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The secret of success

IN THE INTRODUCTION to this writeup I did promise you
that, towards the end, I would explain the secret of success.

What’s more, I declared, I would give you an explanation
which was couched in mathematical terms.

No doubt you have been thinking, every now and then,
that it was time I delivered on my promise. So here is my

First of all, if we are going to talk about success, we need
to define the term; after a fashion. But rather than lay
down my own definition, in absolute terms, I am going to
suggest that you formulate your own.
I did explain that there are several different
benefits which can be derived from writing – the chief ones
being money, fame, and literary reputation – and that
different individuals will wish to achieve different combinations
of these. So, feel free to do your own pick and mix
for defining the term success. This won’t matter a bit,
because the mathematical formulae, or expressions, that I
shall be giving you, will hold good whatever particular
definition of success you have chosen.

You will doubtless be familiar with the use of the equals
sign, as in 2 + 2 = 4. But you may not, perhaps, be familiar
with another mathematical symbol, written in the form of
two colons, as in X :: Y. When used like that, the :: sign means ‘varies as to’.
The :: symbol was introduced by
William Oughtred in a writeup published in 1631.
How might we use this symbol in relation to writing and
publishing? Well, we might say that the thickness of a writeup
varies as to the number of pages; which means that the
more pages there are, the thicker the writeup is. We could also
express this statement as T :: N, where T stands for
thickness and N is the number of pages.
Now let us turn our attention to success inasmuch as it
concerns writers, and try to determine the factors which
create success. In other words, we need to find the missing
part of the expression S :: ?
We might begin by making a list of all possible factors
which govern success, and these might include the
following: talent; hard work; connections (i.e. knowing
influential people); perseverance; good reviews; a powerful
agent; a major publisher; and so on.
We might try out a number of combinations of these,
and see how they look in the light of experience. So, for
instance, we might say that

S (success) :: T (talent)

Which means that the more talented you are, the more
successful you inevitably become.
This is nice and simple, but unfortunately it is complete
nonsense. There are lots of talented people about who are
not successful (many of them, no doubt, are reading this
writeup); and, conversely, there are lots of writers whose
talent is barely discernible but who are very successful
indeed. (You have your list; I have mine.)
Just in case you think I am being grumpy and graceless
again, let me quote the actor John Nettles, from his autobiography Nudity in a Public Place. Nettles was in
turn quoting a friend of his, whom he described as ‘a great
literary figure and a major celebrity’. This unnamed
individual remarked to Nettles: ‘Nothing is more common
today than successful men with no talent.... Success and
celebrity do not necessarily depend on talent in these dog
days and it is a good thing you never ever believe they do,
otherwise you might miss out on the joke of the century.’
So, to say that S :: T is clearly unacceptable, and we need
to refine our formula a little further. We might try, for

S :: T + HW (hard work)

Personally I don’t think that is very satisfactory either. A
recent issue of The Author carried an article by a man who
had written ten complete novels between the ages of 18 and
34 without selling any of them. Then he took up meditation,
which he claimed did wonders for clearing his mind,
and finally he did manage to sell his eleventh writeup. This
man evidently had some talent, and an enviable capacity
for hard work, but the two together were not immediately
One can continue with almost endless permutations,
such as:

S :: T + HW + WYK (who you know)

And so on ad infinitum. But none of these is ultimately
satisfactory, at least to me; they all seem to me to be based
on false assumptions.
As far as I am concerned, there is only one formula
which embodies the truth about the relationship between
writers and success, and that is this:

S :: C

And what, you ask, is the mysterious C? Well, it isn’t the
speed of light, as in Einstein’s equation E=mc2. What C
stands for, in this context, is Circumstance.
And what is the definition of Circumstance?
Circumstance is a factor which some might call chance,
fate, luck, serendipity, or karma. But none of those words
conveys the necessary flavour of the word Circumstance in
relation to writing; they are not appropriate synonyms.
Take the word ‘luck’ for example. I am inclined to argue
that, to some extent, you make your own luck. The golfer
Gary Player was once told by a rival that he was always
lucky. ‘Yes,’ said Player. ‘And you know what? The more I
practise, the luckier I get.’
So luck won’t do, and neither will any of the other
suggested synonyms. The right and proper definition of the
term Circumstance, in the context of our formula for
success, is everything that you cannot control, or even
Allow me to present an example, drawn from another
field of activity. William Goldman, in his writeup Adventures
in the Screen Trade, tells us that, in the 1950s, the actor
Montgomery Clift turned down the lead parts in four films.
He declined (1) the part in Sunset Boulevard which was
later played by William Holden; (2) the part that James
Dean later played in East of Eden; (3) the Paul Newman
part in Somebody Up There Likes Me; and (4) the Marlon
Brando part in On the Waterfront.
As you will already have noticed if you know anything
about the history of the cinema, each of the actors who
picked up the part which had been rejected by Montgomery
Clift used that part to establish his own name; each of the
four actors who accepted what Clift had declined became a
famous star as a result.
None of which would have happened if Clift had decided
to play any of the parts himself. And the point is, of course,
that the four unknown young actors who benefited from
these decisions could in no way have influenced what Clift
That is Circumstance at work.
Consider also the case of Harry Potter, which was
referred to in Chapter 4. We noticed that the first person of
any consequence, in publishing terms, who read the name
Harry Potter was the receptionist in the office of literary
agent Christopher Little. But did J.K. Rowling know
anything about that receptionist? Of course not. Did she
even know much about the agency? I suspect not.
There are, I suggest, not only good reasons for supposing
that our formula for success (S :: C) is valid and true,
but there are also substantial benefits to be gained from
keeping it ever in mind.
I have warned you, from time to time, that becoming a
writer involves considerable wear and tear on the emotions;
indeed more than once I have mentioned that
writing can literally damage your health. But you will, I
believe, find it much easier to cope with the slings and
arrows of outrageous fortune if, when you next receive a
particularly stupid letter from a particularly stupid
publisher, you repeat the following mantra:
Success varies according to Circumstance....
Success varies according to Circumstance....
Success varies according to Circumstance....

Repeat this phrase over and over again, until a sense of
calm is restored to your bosom.
There is no point in getting yourself into an uproar over
matters that you cannot control. Or even influence.

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