Browsing the archives for the failure tag.
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Wait, You’re Not a Real Writer at All!

Writing

The original version of this article first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’m editing and republishing each of my BHfW columns here over time.

Writing professionally, or even just aspiring to write professionally, requires a weird combination of hubris and humility. You have to be willing to believe, at least for the 15 minutes it takes to put together and send out your submission, that the stuff you make up and write down is so fascinating that thousands or tens of thousands of people would pay good money to read it. The Hollywood Bowl has a seating capacity of about 18,000, but even a modestly successful midlist novelist or someone who sells a story to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction reaches more people than that. Who the hell do we think we are?

At the same time, we have to embrace humility if we’re not going to drive ourselves nuts. Actors and salespeople are among the few who compete with writers in the “getting rejected” department–and even those professions don’t spend two years on a project, send it out, wait eighteen months, and receive in return a form letter saying “No thank you; good luck elsewhere.”

Impostor syndrome
So is it any wonder that writers are often susceptible to Impostor Syndrome? If you’re not familiar with Impostor Syndrome, you might be interested in the article “Impostor Syndrome” on this site, but short version is that it’s when you see your successes and you think they must be due to someone making a mistake. Any time you sell a story, get a bite from an agent, or receive a positive review, it seems like a fluke. Obviously these people don’t understand that I’m really a big faker, you might think, or if I wrote something good, it was just blind luck and will never happen again.

Many many writers I know struggle with impostor syndrome. From a certain perspective, it makes sense: if you spend years and years looking up to people who are getting regularly published in certain magazines or whose novels are making it into the hands of thousands of satisfied readers, and if during this time you get a constant barrage of polite but generally impersonal messages that say “No, this thing that you poured your heart and every ounce of skill you have into really isn’t any good,” then you’d have a pretty inflated view of yourself to not ask yourself if the sale you finally get isn’t some kind of anomaly. (No disrespect intended to those who, like me, lean more to the hubris side than the humility one.) Maybe the editor who bought your story was drunk when she read it. Maybe your new agent is confusing you with another writer who’s actually good.

Misdirected expectations
It can get even worse when you have a little success: maybe you sell a story or get an honorable mention in a major contest. What happens if the next story you send out fails miserably? It just reinforces the idea that the first success was a fluke–even though any decent statistician with access to writers’ track records would predict a few failures with a high degree of confidence, even for writers who overall became very successful.

It doesn’t help that we writers are not particularly good judges of our own work. (See “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing”). We may think a particular piece we’ve done is the best thing ever written, or may think it’s utter trash, and in either case we can be right on the nose, tragically wrong, or even both.

Thinking your way out
So how do you stop feeling like a faker? Well, there’s thought and there’s action.

In the thought department, we’re better off when we avoid telling ourselves things that are either false or questionable and instead stick to things we know are true. For instance, instead of thinking “I know this story is going to be rejected,” we can substitute the thought “This story might sell or it might not. If it doesn’t, I’ll send it somewhere else.” That process, called “cognitive restructuring” (or my preferred term, “idea repair”), may seem elementary, but it’s surprisingly effective, as research and clinical results have shown. If you’re interested in idea repair, which is useful for far more than just addressing Impostor Syndrome, you can find articles, books, and other resources on the topic here.

Where does confidence come from?
On the action side of things, one of the most productive things to do is more. Write more, send more out, and get more used to the rejections–and the acceptances. I was at my son’s high school yesterday for a parent presentation, and I was powerfully impressed to see what complete confidence and self-possession every one of his teachers showed when presenting to groups of parents. How can they be so confident? I asked myself.

The answer to where the confidence came from was quickly obvious to me: these are teachers who enjoy their jobs, and they stand up and talk like this for most of every workday. They have get in more public speaking in the typical week than many people will do in their lifetimes. Effective practice makes you better and better at what you’re doing, and it also quells concerns about whether you have any right to do it. I’ve written about 15,000 words of fiction in the past week. I know from critique responses (we sometimes get very rapid turnaround on critique in my writer’s group) that at least some of those words worked well for a good sampling of readers, but I have no way of knowing if the stories I’ve put together will sell or just become more rejection magnets. However, having written all that, and especially doing that and then sending the work out, I know that I’m a writer. Whether or not editors buy what I write is up to them and out of my direct control. All I can do is keep plugging away, always working on something new, concerning myself not with whether people accept what I’ve written but with how well I’m doing the job of churning out words worth reading.

The thing is, regardless of how successful your writing is now or ever, if you bust your hump putting out new works, and if you push the envelope to try to make yourself better at what you do, then you’re a writer–and you might as well be proud of it.

