Unstable Variables

From The Psychology of Prediction · Collaborative Fund

There are stories of Tiger Woods hitting 1,000 balls at the range without a break. And of Jason Williams practicing dribbling for hours on end without ever shooting a ball.

That’s how you become an expert. That’s how you get amazing results.

At least in some fields. In fields with stable variables like golf, where the rules and objectives don’t change – the correlation between effort and skill is obvious. But it breaks down in fields where outcomes can overwhelmingly be tied to one or two tail events that change over time.

Finance is one of those fields.

And so is publishing.

This excerpt made me think of something my coach Joe said—Joe, who has published something like dozens of novels, edited collections, etc., etc. He’s seen and done most of the things around “being a novelist” that I would like to do. And we were talking about the emotional rollercoaster of doing this job, and he said the publishing world doesn’t make sense. In short, your outcome is not a straightforward function of the effort you input.

And that’s crazy-making.

Writing and publishing fiction is not a game with stable variables.

What does that mean?

It means that success is not guaranteed, for any given definition of success. Assuming that what you want is to put a book, a story, out into the world that will be loved by its readers, and then, even further, that said love will translate into monetary reward for you, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you might not get it.

The thing to realize is that isn’t an indictment of you. Maybe it means you’re not good at writing a compelling novel. Start there, look into that. But it could also be that you wrote a pretty good book that doesn’t have a market right now. It could be that, even though the first four books in your series found an audience, book five doesn’t land for some reason. If you’re beholden to a publisher1, that adds a whole other set of unstable variables.

Perhaps for our emotional well-being we need to redefine success—or be very careful and deliberate what definition of success we’ll allow our ego to twine its gleaming black tentacles around.

I’m working on my first novel, and I believe I’ve eliminated any lingering bits of my imagination that picture this one, first book achieving any kind of substantial success in terms of audience or profit. Instead, where my imagination goes is the point in the future where I’ve written three, six, a dozen novels, and the business that is steadily growing around the entire body of work.

But effort correlates with outcomes in so many fields that it’s hard to accept situations where it doesn’t. So it’s natural to assume that effort put into a forecast should increase its accuracy. That can bring the worst of both worlds: high confidence in model with low, or no, foresight.

He’s talking about financial forecasts, but we can see the same thing in novel-writing: it’s the idea that this one book we’ve been working on for ages will be our masterpiece. I don’t know about you, but, like I’ve said, I haven’t even shipped a novel yet; the idea of a masterpiece, if it enters into my imagination, is off in the future somewhere. We need to earn the right to think in terms of masterpiece, or we have to earn the right to even think about a book’s likelihood of success. When you haven’t done anything yet, how do you make a prediction? Better not to predict, and just to act and then observe. But even later, when you find yourself in a position to predict how a book might perform—I’ve seen it all, kid—remember that the publishing game doesn’t have stable variables: if what looks like a perfect shot somehow doesn’t make it to the hole, I guess you have to just shrug it off… and take another shot.

  1. As opposed to the market directly, which appears to be the case when publishing independently. ↩︎

So Can You or Can You Not Write 100,000 Words in a Day?

I know this gentleman by the name of Sean McCabe and, a few months before he offered me a job, he responded to this blog post in this way:

…but little did Dan know that he would accidentally inspire me.

Sorry, Dan. I love you, but I have to prove you wrong.

I will prove it’s possible to write 100,000 words in a day.

And then he did this: Writing 100,000 Words in a Day

And he failed spectacularly.

So… I was right, right? And it feels good to be right, so, victory lap for me. Right?

Not so fast.

I started drafting my novel, after a couple months of planning, right around New Year’s 2019. I’ve written 46,562 words! But now it’s July and I haven’t added a word to the draft in weeks. This isn’t the first time I’ve ground to a halt, as this blog demonstrates1.

I came across Sean years ago and started paying attention because his podcast is inspiring. His message, and the work that he’s done to back it up, says: you are capable of great things. And I want to do great things, so that’s a message I tuned into.

If you also want to do something great/nutty like write a whole goddamned book, I recommend you tune into such a message as well. It doesn’t have to be Sean, but if you’re at all like me you need something to keep your head in the right space, to not just give up when you hit the wall, when your habits break down, again and again and again.

The other day I walked into a local café for lunch and a friend I hadn’t seen in months just happened to be sitting there working. I sat down with her for a few minutes and chatted. She’s also a novelist, with one or two published books under her belt. And when I admitted I hadn’t touched my draft in six weeks, her response braced me up: “Six weeks? That’s nothing.”

She’s right, six weeks is nothing. Six weeks is a blink of the eye in the unfolding saga of your life,

But also, six weeks is more than enough time to write a book.

If Sean can write a book in a day, given enough practice and preparation, do you reckon I can spit out the twenty thousand or so words I probably need to finish the first draft of my novel in the next six weeks?

Sure I can.

Will I?

Well, that remains to be seen. But you see someone you respect and admire write 55,000 words in a day and you think… maybe writing 500 words today isn’t such a big deal. Maybe, even though I don’t really know where this phase of the book is going and there’s this weird amorphous boulder of fear, uncertainty, and doubt that, like a truant Sisyphus I am staunchly avoiding pushing uphill, maybe I can just keep writing a little. One sentence, one scene at a time.

See, this is what I’m learning, and I’ve mentioned it before: writing a tiny bit every day doesn’t feel satisfying, really, not when you have a whole novel in front of you, but the only way you fail to write a novel is to not write it.

The difference between 0 words today and any words at all today is everything.

Everything I write on here, every exhortation? Especially those emphasized by swear words? They’re for me. I need to hear them. God willing they’ll jam their way through my thick skull and I’ll get to work. The reason I put them here and not in my cryptographically-secure journal is, I labour in the hope that I’m not the only one who (a) wants to write novels and (b) is having a hard bloody time of it, and maybe what helps me… will help you, too.

If so, reach out. Let me know. It’s a we’re-in-this-together kind of thing, you dig?

Go in peace, and throw some words at that book.

  1. I’ve also ground to a halt on the blog, too, haven’t I, which is a related issue we’ll touch on soon ↩︎