Monday Blogs

The Role of Luck In Author Success

This post might be a little hard to swallow for some. I know when I read up on this subject it opened my eyes to a lot of things I hadn’t thought about before.

Very recently, I stumbled upon an online discussion where the participants were talking about the role that luck plays in success. Quickly, someone pointed out a logical fallacy called Survivorship Bias. In a nutshell, humans tend to vastly underestimate the role that chance and luck plays in their individual success. We tend to focus on the ones who ‘made it’ and forget about the thousands upon thousands who didn’t. Probably because it’s much more heartening and positive to look at the few survivors instead of the scores who sank below the waves.

This happens, in part, because all our favorite celebrities, authors, and public figures like to tell us that hard work, talent, and dedication can get us to the top. If we just strive and struggle and sacrifice enough, we can be just like them. ANYONE can be President, after all! While I absolutely do believe successful people put a lot of time and effort in, it’s also easy to debunk this myth by looking around us at the people we know. For every bestselling author rolling in money and movie deals, how many authors do you know who have fought just as hard, worked just as diligently, and haven’t even gotten a book deal? Maybe you’re even one of them. How many millions of authors in history gave just as much blood, sweat, and tears to their art and never got anywhere near success?

The problem is, there’s no surefire recipe for making it. You can’t be assured to get to the top, or even to a comfortable place, if you give THIS amount of effort, or have THAT much talent. This is true of any profession, not just writing. For every celebrity chef, there’s hundreds of chefs who work just as hard, toil just as much, and are just as creative but will never have their names known. For every platinum-selling rock band who plays arenas, there are bands who sound just as good and work just as hard who will never get beyond playing their local bars. Why?

Because, most successful people will talk about their hard work and effort (and again, I do believe they give those things), but only rarely mention how some big-time author happened to read their book and give it a recommendation, or it got picked up by a well-known book critic who made the public aware of them, or they just HAPPENED to write about something that was becoming hugely popular around the time their book was released and they rode the lucky wave of zeitgeist. When a celebrity tells you “if you just work a little harder you can be me,” it’s like a lottery winner saying “if you just sell your house and use the money to buy Powerball tickets, you can be like me.” What about all the lottery winners who won because they only bought one ticket? And what if you sell your house and none of those tickets win?

This all sounds very depressing, doesn’t it? The thing about luck is that it can strike anyone, but the odds of it striking you are small. However, there is a positive side, at least the way I look at it.

Hard work, knowledge, dedication, and talent DO matter, even with the wild card of luck thrown in there. Why? Because those things shrink the betting pool and give you better odds. Those things get you into networks you didn’t have available before, they give you access to people and places you wouldn’t have otherwise, and they increase your chances of running into just the right person or situation at just the right moment that will catapult you into success. Your lucky break is out there somewhere, and work, know-how, and honing your talent will put you closer to its vicinity. The reason humans hate the idea of outcomes hanging on luck is because it’s not something we can control and we hate to feel like we’re out of control. But, you can control how close you get to luck, at least. Will someone out there blindly stumble into luck without putting in any hard work first? Of course they will, and it’s going to make you furious and frustrated. But hey, it could be you someday, too. That’s the hope in luck, at least. And that’s what people really mean when they say “make your own luck.” It actually means work hard and try to throw yourself in luck’s way.

I hope you get lucky. Or at least, you work hard enough to have a brush with luck. Here’s some (un)inspiring words from Bo Burnham to get you through. (And yes, I did steal my lottery analogy from him–sorry, Bo! Just trying to get lucky!)

Our Favorite Toys

I was trying to come up with a topic for today’s post, and as I sometimes do, I asked my cat what I should write about. As she always does when I ask her what I should write about, she said “me.” Well, maybe it was closer to me-ow, but I got the point. So, why not?

My cat has a flippin’ lot of toys:

Sorry, I don’t have enough to share…

I say this as though she went out and spent her own money on an exorbitant amount of cat toys. No, I bought them for her, because I spoil her. She also gets a Kitnip Box every month, adding to her collection. My son is an adult now but my apartment sometimes looks like I have a toddler because of the toys everywhere.

