This blog was originally published April 4, 2018, on my Only for the Brave blog, which has been eliminated as I decided to merge the two blogs. Because failure is an important part of success for writers and everyone else, I felt it was worthwhile repeating this post, this series on failure.
7 Lessons of Failure as a Writer
People look at me and see success. Published in multiple media, in multiple genres, with various awards. With an MFA and a Ph.D., too, but there have been many failures along the way.
I have failed so many times I’ve lost count, from beginning, middle, and end.
In the beginning, I couldn’t get anything published. I tried big publications, national publications, regional, and small publications. All submissions boomeranged back. Once in a while, I’d get a handwritten note at the bottom of the mimeographed rejection, saying, I like your voice, or Please submit to us in the future. I learned from others these handwritten notes were excellent rejections because they were encouraging, that I needed do as suggested.
Only after a friend read a couple of my rejected essays and said, “This sounds like Erma Bombeck,” did I realize I needed to approach our local newspaper with a suggestion for a weekly or monthly column. Success! A six-month trial became a five-year career start.
Lesson #1 – If you can’t start big, start small.
When I turned to fiction writing, specifically romance, I already had a number of magazine articles and short story publications. I was reading a romance book a day, thinking how hard can it be? Over time, I found out. I wrote four books, all getting rejections. Even a published writer friend was amazed at the rejections, saying, “It’s like you’re standing on a cliff with only the back of your heels touching. Why aren’t falling off that cliff?”
The most devastating rejections occurred with an editor writing, “I just bought a book like yours last week.” So close, yet so far away.
At 37, I had been writing romances for nine years. I vowed that if I wasn’t published by the time I turned 40, I would quit.
I turned 40. More small magazine publications, but no books. I was getting closer, though. I was winning awards and placing in contests. I had an agent. Then I lost the agent, and then a second one. They were trying to put me into a publishing box I didn’t want to climb into. They were trying to make me into a specific kind of writer that I wasn’t and didn’t want to become.
At 42, I finally published my first book. Two more book publications quickly followed.
Lesson #2 – Don’t quit. Success will come but in its own time. Quit only if you truly have no more interest in pursuing that endeavor. Ever.
About that time, I turned to scriptwriting. Producers were impressed with my book publications. While I did option one script to a producer for six months for no money, the option ran out. He wanted to renew for another six months, again with no money. I said no. About every two years after that, he would call me, asking what I’d done with the script. I knew I had a good story. (I’m in the process of rewriting and publishing that script now.)
In the meantime, I developed relationships with another five producers, all who loved my writing but couldn’t say yes to my scripts. It became a matter of trying to find the right material. They wanted me to submit anything and everything I was writing.
Lesson #3 – Rejections can be a yes.
One of my first book submissions was a colossal failure. The Senior Editor wrote:
Thank you for submitting BOOK TITLE for our review. We have found that your manuscript does not fit the requirements for PUBLISHER LINE. It is too melodramatic, based on trite misunderstandings among the characters as well as contrived circumstances. Sincerely . . .
So, she tore down the plot and conflict, the characters, the dialogue, and the…wait, there was no comment regarding the setting. Oh, wow, she liked the setting!
I used that setting in another book, with a similar conflict, different plot, different characters, and different dialogue. It sold and was published.
Going back to that rejected manuscript later, I could see that the editor was right.
The writing was horrible. At least, she saved me from that humiliation. I had mixed tenses, multiple ping-pong points of view, mixed metaphors, wordiness, too much telling, and too many details that added nothing to the story or to the characters. The book was boring.
I should have burned the book, but I didn’t. I started looking at my writing from an editor’s point of view, and that’s when the real learning began.
Lesson #4 – Learn from your mistakes.
Never compare yourself to another writer. Not by their sales numbers, the number of books sold, how fast they can write, how few drafts they have to write, by their having an agent, or being traditionally published.
When you compare yourself to others, you’ll always be a failure.
Ironically, what you don’t see is that others are probably comparing themselves to you and feeling like failures.
Lesson #5 – Don’t compare yourself to others. Ever.
Their journey is not yours. Yes, some get lucky when they are young. Some get lucky with their first book. Some get lucky winning the highest awards. Some get lucky with their self-published book, earning thousands of dollars.
When I published my first book, I was in the right place at the right time. I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk to an editor, actually being the first writer to talk to this editor, an editor looking to publish romances. He said, “If you know of anyone who has a manuscript, send them my way.” When I told him that I had one, he invited me to send it.
He rejected it! Then asked if I had anymore. I did, I sent it, and he published it.
Lesson #6 – Luck is nothing more than a preparedness meeting opportunity.
I’ll never forget a writer who was angry about some contest scores she’d received. When I told her it wasn’t personal, she said, “It’s personal to me!”
I’ll admit that early in my writing career, rejections felt personal. When I started coming back to the rejection and analyzed what was being said more closely, I realized that everything said was true. So, how could it be personal? That criticism was helpful, meant to show me that I had areas that needed improvement.
Here’s the thing: As a writer, you can’t make it personal, all about you. I learned to step back and look at it from their point of view. If I’d been that agent, producer, publisher, reader, etc., I probably would have done the same thing.
Stepping into someone else’s shoes is how you don’t make it personal.
Lesson #7 – Rejections, failures, and criticism aren’t personal.
Failure means what you’re currently doing isn’t working.
That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing personal.
Step back. Rethink what you’re doing. Rethink the path you’re taking.
Then make a change.
Here’s the real secret. No two writers ever arrive at their level of success by taking the same path. It’s different for each and every one of us.
What’s your path going to look like?