Saturday 21 July 2018

Failing... and picking ourselves up again

by Paula Harrison
Budle Bay in Northumbria a good place for reflection

I recently posted on twitter that I was about to sign a contract that would take me (eventually) to being an author of forty books. The tweet got a lot of views and attention - maybe more than anything else I've tweeted - but I felt slightly fake as I posted it. You see I knew damn well that some of the books on the contract might never be published because I've had books cancelled before.

This got me thinking about how we curate our image on social media, presenting the shiny, smooth side of our lives and often hiding the reality. I use twitter mainly for work and a lot of other writers follow me, including those yet to be published. My writing life must appear so perfect to them. My profile says "million-selling author" which is true. It doesn't say "once had 3 books cancelled due to poor retailer response to previous books in that series". Also true. I don't talk about it, partly out of a wish not to look unprofessional, even though it was a huge blow at the time and I probably think about it just as often as I do about the million sales.

Then I found an article in The Guardian by Elizabeth Day The link is here:

This made me think about failure. How do we deal with it? Can we always learn from it? Does it mark us, like a painful scar, or does it make us stronger?

Maybe, if we can be honest about these things, we can find our way through them a little better especially in the early days when writing is such a tall mountain to climb. So I asked some fellow Slushies if they would share a failure.

Maureen Lynas, author of You Can't Make Me Go to Witch School! and Get Me Out of Witch School! wrote: 

My first novel 'The Blood Curdling Bug-Eyed Jawbreaker' didn't work because I didn't understand set up or the need for cause and effect so it was just one long string of silliness BUT there is a creature in it which is forming the basis of a book I'm writing now. The gurglefurter has waited in the wings for at least ten years but now it's centre stage.
Here is the proof that nothing is ever wasted! I have to admit that I have also re-used ideas I really like from my pre-published writings so now I know I am in good company!

Nick Cross, author of many stories including The Last Typewriter, wrote:

My biggest writing failure was having unrealistic expectations. Immediately following my Undiscovered Voices shortlisting, I was suddenly on the fast track to publishing success. Within months, I had rewritten almost my whole novel, gained an agent and had commissioning editors clamouring to read my work. When - after a protracted period of negotiation with a publisher - it all fell apart, so did I. Although I kept writing, it took me years to recover from that early taste of success. Eventually, I learned not to tie my entire sense of self-worth to my book. Once I recognised I had many other skills and achievements that were just as valid as a publishing deal, I began to rediscover the joy in my creative life.
I think, although we don't always talk about it, lots of us have had this experience. Getting close to our goal only to see hope of success evaporate is often more difficult than not getting close at all. To really enjoy our creative lives, we may need to separate our fulfilment from the minefield that is today's publishing business. 

Candy Gourlay, author of picture books and novels including the soon-to-be-published Bone Talk wrote:

One early writing failure for me was something I'll bet anyone who has attempted to write a novel has committed. Having finished my first ever novel, I immediately asked a novelist friend to read it. Weeks later, I met her at a cafe, excited to hear what she thought of my characters, my twists and turns and my wonderful sense of humour. Instead, I spent an hour discovering that my plot was thin and my characters poorly fleshed out. Not only that, the manuscript was riddled with simple typos, non-sequiturs and plot holes.

What did I do wrong?

• Vanity! I shared a manuscript because I was seeking praise, not wisdom

• I exposed myself to criticism before I was ready (I was so devastated, it took me months to start writing again)

• I shared the manuscript before it was fully developed (I didn't even know what a fully developed manuscript was)

• It was not my friend's fault that I chose her to read the manuscript. But later, I learned that I needed time to learn how to trust another person to critique my work
Candy also mentioned that she felt she'd had so many failures it was hard to choose one to write about. I'm sure all the fans of her books would disagree! I do know what she means though, with each new project I've undertaken there have been pitfalls and it sometimes seems to me that I'm always discovering new ones!

Of course there's a difference between failing by making mistakes in your story and failing because you've run headlong into the tough conditions in the publishing market. If you're unpublished it can be difficult to tell where the problem lies, especially if you are receiving form rejections. Does your book need more work or were publishers simply not looking for a story like yours? Sometimes a publisher or agent can have something very similar on their list already and for this reason they won't contemplate taking you on. If you're unsure it's useful to get feedback on your work. I would recommend joining a critique group through the SCBWI or taking part in a critique at their Winchester conference in November.

So has failing made me stronger as a person - as a writer? I can honestly say that it didn't feel like it at the time (times!) but looking back over years of writing both as a passion and a career I can see that I am beginning to learn a little. So here's to failing... and then picking ourselves up again.


  1. Oh I do know about this one. A VERY long time ago, I spent almost ten years trying to get a chidren's novel published, but in the process, learning so much. When it finally went to Walker Books, which was back then as much a debut publisher as I was a debut author,it did amazingly well, and for the next ten or so years, they became almost - for there were others - my main publisher. There is nothing that feeds creativity more than the approval and enthusiasm of professional editors in what was fast becoming a highly respected publishing house. No problem acquiring an agent either, as they wanted me.
    Then, out of the blue, came crunch time. In the middle of celebrating my new Young Adult novel with Simon & Schuster,I discovered that my complete Walker list had been put out of print. This came when I was booked for the Northern Children's Book Festival, and wanted to take some of those books to the schools I was visiting. Well, that, too, was a long time ago, but I still haven't recovered.
    I'm regularly published at present by an educational publisher, but it's not the same. You can see my old Walker list on my website: Fantastic cover illustrations! Most published as ebooks, but I'm bad at publicity and mostly can't be bothered.

    1. Thanks for commenting Enid. Publishing certainly is a very up and down business. I think we should celebrate any success whenever we can - no matter how small.

  2. Three books cancelled! What a roller coaster this business is! Thanks for including me in this post, Paula. I think what we can take away from this is that if you weren't tough before, you've gotta toughen up fast in this business! Good luck to one and all!


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