The thing is, as many toys as she has, a few are her favorites. Whenever she wants to play she almost always picks the same ball or plushie, and she loves to maul anything with feathers attached to it. My son sometimes engages her with the lesser-played with toys, but she always ends up going back to her favorites. I’m sure they smell like her and she finds them the most interesting and entertaining.

As writers, we have our favorite ‘toys.’ That is, plots we love to write variations of, character types we enjoy working with, and formulas we feel comfortable sketching out. Also, the genres we tend to work in. Even with a huge box of ideas to choose from, we pick our favorites. Sometimes we try out a new idea, or something we don’t usually toss around, but it’s not always as rewarding to play with as the one that squeaks, or the one that rattles, or the super squishy one that’s fun to chew on.

Is this a bad thing? No, not at all. Many authors are known for the plots and types of characters they write. Some authors even bank hugely on the fact that their readers fully and eagerly expect them to bring the same toy to play with, if in slightly different colors with different jingles and whistles on it. They want the same plot and formula, and the author knows how to build it, twist it around a bit so it’s not identical every single time, and keep readers coming back for more.

We feel comfortable with the things we like to write, the things we’re good at writing, the things we understand in our heart and can turn into stories. It’s okay to think outside the toybox too, and find something new to play with from time to time. And what if all the toys are your favorite? That’s okay too. Have a blast!

But if you just like the one with feathers, pounce on it!

Never Say Never

I’ve been writing for a lot of years. Way, way too many years (I’m old, folks). Sometimes it’s funny to look back on those years and reflect on the attitudes or ideas I had at any given time, and how that directed my work. I believe when you write, and stick to writing for a long time or maybe even your entire life, you’re always growing, learning, and evolving. New attitudes and ideas come along, your skills grow, and you try more new things than you ever imagined you would. It makes sense, because there’s very few creative and artistic people who stay stuck on one theme forever. You expand. You branch out. You give your ‘nevers’ a try.

I’ve had a lot of ‘nevers’ through the years. Things I said I would NEVER do. Things I would NEVER write, or try, or dabble in, or accomplish. Here’s a few of those things I said I would never do and then did them anyway:

  • Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Many times I said I would NEVER get published. Oh, how I languished, and despaired, and felt inadequate and overlooked. I’d never have a book published. No editor would ever want me. No one would ever read my brilliant masterpieces which were actually awful at the time. Well, check out the sidebar of my blog now.
  • I said I would NEVER write romance. This was back when I was younger and trying to be a horror author. Like way too many people, I dismissed romance as fluffy, silly writing that ‘wasn’t real,’ and was just trash and drivel. Never mind it’s the biggest-selling genre in books since…the dawn of time, possibly. I was young and full of myself and never seemed to realize I was constantly writing romance into my stories anyway.
  • At one point in my life I went through an intensely spiritual, religious phase and swore I would NEVER write horror again because it clashed with my moral point of view. I tried switching to sci-fi during this time and I was really, really bad at it. I don’t know what was going on with me, but eventually I moved on, or outgrew it, and got back to writing about vampires.
  • Hilariously, the Insecure Writer’s Support Group question for this month was about whether or not you’d ever gone back and rewritten an old piece of work. I said I hadn’t, and swore I NEVER would because I feel that looking forward is the best direction. Well, guess what I’m doing right this very moment? Revising an old story for an anthology call. D’oh!

NEVER is a block, a wall, a stone in the road that trips you up. It keeps doors closed and opportunities undiscovered. I’ve found that just because I have a writing ‘never’ today, it might be quite flexible tomorrow. And since I know I tend to dispose of those nevers eventually, I’m trying hard not to create them in the first place anymore.

What about you? What NEVER have you kicked aside and done anyway?

