Failure hurts, doesn’t it?
It can be brutal, humiliating, and demoralizing.
From the giddy heights of your initial creative rush, the long hours wrestling to keep your labor of love alive, to landing smack on your face on releasing it into a world that frankly, doesn’t give a damn.
That’s one heck of a fall.
But we’ve all felt like failures at one point in our lives. And the pain that it brings can be enough for us to slam the brakes on ever trying to be a writer again.
However, if you study successful writers, you will discover that one of their most defining characteristics is that they have all failed, sometimes multiple times: failed to finish novels, failed to get them published (assuming they did finish them), failed to make a living writing and even failed to carry on writing.
Those writers who succeed understand that to stop feeling like a failure and dare again, you need to re-examine your idea of what failure as a writer actually is and what it means to you.
Because before you can start to feel like a successful writer, you must stop feeling like a failed one. Here’s how:
1. Stop seeing failure as your enemy
When you fail, you need to know that it isn’t personal. Failure doesn’t wake up eager to single you out as its victim.
So stop taking a fail as a personal attack on you and your writing goals.
Treating failure as your enemy adds significantly more stress and conflict to the creative process. You need clear thoughts to regroup and re-plan. Don’t waste energy on how battered you feel from the blow of an imaginary adversary.
Instead, embrace failure as a friend, as an honest if brutal editor. Friends and editors tell you how things truly are so that you can move on. They’re right there with your best interests at heart.
Failure similarly shows you where you need to improve your characterization or plot or strike out on a different approach. Or maybe abandon an idea altogether and start afresh.
It’s sending you a clear and positive message that you need to hear.
Take every setback as valuable, constructive, and well-meaning feedback.
Realize that maybe that first version is indeed crap (Hemingway famously stated that ‘the first draft of anything is sh*t’). And yes, it hurts to have to start again and re-write the whole thing but if you want to be a successful writer, that’s what successful writers do.
Realize that failure can be your greatest friend and most powerful editor – listen up and take note!
2. Stop thinking that failure defines who you are as a writer
You alone have the power to craft your self-image. The labels you define yourself by steer your every thought and decision. So you must choose only those that will serve you.
The self-portrait you hang in your mind will frame how successful you become.
Describing yourself by derogatory, disdainful, or disparaging terms will sabotage your every creative effort. Thinking of yourself as a failed author, screenwriter, poet or blogger will ensure that success eludes you, no matter how hard you try.
Realize that failure is an event, not a person. You may have failed three of four times to be published or to write that viral post, which means three or four decisions and paths of action didn’t work.
It doesn’t mean you don’t work, or that something is wrong with you, or that you’re doomed to fail in life. It absolutely doesn’t mean you can’t succeed next time.
It might also mean that someone else has failed. Publishers failed dozens to hundreds of times to recognize great works – Dune, Carrie, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Dubliners, Chicken Soup For The Soul – many were rejected time and time again.
Imagine if these authors had thought of themselves as failures and given up? Imagine all those works lost to the world!
Every failure brings the opportunity for you to decide that the act of failing won’t define who you are.
Instead focus on your creativity, resilience, and strength in the face of failure.
Remember that rejection is part of the process. It’s a case of working through the ‘No thank yous’ to get to the ‘Woohoo – yes!
Cut yourself and your creativity some slack as you build up your failure stamina. You’re human and writing is your passion. It means the earth to you, thank goodness. So, momentary wingeing and whining are absolutely acceptable.
Then with your next breath, get right back to honing your craft. Focus on pouring your very essence into each and every word. Picture your message hitting your readers between the eyes as if they were wearing 3D glasses.
Believe, like all the great writers, that you are a writer who fails — but isn’t a failure.
3. Stop confusing failure with weakness
As a toddler, you learned to walk by falling but also by getting up each time with an inch more knowledge of how your legs worked. You built your muscles, balance, and coordination through repetition, trial, and practice. The process of mastering the skills needed to be a successful writer work the same.
Not getting it right the first, fifth, or fiftieth time is not a case of weakness. Pianists play scales over and over for years, artists experiment with brush lines over thousands of canvases, and writers write…and re-write…and…you get the picture.
Failure is a critical step in learning what doesn’t work to get to what does. Most writers acknowledge that in the creative process. And it’s no different in all the other processes that add up to being a ‘successful writer’.
