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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.

Photo by blmiers2


Do you need to go to college to become a writer?


Recently I was e-mailed this question:

My daughter is looking into [a particular college writing program] because she would like to become a fiction writer, and their school, in her opinion, is where she needs to attend to accomplish her goal. I, on the other hand, feel that she doesn’t need to go into loads of debt to a major college to learn how to be a writer…. am I wrong? What would your advice to her be?

Here’s the answer I gave:

Well, it certainly depends on the situation. It’s very difficult to make a living writing fiction. In our writing group, out of about 80 active members only a handful have yet been able to go full-time, and generally this was after at least a few years of writing seriously and constantly. Many more of us have made professional fiction sales but are nowhere near being able to live off the proceeds. Short stories typically pay so little that the income can’t possibly add up to a full-time living; $350 for a story, for instance, is a good pro rate, and there are a limited number of markets that pay even that (although there are a very few that pay much more). So writing fiction for a living basically means writing novels. First novel sales generally net well under $10,000 for the advance–$5,500 would be typical, and the writer’s agent gets 15% of that–so even selling a novel is only a baby step on the road to a full-time fiction writing career–although if that novel is exceptionally good it might get a higher advance and/or earn royalties above the advance. This is, however, the exception rather than the rule. Later novels begin to net more money if earlier ones do fairly well. And first novels are extremely hard to sell, even for talented writers. And those first novels sold aren’t necessarily the first novel written; it’s very common for a good writer to take two or three or more novels before they’ve written one that will sell. It takes both talent and a lot of practice to get it right for the vast majority of people.

Of course, a new writer might immediately come up with a best-selling novel that sells to the first publisher it’s sent to, and such a person can certainly make a living from the word go. However, this is comparable to winning the lottery, not only extremely rare but also more than a little arbitrary. Just being very talented alone will not achieve it. Very talented plus exceptional lucky might do it.

So a very talented writer who writes constantly and pays attention to the proper way to do things (querying, working with agents, and so forth), after three or five or ten years, may finally get to the point where she or he can live off fiction. Personally I’ve been writing seriously for seven years, after having written off and on for a number of years before that, and my first book only came out this last year. It’s possible I might be making a full-time living as a writer within a year or so, but it’s also possible that it might take me another five.

I apologize for being so discouraging, but it’s essential to understand the nature of fiction as a career for someone who’s contemplating it. Anyone who imagines submitting their first novel and shortly thereafter having a full-time income from writing is almost certainly in for disappointment. However, if a person really loves to write–if a person is driven to write and can’t stop doing so–and if that person is talented and patient and professional, then it’s sometimes possible to eventually carve out a fiction writing career.

Other areas of writing are easier to get into and more lucrative. Romance novels alone among fiction are relatively easy to break into for a talented writer and can pay the rent. Non-fiction writing is often much more lucrative than fiction, for instance including magazine articles and non-fiction books on popular subjects, although full-time journalism is still not a very lucrative field. Writing for television, while hard to break into, can be lucrative if a person finds the right niche. Writing for the movies, while very lucrative, is much harder to break into than writing novels and requires an entirely separate set of skills.

But to finally address your question: if your daughter is going for an undergraduate degree, I would suggest that college probably is pretty important. Someone who has only a high school education is much less likely to have developed all of the skills necessary for effective fiction writing, or for that matter to have experienced enough of life to have something meaningful to write about. College can provide a general educational foundation that will be crucial in good writing down the road. It can also provide the skills for a career that can provide a living wage while a person builds up a writing career, which is an essential piece of the puzzle in most cases.

As to a writing program specifically, opinions differ. Several members of Codex have gone through MFA programs; not one of those writers, despite all being good, has yet sold a novel, whereas others without an MFA have done so. Some college writing programs can even be harmful to a writing career, if they are taught by an amateur or not very accomplished writer who believes she or he knows the rules of writing a good novel but has never produced one; or if they are taught as literature courses, which are more about dissecting fiction that may or may not be of interest to the reading public than understanding how to create it. Chopping vegetables is a very different skill than growing them.

However, if a writing program includes a lot of practice writing commercial fiction (by which I mean fiction aimed at the general public instead of “academic” or experimental fiction), and if it includes on its faculty one or more people who have actually placed novels with major publishing houses that have gone on to sell well to the public, then it could be a good place to grow one’s writing skills and get some good advice. I would caution your daughter that many successful writers seem to be of the opinion that they way they write is the only effective way to write, and therefore tend to pronounce things as rules and commandments that in reality are only one possible way of doing things. The best innoculation against these kinds of problems is to read a lot of writing books and Web sites by successful novelists so as to get a wide variety of points of view, and to participate in writers’ groups.

I see I’ve gone on in some detail, probably more than you were looking for. The short answer is that an undergraduate degree, whether in writing or in some other discipline, is probably a very good idea for an aspiring novelist, whereas a graduate degree may be helpful but is unlikely to be the key element in creating a novelist’s career. Further, it’s essential to find some other way of making a living while one slowly builds one’s readership, writing skills, and writing career. And it’s probably a bad idea for that other way of making a living to be journalism, since the people I know who have tried that have tended to find it drains their writing energy and leaves little behind to use for fiction.

The key elements of a successful fiction writing career, other than talent, are writing constantly, continuing to learn how to write better, being patient and persistent, and submitting work regularly in a professional manner.

I’d be happy to answer questions from your daughter if she has them. I hope this has been useful.


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