The Joy In Doing

I’ve discovered lately, and maybe you already know this as a writer, that when you actually make yourself focus and write, the more you can write, and sometimes even much more than you expected to. For example:

I’m an ultra-procrastinator. I have writing projects to work on, I really do want to work on them, I have time to work on them, but when it comes to actually sitting down and getting the work done, it’s a big old groaaaan. I can find a million ways to distract myself: internet, TV, reading pointless things, doing chores. I like to write, I want to write, but that also means putting the work in, and that doesn’t seem like much fun.

But, with a lot of griping and grumbling, I finally make myself do it. I give myself a small word count to reach and tell myself if I get to that I can consider it an accomplishment. And you know what happens, very often? Once I start writing, I don’t usually stop at that small number. The words start flowing, the ideas start coming, and before I know it, I’m writing. The kind of good, happy writing that makes me feel satisfied when I’m finished with it. The other day I told myself I’d just hammer out 1,000 words and I ended up writing over 6,000! My hands were actually sore and that’s why I stopped. That doesn’t happen every day, of course, and I don’t always have time for that much work, but it just goes to show when I actually put the effort in it quickly becomes enjoyable and easy.

Sometimes it’s just about getting over that initial block and reluctance. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish after you didn’t want to start to begin with. The story is in there, if you’re willing to put the time in to follow it. It’s another one of those writing mysteries.

For example, I put off working on this blog post for a few hours, and now it’s finished. Score!

The Evolution Of Writing Tools

I’ve had a lot of writing tools over the years. I started out in high school writing in notebooks. I got a manual Brother typewriter for Christmas when I was 12 or 13, but even by the standards of the day (goodness I’m dating myself, but 1989? 1990?) it was archaic, clunky, and hard to use, and the keys always stuck. The only way to correct typos was with white out paper (remember that stuff?), though you could buy ink cartridges with a correction ribbon as well. Nevertheless, I did type out a short story on it and sent it to a magazine. Hilariously, they sent it back unread because the typesetting was so bad as to be nearly unreadable. I was 14 and more optimistic than smart, what can I say?

My first ‘technological’ writing tool was a Brother word processor. MUCH better than a manual typewriter, but by today’s standards still a cumbersome, difficult piece of equipment. They keyboard part (which was also a typewriter) weighed about seven hundred pounds, and the cables to hook it up to the monitor were plentiful. Despite it being a huge advancement over a typewriter, its technological capabilities were limited. Printing anything took years, as it printed by literally typing out everything on the screen (and to print out an entire book took about six ink cartridges). It did take 3.5 disks though, which I saved tons and tons of stories on. I can no longer access those disks because the files on them can’t be read by newer technology. Nevertheless, I wrote many stories and books on it and submitted them to magazines and contests. I even got a short story published. I also had a ‘laptop’ word processor, but I didn’t have a printer to hook it up to so I mostly wrote fan fiction on it.

And then, in 2000, we got our first desktop computer. Oh, the ease of writing! The technology! The mountains of stories and books I wrote and submitted and had rejected! Truly astounding. The internet also enabled me to become a hugely popular fan fiction author, which is where I cut my writing teeth to full sharpness (I won’t tell you the fandom or my screen name, to spare my dignity, but there’s a few friends who read this whom I actually met through that writing).

And then on to laptops, eventually. With each new machine came better technology and a better version of Word. Just recently, I replaced my old laptop because I’d had it nearly four years and it was getting to the point it was usable, but not very efficient. Kind of like that one light switch in your house that’s wired backwards so you have to turn it off to turn it on, or the toilet handle you always have to jiggle. It’s comfortable and you know the workaround by heart, but why not fix the issue and do it without the unnecessary jumping through hoops and voodoo spells you have to cast to make it work right?

My new laptop types beautifully, has more memory, better graphics, more storage, and Word 2016 runs as smooth as butter, the words just flowing from my fingertips onto the screen like the technology is right inside my head. I’ve come all this way from pounding sticky keys and cramping my hand with a pen and notebook. Do I miss the old ways? No, not at all. But nostalgia isn’t always about wishing you could do something the hard way again.

How have your writing tools evolved?

