Are Successful Writers Just Lucky?

Anyone crazy enough to write 60-100,000 words doesn’t attempt such an endeavor on a whim. Most of us, at least in the back of our minds, envision being the writer who beats the odds. We want to make it to the top. As we head into National Novel Writing Month, it might be a good idea to look at the real chance we stand at being successful. What are the odds….really?

I didn’t even consider becoming a writer until 1999 after my father passed away suddenly. Funny how death can make us take a hard look at life, right? Anyway, I recall feeling soooo overwhelmed. I mean my odds of even getting published were about as good as winning the lottery. And the odds of becoming a best-selling author? Well, mathematically speaking, I had a slightly greater chance of being mauled by a black bear and polar bear on the same day.

It was all I could do not to give up before I began.

But, after almost 12 years doing this “writer thing,” I have a new perspective. Often it feels like we are the victims of fate, at the mercy of the universe, when actually it is pretty shocking how much of our own destiny we control. The good news is that if we can get in a habit of making good choices, it is staggering how certain habits can tip the odds of success in our favor. I have talked about this before, but it is always helpful to get an attitude check. This job is tough, and there is very little validation along the way. We have to keep our head in the game, or we will give up.

Time to take a REAL look at our odds of success. Just so you know, this is highly unscientific, but I still think it will paint a pretty accurate picture. I will show you a bit of my own journey. It has been statistically demonstrated that only 5% of any population is capable of sustained change. Thus, with that in mind…

When we start out wanting to write, we are up against presumably millions of other people who want the same dream. We very literally have better odds of being elected to Congress than hitting the NY Times best-selling list. But I think that statement is biased and doesn’t take into account the choices we make.

As I just said, in the beginning, we are up against presumably millions of others who desire to write. Yes, millions. It is estimated that over ¾ of Americans say that they would one day like to write a book. That’s a LOT of people. Ah, but how many do? How many decide to look beyond that day job? How many dare to take that next step?

Statistically? 5%

So only 5% of the millions of people who desire to write will ever even take the notion seriously. This brings us to the hundreds of thousands. But of the hundreds of thousands, how many who start writing a book will actually FINISH a book? How many will be able to take their dream seriously enough to lay boundaries for friends and family and hold themselves to a self-imposed deadline?

Statistically? 5%

Okay, well now we are down to the tens of thousands. Looking a bit better. But, finishing a book isn’t all that is required. We have to be able to write a book that is publishable and meets industry standards. When I first started writing, I thought that everyone who attended a writing critique group would be published. I mean they were saying they wanted to be best-selling authors.

But did they? Or, were they more in love with the idea of being a best-selling author than actually doing whatever it took to succeed? I would love to say that I was a doer and not a talker, but I don’t want to get hit by lightning. There were a number of years that I grew very comfortable with being in a writing group as a writer…but not necessarily a professional writer. I was still querying the same book that had been rejected time and time and time again.  I wrote when I felt inspired and didn’t approach my craft like a professional. I was, at best, a hobbyist and, at worst, hopelessly delusional.

I didn’t need craft books *snort* I knew how to write. Geesh!

I was a member of two writing groups, and had grown very fond of this “writer life.” We hung out at I-Hop and drank lots of coffee. We’d all chat about what we’d do with our millions once we were bigger than Dan Brown. We talked about new ideas for books that never seemed to get written. Or if we ever did sit to write one of these ideas, we would get about 30,000 words in and then hit a wall.

Hmmm…and I thought that idea had so much promise.

Yet, after four years hearing the same talk from the same people shopping the same novels, I had a rude awakening. Maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. Maybe being a copy writer and technical writer and editor didn’t automatically make me a novel-writing genius. Maybe I needed to take this dream of being a best-selling writer a tad more seriously and not rely on bluster, BS and glitter. Maybe I needed to read craft books and scrape up enough money to go to a conference.

So, of the tens of thousands of writers who write a novel, how many read craft books and get serious enough to attend conferences?

You guys are good….5%

And of those who attend a conference, who are asked to send in page requests, how many follow through?

Likely, 5%

How many will land an agent right away?

5%

And of all of those authors rejected, how many writers, determined to impress, are willing to GUT their novel and wage wholesale slaughter on entire villages of Little Darlings? How many are willing to put that first novel in a drawer, learn from the experience and move forward with a new book…which they FINISH?

5%

And of the writers good enough to get an agent, how many of them get dead-serious about building a large social media platform?

Again? Probably 5%.

And of those writers who are published or agented and doing social media, how many of them are effectively branding their names so their name alone will become a bankable asset?

5%

Thus, when we really put this dream under some scrutiny, it is shocking to see all the different legs we control.

We control:

Taking the Decision Seriously

Writing the Book

Finishing the Book

Learning the Craft

Networking

Following Through

Not Giving Up in the Face of Rejection

Doing Everything in Our Power to Lay a Foundation for a Successful Career

I am not saying that finishing a book is easy. I’m not even saying that getting an agent or being published is a piece of cake. I know, first-hand that becoming a best-selling author is one of the hardest things you could ever attempt. Sometimes I think law school or climbing Everest in flip-flops and a mini-skirt might have been the easy way out. None of this is easy.

It is a lot of hard work and sacrifice, which is exactly why most people will never be genuine competition. When we start out and see all the millions of other writers I think we are in danger of giving up or getting overwhelmed. Actually, if we focus on the decisions we control, our odds improve drastically.

