On Writing,  publishing

Failure Must Be An Option


(I first did a version of this post in 2012, then brought it forward and updated it for 2014, and now updated again, here it is as part of this year-end flurry of posts to help get ready for 2017.)

I’ll bet a few of you got very uneasy by me starting off a blog post with: “Failure Must Be An Option.”

This post is about how to move forward with your writing. And to do that, you must fail, over and over to become an artist in this business and to just survive.

And that’s normal and perfectly fine.

(I really should repeat that last sentence.)

Let me say this clearly. The reason I am starting right here, talking about failure, is that until you understand failure in publishing, you don’t have a lot of chances at success and setting goals for success in a new year.

Failure is very much an option and a way of life in publishing in all levels.

However, quitting is not.

You quit, you are done. You go into the “whatever happened to…?” authors and after that the “blank look” authors when your name is even mentioned.

So first let me talk about failure. It’s going to take a minute, so hang on. I need to try to see if I can get everyone on the same page here.

When setting goals, everything about your goal must be in your control. Completely.

Let me give you a list of examples of “control.”

1a) Wanting your book to sell 200 copies a month indie…NO CONTROL

1b) Getting your book on Kindle and B&N and Kobo and all the other places, plus in paperback, with a great cover, good, active blurbs, and written well story… YOUR CONTROL.

You get the idea I hope.  When I talk about an objective in the future that is out of your control, I will call it a “dream.”

An objective in the future that is totally in your control I will call a “goal.”

Plan Point #1…

Check through all your goals for 2017 and make sure they ONLY concern your work level that is in your control. 

Nothing more. 

No action from another party can be involved, otherwise it is not realistic. 

So if you are an indie writer and thinking you want to sell a thousand copies of all your books per month next year, that’s a dream. Retreat back to how many new projects you can write and indie publish. Set up how many you want to finish and publish. That’s a goal. Let the sales take care of themselves.

So do that now to save your sanity next year.

Now, back to failure. Smart failure.

To become a professional fiction writer, you must become a major risk-taker without fear of failure or a care in the world what anyone else thinks of you or your writing.

Now, saying that, all new writers have just turned away, convinced I am muttering stupidity. But alas, I am not.

Examples from writers of fear of failure:

Example One …

A manuscript must be perfect. The writer doesn’t dare let a “flawed” manuscript out for anyone to see. 

The writers who have this major fear are constant rewriters, are major workshop people, are writers who write for their critique group instead of what they want.

Writers with this fear will take five people’s feedback and try to get it all into their manuscript turning their story into boring garbage written by a committee.

Writers with this fear spend huge sums of money on book doctors and other scams.

Writers with this fear are writers who let agents tell them to rewrite over and over. And so on.

Writers with this fear are replacing reality in publishing with their own fear.

Just to be clear here: There are no perfect books in publishing. Never has been, never will be.

Writers with this fear are often afraid of success, and certainly don’t trust their own art, because they willingly let many other people mess with it.

The problem with this fear is that so many modern myths play right into it.

A personal note about this:

Back when I was first getting serious, I was writing a story per week. I could not type much on my typewriter and certainly couldn’t spell anything. So I would write a new story, have my trusted first reader (Nina Kiriki Hoffman) read it and find the billion mistakes. I would fix the mistakes in spelling and typing. Then I made a copy to mail and copies to turn into the workshop.

I would mail the story to an editor on the way to the weekly workshop. (I turned in the story to the local workshop to get audience reaction and see if I could learn something for writing the next story, not to “fix” the story I already had in the mail.)  Stories the workshop beat up and said were worthless, I often sold. I never told them I hadn’t “fixed” the story. (If I had “fixed the story,” it never would have sold.)

Were those stories flawed and scarred?  Yup, they were. Zero doubt about that. But they were my stories, my voice, my mistakes, done at the best skill level I could manage at the time, and that’s what helped them sell. I trusted my own art, even flawed.

If I had been afraid of mailing out anything but a “perfect” manuscript, I would have never been a full time fiction writer.

Another personal example.

In 1973, in Palm Springs, CA, I finished up a pretty good professional golf tournament for me a few under par. Not at all happy with the round, but it made me a buck or two. One of my friends at the time, another young professional out chasing tour stops had just shot one of his best rounds ever. And won the tournament.

When asked about his round, he was proud of it, but mentioned to the reporter a few places he had left shots on the course. And a wedge he had missed on #14.

That night, instead of drinking, we were both hitting golf balls and practicing under the lights at the driving range at my course. And he was working on hitting wedges.

