This week, I was cruising Pandora and came across this oft-misquoted comment on the RKO screen test of Fred Astaire, one of my favorite actors: “Can’t act, slightly bald, also dances.” Six little words that could end an acting career before it begins. Luckily for Fred, David O. Selznick felt his screen test came off horribly, but Fred’s charm came through all the same and he was willing to take a chance on him. Fred was a tireless perfectionist whose grace and poise made his dancing appear effortless. He was considered by many to be the greatest popular music dancer of all time, winning multiple Emmys, an Oscar nomination and an honorary academy award.
When you’ve been writing for a long time without seeing your work in print, success can seem capricious and wholly dependent on sheer luck. Sure, some people are at the right place at the right time, like Lana Turner who skipped typing class at age sixteen and was discovered by a talent agent at a malt shop on Sunset Boulevard. But that’s akin to buying the winning lottery ticket, and we all know the odds of that happening. No, success is a mixture of many variables, as we can see in these highly successful books that almost didn’t see publication.
- · A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was rejected by 26 publishers. They felt it was too different for the 1960s as a science fiction novel featuring a female protagonist. She happened to meet a guest at her mother’s tea party who knew a publisher and the connection led to a contract. Lucky? You could say so, but she was fully prepared with a polished manuscript when the opportunity presented itself and the right publisher came along.
- ·Carrie by Stephen King was his fourth completed manuscript and rejected by 30 publishers. He tossed the manuscript in the garbage, but his wife dug it out and encouraged him to keep trying. It helps to have someone who knows your writing and really believes in it. Listen to the people you trust about your writing, and it’s not always family or friends.
- Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen was rejected 33 times, primarily because anthologies were not selling and the book was a little too positive. Their persistence paid off, however. Sometimes genres are cyclical and though the timing may not be right now, they cycle back around. The creators also tapped into a new market with a fresh idea.
- ·The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter began as self-published. She began in her 20s but when the book wasn’t published, she printed it herself and gave copies to family and friends. A publisher saw a copy of the book and was willing to take a chance on it, which led to a whole series of illustrated children’s books. Again, perseverance paid off, but being proactive and taking the steps available to her finally got it into the right hands.
- ·The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank had a tenuous route to publication. Anne’s father, Otto, was the only family member to survive the war, and he was given Anne’s diary by a family friend who rescued it when they were captured. Her father hesitated to seek publication for the diary, going so far as to censor some passages that he felt weren’t flattering to family members. But in the end, he believed that it should be read in its entirety by as many people as possible. At so many points, this book could have faltered. But when we have a book of substance about things that move us, we work to get it into the hands of readers. When we have something authentic to say, people know and we gain credibility which creates impetus.
We need to remind ourselves that if we think some authors make success look easy, it’s not. We’re not seeing the whole story. Perseverance, preparedness and professionalism are necessary for every writer with a great idea and a love of story.
We should continue to educate ourselves and remain teachable. Learn to accept and consider criticism. Make and maintain connections with other writers and attend writers’ conferences which may put us in contact with agents, editors and publishers. In this way, we can create some of our own ‘luck.’
Are you sitting at the malt shop like Lana Turner, hoping to be discovered, or are you the tireless hoofer who puts himself out there for a screen test? How do you create your own 'luck?'