Photo by V’ron

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The Help: Kathryn Stockett Achieves Resounding Success After Years of Rejection

Projects

Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, has become my new favorite example of the power of persistence. She certainly hasn’t made me forget about Jo Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers before finding a home at Bloomsbury, but Rowling got representation from the second agent she tried, while Stockett reportedly got at least 45 rejections for The Help before even finding an agent (see this article for a bit more on that).

If you don’t happen to be involved with publishing, I should explain that even after an author finds an agent, the agent then has to submit the book to publishers, so even finding an agent can be a long way away from getting a book published.

The Help is an engrossing, insightful novel about black maids and their white employers in the American South in the early 1960’s. I finished reading it (actually, listening to the audio book, which is very well performed) the other day, and it has taken its place among my favorite novels for its involving story, entertaining style, and heart. As you may know, Stockett’s novel has been made into a hugely successful movie and has sold millions of copies. After reading it, I found myself hoping that it had to do with direct experience, that Stockett was one of the children who were raised by the kinds of maids we get to know in the book. This turns out to be true, although Stockett is about a decade younger than the children in her novel.

Try, Improve, Try Again
Flying in the face of Robert Heinlein’s famous advice (“You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order”), which reportedly even Heinlein himself didn’t quite follow, Stockett kept making changes and improving her manuscript as she received rejection after rejection, though she doesn’t seem to have been at all immune to the painful process of having a work you’ve slaved away on repeatedly turned down and spoken ill of. This brings to mind Harper Lee’s process with To Kill a Mockingbird: she edited that novel over a long, laborious period with her editor, Tay Hohoff. While we know that there are great successes that come out more or less great from the beginning, others, clearly, are crafted over time.

It’s tempting to think that when many agents or publishers reject a book that later becomes successful, that they’re simply foolish or short-sighted. This can certainly be the case, as with the book publishers who said children would never read a book as long as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, or the editor who told Emily Dickinson that her poems were “generally devoid of true poetical qualities.” Sometimes, though, these people are just being truthful about work that doesn’t fit for them, or are responding to something that isn’t yet fully realized, a diamond in the rough that as far as the rejecting party knows may never really be cut to its proper shape.

Does persistence always pay off?
So should we take from this that, like Stockett, all we have to do is to hang in there, keep trying, and success will eventually come? I would suggest that the complete answer to that is “Yes and no.” Persistence seems to be a very important quality to have if we want to be successful at anything great. Actually, maybe “persistence” doesn’t quite cover it. Maybe the word I’m looking for is devotion, when we don’t simply show up, but put our whole selves into our efforts.

With that said, persistence alone isn’t necessarily going to get us anywhere. The Help is reportedly Stockett’s first novel, but she has a background in writing and editing, and most of the published novelists I know wrote at least one other novel or a lot of short stories (sometimes both) before selling a book.

Diamond in the rough or practice project?
So it is possible to stick with a project too long. With that said, I’m not sure it’s possible for us to stick with projects we really believe in, profoundly, for too long. Practice is essential to developing great skill, and realistically, some of the projects on which we set all of our hopes will eventually turn out to have been practice projects: practice books, practice jobs … even practice relationships.

Other projects need improvement. There’s no such thing as practice parenting if real kids are involved, so despite any past mistakes, all we can hope to do with parenting is to improve ourselves and do the best we can going forward. Some books just need a lot of editing or rewriting. Some businesses need a new direction to survive or thrive.

How do we tell the difference? That’s the hardest part, of course, but the keys seem to be

1) We are most successful when we pursue goals we’re passionate about
2) Failure and rejection are not, in themselves, evidence that we’re on the wrong track
3) If we continue backing one specific project or effort, we need to be open to improving it if the opportunity presents itself, and
4) Experience and insight sometimes show us that a previous attempt is no longer worth pursuing.

That last point is tricky, but the core of it is keeping in touch with our passion for our work. If that passion has died away because we come to see that we can do more or better, than that’s all right: it may be time to start a new project. If we’ve simply been worn down by not achieving what we had hoped for, though, the danger is of giving up too soon. Success is sometimes a long road, but personally, I’m inspired by the example of people who, like Stockett, have followed it to its end however long that takes.

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Having a Purpose Makes You Powerful

Strategies and goals

In a recent post (“How to Change the World: Simon Sinek on Leadership“), I talked about Simon Sinek’s TED talk, which boils down to “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” By “buy,” Sinek also means “care,” “act,” “follow,” or “join in.” The principle fits sales, but it also fits social change, politics, the spread of ideas, and a lot else.

To have a “why” is to have a purpose, and I’ve begun to realize that having a purpose makes you nearly invincible. To explain that, let me tell you two stories. Let’s start with the failure.

