View Full Version : When is failure really success?

Laer Carroll
11-21-2013, 01:15 PM
Authors are artists. We are also artisans. And eventually professionals. We are rightly concerned about turning out good work. But we are wrong when concern becomes neurosis.

Not finishing a story is rarely a failure. At the very least our work was practice. By writing, and re-writing, and critiquing, and fixing our literary work we slowly turn fumbles into finesse. Not the most talented artist in any field becomes instantly a genius in our chosen art.

Not finishing by becoming “blocked” may sometimes be a success. Sometimes our subconscious is smarter than “we” are. It knows there is a serious problem. A block becomes an artist’s friend, our early-warning system. If we can’t get around the block we may do the right thing by laying the work aside till we can solve the problem.

Those unfinished pieces are not only practice pieces. They may merely be experiments. But often they are treasure, to be stored and someday spent in creating the truly marvelous hidden inside us.

And when we finish a work, maybe after years, but do not submit it to agents and editors and publishers? Maybe we are right not to. In the desire to publish we may harm our career if we let pass into the light unworthy work.

What about you? Do you have “failures” that upon second thought are really successes?

11-21-2013, 04:55 PM
Everyone gets a trophy...

While it may be a positive approach to the conscientious, it's also a wonderful way to soothe the egos of the incompetent, the unprepared, and the lazy...and the new writer who is just learning the craft.

In order to improve in the craft, mistakes and shortcomings have to be detected, acknowledged, addressed, and remembered. This requires outside feedback. New and developing writers are seldom the best judge of their own work, and writing is not practice unless there is some method of discovering weaknesses and potential issues coupled with a desire to find solutions. If decisions on projects are made in the absence of feedback, the writer becomes the sole judge of that work without any attempt to discover and deal with issues in the writing and storytelling crafts.

Pick up your trophy.

The best way to ensure that a project is never a failure is to squeeze every ounce of constructive criticism out of that project so the writer can learn what works and what doesn't work in his/her creative hands and brain. Trunking something and giving self-congratulations for avoiding a mistake is not learning. And a trunked project that is used to really learn about and perfect the craft, is never a failure.

11-21-2013, 05:02 PM
No; failures are failures.

The mistake is thinking that they are always bad and worthless.

Sadness is not happiness, but sadness is a useful emotion.

Failures are not successes, but failures can be useful in eventually finding success.

Michael Davis
11-21-2013, 05:06 PM
Interesting question. Never had a block from lack of ideas but I do occasionally get burned out. I'm up to 20 releases/contracts and I find that I become mentally exhausted after finishing each work. That lead to frustration and doubt should I continue. Now I know its a natural step in the creation and evolution of ideas. After a project, I shutdown for two months, write nothing, and divert my attention into totally different avenues. The absence does make me miss my muse and rejuvenate my mojo.

Matthew Hughes
11-21-2013, 05:19 PM
Do you have “failures” that upon second thought are really successes?


And no.

When I completed my second novel, a comic science-fantasy, (the first, btw, was awful, but I finished it), I sent chapters and synopsis to ten New York agents. Eight said, "No, thanks, not for us, yadda-yadda," one said, "I cannot conceive of a market for this novel," and the third said, "I love it," and signed me up.

He was an old pro, had made million-dollar deals (and we're talking about 1980s dollars), and he sent the book everywhere. But the woman who said she couldn't conceive of a market turned out to be right.

Not long after, the agent retired. I trundled on with my career as a speechwriter for seven more years, until a science-fiction bookstore owner who'd read the ms asked me if I still had it -- because she'd heard that Maxwell Macmillan Canada was looking for just that kind of book.

I sent it and sold it. Failure had thus become success. But wait a minute. It turned out that media mogul Robert Maxwell had been stealing from his employees' pension funds. His empire started to unravel and he took a long, permanent swim off his yacht.

The week my novel came out, MMC was sold to a US conglomerate that wanted only its textbook business. My novel went to the warehouse and stayed there. Success had become failure.

Five years passed, and I heard that Betsy Mitchell was looking for my kind of atypical fantasy. I sent it to her and got a deal, plus a sequel. Failure had become success again.

But comic science fantasy was not what America was buying in the autumn of 2001, and the sequel did not do good enough numbers, even though both books were picked up by the SFBC. Success was failure again.

But I'd impressed a senior editor at Tor, and he asked for a book set in the same universe, so I'd have to call that success.

Except the Tor book didn't do great business either. But other publishers liked what I did, and I've kept on writing and selling science fantasy ever since.

So, success or failure? Depends on how you look at it. One thing is clear, though. Every time I went into the ditch, I got back up and got back on the road again.

And I finished everything I started.

