Writers and the Just World Fallacy


Monday morning after the onset of Daylight Savings Time is just the worst, isn’t it? Don’t get me started on the advent of DST, either. The whole thing seems like an abomination to me, and for whatever reason people have become more and more zealous about embracing it. Now I hear that the UK is thinking of going to DST full-time. I don’t even…I don’t think you can call it DST at that point, can you? Anyway, my point is that I resent losing an hour of sleep and my writing will probably suffer for the next week, so thanks for that!

Now I’d like to address an issue that’s been bouncing around in my head for the last few weeks and came to a head on Friday: the Just World fallacy.

You see this one a lot in political circles, the idea that people who are suffering somehow deserve it because they a. didn’t plan the way they should have, b. obviously did something wrong and this is karmic payback, c. are part of an inferior group of people, d. some other reason that makes the person an “other”. The fallacy, obviously, is that the world is always fair and if something happens it’s the result of a cosmic tally sheeting being balanced out by some divine accountant.


It’s an alluring idea; it’s comforting to believe that everything happens for a reason, that there is no such thing as dumb lousy luck or random chance. Just as it’s easy to believe that a run of good luck is evidence that we’ve been favored by some unseen force, we can also believe that we somehow deserve the bad that’s randomly befallen us. You can see how such an idea pretty quickly becomes destructive.

Author note: This is not to suggest that things never happen for a reason. I’m more a firm believer in a higher order of chaos, that what appears to be random chance does balance out at some level, but one that happens far above our own level – that accident that sets you back thousands of dollars isn’t retribution for something that you did wrong, but rather a result of a chain of events that are a larger pattern that we can’t perceive. I suspect that Buddhists have a rather keen grasp of this concept.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, there seems to be a somewhat pervasive mythology that some magic combination of factors can guarantee success for just about any author (when it seems that just about every author needs his or her own individual approach). One of the common tropes is to “just write, and it will all work out”. I certainly agree with the first part – doing the work is the most crucial thing. Write, write, and write some more until your fingers are about to fall off and you best position yourself for any opportunity that may come your way. That’s fundamental to being a good author.

The second part is more troublesome, the idea that “it will all work out”. Perhaps on that macro scale, yes, but the truth is that lots of extremely talented, brilliant writers get left behind by the industry every day. Recognizing this fact is imperative for your sanity.


The implication here is not that successful authors don’t deserve it – that seems to be a common counter-argument to this observation. It certainly can sound like I’m implying that this is all blind luck, and any idiot who stumbles through the door can win a roll of the dice. It’s not, and that’s just as destructive a belief. Success is almost always dedication meeting opportunity; you have to be prepared, and busting your ass is the only way to be prepared. That concept underlies all of my writing, and it’s why I have things like weekly word goals and milestone requirements on novels. It’s why I write this blog. It’s why I schedule appearances, and all of that. You must be prepared for those opportunities.

The opportunities, though; that’s where chaotic chance hits. They are typically a function of circumstance and luck, a function of those cosmic patterns shifting in one’s favor. You need only scour thrift store bookshelves to see this principle at work. I like to sniff out obscure older sci-fi and horror to sell on Amazon, and the contents of those books are quite sobering. Some is trite crap, yes, but some is quite brilliant and it’s difficult to understand what separated it from the Asimovs or Kings of their day. The answer, of course, is that random stroke of opportunity. If Doubleday passed on Carrie, would most people even know who Stephen King is today? Difficult to say, but one has to wonder.


This always draws me back to one particular story that grabbed hold of my imagination, way back in 1998. The Roanoke Times published an article about an elderly mid-list writer who had been waiting for his big break since his mid-30s; he was in his 70s at the time and still the cosmic wheel hadn’t come around to him. I wish I could remember his name, but alas I can’t, a face that continues to haunt me. You couldn’t help but admire his persistence. He still wrote because he felt the compulsion, like most of us, but he also hoped that this particular book would be the one to put him over the top. His work had received positive reviews, but as far as I know, that break never came, and surely he’s passed on by now.

It’s a sobering reminder of the reality of what “success” means in this business. There are no guarantees. A writer can crank out consistently sharp work for forty years and still only end up a bit ahead of where he started; it’s vital to keep this in mind every minute of every day. This isn’t meant as a discouragement, but a message to temper expectations and be gentle with yourself – you could be doing everything right and just not hit, for whatever reason. The most important thing is to do this for the love of writing, not for dreams of fortune and fame or, heck, a steady paycheck. It’s far too fragile a thing to be certain.

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  1. A word on daylight savings – I am permanently on central time. I live on the west coast. Springing forward puts me on step vloser to normal.

    A word about writing success – midlist sounds pretty good to some of us. Having an audience. That’s what it’s all about.

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