by Ruth Harris
I’ve been published for decades. Random House and Simon & Schuster paid me well to publish my books in hard cover and paperback. My books have sold millions of copies, been translated into 19 languages, and appeared on Amazon and NYTimes bestseller lists.
- Shouldn’t I know by now wtf I’m doing?
- Shouldn’t I know all the tricks?
- Shouldn’t I be able to figure out what I did wrong and how to fix it?
- Shouldn’t I know how to shut down my harsh inner critic?
- Shouldn’t I just be able to get on with it?
Because my WIP has been kicking me in the butt.
My recent free fall caused me to think about the fact—the fact, not the possibility—that failure is an integral part of the writer’s life and career. To help myself get through this rough patch, I turned to other writers for help and perspective.
Writers have had a lot to say about failure because we’re experts.
We fail every day because failure is part of our job description.
From Margaret Atwood to Samuel Beckett to JK Rowling.
Margaret Atwood put it like this: “A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason.”
- We fail to write as well as we want to.
- Our book, the one we thought our best ever, isn’t, not really. Not when we reread it a year or a decade later.
- The book, the one we thought agents, publishers and readers would love for sure, languishes unread, unwanted and unloved.
- We fail at marketing, covers, blurbs, key words and SEO.
- We fail because of bad timing, because the genre we shine at is no longer popular.
By failure, I’m not even counting rejections which aren’t actually failures. We often interpret rejection as failure because, most of the time (not always) the rejection that stings has nothing to do with us or our book. I explained this in my post on the reasons books get rejected.
Of course it was a writer, Samuel Beckett, who said “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
JK Rowling, said that she had “failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless…Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
How One Writer Turned Rejection And Failure Into Billions
Brian Koppelman “is miserable when he doesn’t write. And he didn’t write until he was 30’s and finally faced this thing that scared the shit out of me.” After many rejections, his movie, Runner, Runner was a flop. After that, Martin Scorsese fired him from an HBO showrunner’s job.
Then he and his writing partner co-created the Showtime hit series, Billions. They are now scripting the fourth season but in the run up years before Billions, he became fascinated with the inevitably of failure experienced by writers and other creative people.
He launched “The Moment,” a podcast in which he invites people who create things—actors, musicians, writers, chefs—to talk about their career paths. His guests range from John Grisham, who recounted the initial commercial failure of “A Time to Kill,” to screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who survived years of rejections en route to an Oscar nomination for “Arrival.”
How Louise Penny Met The Agent Of Her Dreams
Popular Canadian mystery-writer Louise Penny was 46 when her first novel was released after being rejected or ignored by 50 publishers. She was on the verge of giving up when she was awarded second place in a British crime-writing contest. Hoping to find a literary agent, she attended the award ceremony in London, but none of the agents she dreamed of meeting turned up.
To cheer herself up, she went to a fund-raising sale, where she found a “beautiful blue pashmina scarf.”
“I went to pick it up it, and soon found myself in a violent tug of war with a British woman who had her claws in it,” Ms. Penny recalled.
“Who are you?” she asked indignantly.
“And who are you?” the woman barked back.
When the other woman uttered her name—Teresa Chris, an influential agent for writers of crime fiction—Ms. Penny said she let go of the scarf. “I think I may have even bought it for her,” she added. Ms. Chris became her agent and found her a publisher.
“You Can’t Fail At Writing Unless You Quit Writing”
Dean Wesley Smith acknowledges the reality of failure in a recent post and points out that failure “is always self-inflicted.” He reminds us that most career writers have had professional flame outs but, one way or another, found a way to persist by identifying what went wrong and fixing the problem(s).
“Over the 44 years since I sold my first short story, I hit bottom and quit four times,” Dean writes and goes on to say that rediscovering the fun and enjoyment in the process of writing made the difference between failure, a dead dream, and a long career.
The Unforced Error, Or How Not To Shoot Yourself In The Foot
A stat used in scoring tennis, the unforced error is not caused by the opponent but is the responsibility of the player him/herself. The unforced error is also relevant to books and authors.
The unforced error is what we do to ourselves.
Anne’s post on self-sabotage lists 10 ways for us to get out of our own way.
Here’s another on releasing a book before it’s ready.
I took a deep dive into the difference between rejection and failure.
Don’t let a fall into a plot hole cause you to contemplate failure.
The Failure Matrix
Failure is such a predictable part of an author’s career that the fourth part of David Gaughran’s bestselling marketing guide, Strangers To Superfans, the part he wrote first, is titled Failure Matrix. David’s point, made with specific examples, is that if you can identify the point of failure, you can then move on to solve it.
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” ― Thomas Edison
I’m not saying that we need to feel good about failure because we won’t.
I am saying that we have to get real about failure.
Failure comes with the territory.
Failure is temporary and, put in perspective, is not the end but an opportunity to create a new beginning.
I (finally!) figured out what was stopping me. It took a while and, even now that I’m loving my book again, I know that getting stuck and feeling tempted to chuck it all will happen again.
After all, a discouraged Stephen King threw away the Carrie manuscript. Lucky for him, wasn’t it, that his wife had faith when he didn’t and retrieved it from the trash?
by Ruth Harris (@ RuthHarrisBooks) June 24, 2018
What about you, scriveners? Have you ever felt like a failure as a writer? Have you ever felt like Stephen King and tossed a manuscript in the trash? Has rejection or writer’s block threatened to end your writing career? What got you back on your writing feet?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Ruth’s NYT bestseller is now absolutely FREE!
“A SPECTACULAR, RICHLY PLOTTED NOVEL. Racing to a shocking climax, this glittering novel is first-class entertainment, a story of love and money, and how both are made, lost, and found again.” ...New York Times
Owl Canyon Press Short Story Hackathon. FREE! Writers are invited to submit a short story consisting of 50 paragraphs. The contest provides the first and last paragraph. Prizes: $1000, 500, and $250. Twenty-four Finalists will be included in an anthology. Deadline: June 30, 2018.
Nowhere Magazine’s Spring Contest. The literary travel magazine is looking for stories with a powerful sense of place. $20 fee. Fiction or nonfiction. 800-5000 words. Previously published work is okay. $1000 prize plus publication. Deadline July 1st.
ARTS AND LETTERS UNCLASSIFIABLES CONTEST Have a piece that doesn’t fit in a genre? Or it’s not quite poetry OR prose? Then this the contest for you! $8 ENTRY FEE. This contest is for unclassifiable works: works that blur, bend, blend, erase, or obliterate genre and other labels. And works of up to 5,000 words considered. $500 prize. Deadline July 31, 2018.
ORISON BOOKS ANTHOLOGY $15 ENTRY FEE. They’re looking for spiritual/literary poetry, fiction and essays for their next anthology. $500 cash prize as well as publication in The Orison Anthology. Submit up to three poems, one work of fiction or nonfiction up to 8,000 words. Deadline August 1, 2018
Stories That Need to be Told Contest from Tulip Tree press. $20 entry fee.. $1,000 prize for a poem, a short story, or an essay that “tells a story.” Also publication in the anthology, Stories That Need to Be Told. Up to 10,000 words. Categories: Passion, Depth, Humor, Love. Deadline August 26.
Glimmer Train Fiction Open. $3000 prize for a short story. Second prize $1000. Entry fee $21. Any subject or theme. From 3000 to 20,000 words Deadline August 31