
Blogger Melanie Avila said...

Luck or not, congratulations!

7:36 AM  
Blogger kitty said...

I'm a great believer in the idea that things happen for a reason. And this was before one of my best friends wrote What A Coincidence!

Is this luck? I dunno. You were meant to get that job. You sound like you're definitely qualified. Congratulations, you earned it!

My time is yet to come.


7:42 AM  
OpenID eric-mayer said...

Sounds great. If you can work from home but don't have be lining up work all the time and know what you're going to be doing that might create an excellent environment for doing your fiction.

I don't think it was exactly "luck." To some extent, everything in our lives depends on luck. But this case seems more like what one can expect in a typical profession. Which is to say, if you work hard and develop good skills then you will almost certainly find work, make a living, do well. The details may involve a lot of luck, and maybe the extent of your success will too, but generally, if you do the right things in a real profession you will need to have bad luck not to succeed to some extent.

With fiction writing, of course, that isn't true. To achieve any success requires luck, in addition to doing all the right things and acquiring the skill.

I will add, there are writers who strike me as being clearly vastly more talented than most of us and for that blessed view I can't believe that success isn't inevitable, but then, I wouldn't know about the geniuses who never hot published, would I?

8:06 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...


I know I work my ass off. And thst's some of my luck. And some of my luck is talent/brains, which is inherited. And some is just the Fates, the gods, coincidences, Buddha, karma . . . whatever. LUCK.


9:14 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, thanks!

11:26 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Oh, and Kitty,
I like to think things happen for a reason, but increasingly I'm wondering what all those poor schmucks in Burma or China or Iraq or Afghanistan or other places--here at home, too--think; what did they do to deserve hell on earth. So although I like to think there's a grand pattern, I just don't know.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Congrats, Mark!

I think luck plays a huge roll in a fiction career. Dennis Lehane is a good example. He was writing some of the best crime fiction out there but languishing in relative obscurity until someone just happened to loan Clint Eastwood a copy of Mystic River.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

The question intrigues me, and obviously for more than academic reasons.

If I buy one lottery ticket and win, I'm lucky. If buy twelve million lottery tickets and lose, I'm unlucky. I think authors just need to keep humping and promoting, humping and promoting, humping and promoting.

And not only humping, but writing too. Ha ha ha ha ha.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Sounds like talent meets hard work. You gambled and took a job that probably should have paid more. You won. Smart man.
Perhaps this is just the beginning of a new streak of luck?
Go, Mark Go!

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