Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Talent or Serendipity

On November 13, 2010, I attended the annual banquet of the Virginia Writers Club (VWC) at the Mount Vernon Inn in Mount Vernon, Virginia. The VWC has always chosen good speakers for this annual event, but this year’s speaker chose a topic that spoke to me in a way that past topics have not.

New York Times Best Selling Author John Gilstrap took to the podium and addressed the role that serendipity (good luck) plays in getting published. In his case, his book Nathan's Run was given back to an agent, who had taken a pass on it, by the agent’s assistant, who intervened on Gilstrap’s behalf because she noticed that he was a fellow William and Mary alumnus.

With good representation, Gilstrap received a handsome advance and a heady wooing from movie land, only to witness his new found fame disintegrate because his book did not sell the number of copies his publisher anticipated. Serendipity came around again though, and Gilstrap’s latest book, Hostage Zero, is red hot.

Luck and talent, it seems, go hand in hand. Would Gilstrap’s novel have been published if it had not been good? Probably not. Would his wonderful manuscript have been published if his William and Mary cohort had not noticed his alma mater? Maybe. The sad fact is that you can write the best book that was ever written, but if it does not make it into the right hands, it will not be picked up by a publisher who can supply the buzz needed to get it off the ground.

At a writer’s seminar that I attended in Massachusetts in 1992, true crime writer Gary Provost stated that publishers are more interested in the marketability than in the quality of the books they publish. The most important question is “will it sell”? The quality of the book is secondary.

Consider, however, that publishers do not always know what will sell. Gilstrap told about a time that his editor wanted to leave his publisher and take two authors with him: Gilstrap and Dan Brown. The publisher would not let the editor take Gilstrap, but said a fond farewell to Brown. The publisher had no idea what to do with Angels and Demons. When the phenomenal sales of The Da Vinci Code later set the literary world on fire, that publisher must have felt like the executive at ABC that turned down the Cosby Show in the 1980’s.

Gilstrap’s point is that there is no way he could have planned the remarkable things that happened to get his writing career off the ground. I must admit that my own successes, though nowhere near the stunning level that Gilstrap has achieved, have followed the same pattern. While I was executing a spontaneous pitch for Daughters of the Appalachians to a representative from Overmountain Press at the Melungeon Union in 1998, a group of ladies who had taken my workshop on the role of storytelling in the mountain culture interrupted us to gush about my storytelling skills. That is the best publicity I have ever gotten, and I did not even have to pay for it. It sure caught the attention of the publisher’s rep. Overmountain Press published Daughters of the Appalachians the following year.

On another occasion, my story The Bobby Pins was published in Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul. The book had contact information for each story’s author in its back section. For the first few weeks, my phone rang of the hook with folks asking questions about hiring me. I truly thought this was my big breakthrough. But no one called back. In fact, the phone stopped ringing at all, as far as storytelling queries were concerned. I racked my brain to figure out what I had done wrong.

Then a phone call from a friend alerted me to the fact that someone who had wanted to hire me had called her because my phone had been disconnected. I called the phone company immediately. Bell Mass had recently assigned a new area code to my town, but rather than give long distance callers the new code, it had installed a recording that said my phone number was no longer in service. That, too, was the luck of the draw (though I would not refer to it as serendipity).

I keep writing and telling, all the while hoping for more serendipity. While disappointment abounds, those rare moments when God sends rewards my way are so sweet that I continue to strive for more. Telling stories that I have written is my passion. I would find it impossible to stop.

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