The fall of the REALM
About 18 years ago I owned a small software development company outside Philadelphia, and I was hired to develop a software product to manage real estate and physical assets, like vehicles and storage tanks. The man behind the project at the client company was a friendly, energetic guy, and he quickly revealed that he was interested in doing more than just dealing with his own corporation’s needs: he had forged an agreement with the company such that they got free updates and enhancements and he would get rights to the software they paid to have developed. As I was the developer, he offered to split proceeds with me 50/50 if I would stay in the game and develop it further.

This was a golden opportunity. There was no software we could find that did what REALM (Real Estate, Assets, and Logistics Management) came to be able to do. REALM was easy to use, was inexpensive by corporate software standards, and was developed by an asset management specialist (him) and a skilled database and application developer (me). We made many enhancements and began to sell the software. We got a few clients, a few opportunities … and eventually fizzled. What should have been a business that could have made me financially secure for a long time, if not for life, turned out to be a time suck. Why? We had a good product. We had funding to develop it to a marketable state. We were both smart, friendly people. What happened?

I’ll tell you what happened: my heart wasn’t in it. When it came right down to it, I didn’t care about physical asset management, and even if I did, I didn’t care about the corporations that needed to do it. I was in the project for the money; that was basically it.

I don’t mean to suggest it was immoral or anything. After all, we need money to live in this society: without it, there would be a very real chance of starving or freezing to death on the street. Yet money has never really seemed that important to me in the grand scheme of things, and it was an utter failure for me as inspiration.

The rise of Codex
Now let’s shift gears and talk about something I’ve done that has been very successful: Codex. Codex is a free, online writers’ group designed originally for “neo-pro” fiction writers–that is, writers who are just beginning to prove themselves. (A number of its members have since become established pros, however.) The initial entrance requirements were either making a pro fiction sale or attending one of the major workshops where they choose participants from a writing sample. We later added alternative ways to qualify: getting a good agent or reaching a certain level of success with selfpub writing.

Codex was a ton of work. I had written a forum system in the past, and I used that for Codex instead of installing one of the common ones. Because I had done that, it wasn’t too hard to integrate a lot of features into the forum, like a critique exchange with tracked critique credit, contests with anonymous participation, a library of Codexians’ work, a blog tour system, and a lot more. The Codex forum as it now exists represents tens of thousands of dollars worth of custom programming, though I had never thought about it like that until just now.

Yet the technical work has been a minority of what I have done to keep the group running. I’ve participated in thousands of discussions, moderated, handled disputes, developed rules when they were needed, oriented new members, and otherwise run things that need running.

How has Codex worked out? Very, very well. We’ve barely made any effort to recruit members, but we get a steady stream of new applications. We’ve had over seven thousand discussions with well over 200,000 posts, over a thousand works critiqued, and dozens of contests over eight years. Our membership continues to grow bit by bit: last I checked, there were more than 230 active members. More and more members are selling novels and short stories and getting nominated for awards. On the current Nebula award ballot, every single person in the short story category is a member of Codex, though one of that group joined (without any solicitation from the group) after the nominations were announced.

Codex doesn’t net me any money–in fact, in the past it has cost me money, though this year a Codex member generously underwrote the cost of the entire year’s hosting as a celebration of his writing success. What’s more, these days I’m so busy with my own writing and related work, family, Taekwondo, and the daily demands of life that I can’t really even participate meaningfully in the discussions–I don’t have time. Yet Codex has provided meaningful friendships, my best professional opportunities in writing, huge amounts of insight, and a lot more. My first book sale (to a major publisher), my opportunity to do commentary for a Florida NPR affiliate, and my first professional speaking engagement all occurred because of Codex.

The thing is, I’ve never questioned my commitment to Codex because I have a purpose: to develop and be part of a community that helps its members improve their writing. If I hadn’t had that purpose, I would have given up on it a long time ago. My purpose protected Codex from getting derailed by problems like arguments among members (rare, but damaging), unreliable Internet hosting providers (we’ve had to switch service providers five times!), the need for complicated yet unpaid programming work, and so on.

There is no such thing as competition when you have purpose
Having a real purpose eliminates competition: people who are doing the same thing you’re doing for the same reason are helping you, because a real purpose is about something bigger than ourselves. People who are doing the “same” thing you’re doing for different reasons, often shallow ones, really aren’t doing the same thing at all.

I’ve recently started doing professional speaking events, and at first I was a bit worried that there would be too much competition for me to thrive. Yet I quickly came to realize that my speaking was an outgrowth of the same thing that has made this blog successful, which is a profound desire to first learn, then share knowledge of how to become a more empowered, compassionate, and happy human being. I don’t know whether that sounds hokey or not, but I do know that people who hear me speak do and will see that I am there to try to make their lives profoundly better. Anyone who’s doing the exact same thing has my admiration. Anyone who isn’t is no competition at all.

