I wonder if lottery winners get emails asking for advice on how to win the next one. Do people inquire after their recipes of divination? How many eyes of newt for every swamp bat? What about where they got their numbers? Birth dates or box scores?
Every week, I get a handful of emails from aspiring authors asking for advice. They want to know how I found success with my writing, and I find myself admitting that luck played the biggest part. It feels awkward (if not impossible) to credit my writing ability. Is that because we writers loathe our own work? No? It’s just me? That stinks.
I’m perfectly honest in my response to these emails; I really do believe luck plays a large role. I worked as a bookseller while trying to make it as a writer. I wrote in my every spare moment. I did this for years before one of my works took off and I was able to write full time. Watching the best-sellers come and go, I often wondered why some of the great works I enjoyed languished on the shelves while others sprouted wings and took flight. I chalked it up to my poor judgment in literature. Then I found myself on the other side of sudden success, and I searched even harder for answers. All of my head-scratching has been gathered in the following list. It contains less dandruff than you might expect.
I wrote a lot. I know this seems obvious, but it required thousands of sunny days with me inside while others were playing. It required writing even when I didn’t want to. Especially when I didn’t want to.
I didn’t write the same thing. I really wanted to, though. Once I had that first book under my belt, I came down with a bad case of sequel-itis. I loved my characters and the world I had built, and I just wanted to live with them there. This is a holdover from being a reader, I think. Starting a new series is more painful than continuing on with one we already know we like. I had to learn to stop thinking like a reader as I sat down to write.
I cared about what I wrote. This incorporates three pieces of advice: Write because you love writing. Produce your best work. Make it as error-free as possible.
I gambled like I was drunk. Not something I recommend in the literal sense, but I made decisions based on my gut that anyone who knows what they’re doing would’ve warned against. I wrote in several genres under the same name. I published short stories and novelettes. I gave my work away. I charged very little. I spent very little of my time marketing. Instead, I interacted with the readers I already had. Even to this day, I do strange things, like encouraging writers to charge and profit off of fan fiction that takes place in my universe. I encourage artists to charge for prints of their fan art. I don’t take a penny. I do anything that might make my lawyer, agent or editor sick to their stomachs. If I can upset all three at once, that’s when I know I’m doing something right.
I made my work available. This is the second-most important step (directly behind writing a lot). My first novel was published by a small traditional press. My most recent release was with Random House in the U.K. My next book is going to be self-published. In March, Simon & Schuster is releasing my novel Wool here in the States. I just made my first sale to a magazine and another to an anthology. In sum: I’m a fan of every publishing route except for one, and that’s where the book goes unpublished. If you love your work and think others might as well, make it available. Exhaust the querying route first if that’s your ultimate dream, but then look for an alternative. Even if you simply post it to a website or make it free, don’t shove it in a drawer. Drawers are mausoleums for books. Don’t put your cherished works there.
So, that’s my best advice, my best guess as to why I got lucky. Sure, it’s probably guilty of some post hoc reasoning, but there’s a common theme running through the bolded bits, and it points to increasing your chances of getting lucky. Look over the list again and think of a lottery. Here’s what I did: I punched a lot of tickets. I didn’t choose the same number over and over, which wouldn’t increase my odds. I took care of my tickets. I played in as many lotteries as I could, especially if nobody else was participating. And I didn’t throw them away before the winner was announced.
Did I get lucky? Absolutely. Can it happen to you? I’m proof that it can happen to anyone. Can you improve your odds with some hard work? You better believe it.
Happy writing, everyone. And from the depths of my heart: the best of luck.
Hugh Howey is the New York Times best-selling author of Wool, available from Simon & Schuster this month.