Lucky Author Syndrome
May 23, 2023 § 24 Comments
By Sandra A. Miller
When my friend Lisa and I received our MFAs in 1996, we both immediately scored New York literary agents with our just-finished manuscripts. Within a few months, Lisa, twenty-six to my thirty-two, sold her novel to a major publisher and went on to land a series of book deals that set her on the literary path she still walks today.
My road was rockier. My MFA novel, although admired for its fine writing and plot twists, received a pass from all of the Big Ten publishing houses. At that point, my agent pruned me from his client list, leaving me with an unsold manuscript and the feeling that I was unlucky. I really believed my book was saleable. Didn’t my early readers deem it a page-turner? Had I not landed a good agent? So what was the problem, if not bad luck?
A recent TikTok trend called Lucky Girl Syndrome, encourages people to create their own luck by thinking it so. For anyone who remembers being seduced by “The Secret” twenty years ago, this is basically that, with a youthful rebrand. Lucky girls (or anyone who is willing) can supposedly wish their longed-for partner, job, baby, book deal—you name it—into existence.
When my novel didn’t sell all those years ago, I didn’t quit. I couldn’t. There wasn’t another career that I cared about. If anything, I went after a publishing deal even more ferociously. While raising two children and teaching part time, I tried my hand at every kind of writing that called to me, or that I thought might bring me my Lucky Author break. I wrote a middle-grade novel, finished a few movie scripts, and outlined a self-help book with my psychologist husband because a psychic saw it in our stars. When none of those projects landed, I sold essays and articles to anyone who would take my work.
I never stopped writing, but, at some point, I started questioning. Would it ever happen for me in a bigger way? Would I get the thing I wanted more than any number of estimable by-lines or grateful kudos on my end-of-semester evaluations?
The rejections on my long works stung, and then they thickened my skin and thinned my heart, leaving me both doggedly undeterred and achingly vulnerable. When writer friends launched their books, the genuine joy I felt for them mixed with my jealousy served up a cocktail many writers drink on the regular. “Always the bridesmaid…” I once joked to Lisa when, for the second time, I found myself in the acknowledgements of her book.
To protect my ego, I blamed the industry. Agents take on so few projects. Publishing houses are merging, leaving fewer places to submit. When writer friends and I met for dinner, we’d talk about how impossibly hard it was. Even my Lucky Author friends–the ones with book deals–struggled for publicity, reviews, and whatever it took to be a success.
Beneath the complaints, I felt inherently unlucky.
Then in 2013, after experiencing a series of personal challenges, I began writing a memoir called Trove. It was about my hunt for a treasure chest in New York City, as well as a metaphorical search for a connection to my parents. This project appeared from an internal place so unexpected and organic that I knew it had chosen me. I felt it in bones, my head, my soul, and even my aching heart that I sometimes think had to be broken over and over for me to finally write that memoir.
With a finished manuscript, I landed an agent whose last name means “luck” in German. She would try for several years to sell that project. Every time a “Sandra’s a talented writer with a resonant story” turned into a version of “good luck elsewhere”, my skin got thicker and thicker, except around my heart. But I took the feedback from rejections and kept working on it. It didn’t matter that I was an unknown writer with a small platform, barely big enough to stand on. I believed.
As luck would have it— or not—my agent didn’t sell my manuscript to one of the big houses. But I could not abandon Trove. My beta readers and my own instinct told me that it was good and true, and that it needed to be in the world as a published book. When I searched for a publisher on my own, I soon placed Trove with a wonderful small press in California that did right by me in every way. A beautiful cover. Great marketing. Best of all, I could finally hold my book in my hands.
After twenty years, I had cracked the formula for “Lucky” Author syndrome: the trifecta of the right project, hard work, and belief. Once I was committed to uncomplainingly giving that manuscript my everything, and was flexible enough to relinquish the “Big Ten” book-dream, I not only felt lucky—I knew I couldn’t fail.
When Lisa talks about her early book deals, she says she got lucky. I know it was more than that. She was preternaturally talented and dedicated to her craft. But in the end, those book deals made her work even harder, just as the chase made me plug away with persistence. And the right projects made us both write what we were meant to.
Could I have wished a book into existence simply by deciding I was lucky? I don’t think so. Did it help that I figured out how to keep the faith though the four long years I devoted to that project? Definitely.
I’ve since written and sold Wednesdays at One, a novel that is coming out with Zibby Books in July. An advanced copy sits on my coffee table. The other day, I picked it up to study the cover yet again and give it a little hug. “I feel so lucky,” I said to my husband who was sitting across from me.
He laughed a big whooping exaggerated laugh and said, “Lucky? You feel lucky? You’ve worked your butt off for this.”
Sandra A. Miller is the author of the award-winning memoir, Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure. Her debut novel, Wednesdays at One, will be published by Zibby Books in July. She teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and can be found online at SandraAMiller.com.
Very nice and very relatable! Thank you!
Thank you! I know you’re a persister, too!
What you wrote is so true. Luck, talent, but above all dogged determination to keep going help, even though none of that is any sure path to publication. But like you, I keep writing because I love to write, and can’t imagine doing anything else.
Let us keep on going and going with luck, love, determination….
Thank you for voicing this! I’ve been in your shoes. As I tell my history students, when opportunity knocks, you have to know how to open the door. Congratulations on your new book!
Thank you! And yes about teaching students to persevere and welcome opportunities.
Hurray! This is something like my story and many other writers’too.
Thank you! And, yes, there are many of us who can tell a version of this story. I hope yours took you to good places.
This is terrific!
Thank you and congratulations on all your successes. Your message is a good reminder that we each define our own versions of “success.”
Thank you! And, yes, exactly. Success is as personal and unique as our fingerprints! (A weird comparison, but I think it works. 🙂 )
Thanks for sharing your story, Sandra. Well said! As you know, I can’t wait to read your latest. Congrats on all counts!
Thank you, Deborah! On all counts!
Inspired, thanks for sharing.
Thanks for reading!
I love memoirs. When I read yours – Trove – I immediately knew it was different!
I was deep into this essay when I was reminded of a Q&A in Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. A writer was having a hard time watching others get book deals when she’d yet to get one and asked Cheryl how she could control her jealousy.
If you’ve read Cheryl‘s book or ever come upon it, please know that you are not like the person who asked the question. She was spoiled and felt entitlement, and for that reason, Cheryl gently let her have it!
I mention this because your essay & the Q&A in Cheryl’s book, both provide more insight into the realities of writing and the hope of being published.
I’m very happy for you. And as your husband said, You’ve worked you butt off for it!
Thanks, Anita! I love what a champion of writers you are.
Thank you. Just what I needed to read this morning. ❤️
I’m so glad!
You nail it right here: “the trifecta of the right project, hard work, and belief.” Good on you, as my kids used to say….
Ha! Thank you.