Photo by Lisa Tiyamiyu

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The Courage to Suck

States of mind

It seems that the best thing that ever happened to Harper Lee as a writer was also the worst thing that ever happened to Harper Lee as a writer.

In 1956, Lee received a gift of a year’s wages from friends who told her to “write whatever you please.” Let’s take a moment now for intense jealousy. All done? OK, let’s see what happened next.

“Whatever Harper Lee pleased” turned out to be her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960. It was a bestseller right out of the gate. Critics loved it. Readers loved it. It won a freaking Pulitzer Prize. To say that the book did well would be an ugly and thoughtless understatement.

Writers who would like to take the moral “Write whatever you please” from this story are welcome to take their things and go now. We’ll wait while you get up. However, you may wish to consider the many, many people who write whatever they please and fail to become bestselling Pulitzer Prize winners. I’m just sayin’.

Hoping for a quick and merciful death
On to the actual point of today’s column: Harper Lee’s greatest triumph seems to have absolutely crushed her spirit. Here’s what she said about the experience:

“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I expected.”

Impostor syndrome
My guess is that it was more frightening. I’ve talked on this site about Impostor Syndrome, which is the experience of feeling as though you are getting rewards or recognition you don’t deserve, through some kind of fluke or fakery. One of the people I coach, for instance, is about to start her first year at Harvard after a fairly terrific high school academic career. Her grades were no accident, yet it’s hard for her to believe that people aren’t overestimating her. So it is, I suspect, with Harper Lee.

Because Harper Lee hasn’t offered any fiction for publication since To Kill a Mockingbird was published. She worked on a second novel, but wasn’t satisfied with what she was coming up with and, tragically and tellingly, burned it. While I don’t know Ms. Lee and could potentially be making unwarranted inferences, it appears that she suffers from a crippling fear of sucking.

Risking disgrace
After all, how would it feel if you wrote a novel that was praised to the South Pole and back, then wrote a second novel that was universally recognized as unreadable hackwork? In reality, I suspect a bad second novel would be quickly forgotten after the initial disappointment. It would have to be far, far worse than the usual offering to lastingly tarnish her reputation. And yet the fear of sucking seems to have deprived us of any and all other Harper Lee novels that might ever have been.

And unfortunately, fear of sucking is not restricted to Pulitzer Prize winners. Whether we have great successes in our past or no track record at all, it’s all too easy to look at something we’re writing and let the fear that it isn’t good enough crush us. We might stop writing, or fail to send it out, or fail to send it out a second time, or fail to send it out a fifteenth time. (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by the way, took 13 tries. Rowling then went on to write six more books in the series, several of which are arguably better than that first, wildly successful volume, making J.K. Rowling in a way the anti-Harper Lee–as long as she doesn’t consider the whole Harry Potter series her To Kill a Mockingbird.)

Sucking happens
I should be clear here: courage or no courage, our writing may at any given time suck. As good as practice can make us over time, there is never any absolute guarantee that our latest piece is any good, and there’s virtually no way any one person can judge the true value of a piece of writing, especially not the writer.

Yet there’s also good reason to believe that the latest thing you’ve been working on may well be the best thing you’ve ever written. Or if it isn’t, that finishing it and sending it out may grant you a precious insight that will take you to a whole new level of writing awesomeness. Courage can’t prevent us from sucking, but fear of sucking can prevent us from ever realizing our dreams.

A note: The discussion of Harper Lee in this piece is an extension of the big old section on overcoming writer’s block in my free eBook The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation.

This piece is reprinted from my column at Futurismic.

UPDATE, FEBRUARY 2015: I was happy to hear the news that another novel of Harper Lee’s will be published this year. It’s the novel she wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird, however, so unfortunately we still won’t get to see what she might have written to follow that work. The new book is, however, a sequel, written in response to requests for more about Scout’s childhood after an editor read the flashbacks in this new/old novel.

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Stay the Course or Try Something New and Promising? Some Ways to Decide

Strategies and goals

A friend recently mentioned that she was having trouble deciding whether to stay with a project she’d been working on for some time or to follow a new, very unusual idea she’d come up with that could, she thinks, be highly successful. While she’s been enthusiastic about the new idea, it isn’t catching on with the people she’s talked to about it so far.

There is no simple way, much of the time, to make these kinds of decisions. Some of us are constantly seduced by new and exciting ideas–for me, for instance, it’s an unusual week when I don’t dream up some huge project I could be doing instead of what I have on my plate already. I’m glad to say I usually write these down and stay the course, since if I followed every one I’d never finish anything at all.

Others of us have no inclination to rock the boat and want to stay with what we have–sometimes even when that’s showing every sign of failing.

