How you feel about failure will affect your writing
Nobody likes failure. No one is pleased when something they’d dreamt about doesn’t go how they’d planned. We don’t like it on a small scale (that poem that just will not come together in the way we want), and we especially don’t like it on larger scale.
My first big writing failure came when I didn’t sign with an agent for the first book I queried. I’m not ashamed to call this a failure, and I think one of the worst things we can do with failure is not name it. It’s a kind of hiding away, not acknowledging that actually you put a lot of time and effort and love into something that just didn’t work out. So first of all, let’s name it.
I failed when I didn’t get an agent for my first book. I failed when I stopped querying agents after just 30 rejections on my second book. I failed, most recently, when I had to cancel a series of one-off courses. And I know I will fail in the future. Publishers will reject my book. I will have other events I’ll have to postpone due to health reasons. I will probably hit some kind of creative stumbling block, be that a lack of new ideas or a lack of faith in the ideas I do have. And then there are all the little failures along the way. A character who didn’t hit the mark emotionally, an idea that no-one gets behind, a morning when no matter how hard you try, the words just will not come.
This is why it’s so important to name failure, to face up to it, because in writing it is going to keep happening again and again. If you shy away from it so much that you can’t even name it, eventually you’re going to stop doing the things that make you fail. And writing will cause failure.
Writing is all about stepping out and opening yourself up to rejection. Even if you only write for yourself, you’ve still got to put pen to paper and sometimes things aren’t going to hit the paper quite how you’d imagined. Kent Nerburn says in his glorious book Dancing with the Gods, ‘any creative act involves great emotional risk.’
We have to acknowledge that writing is scary and that we will fail many times, otherwise we will stagnate. I know so many people who get stuck on tinkering with their opening chapter or they cannot bear to go back and edit their first drafts. I think it is because they are afraid. They have put so much into their writing, even if they have just done a little, and the fear of failure keeps them from taking another step. They know, deep down, that failure is inevitable in writing and they cannot cope with that.
I’ve said already, no one likes failure. I was not a happy bunny when I made the decision to stop querying my first novel (you can read a bit more about that here). It felt like a very significant failure. It was also quite a public failure as I had become more active on Twitter while querying, and so people would know I hadn’t achieved what I’d set out to. It was rubbish. I loved my book, and time and time again it had been pushed back. I didn’t feel good enough. I cried a lot.
But there was hope despite this epic fail. I needed time to wallow yet even in that time of sorrow (you may think I’m being dramatic but chat to anyone who has had to shelve one of their book-babies – they know the pain!), there was still some fight in me.
I talk on the rejection course about how important it is to have big dreams. I honestly think this is one of the most important things writers can do. We need to acknowledge failure, and sometimes it feels like it is coming at us daily, but if we have massive dreams there is always something we can be hoping and planning for.
I took time out after querying my first book but, even as I made the decision to stop, I knew I was going to query another book. And then another, and another. I would keep querying as long as it took to get an agent because my big dream is to be a published author. This dream is much bigger than one failed attempt (made up of over a hundred attempts!) at getting an agent. It is bigger than my bad writing days, than my lack of faith in myself, than the comments from beta readers that show I missed the mark.
Big dreams make failure okay because they don’t depend on doing well at one thing and one thing only. Big dreams take several steps. Big dreams mean that sometimes we’re going to have to jump and hope we land on dry land rather than in a bog. But big dreams make the bogs bearable. They reframe the rejections and bad reviews and zero-word days into temporary set-backs.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to spend some time thinking about what your big dreams are. Go mad. Dreams don’t have to be realistic. Some of mine are; to publish books for both young adults and adults, to have a book optioned as a TV series, to one day be contacted by a reader who saw themself in one of my characters.
These dreams are much bigger than my worst days. They are much brighter than my darkest moments. They keep me going when every word I put down is awful and every reaction I get is negative.
Big dreams don’t mean failure will not happen. It will happen a lot. I’m just not afraid of failing because I know that if I don’t step out and risk losing, there is also no chance I’m going to win and get everything I’ve dreamed of.
I hope you will keep failing your way towards your dreams too.