Vanessa Lillie on Poker and Publishing: Hold’em or Fold’em?

Vanessa Lillie on Poker and Publishing: Hold’em or Fold’em?

Writing is a unique and challenging pursuit, and writers have many different ways of describing it. For Vanessa Lillie, it’s like playing poker. Lillie is the author of Little Voices, a psychological thriller that Bookish named one of the season’s must-reads. She’s also an accomplished poker player. Here, Lillie breaks down the similarities between playing poker and writing.

When asked what I’d be doing if I wasn’t a writer, my most interesting answer is playing poker. I’ve played thousands of hours of Texas hold’em at tournaments, cash games, and online during the heyday of virtual poker rooms. As a debut author with a poker penchant, here are some similarities I’ve noticed between poker and publishing.

A common poker phrase is “it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.” That’s not a warning; it’s a wonder. There’s always room to grow and improve your skills. That’s true for writing, too. Being an author is not the work of one book, but a pursuit that fill decades. We can always get better, and we never know what’s about to be dealt.  

As the patron saint of poker, Kenny Rogers, sang: “You gotta know when to hold’em and know when to fold’em.” It’s true not every hand is a winner. To me, what he’s really crooning about is the need for patience and learning the game. You can’t just sit down and shove all your chips in the middle expecting to win big. Poker doesn’t work like that and writing certainly doesn’t. 

When you’re writing your first (or fifth) book, there’s this hope that it will be brilliant, snapped up by a Dream Agent, and then bought for millions. In other words, World Series of Poker final table, all-in, pocket aces. But what’s more likely is that your book needs work. Instead of emailing every agent or editor, you need to sit tight and do the hard work. So when your query letter is perfect, your pages critiqued, revised and revised again, you can get into the game with the best hand.   

To play poker successfully in the long term, you need to love it from the feel of the felt on your fingers to rhythmic clicking of chips. That’s true for writing, too. There may be moments of meeting fans or announcing deals on Twitter. But mostly, the joy is in revising a clunky paragraph until it’s aces. Or in going to a friend’s book event after lady luck chose them. If you sit down at the poker table or in front of the computer with only the big pot of money in mind, you’re going to be disappointed. Worse than that, you’ll miss out on what makes both pursuits worthwhile. 

Poker is a solo sport, of course, but you don’t have to go it alone. When I was living in Washington, D.C., I found a great poker community, from free games in Chinatown to higher stakes in private clubs in Georgetown. You sit down with all kinds of people, and learn a lot about the game, analyzing plays and discussing strategy. It helps to share bad beat stories about tough losses (I had pocket kings!) and laugh with someone who understands the game. Writing is the same, and the more I interact with people, go to conferences or readings, connect on social media, the more rewarding the experience.    

Sometimes the chips fall your way. Winning a poker tournament in St. Martin was thrilling. But my friends who watched and celebrated after—including goofily shaking it with me by the blackjack tables to Dancing in the Dark—that was the best part. Having my debut thriller, Little Voices, in the world is fantastic, a dream come true. But it’s the writer-friendships, improving my craft, and contributing to a creative community that makes publishing the pursuit of a lifetime. 


Vanessa Lillie is originally from Miami (Mi-am-MUH), Oklahoma, and studied English at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, MO, before moving to Washington, D.C. While there, she was lucky enough to join the local chapter of Romance Writers of America and credits much of what she knows about thriller writing to romance authors. Now living in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and dinosaur aficionado four-year-old son, she’s smitten with the smallest state, and enjoys organizing book events and literary happenings in the city’s robust creative community. She likes to tell people about winning a poker tournament in St. Martin to sound interesting, but most of her time is spent writing on her phone at play dates.


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