09/03/2014 01:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

One Key Thing Writing Teachers Never Told Me and Probably Won't Tell You

I taught at a Michigan State University study abroad program in London this summer and had some superb guest speakers. Val McDermid wowed my writing students for her candor, especially when she told them about the lucky breaks she'd had in her career. "There are writers who are as good as I am," she said, "they just haven't been as lucky." An international best-selling author, she made it very clear that even though talent and hard work were essential, so was luck.

I thought about that when reading Robert McCrum's entertaining biography of P.G. Wodehouse. The humorist was immensely talented, but also amazingly lucky in the the first half of his career whether in London or New York. In each city, his timing was perfect because editors were hungry for the kinds of stories and books he could write. And in New York, the gifted and speedy poet had no trouble composing witty lyrics just when musical comedy had become wildly popular. He also met the right collaborators at the right time, all of which made him Fortune's darling.


I've had my share of luck. There was the editor at a major publishing house who took over from another and wanted to launch my mystery series when his predecessor was highly dubious about it. And a university library archivist actively pursued buying my literary papers and made a very lucrative deal with me, a deal I wouldn't have gotten if I'd happened to live in another city. I did a highly successful reading from my memoir My Germany in D.C. when someone being transferred to the American Embassy in Berlin was in the audience; she was so impressed it eventually led to two thrilling book tours in Germany sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

But I've also had really bad luck. Worst of all was the overconfident, high-powered California agent who took a novel of mine to New York and not only shot her wad by hitting more than two dozen publishers all at once in the hopes of an auction, but she did so just as the stock market collapsed and publishers were in a state of panic.

The Germans have a separate word for bad luck, Pech. It truly deserves its own term because it's as formidable and potent a force in a writer's career as the good kind. People in the publishing industry don't like to talk about luck, and writers sure don't. There's a widespread fantasy, especially among newbies, that if you write a good book it will find an audience. Or that there's some magical form of promotion that will make you a best seller.

Not so long ago, blog tours were the hot new thing. Currently, social media is supposedly the answer to the eternal question of what will make your book a hit, and there are hundreds of people willing to sell you a book (or their consulting services) that they guarantee will reveal the secret to success.

It's all 21st-century snake oil.

The real answer is that nobody really knows what works in legacy or indie publishing, and that nobody can predict whether a book will be lucky. It's hard to admit that a book's fate is so completely out of anyone's control, but it's the truth. That doesn't mean you should give up, but it does mean that mediocre work can triumph and superior work might never get the attention it deserves. Better to acknowledge that at the beginning of your career than discover it too late. It shouldn't ever stop you from writing, but it can and should temper your expectations for what happens when the book leaves your hands.

As Larry King once said, "Those who have succeeded at anything and don't mention luck are kidding themselves." And we should never forget what Wodehouse's inimitable hero Bertie Wooster observes in the story "Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest": "'s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with a bit of lead piping."

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in many genres. He feels very lucky to have had his books translated into a dozen languages.