Same with blogging. You guys know I am a huge fan of writers having a blog. Out of everyone who desires to start a blog, only 5% will. And of those, how many will continue blogging more than a few weeks? How many will post every week for years? How many will be self-disciplined enough to post multiple times a week no matter what? How many will have content that is tooled to excite readers and also keep the writer/blogger enthusiastic, too? How many writer-bloggers will write in ways that create a community and help build a brand? How many writers will be able to effectively balance social media, blogging AND still be disciplined enough to write really awesome books?

Again, about 5%.

How many will complain about having to do social media AND write great books? ….hmmm. I won’t go there.

I teach how to balance writing, blogging and social media in my popular book,  Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer, but how many people will buy this book and put every step to blog success in place and be able to sustain long-term? See, the competition isn’t nearly as steep if we look at how much of our future success is in our control.

I want everyone reading this to feel encouraged. Yes, your family thinks you have better odds of being the next Queen of England than being a successful novelist. Hey, at this point, maybe you even believe it, too. But the odds are actually better than we might believe when we really take an honest look.

This job is like one giant funnel. Toss in a few million people with a dream and only a handful will shake out at the end. Is it because fortune smiled on them? A few, yes. But, for most, the harder they worked, the “luckier” they got. They stuck it out and made the tough choices.

In the Sahara there is a particularly long stretch of desert that is completely flat. There are no distinguishing landmarks and it is very easy to get lost. To combat the problem, the French Foreign Legion placed large black oil drums every mile so that travelers could find their way across this massive expanse of wasteland one oil drum at a time.

Are we there yet?

Want to be a successful author?

Take it one oil drum at a time.

Want to finish 50K words for NaNoWriMo?

Yep…one oil drum at a time.

What are some oil drums you now see ahead? Does your journey to author success seem easier now? What makes you feel overwhelmed? What inspires you?

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left.

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  1. #1 by mgmillerbooks on October 28, 2011 - 9:35 am

    I think it was Oprah who said, “There’s no such thing as luck. ‘Luck’ is when preparation meets opportunity.” Great post, Kristen. I’m sure you’ve raised a lot of spirits today with it.

  2. #2 by Ruth Hartman Berge on October 28, 2011 - 9:38 am

    Great article. As a writer since age 9 who’s only recently decided to take myself seriously, I’ve found the odds overwhelming. It’s reassuring to see that I”m on the right track and have started doing the things that need to be done. I think my biggest obstacle is now that I’m tuned in, I have thousands of ideas for topics pop into my head. It makes it hard to concentrate on the current project. I finally started going ahead and writing a short paragraph synopsis of anything that hits me hard and then filing it away in a random thoughts folder. It’s helping.

  3. #3 by Karolyn Sherwood on October 28, 2011 - 9:44 am

    Thank you again, Kristen. I am one of those who won’t give up! Your blog helps keep me going during my search for an agent. I have read your book, followed all the rules, and will not give up until I’m one of those best-selling authors. You are now on my blog: http://karolynsherwood.blogspot.com/

    #myWANA proof is you!

  4. #4 by Jodi Aman on October 28, 2011 - 9:47 am

    Just met with someone encouraging. This is how I sustain myself through this work. Making sure I have someone around to keep encouraging me. You do that for many readers, Kristen!
    Love,
    Jodi Aman

  5. #5 by Samuel on October 28, 2011 - 9:49 am

    I do aspire to the best-seller list, to be sure…

    but my primary motivation is simply to write something beautiful and powerful.

    If I did that, I have accomplished my goal, and everything else is gravy. I do not need to approval of other writers or of the fickle consumer to validate me or make me proud of my work.

    Of course, my ego is far too big not to presume that I should be the next big novelist making headlines. That’s why I keep coming back to the sort of wisdom found in this blog.

    Now, may we please have more ‘Structure’ posts? =)

  6. #6 by Melinda VanLone on October 28, 2011 - 9:50 am

    Thanks for the perspective, Kristen. It’s perfect timing! I am ready for NaNo. Last year I was a newbie, but I won! This year I go in with a plan, a structure, and a purpose. All things I’ve learned from you, and others like you :-). Keep the advice coming, I really need it!

  7. #7 by roger on October 28, 2011 - 9:56 am

    Nice piece KL. Miss seeing you at FWW. Received HM for a piece I wrote for 24 Hour Contest. Still hacking away.

  8. #8 by Victoria Brown on October 28, 2011 - 10:03 am

    Kristin: Thanks for the blog post, and yes, I am encouraged. I have worked as a free lancer virtually my whole career, so I’ve trained myself to stay motivated even when I don’t want to. I’m at 60,000 words now, and heading toward my first draft. I. Am. Not. Going. To. Quit. Thanks for the bon mots. –Tori Brown (@VBrownWriter) writing Zemsta, a story of revenge that takes place in Akron during the 1920s.

  9. #9 by Leanne Shirtliffe on October 28, 2011 - 10:05 am

    This is so so true.

    Last weekend I was gobsmacked at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (near Vancouver) when I heard an agent say that only 5-10% of those whom they request pages from actually send them in. Whhaaat?

    But perseverance pays off. Although my manuscript is just entering the “being shopped” stage with my agent, I can now say I have an agent (Squee!). Yes, perseverance and following your advice, Kristen, created that “luck” for me.

    So, umm, thanks!

  10. #10 by Sharon K Owen on October 28, 2011 - 10:05 am

    Thanks Kristen for the checklist. I’ve checked off all except attaining an agent.

