Saturday, April 23, 2011

Never Give Up, Never Surrender

Failure… failure… There's something about that word that doesn't sit right with me, and not simply because it's a crappy, downer concept. I think what I take issue with is the permanence implied by that word—in relation to writing, anyhow. Failure implies an end. You tried, you failed, the end.

To say you've failed at an aspect of writing doesn't compute. In this business you can only fail temporarily, or in my obnoxiously cheery view, you can stall on the road to success, a momentary (and indeed inevitable) lack of momentum. Because you can only fail at getting a book out into the world by doing one or more of the following, post-rejection:

  • Shove your story in a dark shame-drawer and never submit it to another publisher.

  • Never work to make it better, if the rejection implied it's not "ready" yet.

  • Dismiss all alternative ways to share your work (self-publishing, blog serial, etc.)

Similarly, you can only fail at writing as a job in a finite number of ways:

  • Never start anything.

  • Never finish anything.

  • Never submit or self-publish what you do write.

To paraphrase Prince, never is a mighty long time. Unless you just dropped dead from sorrow right after a rejection, I'm not buying that you failed. Failure is never permanent, unless you go with one of the above courses of inaction. In fact, if your reaction to a rejection or a book you can't seem to finish is, "I've failed at being a writer," I'm going to suggest you're not cut out for it. Or rather, you're not cut out for it yet. Failure is something only you can sign off on. No one can declare you a failure with any authority except yourself, because failure is contingent on quitting, and that's your choice.

So if you're a writer and you're feeling the heavy, wet, mildewy duvet of failure draped upon your naturally sensitive soul, try thinking about it this way: you haven't failed, you've just yet to succeed at selling to that dream publisher, landing a certain agent, or finishing your magnum opus. The only way for a writer to fail is to permanently choose inactivity over progress. And even if you've been choosing inactivity for the past ten years, your half-finished manuscript collecting dust, you still haven't failed. You've merely stalled. And you'll get no sympathy from me. Tell me you're struggling, and I'll make you some cocoa and massage your shoulders. But tell me you're a failure…sorry, does not compute.

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica for Ellora's Cave, and red-hot romance for Samhain and Harlequin Blaze as Meg Maguire. She stalls daily but always manages to get the car moving again, often with the aid of a jump-start from one of the wonderful friends camped out alongside her in the writing ditch.


  1. I would add that if a writer quits, abandons a project, decides there's no appropriate place to resubmit, opts not to self-publish, or takes some other course of inaction, this might not be failure or defeat either. Depending on the circumstances and the reasons, it might simply be a well-considered decision.

  2. What an encouraging perspective, Cara! I wish that every struggling writer would read it. It is so very easy to get discouraged. Negative feedback - rejections, unfavorable crits, bad reviews - sap our energy and make it harder to move forward. But giving in to that lethargy, giving up, only makes things worse.

    Thanks for much for being our guest at the Grip!


  3. I think there's a lot of truth in this. Writing after all is unique among the arts in that even if a writer has a minimum of talent, its a craft that can be learned. A guy with a tin ear will never be a musician, or a person like me who can;t draw a straight line will never be a painter. But writing is something that obsessive hard work can make a difference in. You just have to be really motivated. After all, not everybody can whistle, but everybody can talk somehow. If you can talk you can write.



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