Multitasking For The Creative Author

For most of my writing life, I’ve been a pretty single-minded author; that is, I only work on one project at a time. Writing a book is a task that takes focus. Every day you go back to the keyboard, pick up where you left off, and continue the story. It’s a lot of mental work that can sometimes be difficult and stressful. At other times it’s a joy, of course, and that’s why we still do it. This has usually been my method: keep plodding forward on the same trail until I get to flatter, clearer ground and the going gets easier.

Lately though, I’ve decided to start trying to work on multiple projects at once. I had an idea for an interconnected series–the books aren’t dependent on each other but set in the same world–and each book is a different story. I figured I’d try writing all three at once. Well, not really at once, but at least simultaneously. My reasoning is that if I get stuck on one, or I’m not feeling a story on a certain day, I have the other stories I can work on and I’m still writing.

Is it working? Sorta.

There’s pros and cons to working on multiple things at once, and of course, those pros and cons are also based on your own writing style, the way your creativity works, and what you’ve trained your brain to do. Here’s the bad and good I’ve found so far:

Pros:

  • Keeps your brain from getting burnt out on any one idea.
  • You can remain creative even when you’re not feeling like working on something–you can still write, just switch to another project.
  • Working on one project may give you ideas to break through a block on another project.
  • It feels really productive to have so many things going at once.

Cons:

  • All the projects take longer to finish.
  • It’s harder to keep focus, since you’re often changing subjects.
  • You start to feel guilty if you pay too much attention to one project and not enough to another.
  • You need to produce more ideas.

I’m still experimenting with this, and I also know I’m working against the way my brain has always functioned when it comes to writing. Still, it gives me options when I come to the keyboard and just can’t muster the energy for a certain project. I can switch to another one I’m feeling instead, and I’m still writing. I’m still producing content.

How about you? Do you work on multiple projects at once, or can you only focus on one thing at a time?

The Good, The Bad, And Somewhere In Between

Every Monday for the #MondayBlogs tag I try to talk about some technical aspect of writing. Today, I’m going to talk about the difference between villains and my favorite character archetype: the antihero.

It should be noted that these two terms are not synonymous with protagonist and antagonist, which are literary terms that don’t convey character morality. A protagonist is always the person at the center, the narrator, the POV character, the one whose story we’re reading about, be they good or bad. Likewise, the antagonist isn’t specifically good or bad, they simply create problems and try to block the protagonist from reaching their goal. In a story about a cop and a criminal, protagonist and antagonist are interchangeable depending on which one of them is telling the story.

But villains and antiheroes bring a tone and flavor to these two terms. Let’s see how they differ:

  • An antihero is a protagonist who isn’t necessarily a ‘good’ person in the eyes of the law, society, or the basic standards of morality. Antiheroes are pretty popular in this day and age, that’s why we have so many TV shows and movies about mobsters, drug lords, jewel thieves, serial killers, outlaw bikers, and chemistry teachers turned meth makers. However, even if an antihero does bad things, they usually do it for some relatable or justifiable reason. Relatable in the sense that we get why they do it–most of us like money and power, after all, or would love to live a thrilling and dangerous life. Sometimes the antihero’s plight is justifiable–they’re being bad to protect their family or get out of some terrible situation, or trying to overcome their own nature. We may hate some of the things they do but we relate to their story and feel sympathy for them. Or, they might be doing bad things but are actually a good person caught up in something they can’t control. Being a romance author, I hesitate to lump the ‘sexy bad boy’ character in with antiheroes, because they don’t always fall along those lines. However, the antihero is usually my favorite character in any genre, as I think they’re much more interesting and realistic than a downright good guy.
  • Villains are an antagonist focused on doing bad, or causing pain and strife, and are oftentimes irredeemable. Not that a villain can’t be relatable or sympathetic–in fact, some of the best, and scariest, villains are the ones we can understand, probably because we hate to see something about ourselves reflected in someone terrible and it makes us uncomfortable. While many villains have their reasons, they cross the lines of morality too far and do things for reasons we can’t so readily excuse as we do with antiheroes. They’re usually much more self-serving and twisted in some way, and their methods of achieving their goals are ruthless. They present a strong force that the protagonist has to overcome. Villains can exist on a huge spectrum depending on the genre, from villains who are evil for the sake of evil, to mentally disturbed people, to people out for revenge or carrying out a sadistic vendetta.