    Since attending your class at Weatherford College conference last summer, you have been my oil can in the desert leading me in the right direction.

  11. #11 by Anthony V. Toscano on October 28, 2011 - 10:20 am

    Okay, Kristen, this one of yours got to me. Probably the colorful reference to the Sahara, because I didn’t know that tidbit, and I enjoy learning new tidbits.

    So I’ll bite the oil barrel. For about twenty years, I wrote and I submitted. I was consistent and persistent. I began as raw meat, and I got cooked along the way.

    I read the craft books until they became a part of the blood that runs through my veins. My writing improved, but my success rate with rejection remained as high as ever.

    I gave up.

    My surrender gnaws at my insides to this day. But I’m old now, and that particular oil drum is one you can’t circumvent. And yes, I know many of the tales regarding late bloomers. But you talked stats. And statistics will tell you that most newly published writers aren’t old. They’re young. Like you. Like the majority of your students. More power to you; please know that I root you on, even as I battle envy.

    Persistence is only part of the equation. Craft, while necessary to a writer’s health, when taken without good food, is boring. And talent? I just ain’t sure anymore what role that monster plays.

    You talk a lot about platform and brand. As far as I’m concerned there’s nothing new in that; it’s just the delivery system that has changed. We used to call it fame. The publishing industry became so tawdry by the end of the twentieth century that it put into print only what would sell big time (more cookbooks were published and sold than novels by the 1990s).

    So OJ murders and his cruel “manuscript” is accepted. Cosby begins his first book by telling us about the hair that lately grows inside his ears; but he’s Cosby, so hormonal hair shifts become high art, and industry executives lap up the oil paint.

    I suspect that what I didn’t own when I was as young as you are now — and what you in fact do own — is business savvy at least as powerful as your talent as a writer.

  12. #12 by JLSimons on October 28, 2011 - 10:22 am

    Sobering numbers… but like so many other things ascribed to good or bad luck, when you actually break it down, luck has nothing to do with it. Thanks again, Kristen. Love the oil can analogy.

  13. #13 by August McLaughlin on October 28, 2011 - 10:25 am

    Terrific post, Kristen. Every hard working writer should take pride in knowing how much it takes to follow through first to write a novel then to take additional steps (which, it seems, many of your readers do :)). I’m surprised about the conference stat… Wow. Only a small percentage asked for pages submit them?!? The enthusiasm must dwindle quickly. I thought the opposite–people not asked might send them anyway… lol

    I agree with the great philosopher Oprah… ;) Success happens when preparation meets opportunity.

  14. #14 by Jessica Aspen on October 28, 2011 - 10:28 am

    This is encouraging. I was shocked when I realized how many people in my writers group had been writing for years and hadn’t moved forward very much at all. It seems that most of the successful ones did it quickly. I don’t know why some of us have that “Ah Ha!” moment, but there does come a day when you start thinking of yourself as a writer and not just a person who writes. Nice to know the stats!

  15. #15 by Hartford on October 28, 2011 - 10:34 am

    I love this post because it makes it feel like any of us can attain the success we envision if we work hard and apply the lessons learned. And I love that! It’s not just blind luck. We all control our own writing destiny. Woot woot! Thanks for boosting up the hope meter Kristen!

  16. #16 by Diana Brummer on October 28, 2011 - 10:36 am

    Really great post! I just joined you on Facebook also!

  17. #17 by Julie Glover on October 28, 2011 - 10:51 am

    When I was young, I thought talent was the key to success. With a few more years behind me, I now know that the recipe is more like 1 part talent + 1 part connections + 1 part luck + 5 parts perseverence. I like the oil drum image. Rather than saying, “I’m going to be a NYT Bestselling Author,” you can set goals that bring you little by little closer to that big one. Great post, Kristen! I feel better about my odds already.

  18. #18 by Risa on October 28, 2011 - 10:57 am

    Coming to you from Occupied Oakland..we are the 5%! Thanks for the nudge and the reality check.

  19. #19 by catwoods on October 28, 2011 - 11:09 am

    What happens when we run out of oil drums and we still haven’t reached the end? Where do we find the oil cans?

    Thanks for this inspiring piece.

  20. #20 by Caroline Starr Rose on October 28, 2011 - 11:16 am

    Something that has kept me going through the years has been a maniacal optimism that the next agent, editor, idea would be it. Maybe not the most accurate or honest approach to take, but it helped me keep moving forward!

  21. #21 by Jennette Marie Powell on October 28, 2011 - 11:23 am

    Yes, there are many things we can do to increase our odds, but the longer I’m in this publishing craziness, the more convinced I am that it comes down to luck more than anything. It seems hardly a day goes by without reading a blog by some indie author selling hundreds or thousands of books a day and did “almost no marketing.” At the same time, good books, whose authors blog and serve others on social media, languish. Depressing? Yes, but I’m still doing what I can to improve my odds.

  22. #22 by Sue-Ellen Welfonder on October 28, 2011 - 11:30 am

    Excellent post, Kristen. Brilliant and full of great insight. Love the oil drums. I will add, as I’ve said elsewhere, luck does play a tremendous roll in publishing. That’s just my opinion, of course. But it’s been formed by a long-running career writing continually for two NY publishers.

    Yes, persistence matters. Yes, talent must be there. But so must luck. Sad, but true.

