Hard Work vs. Dumb Luck

September 4, 2010

Once upon time, a boy wrote an “epic fantasy” (and while some may say that 15 is “not quite a boy,” it still counts in my books).  His parents just happened to own a publishing company, and they published his novel. Then he promoted it. The kid of someone who worked at a big publishing house read it and liked it. Thus, the publishing house decided to publish it. Then the boy author got a big marketing campaign, and his book(s) became famous and lucrative. The End.

To what does this author owe his success? Hard work or dumb luck?

Let’s take a closer look. And yes, it is Christopher Paolini, author of Eragon. This particular book is known for being derivative and not-terribly-well written. Further, he’s frequently criticized for basking in his “prodigy” label when his book was initially self-published and picked up by chance.

Yes, Paolini was lucky. He was lucky that he was homeschooled, and had uninterrupted time to write a novel. He was lucky that his parents published it for him. He was lucky that Knopf stumbled upon it, and lucky that it became a hit. And yes, it does kind of bug me that he had so many points in his favour starting out.

But you have to admit, the kid worked hard. Writing a novel takes a long time. I will freely admit that when I was 15, I probably couldn’t have written something like Eragon (of course, I didn’t have Paolini’s advantages, but… I digress). Any novel requires sustained effort, so good on him for finishing it.

As for the whole self-published thing… it’s not the self-publishing itself that bugs me. Look at  today’s podcasting, e-books, and non-evil self-publishers. If you know what you’re getting into, it can be a viable option. But. The fact that his parents owned the freakin’ company tends to get left out, or at least played down. Nepotism, anyone? It’s similar to how he “graduated high school at 15.” This is technically true. However, he was homeschooled, which makes it a lot easier to graduate early. 

I digress again. After the book was self-published by his parents, he still continued to work hard. Flip to the appendix of Eragon, and you’ll see how he launched his own book tour in schools and wore a mediaeval costume. Again, good on him. He was willing to take time off (off of what, though, I’m not sure) and work his little tail off to promote his book.

Well… you know, until the giant marketing campaign came along.

It’s never going to be about all hard work or all dumb luck. Think about it. If you were the hardest worker in the world, but didn’t have any luck, your laptop would melt, your manuscript would be eaten by feral dogs on the way to the publisher, and the apocalypse would arrive on your launch date. Well, maybe not, but getting any sort of success in this industry requires some luck. That’s why persistence is so key- like many things, luck is a numbers game.

But there’s one more thing: talent.

Talent can be acquired by luck- if you’re born one of those people with an instinctive grasp of language and a vivid imagination. It can be attracted by hard work- if you write every day, listen to feedback, and hone your craft.

Picture a triangle: hard work, luck, and talent. The first two are necessary to be published. All three are required to be good.


PS. And no, I make no claims on my own ratios of hard work:luck:talent. 😉   



  1. I can’t say anything about your level of luck or hard work, but you’re obviously a talented writer. Self-publishing is a way to crank up the luck part, and if you have the other two pieces in place, it can lead somewhere. The problem with traditional publishing is that you can be Hemingway and work your butt off and get nowhere because one manuscript reader had a fight with her boyfriend ten minutes before your book landed on her desk. I can’t stand when some celebrity goes right to the head of the line and gets a book published, just because they happen to be Madonna or Jerry Seinfeld. The first priority isn’t quality; it’s sales.

    • Thanks, bronxboy!

      I definitely agree with you about self-publishing; it is a viable option in today’s market, and it’s quickly losing a lot of the stigma it once had. It’s certainly a way to build an audience *before* you approach one of the bigger publihsers; you walk in knowing that you’re capable of attracting readers.
      The issue of sales vs. quality is an interesting one, isn’t it? In an ideal world, the high-quality books would sell a lot, and the low-quality wouldn’t sell as much. It’d be more merit-based. Unfortunately, that ideal doesn’t always seem to translate to reality…

  2. As someone who also graduated at fifteen, I can vouch for the fact that it’s pretty easy to do, mostly paperwork, really…anyway, this whole post reads like a conversation I had with my little sister, who also graduated at fifteen–did I mentioned it’s not that big a deal?

    We reached one further conclusion though: Being published was absolutely the worst thing that could have happened to Paolini at fifteen. Eragon is an impressive accomplishment for a kid just out high school, let alone so young. However, he’s now in his mid-twenties, and, having no vested interest in getting better, his following books have been no better than the original. So a boy who was a very good nascent writer (the talent side of the triangle) has grown into a man who is very mediocre author. Which is a shame, really.

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