11-21-2013, 06:02 PM
The definition of success is highly subjective. Is it not selling but learning something? Not selling but enjoying yourself?
Selling over 100 bajillion copies? 100 thousand? 10?
Trade publishing? Vanity? E-Pub? Or mom baking her baby a sheet of cookies because, personally, she thinks it's better than anything that schmuck Shakespeare EVER wrote!!
Dang. There's cookies...wait, back to what I was writing. Sorry. But they do smell good.
We all have to measure it in whatever manner we need to so that we can determine that, by damn, I am NOT a failure, or 'well, got my nuts popped on THAT one!!'
It just depends on what we need to motivate us.

Manuel Royal
11-21-2013, 06:16 PM
Matthew, I'd say you succeeded by not giving up.

Laer, I'm sorry, but if you want to write something, and you don't complete it, that's a failure. I've had many of them -- though sometimes I've redeemed the failure by taking the work back up later and finishing it. I try to learn from each failure, but I'm not going to pretend they were something else.

11-21-2013, 06:50 PM
I don't think you learn anything by quitting halfway through, except how to quit halfway through. You don't learn how to tell a good story by telling half a story. It is not practice, it's just quitting.

But "failure" is not a bad word. The neurosis is trying to call failure a success. We all fail at something, or we simply aren't trying enough things. I've failed in a number of things. Failed miserably. I failed at painting big time. So what? Failure is no crime. Denying failure is the crime, and it leads to eternal punishment. I call failure what it is, and move on. In my case, from painting to writing. But I always finish what I start.

I'm a firm believer in Robert Heinlein's Rules of writing. They're business rules, not writing rules, and they work. Rule number two is Finish what you start.

Not finishing has nothing to do with art, nothing to do with practice, nothing to do with some future treasure trove. It's nothing more and nothing less than deciding to quit before you finish.

Then again, I hate talk of writers being artists or artisans. I think this just justifies all sorts of grandiose reasons to quit, excuses, and wailing.

I'm just a writer. I tell stories. I don't tell half stories, and I don't try to call my failures successes. If I fail, I fail, and I move on. But whatever field I'm in, I most certainly will fail, if I don't finish what I start.

11-21-2013, 07:22 PM
There's a big difference between trunking a book after it's finished, and just not finishing it. Every time you let yourself give up before hitting "The End", you are telling yourself it's okay to give up, that it's okay to drop out if it gets too difficult. Those are not good habits to develop, in writing or anything else.

I have one ms that I have not finished. I know why - and it sits on my shoulder every day, nagging me to take the "why" and FIX IT! That I don't is not some eye-opening acknowledgement of the flaws in the story - it's laziness.

11-21-2013, 08:17 PM
Success can be subjective. Sure.

But giving up? There's nothing to be gained from not finishing a project: Except to learn to accept failure.

Not seeing a story through to the end, I believe, doesn't help you in any way. There's a term called "muscle memory" and that applies to writing, too. Not finishing trains your brain to accept quitting when the going gets tough. Those blocks will become more frequent, especially if you're so accepting of them.

"No pain, no gain" can also apply. If you aren't challenging your brain, aren't working through the blockages, how is your brain going to "toughen up" and get stronger at writing?

It won't. Failure begets failure. Accepting defeat trains you to give up. To use one final sports analogy, "you play like you practice." Meaning, if you goof off instead of working hard and striving to improve, when its time for the real game, guess how you'll perform?

11-21-2013, 08:50 PM
So if you're not playing anymore, the game's over. What did you win? Did you get anything out of it? If you think you did, maybe you can call that a success. But if you think you lost, (umm yeah, I think I lost I didn't even pass the finish line) then I don't think you should convince yourself you won.

I think staying in the game is what keeps me successful.

Storm Surge
11-21-2013, 10:19 PM
Not finishing a story is rarely a failure.

If I don't finish something, I failed to finish it. So maybe I got some experience along the way. Is that going to do me any good if I never finish anything? If in a ten (just to pick a number) years from now I find that I still haven't managed to break my not-finishing-stories streak, I will have wasted an enormous amount of time and gained nothing.

11-21-2013, 10:56 PM
I keep coming back to wondering where A Confederacy of Dunces fits into this conversation from the perspective of its author.

11-21-2013, 11:01 PM
What I gain for not finishing a project is time to spend on a more viable project. There are many books I never finished and a good proportion of them are just not worth finishing.

11-22-2013, 04:06 AM
I have what I feel to be a valid "failure is success" (nice doublespeak there).

A small press/boutique press failed to publish an anthology of my short stories in reasonable time, so I withdrew it. As it turns out, it's not so reputable (would that I'd found Absolute Write earlier!).

My success is not being linked professionally with them. My failure is that I'm still not published, though I am still trying (and still writing).

Storm Surge
11-22-2013, 04:32 AM
What I gain for not finishing a project is time to spend on a more viable project. There are many books I never finished and a good proportion of them are just not worth finishing.