    There are many, many wonderful writers who are unpublished and may well remain so. And there are others hitting the NYTs consistently and yet who do not write nearly as well as the unpublished writer in, say, Kansas, who just hasn’t been kissed by luck.

    All three are needed to soar to the top. Persistence, talent, and luck. The latter being on the right agent/editor’s desk at the right time. And later, being the author a publishing house chooses to push hard.

    It’s wonderful when all three factors combine. Sadly, they don’t always.

    So if someone chooses this path, a thick skin should be laid on early and also an appreciation for the journey itself. If you can master those two things (along with having persistence and talent) writing is then beautiful.

  23. #23 by Monica Frazier on October 28, 2011 - 11:33 am

    Yesterday I was one of the 99%, today I’m in the 5% and on the right track (feeling so much better).

    Thank you for your valuable insight. I love your comedic voice in your book Are You There, BLog?. I’m halfway through the book and wearing out the highlighter finger.

    Keep telling it like it is, 5% will listen and look for the next oil drum, the rest will slog through the sand.

    This one is another post on my blog http://www.latinapen.blogspot.com

  24. #24 by Monica Frazier on October 28, 2011 - 11:36 am

    sorry for double post, tried to delete the one that goes to my FB.

    • #25 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 28, 2011 - 12:24 pm

      No worries. Took care of it :D. Thanks for 2X the awesomeness!

  25. #26 by bridgetstraub on October 28, 2011 - 11:44 am

    Once again a great post on a day when I need this more than ever! I think I have beaten most of those odds and yet a lack of money here at Holiday Season with kids is clouding my optimism. Thanks for refueling my determination!

  26. #27 by neelthemuse on October 28, 2011 - 11:56 am

    I love the way you gush out prose! It’s good fun to read….you like waking up the lazy writer with a nice knock on the head! Great post!

  27. #28 by Kate Policani on October 28, 2011 - 1:13 pm

    I would love to become a famous writer and make scads of money. But I don’t write for that reason. I write because I have to get the words on the page to work out this idea that is bursting out of my head. I find myself much happier just writing and ignoring the fame concept. It seems that the fame thing isn’t really my job anyway. I just need to write the books!

  28. #29 by Sabine A. Reed on October 28, 2011 - 1:22 pm

    Good post. More often than not, the difference between a writer and a published writer, and a published writer and a successful author is…persistence and hard work.

  29. #30 by Joan Reeves on October 28, 2011 - 1:26 pm

    A sign you’ve made it? When people trying to make the same success as you say, “Yeah, but you were lucky.”

    I always tend to believe that movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn was spot on when he said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

  30. #31 by PatriciaW on October 28, 2011 - 1:29 pm

    Love this post. Because despite what could be depressing statistics, it’s actually quite upbeat and refreshing. It places the probability of my success squarely in my hands. Oh, there are things I can’t control, but there is much that I can. It’s up to me. I can handle that.

    Posting link to this in my weekly Reader/Writer Tidbits roundup on 10/29, along with title of your book. Maximizing my chance to win is one of the things I control. :)

  31. #32 by Adriana Ryan on October 28, 2011 - 1:42 pm

    Thanks for this post, Kristen! My husband constantly reminds me of this when I tell him I’ll never be able to compete against so many other wannabes. There’s a difference between wanting something and actually seriously taking the steps towards achieving it, and most of us aren’t that motivated. Thank you, again, for the reminder!

  32. #33 by Jessica O'Neal on October 28, 2011 - 1:42 pm

    I absolutely LOVED this post! Everything you say is so true, but it is so easy to lose sight of that and get buried under the idea of the millions “competing” against you. Thank you so much for this reminder of how much we really do control. I had already gotten a renewed fire to press forward and this just encouraged me even more. So excited to see what I and all of my WANA friends can accomplish! :)

  33. #34 by Reetta Raitanen on October 28, 2011 - 1:43 pm

    Thanks for this reality check, Kristen. Being a succesful writer is more perspiration than inspiration. If you only write when you feel inspired, that’s never. You have to make it a habit and habit then becomes a second nature (I hope :P). I too loved the oil drum analogy. You’re blazing a great path for us all.

  34. #35 by MaLinda Johnson on October 28, 2011 - 2:17 pm

    Wonderful comparison between those who want to do and those who actually do. It is not enough to want to eventually someday accomplish something. All the studying in the world won’t get you there either unless you get off your duff and live your dream. :)

  35. #36 by Nancy J Nicholson on October 28, 2011 - 2:33 pm

    Kristen, I love your one oil drum at a time. Today I posted about baby-steps, same concept. More importantly is not getting hung up by the competition. The goals and projects we face are far more about competing with our inner demons. Sticking to the small baby steps and not allowing our inner critique to damange our progress. Thanks for putting the numbers to the obvious and reminding us, we can succeed.

  36. #37 by C.C. Wiley on October 28, 2011 - 2:33 pm

    Thanks Kristen! This is a great post. I’m through with the whining and whimpering in my corner. It’s time for me to regain my focus.

  37. #38 by Nigel Blackwell on October 28, 2011 - 2:55 pm

    Yes, it’s all about staying power, the long game. Since I’m on a car kick, there’s a parallel in motor sport: you have to reach the end to win. Spin off, crash, run out of fuel, and it doesn’t matter how fast you were going before, these all guarantee you won’t win.
    Good post. Cheers!

  38. #39 by Mollie Player on October 28, 2011 - 3:07 pm

    Awesome post, Kristen. I agree with you fully.

