Never Tell Me The Odds

I’m not going to get into the actual odds of publication. That’s not anywhere near my area of expertise. Publication is a mountain, and writers are the climbers chasing the summit. Some have better gear than others. Some go up bare-knuckled. Regardless, it’s still a big ass mountain, full of loose pebbles, sheer cliffs, ice and snow, little air, and an occasional venomous snake thrown in just because. We get it. It’s hard, but it doesn’t have to be discouraging.

This perception has grown over the last few weeks after reading advice and comments from tenured authors. If there is an aspect of this art form that I do more than actually write, its reading about writing.

I’ve learned a great deal about the craft through articles, books, and lectures. Some offer a formula for the best chance at publication, while others dive into the basics of storytelling to create the best story possible. Each have their merits, but those focusing on story basics tend to be the ones that give luck a high percentage of the publication puzzle. There are no guarantees, even if you have written the best novel in a decade.

I recently joined Twitter for the purposes of following some of my favorite authors and to connect with others climbing the same patch of mountain as I am. A few give regular tidbits of advice, or at least comment on their own experiences, which I value just as much. The most frequent thing that comes from this has to do with odds, at least, that’s where it hits me when I look at everything cumulatively.

Writing a story takes time. Skill. Most first books never sell. If you manage to write a good story, it’s still no guarantee anyone will ever see it. You need to query, find an agent, then sell to a publisher. Each step is riddled with pitfalls. Each one a new section of mountain that could send you tumbling before you realize you’ve lost your grip.

Pretending we get through it all and make it to print, the summit is still hidden by a blanket of clouds. Will the book sell? That advance you got, after paying a cut to the agent and your taxes, has left you with how much to live on? Is that enough to sustain you until the next book? From what I hear from other authors, that is a resounding no.

Most authors have a day job. If you cashed in some luck and published your book, it’s time to do it all over again, and the mountain is no easier to climb a second time. Some never make enough to lose the day job at all.

Despite reading this common thread from several authors, I am still climbing. Why? This should be discouraging, but instead it’s fairly liberating.

I enjoy writing. If I never sold a story, I am still happy with the time I’ve spent walking in the shoes of my characters. I’m okay with never reaching the summit. That should be enough to tell me that I am a writer to the core.

But I have big dreams. I’d be okay with settling for the enjoyment, but it’s not what I want. I want a career doing what I love to do.

How, then, do I stare up at this daunting mountain and feel liberated?

If you stare long enough you see the beaten paths that lead upward. The base camps and check points. The groups of adventurers that have tied their safety ropes to each other. There are just as many going up as coming down, most never getting close to that summit before calling it quits.

There are also those climbers that push the limits, taking the most dangerous routes. Some stay together in small groups, some go alone. The risk is high, and they often fall, but to them it’s worth it.

The odds are no easier for any of them. I could write a story that fits a mold of thousands before me, hitting all the beats, or I could create something that breaks the mold. Either way, the mountain has to be climbed and either way, those odds are still against me.

I’m still encouraged by this! I can write whatever I want. I can be as creative and innovative as I want to be. I can follow any path and still face those odds. Publishing is going to be hard. I may never make it, but doesn’t that bring me back to what I fell in love with? Instead of writing what I think will sell, why not write a story that I want to read? Is there really such a large gap between what sells and what doesn’t?

I don’t think so. It’s just two of the many paths up the mountain. I continue to fret over these small things, and I don’t think they should be ignored completely, but it definitely needs less impact on my stories.

I want to write what I want to read. If I’m going to pursue writing, then I have to accept I may never sell a single book regardless of how well written it is. I need to write more on what makes me happy, and less what I think will satisfy others.

I’ve read plenty of advice that includes paying attention to the market. Read new bestsellers and watch for trends. The reality is a bit more complex than that. If I write to a trend that’s happening now, when would the book come out if it did sell? The trend could be long gone by then, and the book could fail. I could take a chance and write where I think the popular stories might go.

I could just write what I want, and ride that luck eagle to the top of the mountain. Or fall to my death.

What’s the difference if I have a story that hits all the trendy bits, or a story that hits none of them?

It doesn’t matter. The mountain is ready to send a storm on all sides to wash you back to base camp. The odds aren’t any better for either one.

This is liberating for the simple fact that I can write what I enjoy. I can have fun and take risks. I can play it safe, or risk a fall. It’s all the same. The biggest take away is that I don’t have to stress about it. I just have to write. And write the story I want to tell.