Absolutely true. If the story is no good (for whatever reason), there's no point in finishing it when you could be working on something better.

On the other hand, if you never finish the better thing either...

I haven't finished anything in three years, and while the OP says that this is "rarely a failure" I can't help but wonder if years down the road I'll have nothing to look back on but a giant pile of unfinished stories and a lot of time I could have spent getting good at something at which I could actually succeed.

But I didn't chose to write. It's more like I'm compelled to. So if this comes to pass, I'll look back and then keep on writing.

11-22-2013, 09:20 AM
What I gain for not finishing a project is time to spend on a more viable project. There are many books I never finished and a good proportion of them are just not worth finishing.

I had the impression from the OP that this had more to do with coming to the tough places (the "block") and just quitting rather than making a rational decision that the book sucked and therefore wasn't worth finishing. To me, that's a big difference.

11-22-2013, 12:44 PM
There are, I think, two traps here.

Trap #1 - self-flagellation. I failed, therefore I am a failure. I'll never get any good at this. I give up.

Trap #2 - over-optimistic. It doesn't matter that I failed because everything is a learning experience. All writing is practice. Whether I finished that novel or not, I still took something from the experience. As the Spice Girls said, all you need is positivity.

Neither of these approaches is particularly helpful. The over optimistic approach might seem tempting, but it can also be a blind alley. You might not be encouraged to improve if you don't feel the real hurt of a failure.

The most productive approach, I think, is to channel the hurt into something positive. For me positive thinking is not about seeing every negative as a positive. Instead it is about extracting as much of the Spice Girls' positivity out of every negative experience whilst still admitting that it was a negative experience.

My first marriage and subsequent divorce still hurts. Okay, so I came out of it with valuable life experience (whatever that means) and an infinitely better second marriage. But that doesn't stop it from hurting like hell even now.

The best approach (for me at least) goes something like this:
1. You fail at something, which would be best defined as you did not meet a goal that you had set yourself.
2. It hurts. A lot.
3. You need to put that failure into context. It has happened. You can't go back and make it unhappen. There is no point in wallowing in self pity or recrimination.
4. Next you need to extract what positives you can. This may not fully erase the hurt. Hurt can be good. Analyse why you failed and adjust.
5. Reset your goals. Either try again or try a different approach. It's your choice. Don't forget the hurt, but don't be ruled by it either.
6. Every now and then take a helicopter view and look at your failure/success ratio over several projects goals. Not finishing one novel might be a positive decision if it was time that would be better spent doing something else. Not finishing any novels is not exactly a recipe for success.

In another life I play chess. I once heard some advice about how to teach a kid to accept defeat. The author said that you should neither beat the kid up for losing, but nor should you say "don't worry, it's okay". Because if the kid thinks it's okay to lose he will eventually stop trying to win.

The advice was to say something like this: "Yeah, it hurts. Let's see what went wrong so we can get him next time."

11-22-2013, 01:12 PM
Failure is a success when you learn something from it.

11-22-2013, 04:53 PM
Failure is a success when you learn something from it.


I've thought about this for a few days.

I'm one of those who has experienced failure (as many have, I'm sure). Except I've never viewed it as crushing and defeating and hurting OH so much.

It happened/failed, I was disappointed and immediately looked at what happened and tried to figure out how it might have gone awry, what (if anything) could I have done differently and now how do I move forward from this and turn it around?

Or do I keep going down this particular avenue? Is there another approach I need to consider? How badly did I want this and did I do anything to sabotage myself? Did I allow someone else to sabotage me?

I simply will not be in pain over something that didn't work out. I figure out what happened and move on.

11-22-2013, 05:17 PM
When is failure really a success?

When you successfully failed. But hey, at least you tried, right?

11-22-2013, 05:26 PM
What I gain for not finishing a project is time to spend on a more viable project. There are many books I never finished and a good proportion of them are just not worth finishing.

... wise perspective ^

It is okay to abandon a project if it is not up to par.
You do not have to finish everything you start.
It's one of those lessons that you are taught from early on.
"Finish everything you start." And it seems like a great ethic!
But in a practical sense it isn't always the best route.
Decisions have got to be made on a case by case basis.
Not based on some overarching one-size-fits-all axiom.

ps In regard to the OP in particular though
it probably would be good to carry a project
through to the end even if it isn't exemplary.
First ones rarely are. Second ones too.

After that you've gotta pick and choose which ones to stick with.

11-23-2013, 05:09 PM
Is failure absolute? Just because it doesn't meet your expectation doesn't mean it failed. If you take what you perceived as having "failed", be it writing, relationship, or job, and dissect it, you have the option of reinvention, rejuvenation, or stopping altogether. Stopping is not an option as we live on hope and belief - we can do this! - therefore, failure is not quite success, but merely opportunity in disguise.