So how can we make good decisions about choices when we can’t predict the outcomes? Here are some suggestions for ways to do that.

Sometimes audacity is brilliant
First, it seems to me that doing things that other people say will never work sometimes works amazingly, as with J.K. Rowling’s much-too-long debut young adult novel or Beethoven’s opening to his 5th symphony, which starts on the second beat.

Innovators have to be able to hold the line
Second, even when an audacious idea is successful, its creator often has to perservere well beyond the usual point of success to get anywhere. Rowling was rejected by a couple of dozen publishers before Bloomsbury picked her up, and the great majority of writers would probably never have persisted that long. I gather that some of the initial reaction to Beethoven’s 5th symphony was disbelief and scorn, though some of that may have been because the premiere went very badly.

Failure is normal
Third, most ideas that other people say will never work really do never work, just because it’s hard to make a big, new thing come to life in an effective way. Audacious surprise successes are very unusual.

How committed can you be?
Fourth, the audacious ideas that do succeed seem to do so only when their creator is completely behind the idea, heart and soul. I can reflect on a variety of businesses I’ve worked on the past that have begun promisingly but ultimately died with a whimper because I didn’t want pour my entire life into them. Some were very sound, and one of the businesses did hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business before it petered out, but when it comes down to it, business isn’t what interests me, so that these days I avoid getting involved in business pursuits whenever I can even though I’ve gained a lot of good experience in that area.

Follow happiness
Some advice that’s very good in other situations, like “follow your passions” or “just do it!” can fail us when we’re working on complicated decisions. One suggestion I’ve heard is “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” This kind of advice has led uncounted young people to Hollywood to try to become stars, for instance, and the huge majority of them wash out completely. Does that make it a bad decision? It depends. Maybe the thing to do is to choose the course that will make you happy even if you fail, just because you tried and you put everything you had into it. With that approach, even failure can be a form of success.

Photo by brockzilla

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How Can Bad Relationships Feel So Right?

The human mind

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on schema therapy and mental schemas, a subject I’ve written about here a number of times: see links on my Mental Schemas and Schema Therapy page. One of the most intriguing insights that’s come up in that reading is “schema chemistry.” What’s schema chemistry? The short version is this: sometimes the people we are most strongly attracted to are the ones who are the most likely to make us crazy.

I don’t want to overstate this: I don’t imagine for a minute that all love, romance, chemistry, and attraction are based on people fitting their mental baggage together–but it’s pretty fascinating that some of it seems to be, for some people.

The apparent reason schema chemistry happens is that the kinds of troubles we’re used to are comfortable and normal-feeling to us, so a person who causes the same problems we’re used to will feel more familiar and closer. If Mary grew up in a house where her parents always left her alone, she might very well feel more “at home”–not happier, but in more familiar and “right-feeling” territory–if she dates someone who always leaves her home alone, too. If Jack’s mom was always telling him he was a hopeless screw-up, he might have more respect for and feel more familiar with a girlfriend who always tells him the same thing.

According to some accounts in Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide by Drs. Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko, it appears this isn’t always a mild effect, either: sometimes it really makes the sparks fly.

As you might expect, this can be bad news. Two people might fall madly in love, have a breathtaking romance, and then settle down into a pattern of gradually making each other miserable. Apart from breaking up, the best hope for a couple like this is often to get couples therapy–I’d be inclined to suggest couples schema therapy specifically–and to learn there not only how to handle their own emotional baggage better, but also how not to push the other person’s destructive buttons.

Here are a few more examples of schema chemistry:

  • A person who feels defective (the Defectiveness schema) gets together with a person who feels like people should be punished for even small mistakes (the Punitiveness schema)
  • A person with a sense of being better and more deserving than other people (the Entitlement schema) gets involved with someone who is constantly taking care of other people at the expense of their own needs (the Self-Sacrifice schema)
  • Someone who grew up feeling lonely and neglected in a house where there was very little nurturing or expression of love (the Emotional Deprivation schema) dates someone to whom expressing emotions seems unnecessary and disturbing (the Emotional Inhibition schema).

There are any number of combinations, given that there are 18 different schemas and a variety of ways to express each one. Fortunately, there are many other factors to bringing two people together than schema chemistry. Here’s hoping it’s not at work in your relationship! If it is, just becoming aware of how the two schemas interact may start to help. I’m working on a short, informal book on mental schemas that I hope will make it easier for people to gain insights on their own and others’ schemas; it should be out in November or December. For information on that, stay tuned.

Photo by jb_brooke

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On Writing and Failure

States of mind

A memoir of what went wrong
With mixed feelings, I’ve been reading Tom Grimes’ memoir Mentor, an account of his life as a writer, especially as concerns his time learning with Frank Conroy, who for some time directed the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I don’t know if you have heard of Grimes; I don’t think I had. He’s had some partly-successful novels, some reviewed well, some not so well–but Mentor, as he writes it, is an account of his failure as a writer.

