Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Luck, skill, books and films

Nassim Nicholas Taleb was on the radio this morning. Some while ago I read his ‘Fooled by Randomness’. Apart from being very smug in parts, the book is a good read with some important lessons. What impressed me most was the way he dealt with skill and luck.

If you think you have been skilful when in fact you have been lucky, then you are making a very unsafe error. If you do the same thing again, and because you thought your success was down to your skill, then you might expect it to work the next time. You are unlikely to be successful, knowing how luck works.

The safe thing to do is to assume that you have been lucky when in fact you have been skilful. That would tend to make you continue to try hard and not expect too much.

Taleb takes his examples from the stock market, where skill and luck can lead to big rewards and also to big losses. How does it work for writing? When an agent turns me down, do I put it down to bad luck or to my lack of skill? The safe thing to do is to assume that it is because of my lack of skill. That should make me try harder, keep revising and produce a better product.

If in fact my lack of success was down to bad luck then there is a reasonable chance that I will do better next time. If my skills improve then that should help too.

What this makes clear is that it is a bad idea to assume that I am a good writer but I’ve been unlucky, which is what people tell me. Why do they tell me that? Because they think it will make me feel better, but feeling better won’t make me a better writer.

Trying to write better is not helped by the huge success of badly written books. I used to be a bit shy about saying that, but I’m helped by a polemic in the Observer (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/dec/12/genre-versus-literary-fiction-edward-docx). I’ve read all three of Stieg Larsson’s books and seen two of the films. The books are so full of telling not showing that they ought to become textbooks for what not to do. They are also padded out with a lot of stuff that has little to do with the plot of the story. It is worth noting that both films start about 60+ pages into the book. I remember one of Elmore Leonard’s nostrums being that writers should take out the bits that feel like writing.

I’d like to propose another rule: - Take out what the film will leave out. I have two reasons for suggesting this, one is that it will make the book shorter and more dramatic, the other is that thinking about the film may provide a bit of added inspiration when the writing is proving hard.


  1. Films are a huge influence on modern writers. I'm sure I'm not alone in visualizing a scene like something I'm watching in a movie.

    I thought EL said leave out the bits that readers skip?

  2. EL said both. Of course it is interesting to speculate as to whether film makers would skip the same bits.