Sunday, July 19, 2009

Randomness Rules Our Lives

Answer: Perseverance; doggedness;persistence; tenacity or in my case out and out stubbornness...
Question: What is the most useful tool in a writer's toolbox.

This week I pulled a nonfiction mathematics book off the library shelf and brought it home to read. Crazy- I know. The title of the book is "The Drunkard's Walk How Randomness Rules Our Lives" by Leonard Mlodinow. It is a book about probability and the rules of randomness. He starts off telling the reader something very comforting. "The human mind is built to identify for each event a definite cause and can therefore have a hard time accepting the influence of unrelated or random factors." (It's not you- it's your genetics.)
What does this have to do with writing? From page 9: "Suppose four publishers have rejected your manuscript for your thriller about love, war, and global warming. Your intuition and the bad feeling in the pit of your stomach might say that the rejections by all those publishing experts mean your manuscript is no good... But is your intuition correct? Is your novel unsellable? We all know from experience that if several tosses of a coin come up heads, it doesn't mean we are tossing a two-headed coin. Could it be that publishing success is so unpredictable that even if our novel is destined for the best-seller list, numerous publishers could miss the point and send those letters that say thanks but no thanks? One book in the 1950's was rejected by publishers, who responded with the comments as "very dull,""a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions," and "even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject (WWII) was timely, I don't see that there would have been a chance for it." That book, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, has sold 30 million copies making it one of the best-selling books in history."

Are you smiling yet?

Page 10 of The Drunkard's Walk is full of examples of rejections for authors like Sylvia Plath, George Orwell and Isaac Bashevis Singer. "Before he hit it big, Tony Hillerman's agent dumped him, advising that he should "get rid of all that Indian stuff.""
Then there is the other side of the coin- the many talented authors who quit after 5, 7 or 100 rejections letters. Mlodinow gives the following example: "After his many rejections, one such writer, John Kennedy Toole, lost hope of ever getting his novel published and committed suicide. His mother persevered, however, and eleven years later A Confederacy of Dunces was published; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has sold nearly 2 million copies.
There exists a vast gulf of randomness and uncertainty between the creation of a great novel...and the presence of huge stacks of that the front of thousands of retail outlets. That's why successful people in every field are almost universally members of a certain set--the set of people who don't give up."

The upshot is those who keep writing-perfecting their craft- working through rejection- create more opportunity for success and those opportunities increase the probability of success. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, Act 5 Scene2:"...the readiness is all."
For every writer who tells you they sold their first manuscript there is another who sold on her tenth or 15th. For every debut NYT bestseller- there is another NYT Bestseller who toiled for ten years before hitting the list.
New York Times bestselling author and wise woman, Julie Garwood said, "Never believe your own press." That works both ways- don't accept the bad press or the good. Keep writing. It's what writers do.


Jessica said...

Great post Nancy! Sounds like a fascinating book. Very interesting.

Sad that guy committed suicide. :-(

But all the other stories are so uplifting!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I agree, perservence is the most useful tool for a writer. Robert Persig who wrote "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" was turned down 121 times!

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jessica, Hi Jane-

It was a really interesting book- he talked about people's perceptions being wrong. How in studies, one person is randomly paid more than another and people - including the person who is paid more- believe the higher pay means they are "better" than the other. When the pay was random...

Anyway- I found it an interesting way to look at the world.

Kathryn Magendie said...

My debut novel is my first novel I wrote, however, I struggled through rejection and doubt and wanting to give up - in fact, I did give up from time to time, which only added to time from the novel's completion to its publication - so, never give up! Be stubborn! ....I haven't hit a best seller list ....yet? *laughing*

an insightful post!

Pamala Knight said...

I can always count on you to impart wisdom on this blog, Nancy. Perserverance and PERSPECTIVE is what I'm gaining from this excellent post. Thanks again. *waves*