The Real Secret Formula for Getting Published: GW x P + L = Pub

I’ve been called the poster child for persistence, largely because the first novel I published was the fifth I’d written, and when it was accepted I was working on novel 14. And I’m not one of those people who can write more than a novel a year, either. In fact, it took me seventeen years of writing before I got my break—so I’m not going to knock persistence. But so many people have been lauding persistence in this space, that I’d like to talk a bit more about the necessity of two other factors: luck, and good writing.

Because much as I’d like to deny it, luck plays a huge part in anyone’s road to publication. If it didn’t, shouldn’t persistence pay off sometime before seventeen years have passed? And it’s not that my writing was that bad, either. It was the fifth book I’d written that finally sold. But think how many novels you read, published novels, that you find OK, or enjoyable, but you don’t fall madly in love with. And “madly in love” is how an agent, and then an editor, has to feel about your novel in order to want to buy it. And then the market has to be such that the marketing committee thinks they can sell it. And then the cover has to be fabulous, and enough reviewers have to at least like it, and, and, and…

And while the market may be at least a bit predictable, hitting the right agent, and then the right editor, at exactly the right time, really is a matter of luck. I made my first sale because my agent found herself sitting on a panel at a conference, next to an editor who said she was looking for YA SF with a strong female protagonist. “Have I got a story for you,” my agent said. “It’s being looked at several other places,” she lied. (It had already been rejected everywhere she’d sent it.) “But I haven’t made any commitments yet, so I could probably send it to you.” And thus, after seventeen years of persistence, my luck finally came in.

But back to the formula: Publication actually requires three things, and the first is good writing. (GW in the equation.) If your writing isn’t ready, then it doesn’t matter how much persistence you have. Of course, persistence is how you eventually get to good writing, which is why persistence (P) is a multiplier of GW. The more books you produce the better they’ll be—or at least they should be getting better—and the more good books you send out the better your chance that luck (L) will strike.

But good writing is the basis of the whole equation. If your writing factor is low, it’s almost certain you won’t be able to get a big enough total to reach publication, even multiplied by a lot of persistence and with luck added in.

Persistence is also essential. I’ve seen cases where wonderful, gorgeous stories, which deserved publication, will never see the light of day because the historical fiction market wasn’t hot (no luck) and the author didn’t persist.

When your GW times your P reaches a high total, then you shouldn’t need as much luck—although it still takes luck to push you over the top. I have seen cases where an absurd amounts of luck actually compensated for not-so-good writing—though in those cases the luck tends to turn again when the reviews come in.

In truth, I wish that luck wasn’t necessary. In a just universe, good writing alone should be enough, and good writing combined with reasonable persistence should be more than enough. But the real secret is that you need all three—and all you can do is persistently work to make your writing better, until the luck finally comes through.

Hilari Bell has been lucky enough to publish 19 SF and fantasy novels, for kids and teens.


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