His first book felt unimportant to him when it came out, but it got excellent reviews in some very important venues. However, as far as I can tell it didn’t make him much money or do much to combat his desperate struggle to prove his self-worth. (I’m not inferring what he thinks here; Grimes is extremely candid about his feelings in the book.)

His second book was finished with huge expectations of success, but from the beginning of its publishing journey yielded mixed signs and mixed reviews. In the end, it appears, it made back only 10% of its advance, which is certainly a financial failure, and also a sharp slap to the face for the writer.

His memoir seems to have gotten some good reviews, although judging by the Amazon ranking at the time I read this, it isn’t taking the world by storm.

Failure seems to be a huge and important subject for Grimes. Reading his memoir at this particular moment, as I’m about to launch into a new project that’s not like anything I’ve attempted before, may be a very good thing for me, because it’s good to face the failure bogeyman right at the beginning.

Is that you, Failure?
I should explain about the new book: for several years I’ve been researching the psychology of motivation and habit intensively. For about ten years, I’ve been writing prolifically and working to build a career as a writer. I had planned on being a professional writer since the third grade or earlier. But of course “writer” isn’t a position like “systems analyst” or “pastry chef,” where you can get a job, go in to do it each day, and feel more or less successful every time you bring home a paycheck. It’s more like being an entrepreneur, or a salesperson who works only on commission, or a painter: you put everything you can into each new project, and then innumerable people other than you–customers or end users or the general public–decide whether it will succeed or not. This would be easier to take, I think, if it were always clear that it was only this final audience that made the decision–that books always sell well when they’re well-written, or that a quality widget sells itself–but unfortunately there are also gatekeepers, timing issues, competing or distracting products, editors or agents or supervisors or clients getting sick or getting pregnant or moving on, good or bad marketing, and all the rest.

Why does a book fail?
If you write a book and it flops, how do you account for it? Did the book just suck? Or to speak more gently, perhaps the book didn’t have a large enough audience to succeed? Or maybe the publisher didn’t get the book out to reviewers as they were supposed to do (as happened to a friend of mine with an excellent trilogy of his that is still attracting new readers, despite rather than because of the original publisher)? Was it marketed to the wrong audience? (It could be argued that my book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures should have been marketed as a general interest book rather than only, as it was, to writers–but that was potentially my mistake and my agent’s in placing it with a publisher that specifically caters to writers.) Was it released at a bad time? Was it mislabeled or miscategorized? Did that awful cover doom it (though I was very pleased with my book cover)? And so on.

I don’t know about you, but I would love to have hard numbers on that. If I were to put out a book that only earned back half of its advance (this hasn’t happened to me; my first book earned modestly more than the advance–but hey, look at me being so quick to assure you that I’m not a failure.) I would want to know why, if it were possible, even if the answer was that the cover and the marketing strategy only accounted for 7% of the failure and the rest was squarely on my shoulders.

But here’s what I assume: I assume that a book most often succeeds or fails on how much the text itself makes people want to read it. There are exceptions: for instance, while I’m sure The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a fine book, it seems likely to me that its continuing success is fueled in part simply by the fact that it’s selling so well, as potential readers think “Well, it’s got to be good: millions and millions of people are reading it.” In a way, success builds success.

And obscurity builds obscurity. If no one knows about a book, the chance that they’ll stumble on it and pick it off a knee-height shelf at Barnes & Noble where a single copy is wedged in between books by two other obscure authors, or that they’ll dig it up and buy it from Amazon despite no one having rated it and it showing up at the bottom of the search results based on nonexistent sales, is poor. To some extent success for a book requires an inciting incident–or better, a dozen of them–meaning a review in a venue that a lot of people read, a news story, a mention in mass media, an event, piggybacking on the success of something else (especially the author’s other books), an ad in the right place (if ads really do help books), etc.

But now I’m just rambling about the publishing business, of which I know something but not nearly as much as a lot of other people who blog on the subject much more skillfully (Nathan Bransford comes to mind, for example). What I really want to talk about is the role of failure in a writer’s life as it affects self-motivation.

Failure: not as bad as death
No writing failure is complete if the author is not dead, in which case literary success takes a distant second in importance to being deceased as far as the author is concerned. The nature of a failed book is usually that hardly anyone has heard of it. This is merciful: as writers, it’s our successes that are well-known, while our failures tend to be of great interest mainly to ourselves and our publishers. Not so with movies, for instance. Will Bennifer ever live down Gigli? I’ve never seen the thing, don’t know what it’s about, and had to double check to be sure I got the “Bennifer” thing right, and yet here even I am making fun of it. Obscurity is nice sometimes, if you ask me.