  39. #40 by Kim Weiss on October 28, 2011 - 3:08 pm

    I find it hard to believe that only 5% of people who are asked to submit writing to an agent will do so. Why would you bother to write to an agent in the first place? I’m not doubting the statistic, just the sanity of the other 95% of the people who ignore an agent request.

    I think luck has a lot to do with breaking into any form of show business (including writing). If the genre you wish to write in is “out” at the moment, and you don’t like or are not as good at writing other genres, it would hurt one’s career, I imagine. Are publishing companies still looking for books about young college grads with evil bosses? Sweeping sagas taking place over multiple continents and decades? Are are they just so 2003 or 1982?

  40. #41 by ramblingsfromtheleft on October 28, 2011 - 3:19 pm

    Loved this post. It also reminded me how much I hated statistics in college. Yuck ); … Okay, let’s say I represent the 5% of the 5% who are the left overs from the 5% of the other 5% … that means me and four other people will be published and become run-away best selling authors by the end of the century. Have a great w/e, Kristen.

    Oops, an aside. Since you are such a good nag, I have recently changed the banner on my blog, when WordPress wakes up their customer service reps in Mumbai, I will also changed the url and redirect my blog traffic. To add to your fan base, I gave you full credit.

    • #42 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 28, 2011 - 3:50 pm

      Awwww….welcome to the deep end of the pool with the Bik Kids, :D. *hugs*

    • #43 by Debra Eve | Later Bloomer on October 28, 2011 - 11:05 pm

      Hey Florence, I’m in the process of doing the same (process being the operative word here). Kristen’s the only gal on the net telling it like it is. See, no Elle B!

  41. #44 by Karen McFarland on October 28, 2011 - 3:47 pm

    Wow Kristen, what an awesome post!

    It takes a good teacher to break it down like that, one oil drum at a time.

    Your insight was timely. If I didn’t know any better It almost sounded a little like Dr.Truth. This was certainly a spoonful of sugar, a big shot of encouragement in the arm . Just what we needed.

    Thanks Teach!

  42. #45 by Cora on October 28, 2011 - 4:21 pm

    I’ve been working hard to complete one of the 5%s you pointed out today and listed in We Are Not Alone. You can smile that I completed a big one (for me, anyway) today–my blog http://coraramos-cora.blogspot.com/ which acknowledges you–thank you, thank you. Now if I can only figure out all those gadgets, widgets and hashtags and learn to tweet on Twitter….ohhh the learning curve is steep.

    • #46 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 28, 2011 - 4:32 pm

      Sign up for my Blogging for Author Brand (Write It Forward) class in January. I throw you into TweetDeck without ur digital water wings :D.

      • #47 by SJ Driscoll on October 28, 2011 - 4:41 pm

        No water wings, but every now and then you throw us a life preserver!

  43. #48 by Louise Behiel on October 28, 2011 - 5:07 pm

    great post, Kristen. When we hang around with writers all the time, that becomes our ‘norm’. Everyone is writing and pursuing publication. but I know that’s not true.

    I was in a writing group of about 80 people and no one, but me was submitting and going to conferences and so on. so I left and started my own writing group. Now 55 strong, we’re all submitting and writing and trying. 1/4 are published, 1/4 are pro and 1/2 of the rest are working like dogs to make the grade.

    thanks for the reminder that the audience is bigger than the wannabe’s. and the wannabe’s don’t impact serious writers who are actively seeking publication.

    thx
    louise

  44. #49 by Emma Burcart on October 28, 2011 - 6:20 pm

    When I read the title, I thought it was going to be a downer. Especially after all the posts about numbers lately. So I was so happy to read your positive take on probablity. It is true that so many of the steps along the way to success are really choices we make. Thanks for the reminder. I will keep focusing on the things within my control and remember the 5%.

  45. #50 by alicamckennajohnson on October 28, 2011 - 6:28 pm

    Wonderful post- I feel a lot more in control of what I do and that I can take steps to create the future I want. I will be part of the 5%

  46. #51 by Matthew Wright on October 28, 2011 - 6:57 pm

    Hi, thanks for yet another informative post – as always, I look forward to reading your insights. Those odds seem awfully thin (epecially if you do the stat calculations on 5% x 5% x 5%…etc) but it’s quite true. And the answer to all that awesome volume of competition out there is, indeed, persistence and actually doing the hard yards. Professionalism.

    I see professionalism like this. Last Wednesday my wife and I saw Meatloaf in concert. And Meat was ill – had to go to hospital before the show, where doctors told him not to perform. But he wasn’t going to let his fans down. He gave it his all, and at the mid-point he stopped the band, sat down on a stool – struggling with asthma, explained what had happened that afternoon, and thanked everyone for being there, for supporting him through his career. He would not, he said, have been anything without his audience. ‘Thank you, thank you all so much’. You could hear the absolute warmth of feeling in his voice, even as he struggled to breathe. He got a standing ovation.

    That, to me, is what professionalism means. Doing and being your best – and making sure that what you do is the best it can be for those who value it, whatever the odds. And you’ll rise up over those who don’t. That translates to writers, too. It’s an edge which does make a difference. Publishers like it – mine actually told me that they like me because I deliver to contract specification and on contracted time. Yeah, writing is an art; but publishing is a business.