And getting them all right may not happen the first or even the fiftieth time. It took Robert Prisig, author one of the books I mentioned before, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 122 times!
See failure as the adult version of falling down through lack of experience, practice, or knowledge – all of which you are on your way to acquiring. If you could have walked from birth, you would have defied the laws of human development.
And if you could have written the perfect novel at birth you would have been burnt as the writing equivalent of a witch.
Mistakes, errors, and fails don’t signify a weakness; they simply prove that you are taking enough positive action to produce results. You just need to adjust your actions to produce different results.
You do this every day in planning and writing. Just extend it to the rest of the skills you need to be a ‘successful writer’.
And the bottom line? Believe in your creativity!
4. Stop searching for excuses to quit
Failure only has one cast-iron ally — the act of giving up. Don’t listen to yourself or others who tell you it’s OK to abandon your dreams of achieving, doing, or creating something remarkable.
Remind yourself again – just how few great works of art would there be in the world if their creators had quit?
Finding excuses to cut and run is always easier than sticking with whatever the road to success throws your way. Packing it in is way less effort than keeping on keeping on. You will always be able to find justifications to quit if you look hard enough.
And when you hit a bump or experience a curveball, such as writer’s block or your latest rejection, those reasons will seem all the more valid.
The most successful writers are those who refuse to quit, no matter how many times they’ve failed in the past.
And as a writer you have a double reason not to quit: not only would it rob you of the fruits of your creative labor, but it would also rob your future readers of the joy of discovering your work.
The world doesn’t need more quitters, writers or anyone else.
Decide that finding excuses to quit is time that could be better spent digging your manuscript out of the trash can and finding how to turn it into a success.
And you’ll be in good company – even Stephen King at one point threw what would turn out to be his first success into the garbage.
5.Stop convincing yourself it’s too late.
If you’re still breathing, you haven’t missed your window for success as a writer. That’ll stay open as long as you keep trying. And as long as you realize that ‘it’s-too-late’ thinking is just another attempt to find a reason to quit.
Anthony Burgess didn’t publish his first novel until he was 39. And Toni Morrison may be a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, but her first novel, The Bluest Eye, wasn’t published until she was 40.
Here’s some other late bloomers:
- Helen DeWitt published The Last Sumarai at 41
- Richard Adams published Watership Down at 54.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her mid-60s when she published Little House in the Big Woods (Little House On The Prairie came soon afterwards.)
- Harriet Doer published Stones for Ibarra, at the age of 73.
- Millard Kaufman published his first novel at the age of 90.
So if you’re under 100, stop using age as an excuse. And if you’re not, then go out there and make literary history!
Age is not a hindrance; it’s an asset. It brings a wealth of experience, ideas, skills, and knowledge that youth could never provide.
Lack of income can similarly be a benefit. It forces you to be inventive and resourceful. Throwing money at a problem rarely teaches you anything, and when the money runs out, so does your success if you take this path.
How many now famous writers were financially independent before they were successful? Not many. Most were stone broke.
Whatever your present situation, it isn’t an insurmountable barrier to success. Others in your position succeeded not despite these drawbacks, but sometimes because of them.
Wherever you are right now is irrelevant. You are the one going to succeed, not your age, situation, or income.
Stop confusing what you need to succeed (you and your creativity) with what you don’t (everything else).
6.Stop crying over decisions you made yesterday.
Thinking that your past creative failures dictate your future is a common mistake. Your past may have been shaped by the decisions you made, but your future is shaped by the decisions you haven’t made yet.
And while your past may also have been shaped by your creative failures, your future is just as likely to be shaped by your creative successes.
Rather than waste time and energy regretting your past decisions, you have the power to make new ones today. And the power to change your future by doing so.
Feeling like a failure is a result of being stuck in a loop where you imagine your future is held hostage by your past. In reality, your past has little hold, except in your mind. Break these mental chains, and see the past for what it is – a paper tiger with no teeth.
One great decision made today can set you free.
So celebrate your decisions regardless of outcome because your reaction to yesterday’s failure will determine tomorrow’s success.
7.Stop trying to be everything to everyone.