So here I am entering on this book project, and it’s higher-stakes for me than previous ones. First, it carries the weight of years of investigation into the human mind, and if the book doesn’t fly, there’s a temptation to imagine that effort to have been a waste (though it’s already repaid me several times over, truth be told).

Second, it carries the weight of a decade of very serious writing efforts and a couple of decades more of on-and-off writing before that. If I can’t write a successful novel after all this practice, study, hard work, and even networking, what the hell is wrong with me?

Third, the new novel will be a mainstream novel, not a science fiction or fantasy novel. In fantasy and science fiction, it seems to me, we don’t take ourselves with the deadly seriousness I often associate with mainstream (let alone “literary”) writers. The F&SF community is comfortable and friendly and already understands that one failed novel does not determine a career. If I were to get a $5,000 advance and just barely earn out with a fantasy or science fiction novel, it would more or less be a success. This is not my feeling about a mainstream novel. I’m bidding for a wider audience, and it’s a churning metropolis of authors rather than a friendly neighborhood.

Embracing the whatever
And yet … this book can fail. That’s OK. I can put a year into writing it and two years into seeing it sold and published, assuming it even gets that far, and end up back where I started or worse, and that’s still OK. Believe me, I won’t be pleased if I get that outcome, but it’s possible whether I like it or not, so I intend to accept this from the outset, and that gives me strength. Not fearing what will happen, I don’t have to cling to ideas about the novel that seem essential for its success (but which, as I don’t really know for sure what will make for a success or not any more than anyone else does, could be its doom). I don’t have to take myself too seriously. I can screw around in the book, please myself, and hope readers will come along.

Fearing failure, I might handle things differently–hold off submitting the book when it’s ready, clamp down on my natural voice out of anxiety that I’ll sound stupid, fail to engage with the book because I don’t want to engage with the fear I would have created around it, and so on. Fear creates resistance: that’s its job. Fear of a predator in a jungle could make us run like hell or fight desperately. With writing, we don’t want to be running from or struggling with: we want to be diving into. It’s hard to execute a good dive into something that scares you, or when you’re scared of what will happen when you come back up.

So failure: yes, possible. Maybe every book you (if you’re a writer) or I will ever write will flop miserably–never getting a read from an editor or agent or never selling to a publisher or never getting read even though it’s been published. Maybe I’ll write the best novel in the history of the universe and it will come out in the wrong form at the wrong time and be completely ignored due to an unexpected invasion of the United States by Canada. We could say the same of everything else: every romance has a chance of dying, every child has a chance of being hit by an ice cream truck, every job has a chance of disappearing, every friend has a chance of turning on you. It doesn’t matter. I mean it actually doesn’t matter at this stage. This is the stage where we create and throw things out. When it comes back, maybe it will matter enough to be worth learning from, and maybe not. Sooner or later, if it fails, it will be worth moving on from.

Or maybe this time around it won’t be failure: it will be wild success. Maybe every major thing you try to do from this moment on will succeed beyond your wildest dreams. Who can know for sure? For now, I think I’ll ponder that.

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Should You Make a New Year’s Resolution?

Strategies and goals

New Year’s resolutions have a long history, reportedly stretching back to the ancient Romans in their worship of the double-faced god Janus and even a couple of millenia earlier to the ancient Babylonians. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good idea for you or me, though. If you’re already working hard on one goal, for instance, adding another goal can drain enough of your time and attention that both goals fail, the old and the new.

In an experiment tracking 3,000 people in 2007, only 12% actually succeeded with their goals. If you want to be part of that 12%–and you’re already way ahead of the game by reading articles like this–don’t proceed unless you know that the resolution and the timing are right.

New Year’s can be an ideal time to start work on a new goal. As we’re getting into the time of year when planning for a New Year’s resolution makes the most sense, I’d like to talk about why New Year’s resolutions can work, what gets in the way, and how to tell whether or not to make one in the first place.

To resolve or not?
Resolutions can be harmful if we go about them in a bad way or drain effort from a goal already being pursued. When considering making one:

  • Only focus on one large goal at a time. I know it’s hard to put aside some things we really want to accomplish while focusing on one particular goal, but changing habits (which is what we need to do to achieve goals) requires not only a good approach but also plenty of time and attention–too much for it to be possible for most of us to transform in two or more ways at once.
  • Only proceed if you know what you want and what to do to get it. Having unclear goals or lacking a plan will usually result in failure, which is disheartening and not very constructive. If you know what you want but not how to get it, do some research. You can start on this site, The Willpower Engine, where you can find hundreds of free articles on changing habits and pursuing goals, or by talking to or reading about someone who has done what you want to achieve, or by finding a good group to join.