    Does luck enter into it? Absolutely. That’s usually where the opportunity to be professional comes from – somebody deciding to take a punt on an unknown. I wouldn’t have been published if I hadn’t had had a few lucky breaks to begin with. And even established authors need some turns of fortune their way. I have horrendous memories of a science fiction history book that Penguin persuaded me to create for them, which tanked so badly it didn;t even make back the advance. But what I’m getting at, and as you point out, is that a lucky break of itself may mean little without following up the advantage – professionally.

    Do we wait for dreams to happen, or do we go out and make them happen?

    I know what I do. Thanks again, love the oil-drum metaphor, and I’m looking forward to your next post!

    Matthew Wright
    http://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com
    http://www.matthewwright.net

  47. #52 by tomwisk on October 28, 2011 - 8:39 pm

    Needed your blog like rain during a drought. The desert isn’t so flat and barren. Taking a running start at Nov.. Thanks again.

  48. #53 by Jess Witkins on October 28, 2011 - 9:11 pm

    Kristen this post is so timely with NaNoWriMo ahead. Smart advice about taking solace and initiative on what we can control. I’ll definitely be back to this post when I’m feeling overwhelmed as a reminder why I’m taking this route to fulfill my dream. Thank you!

  49. #54 by Roni Loren on October 28, 2011 - 9:23 pm

    My feathers feel all fluffed after reading this one. *struts around proudly* *trips over feet*

    It is comforting to know that we mostly control our own destiny–it’s a lot of pressure but a whole lot better than having to leave everything up to fate.

  50. #55 by Irving Podolsky on October 29, 2011 - 12:07 am

    To stay in the “games” of writing, publishing and blogging, one must ENJOY THE PROCESS. This concept is what I finally had to accepted to make it happen in a rewarding way.

    To finish three books and keep a blog going, I readjusted my attitudes and expectations numerous times. And I stopped making the end goal more important than the journey. Getting to the next oil drum can be just as rewarding as making it to the edge of the dessert, as long as the QUALITY stays intact, and it’s still FUN and inspired.

    Irv

  51. #56 by Gloria Richard Author on October 29, 2011 - 6:16 am

    Kristen, as I read down your stats list, I stayed “in play” through to the last. I have completed two manuscripts and am on my third. I am stubborn, so I didn’t purchase the clue about “learn the craft” until I had two practice novels stowed under my bed. Social media? I am a novice and, through exponential web hopping, I found a talented writer who offered to take on the task of using my blog, FB and Twitter as an on-line case study. I found YOU early–at the center of the web–but kept thinking “later, when my WIP is complete.”

    Each Wednesday Brinda Berry posts observations and recommendations for my web presence and I follow through, posting questions and speed bumps–as do my (increasing!) blog subscribers. Brinda answers on-line. What a find!

    Several things hit me as “must do” additions to my career plan. I must establish a theme for my own Friday posts. Thus far, they (all two of them) have been about the angst of writing a blog post. You are going to help me do that, and you won’t even know it. ;-) The other item? Take on the challenge of NaNoWriMo. I plan to write 50k plus words in November, but shunned officially entering because the “community” and blog posts and hype might pull my head away from my WIP. “Duh!” sums up my current feeling on that rationale.

    I’m off now to link back to your blog, sign up for NaNo (hope it hasn’t closed), and to polish my scene outline so I know where my characters plan to take me.

    Thank you SO much for…

    Well, for all the AHA moments.

  52. #57 by Suzanne Lucero (@S_Lucero) on October 29, 2011 - 6:50 am

    Kristin, I’m trying to focus on finishing my novel but there are some things I simply do not know, specifically about the medical SOPs for some injuries in the highlands of Scotland. I’ve written to a medical practice there, but I think my email may have gotten overlooked or ignored. One injury is essential to the plot; it can’t be written out and now I’m stymied. I don’t want to give up. I don’t want to be–I will not be–one of the however-many-percent of wanna-be writers who give up. I’m not to proud to beg for my baby (and you’re right, books ARE our babies) so I’m begging you or one of your many followers for help. Please email me at: sulewlu(at)yahoo(dot)com.

  53. #58 by yaretzi8 on October 29, 2011 - 9:08 am

    Thick smoke blankets entire villages where this member of Kristen’s “elite” 5% wades in committing wholesale slaughter of little darlings. The cries are loud and pitiful as lines of inspired phrasing and unique descriptions are entombed, still breathing, in a blue flash drive. An index finger hovers over the delete key–a legion of “perfect” chapters huddle in stomach wrenching horror…

  54. #59 by Adrienne Addison on October 29, 2011 - 9:40 am

    Great words of encouragement to follow those baby steps of the 5%. Thank you!

  55. #60 by Cathy West on October 29, 2011 - 1:37 pm

    More great thoughts from Kristen over at The WordServe Water Cooler today! Fun interview, Kristen, thanks for doing it! http://www.wordervewatercooler.com

  56. #61 by broadsideblog on October 29, 2011 - 1:43 pm

    I know your goal is to offer hope.

    Some of us are simply mediocre! Some will get published in spite of this, or because of it.

    And, yes, some of us may never get published. I know, this is blasphemous to say aloud here.

    The larger question, for me, is why this is such an essential goal for so many people. I plan to blog about this, (having done all the things on your list), and having gotten two NYC-agented non-fiction books published by major New York publishers since 2004.

    I’m 54. I’ve also been writing for a living, for the NYT and others, winning awards and fellowships, since college. It’s still not easy. I don’t know a soul, (OK, maybe one), who really seems to have a horseshoe up her bum. The rest of us are slogging it out, hard. Those who haven’t really tried have NO idea.

