Redefining Failure

Thomas Edison: “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

I once spent 14 months writing over 600 pages. I thought I was done. I thought I had a novel, thought I could turn it in, thought I could work on the next thing. Then I sat down & read it. I cried. For 45 minutes. And it wasn’t pretty crying either. It was ugly, sucking-sob, snot-nosed, can’t-barely-talk crying. Why? Because it was terrible. Awful. Really, it was. A failure, for sure.

I was out of town at the time & called my husband. The conversation went something like this:

“It’s [sob] awful. [sob] Really, really [sob] awful.”

“Calm down. It’s not that bad.”

“Yes [sucking air], it is [blowing nose].”

“Take a breath.”

“I-I-I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. Take a breath & step back.”

“It’s bad [smaller sob]. I’m not kidding. [tiny suck of air] It is.”

“Take a couple days off, okay? You take a couple days off & don’t look at it. Go do something else to distract yourself & don’t think about it. Then you look at it fresh & see how you can fix it.”

“[reluctantly] Okay.”

It would’ve been an epic failure if I didn’t learn something from it. First, I learned that it’s always awesome to have somebody level-headed & practical to help you when you think you’re in a crisis ~ props to my husband ~ so now, when something goes wrong, I search out those kind of people for advice. Second, I learned that stepping back & calming down is the only way to approach something that’s not an emergency but seems like a disaster & you’re an emotional wreck. Third, I learned that after a 2-day break, I could look more objectively at the problem and so I could actually see solutions.

Be redefining failure, I also learned a few things from that experience:

  • Don’t write for somebody else, write for myself.
  • Don’t pick a topic I’m not passionate about.
  • Don’t force traits on my characters. Let them be who they are.
  • Don’t try to force the story along because I’m in a hurry & need to get done.
  • Don’t try to make someone else happy at the expense of myself.
  • And the biggest one: Don’t ignore my gut, which was telling me this wasn’t the right story to pursue.

I can’t ever get back the 14 months or the time away from my family or the sleep I missed out on while I was working on that book. But I did manage to salvage 60 pages, which I turned into a novel that I am extremely proud of. And now, when little warning flares go off in my head or my gut ~don’t do this or stay away from that ~ I listen to them.

How about you? What have you learned from what seemed like a failure? Please feel free to share your thoughts & experiences in the comment box below.

16 thoughts on “Redefining Failure”

  1. You are so so right. All of your points are the best advice ever. I too learned all of those things, too.

  2. The biggest lesson I learned from my failures is that you actually do improve as a writer if you keep at it, if you keep writing. So, now I look at my failed book and stories and can tell myself, “Look how far I’ve come.”

    1. Hi Gale. That’s the absolute truth, nothing makes you improve as a writer more than actually writing. I look at my early stories and think the same thing. 🙂

  3. LOVED this post. I have been in this mode before and you’re absolutely right: There is always something to salvage from even the worst, epic failures. 😉 I’ve learned to keep slugging because that’s the only way you’ll ever hit a home run. 😀 GREAT POST!

  4. Hi Shelli, Recently went through my Twitter messages and saw your smiling face, thought I’d come over and check out your blog. I’m really glad that I did! 🙂 Great stuff! I am currently writing my first book as well. So these pointers will definitely come in handy for me. I see a couple of your blog posts that I’d like to catch up on. Since I am looking for other blogs in my niche, it seems that I have found one that must be added to my list! Very nice to cyber-meet you. Thanks for responding to my message.

    1. Hi Deeone! Thanks for stopping by & checking it out. Congrats on writing your first book. I hope you find a lot of helpful things here. Very nice to meet you, too. I’m always thrilled to connect with other writers. 🙂

  5. Failure only happens when you give up. Learning from what doesn’t work is what creates success.

    Great post… I needed it this morning.

  6. Scott Bury / ScottTheWriter

    Great post! You’re absolutely right. Your gut knows what’s right.

    Sometimes, you need to look at something else for a while to let the back of your brain figure out where your story has to go. But make sure you get back to it, and listen to that little voice as it guides you.

    1. Hi Scott! Thanks. The only times in my life when I’ve really gotten into lots of trouble is when I didn’t listen to my gut. I love this because it’s so important: “But make sure you get back to it.” 🙂

  7. Hi Shelli, I’m so glad that I stopped by today and read your post. I should cut and paste your suggestions on my bathroom mirror! Over the last few months, I’ve become so wrapped up in pleasing my blog host, my editor and my marketing consultant, that I’ve forgotten why I write. In the meantime, they all dumped me at once! Lesson learned! If I don’t make a dime from here on out, at least I will do it my way!


    1. Hi lovely Alle! *waves*

      It’s so nice to see you on my blog! I’m so sorry that everything fell apart at the same time. *hugs* for you. You know, what I’ve really come to understand is that the only way I’m going to be happy making art is if I do it my way. I’m glad you’ve learned a lesson (even if, sadly, it was the hard way) & hope you’ll be happier now. Cheers, darlin. 🙂

  8. Honey Apostos

    Reading this today, I realized for one I don’t have a steady go to person when things don’t go well. Which could help. I love the wait two days rule to look at what appears to be a big problem too.

    1. Hi Honey! *waves*

      A go-to person is SO helpful, especially someone who isn’t emotionally involved with the situation & can look at it objectively. I’ve learned that taking a step back & waiting (which I’m really not great at, still. :D) is the best way to figure out how to solve something. Cheers, darlin.

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