I’ll continue with this series on New Year’s resolutions in upcoming articles by looking at  the special advantages of making a resolution at the New Year, some cautions, and a way to inventory your goals and dreams so as to go forward in the best possible way.

You might also be interested in some related posts:

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Recovering After a Failure of Willpower

States of mind

We’re well into a season in which, for Americans at least, restraint isn’t very popular. We start out with a holiday that celebrates eating as much as possible, work up to a holiday that celebrates spending as much as possible, and cap it off with a holiday that celebrates staying up late and drinking.

All right, I admit that this isn’t the kindest or even most accurate depiction I could give of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, but the point is that whether or not you happen to celebrate any of these holidays, it’s likely you run into times when you don’t exercise the amount of willpower and restraint you would like to. Practically everyone does sometimes. Over time we can get better at exercising restraint even when we’re receiving messages to do otherwise, but what do we do to get back on track after losing our willpower for a while? Here are some specific things that can help:

  1. Don’t beat yourself up. Feelings of guilt, shame, frustration, disappointment, and depression are common after a failure of willpower. These are traps: avoid them. If you get caught up in destructive emotions, it will be hard to learn well and regain your focus. Identify broken ideas that aren’t doing you any good, then repair them: see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.”
  2. Get smarter. After a failure of willpower, you have an ideal opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Start a feedback loop to figure out how to change your behavior next time, and keep using it to see how well your new approaches work. Your feedback loop (which could be journaling, talking with a friend, talking to yourself, etc.) will include a description of exactly what you don’t like that you did, what you were thinking when you did it, and some ideas for changing what you do in the future. It will also include acknowledgments of any good decisions you made.
  3. Look ahead. One of the best ways to do well with willpower is to prepare solutions in advance. For instance, if you ate much more than you wanted to at your last family gathering, you might want to plan what you’re going to eat before you go to the next one. See “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower.”

You might also be interested in reading “How to Recover When You’ve Completely Blown It,” which talks more about failure in general and its role in successfully pursuing a goal.

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How to Believe

States of mind

Accomplishing new goals in our lives usually means changing our habits, and changing habits requires commitment to a goal. Underneath that commitment, though, there has to be faith. There’s a goodly amount of research out there to support the idea that if we don’t believe we can do something difficult, we won’t make a very good attempt at it.

Why belief is important to success
Belief’s importance makes a lot of sense: after all, accomplishing something difficult means putting in effort and attention over time, and as human beings, we tend to be very bad at putting time and effort into something when we don’t believe we’ll succeed–and rightly so! It doesn’t make much sense to expend our efforts in areas where we expect to fail.

But a problem comes up when something that we really can do feels impossible. We might want very much to do that thing and know exactly what steps we should be taking, but if we have trouble picturing success, eventually resolve tends to falter. We stop putting in effort because we have a crisis of faith, and that interruption causes our effort to fail, which reinforces the idea that what we wanted to do was impossible in the first place.

While fortunately we human beings tend to compensate for this sometimes with bull-headedness and unrealistic expectations (and I really do think that’s fortunate–otherwise we’d be like movie studios that only produce copycat movies for fear that something original will flop), more often, lack of belief leads to failure.

So sometimes, the reason you don’t believe you can earn a degree and get a better job is just that you’ve never had a better job, or the reason you can’t really believe you’ll lose weight is because you haven’t done it successfully before. Yet both of these things, for example, are achievable by almost anyone.

Building belief
So how can we help ourselves believe in our goals? Here are some ways to make that happen:

  • Talk to or research someone else who’s done it. Seeing is very close to believing.
  • Learn about how things work. For instance, learning about the relationship between building new muscle and increasing metabolism can provide more reason to be optimistic that exercise will lead to weight loss.
  • Root out broken ideas. It’s common to tell ourselves “facts” that don’t really hold up on examination. The page “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair” provides resources to learn how to repair broken ideas.
  • Track your progress. Every step toward your goal provides evidence that you can get closer. Be aware of your successes to bolster your confidence and your missteps to know where you need to be cautious. For more on this, see “How Feedback Loops Maintain Self-Motivation.”
  • Revisit past successes. If you’ve quit smoking for a couple of months in the past, or if you’ve been caught up with all of your correspondence at other times in your life, remind yourself of what you did and what you were able to accomplish.
  • Visualize success. Imagining a situation vividly enough helps it feel more real. Visualization is a way to get motivation from our own potential future successes.
  • Talk it out with someone supportive. Finding someone who wants to encourage you toward your goals can make a real difference (see “How Supporters and Partners Help Motivate Us“). Sympathetic friends or family members may not have the same blind spots we often have about ourselves, and a little encouragement can go a long way.

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