    One of the many things that gets overlooked in this process is also working with the world’s toughest editors, agent(s) and first readers along the way to make sure what you’re producing is not just cheered endlessly by good-hearted (but ultimately heart-breaking) people with no real skin in your game! An agent will only accept clients s/he truly thinks worth representing. They’re not earning their 15% by being nice or cheerful or supportive, but finding and selling publishable material into a brutally competitive marketplace.

    For every published author, (the ones as-yet-unpublished author so deeply envy), there are dozens who are **still** bitterly disappointed even after producing multiple books — crushed by crappy sales, vicious reviews (or none), a lousy cover or title or editor, faithless agents. You name it.

    Even the brass ring can feel too small…

  57. #62 by Fabio Bueno on October 29, 2011 - 5:58 pm

    I describe the author’s journey to family and friends in a similar way: I tell them it’s a series of increasingly difficult contests. It’s a great way to manage expectations (how many oil cans to go/contests to win?) and to judge accomplishments to date (look at all those oil cans/trophies behind me!). Encouraging and sobering at the same time.
    By the way, I enjoy the journey. I’m having a blast and meeting wonderful people.
    Thanks for the perspective.

  58. #63 by Barbara McDowell on October 29, 2011 - 8:55 pm

    Very inspiring post, Kristen! I’m so glad you mentioned the craft study and commitment needed beyond perseverance. At the first writing conference I went to, there was a man in my workshop section who had completed a novel and was doing a big marketing push that included pens with the book title and his name. At the time, still struggling with basic short story structure, I admired him and started doubting myself. But he refused to listen to any critical feedback on his work and worse wasn’t writing anything else as he kept pushing forward on that one piece. So yes, he completed a novel, which deserves a level of kudos, but how far can one go from that when they don’t keep learning or writing? This post is a great reminder of all the steps we can work on to make sure we have the best work we can when a moment of “luck” does come upon us.

  59. #64 by Betty Booher on October 29, 2011 - 8:58 pm

    Kristen – a perfect post to read after a day at the Emerald City conference, and 3 pitch requests.

    Thanks again for the reminder that we need to get out there and finish the next step!

  60. #65 by Alana on October 29, 2011 - 11:44 pm

    The advent of self-publishing has made me feel more optimistic about becoming a published writer. Before, it felt like I had so little control over being published. Now, I can do it myself, and not have to go through the hoops getting my work past agents and publishers. It’s still hard to be a “famous” or successful writer, harder now in some ways than before, but we definitely have the tools at our disposal should we choose to use them.

  61. #66 by starsofburmaFiona Maddock on October 30, 2011 - 5:06 am

    What a marvellous, inspirational post. Thank you for that. During the trudge through the desert (great pic btw) it’s so easy to lose a sense of perspective.

  62. #67 by Jen Daiker on October 30, 2011 - 7:41 am

    This was not only inspiring but downright intoxicating. I found myself nodding through the whole thing. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in a dream we forgot to pick up the pen to make it happen. We want it all to happen fast when life is an obstacle course, yes, you’re supposed to succeed but not without work.

    Your blog is amazing, I’m not walking… I’m running to grab your books. Though I’m a five day a week blogger and have been for a year if there’s a guide or extra tips to guide me I’m all for it. I can already tell the information inside will be a gold mind.

  63. #68 by Jennie on October 30, 2011 - 7:47 am

    Great post, Kristen! The luck=preparation+opportunity concept really comes into play now that we have the indie opportunities available. We can’t blame publishers. We can’t blame agents. We all have opportunity — which makes preparation the variable, and as you showed with all your 5%s, we have complete control over that. If we (re)write a good book, present it professionally and market it well through all of the opportunities technology makes available to us, we can succeed. If we don’t put the effort into any of those things, we won’t.

  64. #69 by Renee Pace on October 30, 2011 - 7:50 am

    Great post. if you don’t love writing you won’t succeed. Writing has to be your passion in this business or else you will fail. And, yes your passion can be your business. I write 5 pages every day and yes there are hard days, but in the end when the story if finished it feels great.

  65. #70 by Gene Wolf on October 30, 2011 - 8:21 am

    I’m getting into writing late in the game. I spent the last 30+ years as a successful IT professional and, after retiring, decided write, something I have always wanted to do. I know many people have day jobs and write too but being having a high powered IT job, writing for a newspaper for a few years, doing an 8 year stint as a host of a tech call in show and numerous other things, writing took a back seat. Now I am doing it and your post struck a chord with me. I know my chances are slim, especially since I’m writing only niche short stories, but I’m doing it and will continue to do so.

    Thanks for the post. It’s encouraging to know, no matter how small, there still is a chance for success.

  66. #71 by Julia Indigo on October 30, 2011 - 11:32 am

    I have to dig deep down and find something that I had as a kid: determination. You see, I’m a musician, a classical flutist. When I was in high school I practiced like a maniac to make the Texas All-State Band. We had three pieces to play and I worked and worked and worked on them until I was sure of them, then I worked some more. The night before the tryout I would be up at 4 am, keeping my parents awake with my nervousness. And when I showed up at the tryout I was cool as a cuke. And I did it… three times. That’s rare! And I landed a professional orchestral career that I’ve had for over thirty years.

    Recently my Dad told me that he could not believe the determination that I had to be the best, back then. He was amazed that I would do that.

    So, can I do this now, again, at fifty-four? You betcha!

