by Kelsie Engen
You’re standing on one mountain summit, and there are fifty miles between the next mountaintop to which you’re expected to jump. Any step you take, any direction, and you’re going to go crashing to the ground, lucky to escape with your life. There will be bruises, broken bones, broken pride, despair, and maybe, if you’re lucky, a little bit of determination that you can dig out of the rubble, dust off, and put back in place.
That is being a writer. Oh, and add a small audience watching you fail, because even beginning writers tend to have a small, critical audience watching.
Congratulations, you just failed.
Failure is human. To ignore failure and persevere is to be an artist.
Failures are a hated, despised, irritating, and yet necessary thing about being human. When you’re a beginning writer, it often seems that all you ever do is fail. Maybe you struggle with point of view, have no clue what a scene or sequel is, don’t understand the first thing about story structure, and generally feel so ignorant that the gap between where you are now as a “writer” and being an “author” feels insurmountable.
As humans, we simply cannot make ourselves perfect. You know that? Perfection does not exist. Even the greats (you know, like Austen and Dickens and whatnot) have flaws in their novels and in their writing. In fact, this quote pretty much sums it up:
“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”
― Salvador Dalí
On the surface, that’s both reassuring and depressing, isn’t it?
So here are a few lessons I’ve learned in my writing journey about perfection and failure and the determination that keeps me going, which I want to share with you.
1. Success is fluid.
We all want to write a “perfect” book, a book that will please everyone and be a wild “success”–whatever that means. We want it to be a blockbuster. Maybe this is a dream that we haven’t admitted to ourselves, haven’t really thought anything about it other than, “That’d be pretty cool.”
And so we study the greats, the indie Hugh Howeys and Amanda Hockings, the traditional Stephanie Meyers and J.K. Rowlings, and we think if only we can replicate their success! There’s got to be a way to do it!
In case you’re thinking of that route though, let me give you this:
“I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.”
― Herbert Bayard Swope
So, yeah, being a best-selling author, making millions off my brainchild, that’d be sweet. I’d love to have that happen. But it’s not realistic for most of us. In fact, it can be a dangerous dream to ascribe to. We authors are sensitive creatures and constant self-comparison only leads to depressed feelings and thoughts of inadequacy.
Repeat after me:
You are adequate, just as you are.
Keep your dreams in their place, but realize that those “success” stories had a lot of things working in their favor. The right book at the right time, the right marketing, the right amount of luck, and who knows what other stars aligned for everything to rocket them to the top of the bestseller lists?
So don’t give up on those dreams, but give yourself reasonable dreams that you can take steps toward accomplishing. “I want to sell 100 copies of my book in the next month” is a concrete, workable dream. (And that’s harder than it sounds.) So make goals and dreams that keep you focused on what you can control.
And realize that your dreams may change over time as you reach one dream and make new dreams.
2. (Don’t) keep a checklist of your failures
So failure is both human and unavoidable, right? We cannot avoid it.
But sometimes it seems as though we should be able to. Should we really be able to fail so spectacularly when everyone else seems to succeed so well?
Shall we count the ways we can fail as authors? Let’s.
- write a crappy first draft (did that)
- write a crappy second draft (done that)
- find a typo, or grammar or proofreading mistake in a published work (did that)
- hire the wrong editor (maybe)
- not spend enough time editing or revising (yep)
- give up on a WIP (yep)
- market your work to the wrong people (probably)
- not market your work at all (yep)
- not write at all (I’ve done that too)
- not sell many copies of your published works–probably due to a mixture of the above fails (yep)
- failure to keep up with the blog (yes)
- failure to post to social media or engage on social media often (yes)
- neglect my email list (yeppers)
I could go on, listing the ways in which I am a failed author.
But the question is not so much any of the above to test my mettle as an author. Instead, here’s the true question for me to consider: have I quit yet?
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
― Winston S. Churchill
So if failure is so inevitable, and yet sometimes so fleeting, why then we do we allow it to cut us down and destroy our confidence?
