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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Talking Shop

 

Op-ed • "Horatio Alger Got It Half Right," By Eric Dontigney 



Hard work matters for anyone trying to make a living as a writer. Hard work matters a lot. You can’t phone it in day-after-day. You can’t do it just when you feel like it. You have to show up every day and put in a real effort. This is the basis of the Horatio Alger stories and the foundation for the Horatio Alger Myth.

Not familiar with Horatio Alger and his myth? Here’s the backstory, in brief. Horatio Alger, Jr. was a writer from the mid-to-late 1800s. He wrote books that glorified the Protestant work ethic and moral virtue. The general theme was that hard work and moral fortitude would transform the hard-working poor into the middle class or even upper class.

That sentiment, which ignores all kinds of facts about entrenched poverty, social stratification, and exceptional individual talent, has been accepted as a truism by a wide swath of the American public. It’s an unusually destructive truism because it puts all the responsibility on the shoulders of the individual. You’ve heard it before. “If you just worked a little harder, you’d be successful.”

If hard work was enough to ensure success, all those single mothers working two jobs to support their kids would be millionaires. Hard work is only part of the story. Hard work helps ensure your basic survival. It can, can, even develop into a sustainable career. What hard work really does is set you up to get lucky.

I don’t mean luck in the traditional, out-of-a-clear-blue-sky fell $1 million, kind of luck. That kind of luck only falls onto a handful of people. I mean something more akin to situational luck. Let’s say you do freelance writing on the side. You work hard at it. You develop a few consistent clients because you work hard. One of those clients refers you to some people in their business network.

Those referrals put you in contact with a startup company. You do a little research and realize that the company is poised to become a unicorn (a startup that will get valued at over $1 billion). Plus, they just locked down a new round of funding, so they have money to burn and a desperate need for someone with a working knowledge of their industry.

Rather than go with one of the other referral opportunities, you negotiate an agreement with the startup. You secure a byline and a great pay rate to write content for them. By itself, this is situational luck. You got lucky that one of the referrals was for the right kind of company. You got luckier by recognizing the opportunity for what it was and acting on it. That luck compounds by making you marketable to bigger companies.

Here’s the thing. You might never get that referral to the ideal client who can make you marketable to bigger companies that pay the really stellar rates.

You might say, “That’s fine for non-fiction, but what about fiction?” The same general principles apply. You work hard and write short stories or novels. You submit them, get rejected, and write more – hopefully better – stories or novels. You submit again. This is the fiction writer’s version of putting in the work and effort.

Eventually, you get a story accepted to a semi-pro or professional market. That publication makes you more marketable for the next story you send out. It gets easier to sell your fiction. The wheel turns and you’re eventually making a living at it. With fiction, however, luck plays a much bigger role.

You need the right stories to fall into the hands of the right editors at the right times. You can engineer this a little by studying what a magazine has published over the last two years. If you haven’t seen a single dystopian story in the last 24 issues, you probably shouldn’t send your dystopian story to that publication. The editor is clearly burned out on those kinds of stories.

The exception to the rule is if you’ve written the best dystopian story in the last 30 years. Statistically speaking, though, you almost certainly haven’t written the best dystopian story in the last few decades. Most of us don’t possess that rare spark of genius that lets us transform an over-worn topic into something compelling.

In the long-run, though, it’s mostly just blind luck. A lot of great stories never see the light of day. It’s not a question of talent or hard work or even the story, but a matter of the story or novel not finding the right hands.

Hard work is a necessary condition of finding success. Horatio Alger got that much right. If you won’t work hard at something, you’re incredibly unlikely to find success at it. Unfortunately, hard work isn’t always or even often a sufficient condition for finding success as a writer. For that, you need some luck.


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Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at ericdontigney.com.

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


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3 comments:

Mark Keigley said...

Dang, and dystopian stories are sorta my brand these days... :)

Ian said...

I'm reminded of the old Jean-Luc Picard line. "It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness: that is life".

Hard work makes success more likely, certainly. However writing isn't a vending machine that you keep feeding hard work into until success comes out at the bottom. Sometimes it's just not your day. Sometimes you have the perfect story for the wrong market. That's not a reason to stop working but it is a reason to not take failure to heart.

Of course there's also the third element of this: Work hard in producing stuff, that's very important, but work just as hard in making sure the stuff you produce is good.

Eric Dontigney said...

I generally find that working hard at writing leads to better writing. There is a certain correlation between volume of writing and improvement. Still, your point is well taken. It's all pretty pointless if you don't hone your craft along the way.