Please welcome Roger Johns, author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries as he talks about something very familiar to writers everywhere…luck.
Lookin’ for Luck in All the Right Places
I just got back from ThrillerFest, the huge annual convention for readers and writers of thrillers and mysteries, and it’s left me in a contemplative mood about the role luck played as I found my way into the novel-writing business. It all started back in the early 90s, when I took a leave of absence from a perfectly good academic job to move to Los Angeles to try my hand at writing comedy for television. A tough business to break into, for sure, but I had the perfect plan.
I went to work as a flunky at a talent agency that represented, among others, people who wrote (or wanted to write) TV sitcoms. This was my thinking: If I work where the agents work, I will get my scripts read, my talent will be immediately recognized, and I will be spending long nights in the writers’ room before I can even finish unpacking all the boxes. Unfortunately, my perfect (i.e., naïve) plan was missing a key ingredient––maybe the key ingredient.
Because part of my job was to read scripts submitted by actual clients of the agency, I soon discovered that what I was reading was better than what I was writing. . . a lot better . . . better than much of what was getting produced for the small screen. Yet, many of those writers weren’t getting hired. Why, I wondered?
I asked one of the agents what accounted for this strange outcome. She told me that it wasn’t enough to be a good writer. You also had to be lucky––lucky enough to come to the attention of just the right person, at just the right time, with just the right material in hand. That’s a lot of luck to have all at once, a revelation that really set me back on my heels. There were only so many shows on TV (far fewer than today) so there were only so many chances to catch that much lightning in a bottle.
It may be different today, but at the time, if you wanted to write for television, you had to be in L.A., and L.A. was (and still is) a very expensive place to sit around waiting to get lucky. And I was going broke faster than a Powerball winner. Enough of this foolishness, I thought. After a bit of soul searching, I abandoned my ambition, fled back into the warm embrace of academia, and told myself “I ain’t fallin’ for that again.” Little did I know that, even though I had abandoned my ambition, my ambition hadn’t abandoned me. It laid low for a while, but it never really left the building.
Years later, when I could sense the end of my academic career drawing near, and I knew I would be at a crossroads of a sort, the ambition showed up again––abruptly, unexpectedly, like Ol’ Man Scratch materializing out of a puff of smoke, ready to make a deal.
This time he looked different. He was no longer the sleek, hip-looking fellow spewing laugh lines laced with up-to-the-minute street slang and snarky cultural references. And that dangerous glint in his eyes––the one that had seduced me into leaping from the ivory tower into the sinkhole of Hollywood––had softened into the comforting glow of a wood stove on a cold dark night. So, at first, I didn’t recognize him.
But it was him, alright, in the form of a crazy idea that flickered through my head, barely rippling the placid surface of my thought pool. That’s how it started anyway––a here-and-gone notion glinting at the corner of my mind’s eye. Before long, the idea developed an uncomfortable habit of showing up at odd times, like that person you sort of know, that you randomly encounter here and there. You remember the face but not the name. You stop for a minute of awkward chit chat and then disengage before the conversation gets serious. Shortly after that, the idea started hanging around like the last party guest who won’t go home and won’t shut up.
But, like I said before, this time it looked different. This time it wasn’t some low-probability write-for-TV ambition. This time it looked reasonable, more like a book than a TV show. And books are respectable, right?
Of course they are. And that’s what caused me to stand still long enough for the idea to get close enough to sink its claws into me. And then it started its incessant whispering in my ear: “You can write a book from anywhere, right? So stop worrying. Kinder, gentler ambitions like this can be pursued from wherever you happen to be. You can stay right here at home. You won’t have to pump your last dime into the Tinsel Town slot machine and then pray like hell for three lucky stars to line up in the little window.” So, I fell for it . . . again.
At least the part about getting to work from home turned out to be true. I live out in the hinterland west of Atlanta, so I should know. But luck, that secret ingredient, was still part of the deal, still hidden in the fine print. With books, though, it’s different than it is for TV. The odds are much more in favor of the gambler/writer. A few hundred TV shows are produced every year, while a few million books are produced every year. I like them odds a lot better.
And luck is like trouble: you can wait for it to find you, or you can go looking for it. Thankfully, for those of us with bookish ambitions, there are a lot of places to go looking––places where luck hangs out on a regular basis. ThrillerFest is one of those places––and Bouchercon, and Killer Nashville, and the Atlanta Writers Conference, and so many more. Even so, for me, it still took quite a while. So, here’s to looking for luck in all the right places.
Roger Johns is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books, and the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year (Detective ▪ Mystery Category) for his debut novel, Dark River Rising. The second volume in the series, River of Secrets, will be out on August 28, 2018. Please visit him at http://www.rogerjohnsbooks.com.