Sunday, November 13, 2011

Writing Advice 21 — Dealing With Failure

I was at a book convention recently in Baltimore where a young man asked a panel of writers what he was doing wrong. He had written his first novel, edited it, written a good query letter and had sent it to all the right agents, using all the right methods…only he still wasn’t published.  He was baffled. He couldn’t understand what he had done wrong. This isn’t the first aspiring writer that I’ve met who had this perplexing problem. And it isn’t restricted to traditional publishing. Self published authors have a similar problem. They publish their first novel and it just doesn’t sell no matter how much promotion they give it. What’s the problem?

Maybe, as the panel suggested, the young writer just hasn’t found the right editor. One editor might hate a book, while another—even at the same publisher—might love it. Or maybe, in the case of the self-published author, that person just hasn’t managed to find the right reviewers. While these are possible, I have a different thought.

Practice is sometimes a necessary component to success.  

I don’t believe that the majority of authors make a commercial success of their very first novel, and when I say first novel, I don’t mean the first published novel, I mean the first novel you’ve ever written. Many authors have had huge success with their debut novel—the first book they managed to get published—but these were not necessarily the first book they wrote. Brandon Sanderson who wrote Mistborn and is now working at finishing the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time series, was working on his thirteenth novel when ELANTRIS, his first published novel was picked up. Coincidentally, I had written thirteen novels myself before Crown was published.

Now I’m not saying that you have to write thirteen novels, but expecting to be successful with your first novel I think is a bit like picking up a tennis racquet for the first time and expecting to win Wimbledon. Sure, it’s possible, just not very likely. So it might be a good idea to play a few games first, get a feel for them, for the strategy, the length, the stamina you’ll need.

The problem is that writing a book takes a long time, and involves a lot of hard work. People often think that writing a book will be fun. They often sit down and enjoy zipping through the first chapter. They might even get into the third chapter before it starts to bog down, before they begin to think, “where was I going with this? Humm. Maybe I should think the story out a bit more before just writing. Okay, so Bob, my main character will discover that…oh, no. That’s not going to work because…crap. Damn, this isn’t working out the way I wanted. Oh look, I got a new email.” And so ends the first attempt at writing a novel.

The second attempt is likely more of the same. This sort of thing happens a lot and then the aspiring-writer finds themselves at a crossroads and needs to decide which way to go:

1) Writing just isn’t for them.
2) Writing a novel needs to be approached with a bit more seriousness than hey, you know what would be fun?

This is the point where the aspiring writer takes a deep breath, rolls up their sleeves and says, “I’m going to do this if it kills me.” They set aside time and they write with a single-minded effort. They know it will be tough. They know it will be hard work so they aren’t put-off when things get rough, and with great determination they finish this epic project.

Then they celebrate. It is like finishing a marathon. They did it! They actually wrote a novel! Then a week, or a month later they read it. Or worse they let someone else read it, and discover that what they made, what they spent months, perhaps even years on, isn’t as good as they hoped. This is actually better than having their friends and family support them and say how great it is, causing them to spend years doing nothing but trying to sell a bad book.  

Now the aspiring writer is at a new crossroads, that looks remarkably like the last, but instead of two choices, now there are three:

1) I suck and need to find a new hobby.
2) Maybe if I re-write it…
3) …

Number three is the true subject of this post, and it is not what writers want to hear, but is what I think is most often the case. The first novel is a learning experience and should be viewed that way. Odds of getting it right on the first try are very slim. To quote The Matrix, nobody makes the first jump.

The writing of a first novel from cover to cover, gains you entry into a new world. You can see what it takes. You know it can be done, and you can see where you failed. You can estimate the length and can pace yourself better. You’ve learned just how much runway you have to get your story and characters in the air, and won’t be so rushed next time. You’ve discovered the practical uses of PoV, and what you can do, and what you can’t do in editing. You’ll see where you’re weak and need improvement, and where you’re strong and how to build on that.

Of course no one ever sees it that way. No matter what the age, we are all impatient to succeed. If you’re old, you’ll feel you don’t have a lot of time left to start publishing, and if you’re young you’ll look at people like Christopher Paolini, who was around 19 when he published Eragon (15 when he started writing it. He is one of those people who I believe made a success of the first book he wrote.) So failing at publishing a first novel is rarely seen as progress.

If you’re unlucky denial will set in, and you will convince yourself that your book is great and others just can’t see it. If you’re lucky, you’ll obtain honest feedback, learn from it, and realize you haven’t failed, you’ve passed your first semester, but that doesn’t mean you get a diploma. Now with this new understanding, all those things you’ve read about writing make a lot more sense.  You know you can do better next time.

With this in mind you set out to write another novel. Much wiser, you pick a different kind of plot, one perhaps less grandiose, less extravagant, one that you feel confident you can handle. You do a bit more research up front, because that was a lot of the problem before, and then you have at it again.

It is still hard. The only thing that keeps you going is that you know you can do it because you did it before (this is something else you learned, this is your edge.) Finally you finish once more, but you aren’t so eager to celebrate. You know there are problems. You wait. You give it time. Then you read it.

It sucks. You can admit that now, your previous honest critiques provides you with this insight to see beyond just what you want to see, but still it is better. You can see that too. You study the problem, analyze where you failed. The problem is that the plot broke down part way. There are five gigantic plot holes you couldn’t fill. Places you hadn’t anticipated going in. Some characters are unneeded, others you added by necessity that were never fleshed out properly. Looking back you can see how you might have worked them into the main line more from the very start. There’s so much that could have been done better, even so, even with those changes, it still would never be great. Not bad maybe, but not great, and “not bad” won’t cut it.

