Learning from Failure


We've all heard them, those myriad platitudes that tell you if you just hang in there, you will make it. The ones that say the only difference between success and failure is the persistence to make one more submission.

This appeals to our inner sense of justice, to the idea that working hard will always eventually be rewarded. Unfortunately, the universe doesn't consistently play fair. So while hanging in there is commendable, a surer route to success in publishing involves what I call "hanging in smart."

In other words, you have to have the sense to recognize when something isn't working and you need a course correction. Often this involves steep learning curves, plenty of false starts, and the occasional all-out failure. But generally, if you simply continue on the same unsuccessful course, even with some refinements, you're likely to experience the same results.

So let's say you've been sweating out, submitting, and studying the craft of poems and short stories for years (this describes my early efforts pretty well), with no success. That's not to say you learned nothing from the experience, so when you move on to writing, say, short plays (something else I tried for a bit), you'll come to the table with more skill. If that's not working for you (or you suddenly clap on, as I did finally, to the fact that since you love reading novels above all else, that's what you should be writing - no matter how long and scary they seem), you're bringing along a whole wagon-full of craft lessons from your prior "failures."

Same goes within the world of novel writing. My first three full-length manuscripts were fantasy (adult) and young adult (time travel/ghost story), and I came pretty close to publishing in both genres. But while writing YA, I had an idea that could only be written for adults, so I studied, studied, studied my intended market (historical romance) and joined the Romance Writers of America (because by now I was serious enough -- and seriously sick of falling a bit short of my goal) as I wrote. With this "do-over," however, I was bringing the experience of having won a number of writing contests and worked with one agent (with whom I'd parted ways).

To make a long story short, my first historical romance manuscript netted me a new agent and sold. But even after the publication of seven historicals, I wasn't through adapting. When a shrinking demand for American-set historicals hit me hard, I once more started experimenting in other areas, particularly in mystery/suspense, which I love to read (but had previously thought I wasn't smart enough/good enough/ready enough to write). Bringing along what I knew by then from my prior "failures," I was able to shift gears into writing contemporary romantic suspense.

Am I finished evolving? I seriously doubt it. With each new release, I try to analyze what's worked for me, what hasn't, and what I might do differently to appeal to more readers and keep myself from burning out from the boredom of repetition. All while striving to give my readers a "consistent experience" as they run through my romantic suspense backlist. But whoever said this writing stuff was supposed to be easy?

So where are you in your evolution as a writer? Where did you start, and where do you have the feeling you might be going? And for those of you who made a change, what convinced you it was time to move on to the next stage?

Comments

jennymilch said…
This is such a though-provoking post, Colleen. I wish I could point to the same kind of forward-moving progression that sounds so wise on your part.

I think of myself sort of like a donkey with a carrot. Through multiple mss and two agents--both great--I have come t-h-i-s close to selling in the only genre I can imagine writing, literary suspense. There's been interest from three or more houses at once, editors turned down at editorial, your basic heart-breaking succession of near misses.

But since everyone (not my mom, but, like, publishers even :) keeps telling me how close I am, amongst other salves to my beaten ego, I can't really imagine stopping. The carrot just has to come close enough for gobbling soon!

I have now signed with my third agent, a truly wonderful gal, and am hoping (major understatement) that third time's the charm.

Am I doing the wrong thing? Should I be changing tacts? But I can't not write another novel of suspense. The next one is already itching to be borne...
boxing said…
Jenny,
It does indeed sound as if you're really (frustratingly) close. I absolutely hate the heartbreak of knowing an editor's taking my work to the board and then having it fail to sell. It's a cruel place to be.

My experience only sounds wise in retrospect. At the time, it was very messy. But I couldn't make myself give up - didn't seriously consider it for a second. Also, every adaptation I made took me closer to the area that was the best fit between my voice/style and the marketplace.

Maybe you're already at that spot. There's no easy way to know, and you're definitely getting plenty of encouragement telling you you are. In your case, it might just take that perfect, high-concept (easily promotable) idea, married to your already-there writing, to get you over the hump.

Best of luck to you!
Joni Rodgers said…
Stay strong, Jenny!

As for evolution, it's my goal to always be a work in progress.
TJ Bennett said…
Sometimes evolution involves admitting what you already know, doesn't it? It took me writing two unsold contemporary manuscripts after the historicals I sold to make me finally admit what I really should be writing (again) was historical romance. I'd avoided it for so long because it's so freaking hard to do (research research research) and I cannot write them as fast, but I absolutely love the broader canvas. Now I'm back to writing what I love, and loving what I write. Here's crossing our fingers that the third time is a charm, humm?

TJB
Maybe we shouldn't call them failures but "learning experiences." :)

And I know you're on the right track, TJ! I can smell it.