In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, author Marshall Goldsmith discusses (among other things) one of the defining traits of “habitual winners”:
They stack the deck in their favor. . . . They do this when they hire the best candidates for a job rather than settle for an almost-the-best type. They do this when they pay whatever it takes to retain a valuable employee rather than lose him or her to the competition. They do this when they’re fully prepared for a negotiation rather than winging it. If you study successful people, you’ll discover that their stories are not so much about overcoming enormous obstacles and handicaps but rather about avoiding high-risk, low-reward situations and doing everything in their power to increase the odds in their favor.
This idea has huge implications for writers.
Occasionally when I’m reading a great book or watching a great movie or TV show, I feel like the writer somehow “cheated.”
I may even get a little jealous, a little angry. I think, Hell, with characters this good, how could the story be bad? Even I could write a story this good with characters like these. It practically writes itself!
Now that’s silly, of course. Because the writer created the characters too. The writer got to choose them. But my silly anger reveals something important about how writers can increase their chances of writing good stories and become “habitual winners.”
Successful writers can “stack the deck” in their favor by making good story choices from the outset.
Why? Because stories are chaotic systems. In a chaotic system, one small change in the state of the system can lead over time to a drastically different later state. The classic whimsical example is a butterfly flapping its wings in one place and causing a tornado thousands of miles away.
So you start a story and make a few first choices about story elements. I’ve been using character as an example, but it could be any element–setting, plot point, theme. Over time, as your story grows, the results of these first choices–good or bad–magnify exponentially as they interact with and inform all the other story elements.
Source: J.L. Westover, www.mrlovenstein.com
So start off right. Being published and enjoying commercial success may have a great deal to do with chance and luck, but writing good stories is (to a large extent, at least) governed by skill and choice.
Use chaos to your advantage.
Make good first choices.
Stack the deck in your favor.