Luckily, he didn’t need a perfect golf game to put himself on the line. He just needed to keep working and trust the skill and art he had at that moment in time. And even though the next summer I quit golf and went back to college, he went on to do just fine in the world of golf. And trust me, you would recognize his last name.

Plan for 2017… If you have this fear that everything needs to be perfect, take drastic action to fix it, otherwise 2017 just won’t matter much. 

Example Two… 

Afraid to mail a story because of the rejection or afraid to put a story up indie published for fear of not having many sales. 

I have never understood this fear, but I know it is real. For me, this fear is beyond silly. It’s like walking up to the front gate of a golf course and then deciding not to play because your score might not be perfect.

This fear is one of the “quitters’ fears” as I call them. It is safer to not try than try and fail.

Nothing I can say or do to help you past this fear because, honestly, I just find it too silly. And sad. What do you think an editor will do to you???? Come to your house and shoot you for not sending in a perfect story? Never once heard of that happening in the history of publishing.

And if you put up a book out indie on all the different stores and no one buys it, WHO IS GOING TO NOTICE??  No one. Because no one bought it. Duh.

But interestingly, by not trying, you guarantee failure. Quitters never really understand that logic. You hear the word, “But…but…but…” (Echoing off into the distance from quitters.)

Example Three…

Afraid to write or finish a story you have been talking about for a while.

People respect others, especially artists of all stripes, who work hard in their art.

There is no respect (zero, zip, zilch) for those who claim they want to do something then never “get around to it” or as the laughing-stock phrase of all writers who are quitters, “I just can’t find the time.”

Maybe for a month or six months or a year you won’t find the time as life beats on you with something special. But if you don’t really have this fear, you will come back to writing when life gets off your back and you will finish your work.

This fear is just an excuse to quit by never starting, never putting your skill and art on the line for anyone to read. It’s a ton easier to just remember how much praise your high school English teacher gave you for your writing than actually put your writing out there with real readers.

Remember, quitting is not an option. Failing is fine and you will do that a lot, but the moment you find a reason to quit and stay away, you and your art are finished.

And if you can’t find the time, just keep telling yourself that, but please don’t write me with your excuses because I won’t care because you have quit by never starting. I want to help people who are not afraid of fighting for their art.

If you suffer from this fear and can’t just use logic to snap out of it, get professional help if you really want to be a writer at some point. Not kidding.

I think that’s enough examples of fear for now. We can talk about more if you want in the comments section. I’ve seen them all, actually. And I talk about and try to deal with numbers of them in the Classic Productivity Online Workshop.

Some other fear examples for your files…

… “It’s too hard” fear.

… “It’s going to take too long” fear. (Kids under thirty and adults over fifty worry about this one the most.)

… “The system is rigged against me” fear.

… “I don’t have enough talent” fear. (Talent is a measure of your craft at a given moment in time, nothing more. Take a craft class. You’ll get more talented.)

… “Fear of success” fear. (This fear is deep and subtle and needs professional help to get past. If you grew up lower income, you might have this one.)

… “I am so good, I don’t have to practice” fear. (Yes, this is a fear of admitting a need to keep learning. It is ego-based fear. Deadly after a few years.)

… “Fear of public failure” fear.

And so on…

Summary of Fear and Quitting

You must be fearless in writing and at the publishing business. If a fear slows you down or causes you to quit, then you have lost your art and your fight. Stay aware of the fears as you set goals for next year.

The very, very best way of getting rid of fears is just not worry about failure.

Failure is normal in publishing and writing and all art.

Kill the fear of failure and all those fears I listed will just vanish. (Except for fear of success, which more than likely will take professional help to deal with as I said.)

Failure Must Be An Option. 

Attitude is Everything

It says that on my iced tea mug. And it is true.

I am not afraid of failure. For heaven’s sake, I have been doing my own magazine now for 36 months.  And my attitude is to look at what did get done from a goal or challenge and see the success.

When you are setting new goals for 2017, you must expect failure at all levels in your plans.

And you must not allow the worry about failure, or a bad attitude about failure, to bury the success you are having.

Sometimes you can fail to complete success. But you have to be willing to fail to reach the success.


  • Vera Soroka

    I’ve had an utter failure year. I so badly wanted to get out past projects that I had written but I let distractions get in the way. Going forward I’m trying again. This year I will enter into a different mind set. That is key for me if I’m going to get all that stuff out. I need a mental health check to clear the deck so I can focus.
    Good luck to everyone!

  • Matt Herron

    This one got me right in the feels, Dean. I’ve been following along with these “getting ready for the new year” posts, nodding and smiling because I already put together a plan and some goals—goals that I can control, in fact! And then I read Example One here, and thought about how I’ve been revising the same book for several months. I am definitely that writer who wants the manuscript to be perfect.

