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On Writing and Failure

One thing that prevents many people from writing is the fear of failing. “What if my novel sucks?” they wonder, and then to prevent that terrible outcome, they won’t bother to write it at all. That way their story idea will always remain shiny and perfect in their mind. But it’s going to be amazing(!) when they get around to writing it, one day. Just you wait.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I heard at the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2005 is you should try to fail. (I don’t remember who said it, but I bet it’s somewhere in my notes.) That was kind of mind-blowing for me. It didn’t mean that I should be trying to write a bad story; that’s pretty easy to do, in fact, in which case I would be succeeding. To me, it meant that rather than be afraid of failing to write a good story, I should be trying to write stories I think I can’t write.

Giving yourself “permission” to fail can be extremely liberating for writers. It’s part of accepting the fact that your first draft likely will be awful and will need a lot of work. But beyond that, instead of beating yourself up for not being able to write the story the way you imagined it (which hardly ever happens, by the way), you can pat yourself on the back for doing it anyway, and then you have a flawed, perhaps broken story that you will probably be able to fix. (Almost every story can be fixed in revision, but you can’t fix a blank page.) It may not ever be what it was in your head, but it still might be good. Great even. And it could end up better than your original idea.

I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately. I have a completed YA novel that we haven’t sold, which is disappointing–especially since my writing time has been greatly reduced in favor of raising a tiny human to become a good enough person to maybe help save the world when he’s a teenager. But what really has been inspiring me to fail more is a terrific writing podcast called The Fail Safe.

Created and hosted by Rachel YoderThe Fail Safe is a joint production of the Iowa Writers’ House and draft: the journal of process that “explores how today’s most successful writers grapple with and learn from creative failure.” It turns out that even established writers have unsold novels, trunked stories, abandoned projects, embarrassing essays, devastating rejections, and all the anxieties and despair that new writers struggle with. That’s both encouraging and depressing, isn’t it?

The podcast is so refreshing because people rarely talk about the projects that don’t amount to anything, or the stories they maybe feel ashamed of. When you read interviews with authors, they’re usually about the story or book that did get published and how it came about. Failure might have happened along the way, but they’re about how the author and book ultimately succeeded. It’s helpful to hear authors talk about the reality of the business, their artistic frustrations and the unpublished stories that remain invisible, as if they had never happened–which only feeds the myth that good writers don’t fail, or don’t fail as often.

I think writers need to try to fail more and “fail better”: If you’re always writing that incredible idea that you can’t do justice, or the story you’re scared to write because you don’t feel ready for it or you don’t want to ruin it, then that means you’re always challenging yourself. If you aren’t pushing yourself to work outside your comfort zone, then you’ll get really good at writing (and perhaps selling) certain types of stories, but maybe you won’t grow as much or as quickly in skills and expand your horizons. “Failure” is a good indicator of those efforts. (Of course selling stories and getting them to readers is very rewarding, but becoming a better writer and being proud of your work, even if few people ever see it, also counts for something.)

Another common bit of writing advice is that you have to write a million bad words before you can write any good ones. That million words–the first five, ten, twenty stories you write, your first NaNoWriMo novels that no one will ever read–aren’t failures. They aren’t a waste of your time, unless you’re only looking at your bank account. That messy draft you wrote that doesn’t quite come together, or the story that doesn’t sell, might have a new life someday, and in the meantime, you’ve learned something new and become a better writer in the process. That isn’t failure. It’s all just part of the process. A feature, not a bug.

The only way to fail as a writer is to not write.

So, if you feel up to it, please share some of your writing “failures” in the comments below. Projects you’ve shelved, stories you’re still trying to figure out how to write, that book you wrote in a month that you keep pulling out of the drawer and dusting off because it still feels like there’s something there…


6 Responses to On Writing and Failure

  1. Mandy Feb 27 2017 at 8:47 am #

    Thank for sharing this important advice! Seven years ago, my first novel received close to 100 rejections from agents. My next two weren’t rejected so soundly, but it was still demoralizing. I kept plugging away. Then I got an agent and my first book was published in 2015. My next two will be published in 2018 and 2019. The one in 2019 is a rewrite of that first book I wrote that was so thoroughly rejected. NEVER GIVE UP. All the words we write are important practice.

    • Sabina Feb 27 2017 at 9:28 am #

      So encouraging! Thank you!

  2. Julie Feb 27 2017 at 9:11 am #

    I love this post, EC! I had so many “failures” that helped me become a better writer. I think when the book before Ivory and Bone failed to sell, it inspired me to write something completely different–from that book or anything else out there. Now people talk about the risks I took with Ivory and Bone, but all those “risks” were inspired by the “failure” of the book before it. 🙂

  3. Marc Vun Kannon Feb 27 2017 at 9:27 am #

    My only writing rule, never do what you’ve seen done before. Which applies to everything I’ve done before, too, so I’m constantly moving into uncharted territory. I constantly wonder if I’ll be able to turn the next idea into a story. Haven’t so far.

  4. Abby Mar 2 2017 at 12:58 pm #

    Thanks for this post! It’s just what I needed to read right now. The project that got me my agent is looking like it won’t sell, and it’s time to start working on a new book. I have a shiny idea and the start of a book, but I’m absolutely terrified to write it because I’m afraid I won’t do it justice. Your idea- “rather than be afraid of failing to write a good story, I should be trying to write stories I think I can’t write” – is what I need to be telling myself.

  5. Claire Mar 8 2017 at 5:18 pm #

    Great post – just the thing I needed to hear at this stage in my writing life! I’m still a beginner, grappling with the ever-troublesome first draft of that first novel, and I’ve hit another slump where I’m too intimidated by what I’m trying to do to continue. But the more posts like this I read, the more I realise that I’m not alone, and that giving myself ‘permission to fail’, as you said, is way better than not writing at all.

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