When beating yourself up over your perceived writing failures, stop and ask yourself: whose yardstick are you using? Be honest; whose criteria are you failing to meet – yours or someone else’s?
Are you only pursuing qualities and achievements that meet other people’s standards and desires instead of yours?
Chances are, your measure is a mishmash of other people’s markers, of society’s expectations, or of a fictional ideal invented by the media.
Chasing after the approval of others rather than self-approval will always lead you into a race you can’t win.
True success in writing is dependent on you being true to yourself. As John Mason said “You were born an original. Don’t die a copy.”
Your version of success as a writer is going to differ from everyone else’s, sometimes minimally, sometimes widely. Either way, be true to yourself and your values.
Question every success criteria you are striving to meet. See where you are competing in a contest you never chose to enter and don’t actually want to win.
And then run your own race using your own rules. Great writers always have.
8.Stop taking success as a writer as your birthright.
We would all love success to drop into our laps, if we’re really honest. Who doesn’t want their first novel to be on the Times best seller’s list? Or their first blog post to go viral?
But when it doesn’t, our answer is often to grumble and moan, which keeps us exactly where we are.
Instead, stop asking yourself why you are not successful, and start asking yourself why should you be successful as a writer?
The harsh but liberating truth is that being a writer, good or otherwise, doesn’t entitle you to automatic success.
Wanting success for less than it takes is understandable. But going after success by putting in less than it takes is unsustainable.
Success comes with its own demands. If you accept them, you will gain enormous mental clarity and energy.
And your level of success or failure will be a direct result of the mental and physical effort you put into your creative endeavor.
So be grateful for the chance to be more. Seize the opportunity to discover your full creative potential.
9.Stop thinking you’re alone.
Realize that missing a milestone, making a seemingly disastrous error, or taking a significantly wrong turn are all the experiences of successful writers.
Like you, they discovered that the road to success can take some unexpected deviations that might leave you feeling lost, confused, and alone. Even a successful first novel can be followed by a flop.
But they found the resolve to re-plan their route when they were knocked off course, just as you can.
Remember, you are far from alone when you fail. You are standing right where all the successful writers stood before you. You’re walking in their shoes and taking their path.
Stop feeling like a failure as a writer, and start feeling like a success because by failing you’re in the best company to succeed.
10.Stop believing failure is the end.
Every action you take moves you forward, no matter how far backward a failure may seem to have set you.
- Have your novels been rejected for years by every major publishing house? Then treat it as a chance to self–publish. Amanda Hocking did – and sold over 1.5 million books.
- Have you put your heart and soul into a blog post that was read by practically no one? Then re-work the title and have it go viral – Erin Falconer of Pick the Brain did.
- Has your screenplay been rejected by all the major movie companies? Guess what? That’s right. It’s not the end for that screenplay, it’s the beginning.
See your version of success as being at the head of the road; what happens along the way is immaterial. It certainly isn’t terminal. Neither is it stronger than you.
Halt any thoughts that a single stumble is going to stop you. Or a dozen.
Refuse to accept that failure will get the better of you achieving your goal of being a successful writer.
When we strive for something, it’s always something we haven’t yet achieved. And achieving it will take us down some unknown roads, roads we haven’t walked yet. And that may result in some dead ends.
But take heart. Turn around, and try another route. Try a dozen dead ends if you need to.
Take inspiration from successful writers like Meg Cabot, best-selling author of Princess Diaries. She couldn’t lift the bag of rejection slips she kept under her bed, but she never gave up. Now she’s sold over 25 million books in 38 countries. Isn’t that fantastic?
Failure isn’t the end. Failure is just the chance of a new beginning, just like every first draft.
The end is success. That’s where your road leads. Keep on writing.
Start feeling like a successful writer.
Failure has bullied you for way too long. It’s left you fearful, dejected, and near-defeated.
It’s made you doubt your abilities as a writer. The fear of falling on your face has stopped you making the leap for your dream.
So celebrate each fail, and be grateful for the lessons they bring. Take each failure in your stride, and march on while knowing that quitting is never an option.
Let go of the past because it is never too late. Go after your own version of success, and then work your tail off until you achieve it.
And remember that failure can never define you as a person or an artist, because it is an event, not an identity.
No matter how many times you’ve failed, you are not a failure.
What you are is a successful writer in the making.
So go write.