Antiheroes and villains add rich differences and facets to a story. Sometimes the line between good and bad is blurred, on both sides of the equation. This allows for a deeper and more layered sort of storytelling, I feel. After all, real life is rarely black and white, and everyone has their reasons for what they do.

Who are some of your favorite villains and antiheroes?

Who Are You Writing For?

If you’re a published author, even if you’re a multi-published author, even if you’re making a living off writing, there’s a truth all writers share from beginner to pro: the truth that not everything that flows from your fingertips will, or should, end up being for sale. That is, not everything you write is going to be publishable.

Some of it will merely be practice, some will be experimentation, some will be failed attempts. No matter where you are on the timeline of being an author, it can be frustrating. It’s hard to put a lot of time and work into something that you have to throw out or tuck away in the hopes it will one day flourish or fit into something else. It’s even harder, I think, when you become successful, because there’s a real anxiety to keep producing, keep proving yourself, keep putting out a product for consumption. If you have a bunch of books published and you write a bad one that you have to scrap, it feels like a lot of time, money, and achievement just went down the drain.

This of course begs the question: when you’ve been writing for a long time, and you’re trying to (or have) made a career of it, can you still write for pleasure? That’s not to say writing isn’t a pleasure, or that the books you write for publication don’t give you joy. But at some point you start to think about things like an audience and reader demographics. Who are you writing the story for, and who will buy it? This can stifle creativity and give you a whole new set of worries if you think too much about it, and of course it’s always there in the back of your mind. Will my readers like this? Will an agent like this? Will it sell? Does it fit with the zeitgeist of my genre?

At this stage, does it feel like a waste of time to write some self-indulgent romp that will probably never see the light of day and you have no idea who to market it to even if it did? With the rise of self-publishing, it’s a little easier. Niche markets and experimental genres can more readily find their way into the hands of readers who want them. But it may be hard to step away from what sells to “what a few people will buy.” At some point in a writer’s career you start to think both strategically and creatively, which can turn into a hinderance.

I think it’s important to flex your creative muscles in whatever direction they want to go, and it can open you up to other things, but it’s also difficult and frightening when you’re worried about carving out a spot in the writing world. It’s sad to think that your fun, on the side writing might be taking time away from your ‘real’ writing and could hurt your career. Success gives you a whole new set of worries you weren’t even thinking about when you first started writing. At some point your concern will turn from writing something good to writing the correct thing.

What do you think? Is it hard to play around once you find yourself writing for an audience? Is there a way to do both? Or did I just give you a brand new anxiety? (Sorry!)

The Idea Fairy

If you’ve been writing for any reasonable length of time, and the people around you know that you write, you’ve probably heard the question: where do you get your ideas from? This question most often comes from non-writers, who can’t wrap their mind around how you can just make something up and then put that made-up thing on paper, in coherent form, in a way that conveys emotion, message, and a plot. Some writers may ask you the question too, fishing for ways to find their own ideas.

The thing is, there’s no one clear answer to such a question. And for that reason, it’s complicated–sometimes even impossible–to come up with an adequate reply.

Ideas for stories come from everywhere. Not all the ideas in a story come at once, and they don’t all come from the same place. Stories are more like a puzzle where you take an idea from here, a vision from there, a bit of clever dialog or the elements for a scene from over there…it’s a lot of borrowing from various sources. Also, some of it doesn’t come from anywhere but our own minds.

