Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 6, 2018

A Writer’s Lessons in Failure

Heather Webb

Failure. Hmmmm. Well, I recently entered two contests and wasn’t selected. I’ve had agents who didn’t want me, editors who didn’t want my book(s), and enough negative reviews to be christened an author. I’ve also had the illustrious pleasure of receiving a small handful of emails from Wikipedia Historians telling me why I’m wrong about some research. Failure indeed. I’ve had lots of it, and suspect plenty more lies on the horizon.

For writers, failure is a four-letter word. We fear it, we dread it, and we try to avoid it at all costs. But perhaps we give it too much power. Maybe it’s best to run straight at it, helmet on. Learning how to cope with “failure” comes through loads of practice (sadly), but it also comes through two important skills a writer needs to survive:

ACCEPTING WHEN YOUR CRAFT NEEDS WORK  This is really difficult sometimes because it involves listening to others who criticize your work, as well as learning to listen to your intuition. Our ego likes to make us feel that critical feedback is wrong, and that we just haven’t found the right audience yet. But in time, we learn to discern the difference between our ego and what our gut tells us. We learn to digest the feedback, and work on our problem areas one at a time. Finally, we learn to make good friends with humility.

Humility serves us well, not only making us kinder, more open-minded people, but it enables us to filter out the helpful advice embedded within the harsh feedback, negative reviews, or the ever-present “something to improve upon in our pages”.

DEVELOP YOUR OWN PHILOSOPHY OF FAILURE  In spite of my many disappointments, rejections, and instances of failure, I’ve achieved some successes and happily work toward a growing portfolio. This came with a pound of flesh, but I don’t regret a single failure. They have forced me to dig deeply to remain connected with what drove me to write in the first place: a love of story. I’ve been forced to evolve to make my dreams happen. I’ve been forced to accept failure as a matter of course, not as an evaluation of who I am as a person, or as a measure of what I deserve. I have survived, in short, because I have developed my own philosophy of failure.

I must admit, my philosophy of failure changes the longer I write and the longer I work with publishers. To begin, I believe every attempt to achieve a writing goal that didn’t produce measurable positive results still gave me something that is more precious than anything tangible—it gave me experience. These experiences evolved into knowledge, and we all know knowledge is power.

But let’s be more concrete about this. Let’s look at “failure” from a numbers stand point. Writers are full of story ideas—loads of them. It’s impossible for publishers to buy everything we write, or to get on board with everything we love. There simply isn’t enough time or resources, or consumers for that matter. Therefore, everything we create won’t sell. This is why it’s imperative to WRITE ON, try new concepts, work on a new style or format. Challenge yourself. Keep going. Some ideas will strike a chord and some won’t.

Regardless of what happens with our books when they leave our desk, it’s our job as writers to keep developing stories that mean something to us on a deep, intangible level. It’s our job to explore and to push boundaries. We must weave our despair and angst and hope and joy into stories so others can relate to the characters that carry these messages. These are the stories that will succeed—and those that don’t succeed on a public level, feed our creative souls.

Writers write. It’s what we do. Failure is like death and taxes—all are a certainty. Failure wounds us, but that shouldn’t diminish our need to make sense of the world through words. Those wounds, instead, should make our need to create more powerful and urgent. So move failure off your hit list, and instead, consider it a measurement of your strength and skill.

What is your philosophy of failure?

About Heather:

Heather Webb is the international bestselling author of historical novels Becoming Josephine, Rodin’s Lover, Last Christmas in Paris, and The Phantom’s Apprentice, which have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly and more, as well as received national starred reviews. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was selected as a Goodreads Top Pick, and in 2017, Last Christmas in Paris became a Globe and Mail bestseller. To date, Heather’s novels have sold in multiple countries worldwide. She is also a professional freelance editor, and teaches craft courses at a local college.


28 comments on “A Writer’s Lessons in Failure”

  1. EXCELLENT post on believing in ourselves, even when others don't. Yes, taking constructive criticism as we write is necessary, but to a point. If our story fills our own soul, if it satisfies the writer within us, sometimes we bite into the failure, swallow it, and just keep going with our own gut belief. As I tell my creative writing students, first and foremost we must write for ourselves, and then when we're ready, send it out to the universe.

  2. I've had more experience with this than most Heather, since my process is by trying most ways not to do something and eventually stumbling onto something that works. I used to hate it; taking it as proof that i'm not very bright.

    But over the years, I've come to accept it as my process. The advantage is, once I learn something, I never make a mistake with that again.

    I try to take hear in Einstein's quote: "It's not that I'm so smart; it's just that I stay with problems longer."

    I believe if we stop judging ourselves about the length of time it takes us to learn, we could focus on the learning itself, and probably end up farther ahead in the end.

    And yes, I can't always do that, either. Expectations kill.

    1. What a great quote, Laura! I love that, and need to tattoo it on my forehead. 😀 As for accepting our process, I struggle with it, too. In fact, mine changes slightly with each book because I've found that each book has different needs. It can be frustrating, but as you said, sitting with the problem until it's done hopefully furthers us along in the end. Thanks for your comments.

