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. ↩︎

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D.J. Jacobson

Becoming a novelist, and documenting the journey.