Here are some places I ‘get my ideas from:’

  • Other stories. Not just books, but movies and TV, songs, and other forms of entertainment. I don’t mean I steal ideas, I mean that creative works can inspire us to create our own things. Sometimes I use characters I like in other works as rough templates for my own characters. Not meaning that they’re the same, but I take things I like about the original character and twist it around into something of my own. Music is very inspiring for me too. A song can tell an entire story.
  • My own life experiences. Sometimes it’s beneficial to draw things from your own life. Not only do you know those things well, it can help you understand and work through things.
  • People I know. The experiences of others can be inspiring as well. Sometimes you meet someone so interesting, or deep, or fascinating, you just have to borrow a little something from their world for your next work.
  • An inspiring event. Occasionally something happens that’s so peculiar you just have to document it. It might just be an anecdote tucked into a story somewhere, or it can become an entire story unto itself.
  • Nowhere. Sometimes, ideas just come. It’s hard to pinpoint what sparked them. You just know that you think like a writer and sometimes it happens.

It’s not easy to explain where ideas come from, at least not in the broad sense. If you ask me where I got the idea for a book, that’s hard to answer because the book taken as a whole is a series of ideas from all sorts of places. However, ask me something more specific, like how I got the idea for a character trait, or a scene, or a setting, and I might be able to explain it. Maybe. Maybe it just sprung up and I have no idea!

Where do most of your ideas come from? Do people ask you about them?

The Language Of Writing

Many years ago, I wrote under a different pseudonym, in a somewhat different genre, and had a modicum of success. The name was Lydia Nyx, if you’re curious, but it doesn’t matter because everything I had published back then is no longer in print/distribution and some of the publishers are defunct. I ended up eventually shifting genres and reinventing myself as Megan Morgan.

However, despite the fact I didn’t write fantasy/sci-fi, I somehow ended up being a panelist at 2011 Penguicon in Detroit (which is a sci-fi/fantasy con). It’s a funny story, and what I learned from the experience–that we, as writers, no matter where we are on our path or what we write, are all in this together–was invaluable.

I ended up at the convention because I made a comment on a blog post of a fellow author who was published in an erotic horror anthology with me. He mentioned Penguicon and that they still needed panelists (I believe he worked for the organizers? I can’t remember clearly.) and I looked into it, despite the fact I didn’t fit the demographic. When I contacted the organizers, they said indeed they would like to have me, and didn’t care what I wrote, they just wanted published writers to speak. I was scheduled for not one, not two…but SEVEN panels. Keep in mind, I had never spoken publicly on writing before, ever.

The convention ended up being a blast. However, on three of those panels, I sat alongside sci-fi/fantasy authors Jim C. Hines, Stephanie Osborne (who had the coolest NASA ribbons), and….*GULP* Brandon F*kin Sanderson. Needless to say, I was way out of my element and way nervous. I was terrified to sit with multi-award winning, bestselling Mr. Sanderson, who, let’s not be modest about it, 90% of the convention goers were there to see. What’s more, I was expected to sit with him and talk to a huge audience about writing, intelligently.

I had no idea what to do, so me and my son just got Steampunk’d.

What did I learn from those three nerve-wracking panels? I learned that despite the fact Mr. Sanderson was at the top of the food chain and I was way down at the bottom, in the swamp, and that we write in radically different genres, our love of writing, the way we talk about it, and the techniques we use to evoke creativity are exactly the same. He was a tremendously nice and polite man. He moderated all three panels (basically directing the flow of conversation/controlling the subject matter/provoking the rest of us to speak) and he was extremely pleasant, encouraging, and helpful. I realized despite our different points on the spectrum we were both writers, and we both thought like writers. We could discuss it on the same level, all other things aside. It was incredibly comforting as a young, floundering author.

Jim C. Hines is also a darling of a man. I sat directly beside him for all three panels and he was just a great conversationalist and gentleman. He eased my nerves greatly before each panel.

It was an eye-opening weekend. I also made several fans at the time who were pleasantly surprised to find an author so radically out of place. I met author H.B. Pattskyn there, before she was published, and she was so wonderful and supportive of me on those days when this young author was so scared. I even had her sit with me on some of my other panels!

The thing I learned that weekend, and I still carry with me to this day, is that we’re all in this together, no matter where we are on the ladder, no matter what we write. Writing is a universal language!

Look how well I fit in! I apologize, my son could only seem to take pictures during earthquake tremors.