Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Luck be a lady tonight

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I’d like to speak from my soapbox, if I may, on one of the most important tools in the first-time writer’s arsenal: luck.

Yes, talent, ambition, and perseverance still play a major part, don’t get me wrong. Yet – and let’s be honest here – how many of us have read a successful published novel by a name author and said afterward, “Someone published this?”

My point is, you can have all the talent in the world, but without luck – great heaping portions of it – you might not get anywhere. I don’t mean to dissuade anyone from trying their damnedest to get their work out to the public, but in the end, it is luck which rules your fate. It is luck which ensures that your spectacular ode to the vagaries of human existence goes ignored and unappreciated, while the umpteenth Da Vinci Code clone makes enough money to feed New Brunswick for a month. Don’t take it personally, for it is lady luck, and she be a fickle mistress.

Take Frank Herbert, one of the pre-eminent science fiction writers of the 20th century. His novel Dune? A certified classic; taught in schools, adapted for films, still as fresh today as it was 50 years ago. Go read it right now if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.

Yet it took almost a decade to get published, was rejected by over twenty publishers, and was finally released in novel form by Chilton publishers, a firm whose main claim to fame was and is its auto repair manuals.

No one argues that Dune is not a seminal piece of literature, one of the greats, and a turning point in science-fiction’s evolution from put-upon pulp to serious art, but its publication is solely due to Herbert’s persistence, and luck.

Now, 50 years later, what are the odds of getting your unpublished manuscript out on the shelves? An average small-to-medium publisher can expect to put out anywhere between 5 and 25 publications a year. If that publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts (let’s not even bother with the big boys at this point), an editor can expect to receive upwards of 10 manuscripts a week in the slush pile. An editor likely only works on a few books in any given year, which means that out of an average of 500 submissions in a year, the editor can choose two. Let’s assume that you’ve done your homework, and have not submitted your magnum opus on the follies of man to a publisher of cookbooks. Herbert’s experience with an auto-repair publisher is all well and good, but one should try to aim at the correct target first, and try alternate routes only when all else has failed.

So, for one editor, we have a 1 in 250-500 chance of being chosen. Which means we have a very slim chance that our manuscript will be chosen at all. Factor in unquantifiable personal elements such as the editor’s mood at the time, his or her reaction to that shrimp cocktail they had at lunch, and the new episode of The Wire which is premiering in fifteen minutes that the editor absolutely cannot miss, and you have near-astronomical odds against success. And that’s with only one editor. You may have written the next Crying of Lot 49, but it won’t mean jack if the person reading it is suffering from a head cold.

Like I said; luck.

Not as bad odds as the lottery, however. I’ve been playing it for 10 years, and have won about ten dollars in all that time.

I don’t mean to dishearten – although with less competition, my novel cannot help but sell better. But a writer has to accept the fact that the odds are against success. Grow a thick hide, keep trying, and pledge allegiance to whatever lucky totem you can avail yourself of. Mine consists of a shrine made up of an autographed copy of Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart, a poker chip, my class ring, and my first (and only) rejection letter. If that’s not enough to appease the luck god Hermes, I may have to start writing again.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Corey Redekop

Corey Redekop, author of the critically acclaimed novel Shelf Monkey, is a librarian and freelance writer. He lives in Thompson, Manitoba.

Go to Corey Redekop’s Author Page