You could try re-writing, but sometimes, and particularly at the start, all the rewriting in the world won’t save a bad idea, and until you know enough—until you have developed enough experience at building novels—you won’t know the difference between one worth saving and one that needs to be put to rest.

A lot of the time you just need to shelve that manuscript and come up with something new. Something better. You’re a veteran of two books at this point and having more than one experience, you can see patterns, draw conclusions about novel writing and how it applies to you personally. You got stuck in the same place twice now. Twice now you failed to create a satisfying ending, or failed to make your main character believable, or you gave away too much, or too little.  You know this about yourself, so it is time to make changes to correct those problems.

Maybe an outline would help to reveal issues before they arise, save months of work by discovering those plot holes early on and what characters are important and which should not even be in the story. It is so much easier to just think of a new approach before you start writing than to completely re-write a novel after the fact.

Once more you write. Once more you finish with less than perfect results. Damn! You relied too much on the outline and the story is stiff and contrived because you failed to let the character’s personalities and the situations dictate the direction of the plot. You re-write, you spot fix, but the story breaks down further because it feels like a patched quilt.

Again. Another novel. And another failure. And another and again a failure. It is hopeless.

“Can I read it?”
“You won’t like it. It’s awful. All the things I write are awful.”
“Huh? Are you kidding? This is good. I like this. It’s better than most of the junk out there.”
Blink. “Really? You actually like it?”
“What about the fact that the car starts when an hour ago it didn’t?”
Shrug. “Cars do that. Didn’t bother me.”
“And that it was his half-brother???”
“Actually I loved that!”
“You did?”
“You should try and get this published.”
“Yeah, it’s great. Ahh, but you might want to proof it better. There’s a lot of mistakes.”
“Oh…well, yeah. I could do that.”


You still might not get an agent with that book. You still might not find a publisher, just as that panel said, it can be hard to find just the right editor who will like your work, and maybe you’ll need to self-publish to get your work out there, to build an audience, but eventually it will happen.

Hopefully it will take less tries than it did for Sanderson and myself, but the thing is, looking back, the failure of that first novel, at the time, felt so terrible. It signified hours, days, months, years wasted. Time thrown into the black hole of a dream that would never happen. But…the moment your first book is published, the instant someone you don’t know reads it and says, “This was fantastic. You’re a genius. Have you written anything else I can read?” Suddenly you realize all those years weren’t wasted at all. That was just the time it took, the practice needed. And all those crappy books you wrote along the way? Looking back at them, you can see with perfect clarity what you did wrong. And some are just awful—what were you thinking? But a few had some good ideas, characters or plots that, knowing what you know now, you can easily rebuild into a great book. The best part—most of the work is already done. Even less time wasted.

Maybe you’ll be lucky and get your first novel published, but if you don’t, it’s not the end of the world, in fact I would think it would be surprising. No one expects you to hit a homerun your first time at bat. The difference between failure and practice, is when you quit.

Next: Applied Description


  1. Thanks SBJones. And congratz on your B&N signing for your book Requiem. I remember doing a ton of those. They can be both fun and a pain at the same time. Often the biggest problem I had was the size and position in the store of the sometimes really tiny tables they provided you with. After a while I had several books, posters, bookmarks, etc, and never enough room.

  2. Once again, a very helpful and worthwhile article. I am 30,000 words into writing my second novel. My first novel remains unfinished at 45,000 words. I realized that the story and plot had a ton of holes that just were not worth filling in. However, I learned a lot from that first attempt.

    I continue to learn with the second attempt. I can tell that it is already much better than the first although, I still have a long way to go to get good at this stuff. I will say this. Writing a novel is damn hard. This book's plot, characters, subplots, setting, etc. has changed significantly since I dreamed up the basic idea mid summer.

    It's nice to see that successful authors experience similar challenges as us noobs. It makes me hopeful and also provides some encouragement to keep plowing ahead regardless if the work will see the light of day or not.

    Thanks Michael!!

  3. Great advice. I wrote a novel and then took a left turn into screenplays. It was a wonderful learning experience. Going back to novels after that was so freeing! And I reread my messy tome and could easily see all the problems. Now I just need to figure out how to fix it all.

  4. Wow Michael. After reading your title, I eagerly dove into the first paragraph seeking the magic fix. Instead I found reality. Your article perfectly mirrors the ups and downs of emotions we authors, especially new ones, face. Thanks for some good, solid, and practical advice.

  5. Michael - I read this post from start to finish. I even reread several segments. This was just the post I needed today. I'm in the midst of my plot summaries for my third novel, and I am aware how much it stinks of novice-dom. :)

  6. Nice post. I think my somewhat unique problem is that I have been writing since I was six, so in many of my "novels" I was not only learning how to craft a story but also how to spell, use punctuation, etc. One of my first novels that I wrote when I was a teenager used no punctuation whatsoever. When I turned 14, I again failed at writing a novel---it was more a series of short stories threaded together. But again, I was so young, there was also the need to learn basic things about life, like what it meant to be in love or how it feels to kiss a girl. My third novel, The Nomad, I was more proud of, but I didn't even try to publish it. I knew it just wasn't good enough. I am 37 now and I just rewrote (from scratch, not edited) my fourth novel. It is a long, hard slog, and it's a painful process considering the hours spent working at the story. But the way I see it, all of the failed books exist to get you to the one true work of merit.

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