    I had already set an insane deadline to turn that in mid-January, so that should force me out of the broken loop, but man it’s so true about perfectionism holding you back.

  • Marsha

    I have no patience with these writer fears.

    Real fear is having to run away at 15 because you can’t bear another day of abuse.
    Real fear is sleeping on an embalming table in the cellar of an abandoned funeral home because it’s the safest place you can find.
    Real fear is navigating life as a high school drop out and praying no one will ever find out.
    Real fear is choosing to be a writer, and only having one hand to type with.

    All true. All challenges that eventually became my cornerstones. The roots of my strength. The important thing I learned from each of those experiences is that I’ll never know what I can do and succeed at (or survive) until I try.

    Don’t be afraid to fail, folks. Only you can defeat you. Every writer has a story to tell that someone wants to hear. Tell it the best you can, share it, and then learn how to tell the next one better.

    There is no such thing as perfection, only room to grow. It’s called progress.

    (To be honest, I had a moment’s fear about posting this. Then I decided to face it and hit SEND.) 🙂

    • Linda Maye Adams

      When I was thinking of going indie, I got stuck because I was afraid of it. I had to keep reminding myself that I’d been to war, where fear was a daily and constant thing, and all too real. I had to keep telling myself, “You survived a war. You can do this.”

      • Marsha

        Linda, one of the reasons I hesitated to press send was because I thought of all the people who have been to war, an ordeal a thousand times worse than anything I faced. I admire your courage. You CAN do anything. If you want to write, then write. Quitting is the only way you can fail.

    • Sheila

      Marsha, what an awesome comment. You put it into a perspective that really made me stop whining about my own failures since I’ve been self-publishing (and even further back into my own childhood, which was bad but in different ways).

      Thanks for having the courage to hit send. It’s been a really helpful post.

      Dean, thanks for reviving this post. I’m like, the world champion of failure. About the only thing I haven’t failed at is being a good mother, and that’s because I was incredibly blessed with wonderful kids who made the toughest job into a joy.

      I’m often surprised I had the guts to begin putting my work out there, and when people buy it I’m so thrilled I want to hug them. It’s such an awesome feeling, I can’t imagine stopping, so I’m forging ahead and changing course to get more work out there and get that high as often as I can. It’s cheap, fun and legal! LOL

      • Marsha

        Sheila, thank you. Frankly I think being a good parent is one of the toughest challenges out there. I applaud you.

        And I feel the way you do about selling my work. It’s such a thrill I can’t help but do a happy dance. Each sale is such a gift and the joy of a sale is addictive. It makes me want to write more and see if I can touch more people. Onward!

        • Sheila

          Thanks, Marsha. Parenting is a lot harder than I imagined, but so rewarding. I tell people it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.

          I was never in a war, but spent time in the military during the Iran hostage crises. It was terrifying, not knowing what was going to happen, day after day, to the hostages, to our military brothers and sisters, to our country.

          As you say, onward! It’s a great journey to be on, and I’m so glad to share the path with others. 😀

        • Bonnie Edwards

          Thank you Marsha…reality check…and also an appreciation of where someone had to go to succeed, puts into perspective any writer woes that relate to “don’t think I’ve got it…or don’t feel good about my work”. I’ll admit to seeing that first published work and going I should have tried harder, but each one gets better…for me it’s just that I write a series so in order to get to the better ones my readers usually start with the first…that is definitely a lst world problem as we like to say. The more I write the more perfectionism sneaks in to steal spontenaity…thanks for the reminder…now if I could only spell spontanaeity….:)

  • P.D. Singer

    Your example #2 is anxiety more related to “What if I threw a party and nobody came?”

    Which is “book as event” thinking, but detachment isn’t always a skill acquired early.

  • Leah Cutter

    I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot recently.

    I “failed” my yearly word count goal in 2016. Only wrote 400K instead of 500K. (Most of why I “failed” was due to things out of my control, i.e., health issues.)

    In 2017, I plan on taking another run at 500K.

    I may “fail” again. I can’t care about that. I have to try anyway.

    • Jason M

      I failed to 400K this year as well, Leah. Most productive year of writing in my life, even though most of it was ghosting. Next year I hope to fail to 600K.

      • Sheila

        Hey, if you have to fail, fail upward!

        But it is funny how we can do something like hitting 400K words in a year, and it seems like we failed. Humans are strange creatures.

        My goal this year is again Pulp Speed One. I may not make it, but I’m darned sure I’m going to try. That I can control. Life? Well, I can only fight those battles when they arrive.