  3. This is encouraging. As I was failing to get an agent and then failing to get a publishing contract, both things I eventually succeeded at accomplishing, my failures were private or else shared with other writers through WFWA, CCWA, and blogs like this. Solidarity. Now with publication scheduled and cover concepts being batted around, whatever failure I have in the future will be on the public side--Amazon and Goodreads. I'm not looking forward to that. But, as you said, it's inevitable. I'm sure it will take some time to get used to. And I hope I can glean what lessons are there to be gleaned.

    1. Congratulations on your upcoming book, Erin! I can't wait to see it soar! 🙂

      Yes, your failures will become much more public, but that said, they do get easier over time. There's a quote somewhere that I wish I could find, but it goes something like this: If you aren't being criticized, you aren't putting anything out there that's worthwhile. I believe this! Thanks for your comments today!

  4. Love this post - thank you! My kids' school focuses on a growth mindset (there's a great book and Ted Talk by Carol Dweck you can check out) and I have to say, it has changed the way I approach revisions and querying. The idea is that you can always be learning, that you just haven't succeeded YET, the focus is always on the effort - and isn't the writing/the process the reason why we do it? My kids are always saying "FAIL" is just a "First Attempt In Learning." Our failures are our greatest teachers. They don't feel good, but without them we wouldn't learn a thing and our writing would never improve.

    1. This is wonderful! I'll have to look up that talk by Carol Dweck as I dive into revisions...

  5. Heather, this is terrific. I have long believed that I learn more from failure than from success (sadly, I've had lots of opportunities to find this out!), and, the longer I write, the more I realize that my true joy lies in actually writing, not in whatever comes after the book is finished--it really is the journey that matters for me. So my way of coping with failure is typically to just dig back into whatever project I'm working on again, or start a new one. Btw--I'm working my way through your backlist, and I love love love your books!

  6. Love this line: "Maybe it’s best to run straight at it, helmet on." I've had more failures than I'd like, but I've also learned a lot in the process. I also find my spirits buoyed by the biographies of successful authors who got knocked down quite a few times on their way to their success.

  7. Great post! After ten years of working toward publication, sometimes all I see are the failures. It's nice to look back and think where i was back then, and where I am today. Maybe not published, but I've made great writing friends along the way, I've finaled/won contests, I've signed with an agent. I keep dreading going back out on submission soon because I look at it as ANOTHER ROUND OF REJECTIONS. But if you don't try, you'll never succeed. *puts helmet on, runs straight at it* Thanks for a great post!!!

  8. My philosophy of failure: one must endure failure to appreciate success. Failure happens, and sometimes it might feel like the end of the world, but it can also be the opening of another door and opportunity.


  9. Heather, I love it when I see you here at WITS! And this post was meant for me. I've been working on some writing assignments that are new and different for me, and I need to (always) let go of the fear of failure and just send the work out into the world.

  10. Thank you so much for this. It seems that as I travel my publishing journey, that failure is usually there waiting for me and we've got to go through the same dance steps each time we meet (self-pity, anger, discouragement). Hopefully, as many of you have stated, I will learn from my encounters each time we meet. It's been long road— three agents and three published books, and it's humbling to start over and meet rejection as if you are a newcomer. But as one of you stated above, it's the love of stories and writing that pushes us forward. After a little do-se-do with my old friend Failure, we bow, part ways, and I continue my climb--a little chastened, and maybe just a bit tougher and wiser.

  11. […] https://writersinthestormblog.com/2018/04/a-writers-lessons-in-failure/ “For writers, failure is a four-letter word. We fear it, we dread it, and we try to avoid it at all costs. But perhaps we give it too much power. Maybe it’s best to run straight at it, helmet on. Learning how to cope with “failure” comes through loads of practice (sadly), but it also comes through two important skills a writer needs to survive:” Something we all have experience with. Sometimes we have to do so, to learn. In failing, we can begin again until we succeed. […]

  12. Wonderful post, Heather! I woke up this morning and forced myself to sit still before I started the week and thought of humility... Apropos I read your article and found this:

    "Humility serves us well, not only making us kinder, more open-minded people, but it enables us to filter out the helpful advice embedded within the harsh feedback, negative reviews, or the ever-present “something to improve upon in our pages”."

    You've done an amazing job in continuing on with writing and blossoming your writing career, but as you say, we all have failures that lead us there. We've got to march on, learning, pursuing, otherwise how bored would we be? (I write that as I tell the kids that I'd rather go garden than try to figure out whether to accept certain aspects of the critique and dive deeper or whether to listen to the girl inside who's digging in her heels and saying "it's fine the way it is!")

  13. Thank you Heather, I did accept the first "skill" required to survive and my craft did indeed need work. Am still progressing though it but if I can see a change, it must be happening.Trying to learn from each faltering step. So I'm in the second phase but love the process of writing and storytelling, so maybe, one-day soon, the stars will align (cliche alert) for me. 🙂
    Thanks too, to WITS - inspiration unlimited.

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