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I give weird pep talks

Why Casinos Aren’t Publishers

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, it’s another math-centric spiel on probability.

We all know why casinos work and make money, right? It’s because they know the odds are stacked in their favor. They go to great lengths to safeguard against cheating. As a player, some games have better odds than others, but the numbers are what they are. You can’t change them—all you can do is know the parameters, consider your choices within them, and take a chance.

As writers, we talk about trying to increase our odds of getting an agent, getting published, making a bestseller list, etc.

It seems a natural statement, but we can’t do it. There are no odds. Odds assume all things are equal—the dice aren’t loaded, the roulette wheel isn’t rigged. In the writing and publishing world, nothing is equal.

We’re all have different strengths and weaknesses. We’re all at different stages of progression. Some have a story agents/editors want right now; some have a story they might have wanted a year or two ago; some have a story agents/editors won’t want for a year or two (or five) yet.

Seriously, no probabilities or odds out there at all.

I can understand the urge to think of it that way, though. Just like the casino, much of what happens is out of our control. And like the casino, there is some luck involved, if only as far as timing—getting the right agent’s (or editor’s) attention at the right time with the right project.

When things aren’t within our control, we tend to think of them in terms of chance, odds, hoping the cards fall our way.

When we think that way, we may forget things that are within our control. Working hard to continually improve our craft. Looking ahead to the next project (and the next, and the next) when the stars don’t line up for one, rather than staying stuck on that one, never moving forward. Educating ourselves on the industry and our options within it.

There is no magic bullet or shortcut, no counting cards or rigging the machines. We can do everything right and still not “win.”

Because there are no numbers to work. There is only work to be done.

Well, there’s one number out there. If we quit—or never get out there in the first place—our “odds” of success are precisely zero. As long as we avoid that number, we’re on the right track.

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Crushing the Contest Curse

Some of you know I haven’t had the greatest history with contests. I’d only entered two—well, the same one, two years in a row. I got through the initial slush round both times. When it came to the agent judging/voting round, however … silence.


All the things people say about subjectivity, not the right mix of agents for you, etc. are true. Someone thought my work was good enough to put me through the slush.

Those true words don’t stop the hurt. The feeling that readers and other writers may appreciate aspects of my writing, but to the “people who matter,” I’ll never be good enough. The conviction that I’m doing something wrong and no one can tell me what.

Or maybe someone could tell me. They just don’t.

I kept writing, kept revising, kept querying. With each story, I’ve gotten better. I know that. But I figured contests weren’t for me. The sting of public silence was too much.

Then a couple of friends talked me into trying one more contest. (Okay, they didn’t have to try that hard. Mostly it kept coming up in conversation and they said, “Yeah, you should.”)

Maybe I’m just a masochist at heart.

I got picked by a coach, thus getting through the slush again.

Monday was agent voting day. One or two votes meant partial requests. Three or more meant full requests.

Would I suffer silence again?

No. Not this time. Five votes. Five full requests.

Nothing is guaranteed. An agent still has to love the whole manuscript enough to offer representation, and that’s a whole different hurdle. The point for now is that when I was put up next to lots of really stellar work, I still caught some eyes. That feels really good.

But I still remember how the silence felt.

If you’ve suffered the silence, it’s okay that it hurts. I’m a big believer in letting yourself wallow for a day or so, but only if you definitively cut off that wallowing before it does some damage. Keep working on the story you’ve got, or start working on a new one. Tweak your query or opening pages. Do some research on which agents are most likely to love your story.

Hope that you hit the right agent at the right time with the right story, because it takes a little luck. I’m not one to say we will make it if we keep working, because no one knows that. The only thing I know is that if we stop writing and stop trying, failure is guaranteed.

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