Writing is not a lottery

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I’ve only been thinking about this for two months. Around Christmas time, someone said to me that one has as much chance of writing success as one has of winning the lottery.

My considered, instant, knee-jerk reaction was to say bollocks.

Two months on, having genuinely thought about this a lot, I want to revise that statement and say very bollocks.

He just meant that it was hard to be successful in this and there’s no denying that. But I think comparing it to a lottery is not just wrong, it is ultimately damaging. The wrongness is very easy to point out so let’s do that first. If your numbers regrettably don’t come up on the lottery this Saturday, you don’t get to take those numbers back and rewrite them. You can and people do play the same numbers in the next prize draw so perhaps you could compare that to sending the same manuscript around to many publishers. But, right or wrong, nobody at National Lottery headquarters emails you say that they loved what you did with 3, 7 and 9 but maybe 12, 17 and 43 need a little more work.

Wait, how many numbers do you have to pick in the UK National Lottery? I used to know this stuff: I worked the Wednesday late shift at BBC Ceefax where I’d have to put up the numbers on screen as they were announced. And every Wednesday, the same woman would phone the newsroom to complain that I was too slow – or once that I was too fast. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten. Hang on. I’ll just check.

God in heaven. I am out of touch. There’s now a bewildering (to me, anyway) number of different lotteries and I tell you, looking at the website for it, I can’t work out anything. I’m going to say seven. Okay? Let’s say that you have to pick seven numbers in a lottery draw.

You don’t get to sit there thinking that the seventh number isn’t quite enough, that really you need to add an eighth. Or maybe the other way around, that your third and fourth numbers are a bit of flabby padding, you’d be better taking those out and shortening the piece And that would be because you don’t make anything. You’re not creating anything, you’re just picking. I don’t see any interest or value in the lottery beyond the chance of winning and I don’t really see any chance of winning.

Whereas, when I write something good, it tends to fly. When I don’t, it doesn’t. My writing career has depended primarily on thinking of the opportunity and then writing to fill it. Most of the time, it doesn’t work. And certainly there are rejections that appear random, there are some rejections that actually are random. But the rest of the time, it works. I keep writing, I keep working, I keep writing.

Unlike any lottery or any gambling, the effort I put in to something usually has a direct bearing and a direct consequence on whether it is successful. If you’re a better writer than I am, and there are few people who aren’t, then you might argue that my abilities are more in getting the work to people than in writing anything decent. You could be right. But it’s still writing and it is still directly, palpably tied to my effort. There is no effort you can put into the lottery that will increase or decrease your chances of any one prize draw coming up great for you. (You could enter multiple times and I suppose you could say that there is effort in finding and committing that much cash but on the one hand I would wince at the thought of you wasting money. And on the other, with the odds we’re talking about, i don’t believe there is a statistically significant difference between you buying one or fifty goes at this thing.)

We all have bad times. Yesterday I saw a project that is deeply important to me evaporate in front of my eyes. That was a hard one. Today I was rejected from something else and I’m struggling to remember what it was. Even trivial rejections can add up, though: get enough in a row and you do start questioning your luck.

But that is why I think this comparison between writing and the lottery is actually damaging.

Once you start seeing this as luck, I think you’re screwed. Sorry. I thought a stronger word but this is a family show.

People want to think that writing success is luck because when you get it, luck is easy. When you don’t get it, you’re just unlucky, it’s no reflection on your talent or lack of talent. People get told that successful writers are lucky. I’m going to say to you again that it makes me mad how JK Rowling’s years of huge effort, skill and talent are always reduced to the same two sentences: she was a single-parent mother, she’s now a millionaire. The bit in between was not a swift dollop of luck, it was years of hard work done well. Whatever money she has, she earned it.

People also like to think that writing is luck because it’s easier to see success as a binary thing: it is or it isn’t, you are a success or you’re not. It’s like the relationship ladder: are you dating? is it serious? when’s the date? are you expecting? when’s the divorce? The writing success ladder goes: that’s nice, you play with writing, you’ll be good! can’t you get a proper job? aren’t you published yet? when’s the novel coming out? when’s the film of the novel coming out? I could write a novel! I’m going to try writing when I retire!

Both of those ladders are how other people react to us but they are cutting because we also think the same way: we wonder why we’re not dating yet, we wonder if we can’t write. We wonder that an awful lot. Well, some of us don’t: some of us are certain that we can’t.

But if you do actively think you can write or if you simply do continue to progress and survive in writing as a career, it’s like you have a choice between calling yourself lucky or calling yourself a success. All English and writerly modesty aside, if I did call myself a success here, while talking to you about this, it would feel galling. It would feel like I was trying to compare myself to Rowling. I don’t, not in terms of her talent or her money, but I love what I do, I love that I get to do it, I wouldn’t swap with her or anyone else. So I’d call that success. There’s little reason to expect someone to have heard of me but when they have, that can mean we get to meet and natter. Similarly, if I make money, I get to eat tonight. These are two important things to me. 

But when you reduce it all to success or not success, made it or not made it, lucky or not lucky, you’re creating a wee binary barrier and convincing yourself that only luck will get you across it.

It is not true that writing a great book means you will get rich or that you will get published. It is not true that everyone has a novel inside them. It’s not even close to true that everyone can write.

But the way you find out if you can is to write. And if writing well isn’t guaranteed to get you success, it’s at least something that you can improve at and learn from and grow with. There’s no improvement, learning or growth from picking seven lottery numbers. There’s actually nothing, you get nothing from picking seven lottery numbers. The lottery is all about the ending while writing is about the journey too.

Now, if you told me writing is stupid, I could well agree with you there.

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