    I’m definitely going to be blogging this article, Kristen. Thanks for the encouragement (and when is the next DFW-area writers conference?

  67. #72 by Leslie Rose on October 30, 2011 - 1:42 pm

    Thank you for laying out the oil drums to make the path systematic and clear. Great NaNo eve encouragement.

  68. #73 by Harold Underdown (@HUnderdown) on October 30, 2011 - 1:46 pm

    Good post–I made a similar point last year on this issue:

    http://www.underdown.org/publishing-odds.htm

  69. #74 by jeanna thornton on October 30, 2011 - 3:00 pm

    Yep, you said it and I know it’s true…Great post!

  70. #75 by yaretzi8 on October 30, 2011 - 4:40 pm

    Black smoke billowed over silent villages. Legions of beloved darlings lay motionless beneath the scythe of the revisionist—a member of Kristen’s elite 5%. An index finger hovered above the delete key. Lines of inspired phrasing and unique description huddled in terror, aware that their fate awaited them within the blue flash drive. The slashed manuscript shuddered—wounded but still breathing…

  71. #76 by neyska on October 31, 2011 - 12:04 pm

    As always, I love your blog! This really made me feel less hopeless, so thank you for that. I’ve gone through all the steps, just haven’t landed an agent yet. However, I’ve gotten a lot of requests on the last book and am waiting to hear back still, so maybe I’m close to moving up from almost good enough. Need to improve my blogging habit a bit still and work on my platform more, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Perhaps I need your book. ;-) Thank you for the encouraging post.

  72. #77 by Kerstin Broemer on October 31, 2011 - 12:23 pm

    Thank you so much for this posting, Kristen! It can be frustrating to think you get drowned in the flood of wannabe writers. But I like how you broke these figures down. Looks much better now. ;) Thanks for this encouragement.

  73. #78 by Joanna Strong on November 2, 2011 - 10:37 am

    This post contains just the “non-scientific” statistical information that I needed this morning to feel inspired to complete Nanowrimo this year… although I’m starting 2 days late! I will be in the 5%!

  74. #79 by nakedlobster on November 6, 2011 - 8:43 pm

    This was a very practical post that outlined steps to take to get published. I am still a wannabe unpublished author. I don’t know if I can push though to the end, but it’s great to know that my odds go up with each step I take! I am definitely linking this page to my blog about my novel, Naked Lobster, because I want people to read and comment on what I have written. I want to win your little contest!

  75. #80 by nakedlobster on November 6, 2011 - 8:47 pm

    Oops, I just saw that your contest only ran through the end of October and here it is November. Oh, well! Sorry for assuming otherwise.

    • #81 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 6, 2011 - 8:54 pm

      No, the contest is on-going. You’re entered :D.

  76. #82 by Rebecca Berto on November 16, 2011 - 8:42 pm

    One of the best breakdowns of successful authors.

    It’s not, really, ALL luck. Sure you may need some in getting the RIGHT agent/publisher to see your work, but if you work hard enough, you put yourself in a position where you no longer have a 1 in 8,000,000 chance of getting published and finding success. No, after all that work at persistence, learning and building yourself up, you’ve got more like a 1 in 1,000 chance out of the really good talent.

    I’m building up my blog so that I can create a following where I can help writers and readers and one day have enough people trusting (and loving) what I do to support my novel when I want to publish it.

  77. #83 by Starlara Ramcy on November 19, 2011 - 2:19 pm

    You sure lifted my spirit this morning.
    I’ve been writing for appr. six years, just for myself, as a hobby. Without dreams or hopes. But after hiring a professional editor and actually investing money into one of my novels, it all changed.
    Is it because I want to see a return of the money I invested? No, I blame my editor. Darn her. She was so encouraging. “Don’t put this one away.” “Your book has potential”. And so on. So, a new journey started. Website, Facebook, blog, networking, promotion.
    Now the question remains. Should I be happy with my editor or not?
    I guess time will tell.
    Starla Ramcy

  78. #84 by Ursula Grey on November 19, 2011 - 5:43 pm

    Wonderfully inspiring post. Feeling much better now:-) Thanks!

  79. #85 by therightwriter@cox.net on June 2, 2012 - 2:59 am

    Dear Kirsten: I loved this article and listed a quote from it (along with your web address and full authorial recognition) on my blog. I, too, am a writer and have worked as a technical writer, editor, PR copywriter and ghostwriter for close to ten years. Thank you for your consumate wisdom. I would thoroughly enjoy communicating through email with you. Best Wishes, Lynnette Baum

  80. #86 by Eventis Fall on July 19, 2013 - 11:23 pm

    who writes sixty word books?

  81. #87 by Kyle Hart on February 22, 2014 - 2:18 pm

    Unless of course you assume the people doing all these things are the same 5% of the original sample. For example, the only people who being writing are in the 5% who make a sustainable change. All of these people are then capable of following the subsequent steps. [It is not a 5% probability of each change, but a 5% probability of being a person capable of making an unspecified number of sustainable changes.]

    • #88 by Author Kristen Lamb on February 22, 2014 - 4:31 pm

      Well, I admitted this was highly unscientific, but after 14 years working as a writer and with writers? I’d say it’s pretty accurate. If I have a blogging class of 100, I guarantee you that roughly only 5% will still be blogging within a year. When I held novel writing workshops? About 5% ever finished and on and on and on. The point is to not get overwhelmed with how insurmountable it seems because most people aren’t willing to gut it through for the long haul.

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