It’s so easy to focus on the negatives. As a society, we’re always focused on being the best, competing with one another, and with being a “bestseller” or having our book made into a movie, or whatever it is that makes you a “success” in your mind. We rate ourselves by our success, and we compare ourselves to others in order to gauge our success.
This has to stop.
While it is important to recognize our failures so that we can learn from them, I think it’s even more important to recognize our strengths. (And let’s stop calling them failures too. That sounds so negative, doesn’t it? Weaknesses, perhaps? Areas to improve upon?)
Everyone has strengths, and we can share those strengths with others and give ourselves some credit where credit is due.
Hey, maybe you aren’t a great writer yet. Maybe you’re just starting out. Remember that mountaintop? Yeah. I’ve been there, overwhelmed by my lack of skill and knowledge. But do you know what you have that established, bitter, and maybe burned-out writers once had? Passion. Enthusiasm. Love of writing.
Sometimes those who have made a living off writing for awhile, or even have just been writing for a long time, have lost that passion, enthusiasm, and even love of writing. You can share that with them. You can encourage them, rejuvenate them. And in return, you can learn from them.
3. Work on one area at a time.
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
― Winston S. Churchill
If I take a moment to look just at that list of (my) failures above, it gets depressing. Take a few moments, and it’s quite depressing. I’ve been writing for years, and that’s all I’ve got to show for it? Failure after failure?
No. Now’s the part where you make a list of your successes. I’ll start.
- Over the course of my writing life, I have finished at least 6 full-length manuscripts (bonus: with halfway decent plots).
- I’ve written, edited, polished, and published 3 short stories.
- I am preparing to publish a full-length novel (or 2) this year.
- I have family and friends who support my writing.
- Since professing myself as a writer (it takes a lot of courage to do that), I am happier with myself as a person. In other words, I have found self-worth by owning who I am.
- I have learned my strengths lie in editing.
- I have mastered a “crappy first draft.”
- I have maintained a blog for several years with (I like to think) quality advice that shows my growth as an author.
- I have persevered through difficult personal and writing periods in my life. I still write.
- I write nearly every day, usually into the hundreds of words.
- I have become a faster, more efficient writer over the years (although I’d like to improve on this too, which is why I’ve given myself a production schedule for the next two years).
- I have actually taken the step of creating an email list and gathering emails.
- I’ve gone from being a shy, timid writer who never shared my work with anyone else, to someone who is unafraid to post my work for an online critique.
I could go on listing my accomplishments, minor as they are. No, I haven’t made thousands of dollars with my published stories–probably haven’t even broken hundreds of dollars. I have broken the hundreds of downloads, although most of them are free. But my focus has been on writing new material and building up a backlist. I don’t want to spend a lot of time marketing if I have nowhere to send my readers.
Have I failed?
Yes, by some standards. But I like how Edison says it best:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
― Thomas A. Edison
Because here’s the truth: what works for one author doesn’t work for another. What works for one author’s first book won’t necessarily work for that same author’s second book. What social media works best for one author is a nightmare for the next author. A person’s ideas of success changes over time. Failures rack up, but so do successes.
Success is fluid. It’s an ever changing thing that we should never quite lose sight of, but also not allow it to be the carrot dangling on the stick before us. We should seek it, but also recognize that once in awhile, we need to sit down, seize that carrot, and take a big old juicy bite. We need to revel in our successes now and then. Have I made a bestseller list? No. But what I have done is publish some well-received stories that prove my mettle as an author. And in so doing, I’ve boosted my self-esteem, had others recognize my skills and worth as a writer and editor, and I’ve had successes.
Some days it’s worth it to focus on the failures so that we might improve. But other days, it’s as important, if not more, to focus on those successes, even if they’re minor.
Guest post contributed by Kelsie Engen. Kelsie loves to read and started her blog to share that passion with others of like mind.