Challenge,  On Writing

Reaction to Failure

Maybe One of the Best Quotes from The Voice Ever…

On Tuesday, while talking to and encouraging a young woman who didn’t get a chair to turn, Adam Levine said to her out of nowhere, and I quote,

“It’s your reaction to your failures that make your success.”

As many things on The Voice, this applies directly to writing as well. Directly.

Now this young girl just failed in front of millions of people, but she had the courage to try out and to walk up there on that stage and give it a shot. Total success. She got to sing in front of millions and that is a bunch better than most singers ever manage in entire careers.

How does this saying apply in writing? About a thousand different ways, actually.

For example, I am constantly reminding writers that it really isn’t the end product that matters, it is the fun and experience of telling a story that is important. But writers make that final product “special” by giving the final product all the focus.

And when a story doesn’t work out well, what are young writers trained to do? Rewrite it, of course.

That is a reaction to a failure.

And in my opinion, a bad one. A better reaction would be to move on, keep learning, and work to make the next story better. Keep practicing.

One singer this week on The Voice got a two-chair turn. She had been there last season and got no one to turn. So she listened to the coaches, went home and worked harder than ever and kept learning and got better FOR THE NEXT TIME.

She didn’t wallow in that one missed song. She worked to get better and make the next song better. And it paid off and she made it on The Voice this season.

But beginning writers just wallow (and I use that word purposely in case you are deft to the meaning of words)  in rewriting the same story over and over and over.

A really bad reaction to failure.

Another example: I am in the middle of a challenge (actually just starting it) and some of the writers who signed up to write 30 short stories in 60 days or three novels in three months are struggling. These challenges are difficult at best, but accomplishing the challenge is only one learning area.

Failing at a challenge can be far, far more of a learning experience.

These writers on these challenges have the courage to give something a try, to push themselves beyond their normal levels of writing and focus and learning. I think that is a total success no matter the final outcome.

What Adam was saying is another way of approaching failure when I say “Fail to success.”

Say a writer is working on three novels in three months. And gets two done.

Flip that and look at the success. A writer wrote two novels in three months, which to most would be astoundingly cool! Total success.

Writing 30 short stories in sixty days, and get 24 stories done. That is more short stories than most writers will write in two years. Not a failure because the goal of 30 wasn’t hit. Nope, a total success at writing 24 stories.

How you approach your writing with what Adam Levine said is so critical. “It is your reaction to your failures that make your success.”

I try to teach that here and in the courses all the time. In so many different ways. And yet Adam, in a conversation with a young singer, said it so clearly.

So what can you learn from a challenge? I have gotten that question a bunch of times and the answer is a thousand things, actually. Including your own reaction to a challenge.

But mostly, a challenge will help you learn what your reaction is to failure. Giving up is a reaction and a bad one.

I have 83 days left on my challenge. And I will push on the challenge right up to the very last day because I learned a long time ago that giving up is a bad reaction to a failure. It spins you into places you don’t want to be.

Honestly, when I look back at the last 40 years of writing, the only reason I am here is because I know how to react to failure and I never give up. And trust me, in fiction writing, failure is part of the landscape.

So give that simple sentence that Adam Levine said some thought. And then look at how you react to failure and maybe start making some changes.

Writing is a ton more fun when you focus on the fun of telling a story and stop worrying so much about failure.

Failure is going to happen. So what?




  • James Palmer

    “To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops.”
    -Ray Bradbury

    • dwsmith

      Ashley, I would tend to say that we learn when we fail with the right attitude about the failure. Sure. But there are thousands of ways of learning that don’t always include failure. Classes, books, reading others, and so on come to mind.

      However, fear of failure and fear of not being perfect is by far the deadliest thing that happens to a writer. And that stops the writing and that is permanent failure because the only real failure is not writing. That’s what Adam Levine was trying to get that young girl past on The Voice. He didn’t want this failure to stop her, but instead help her learn.

      So when a writer fails by not writing, they are learning nothing other than that they are a coward or really don’t want to write in the first place.

      So I guess learning as a writer that you are a coward or never really wanted to write in the first place is learning. Just not productive learning in most cases.

  • Tony Decastro

    Dean, As you know I’ve taken a couple of your workshops and I will continue to do so as time and money permits. They are great and I learn so much, and they also give me reinforcement on some of the things I’ve found in my own writing practice. It’s all great, invaluable. But, these “attitude”-centered posts are what I can really not thank you enough for. I’ve learned so much about myself and what I am capable of, simply by taking the lead you provide in these blog posts. Heinlein’s Rules, “dare to be bad”, reaction to failure, “writing is not hard, you’re sitting in a room making stuff up.” It all seems simple (and the truth is it is), sometimes in practice it’s more difficult than it seems when I read it here…but on the other end, after I’ve struggled through some of those inner doubts? There is ALWAYS truth.

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Tony. I have to repeat these to myself at times as well. We all make writing “important and special” instead of just keeping it fun and telling stories and keeping it simple.

  • Kenny

    This reminds me of a Japanese proverb I’ve heard recently: Fall 7, Rise 8.

    I agree with the person who told me about it that if I ever get a tattoo then that’ll be what I get (or more simply F7R8). But hey, I doubt I’ll ever get a tattoo, I’m a tagless person in real life…

  • Rikki Mongoose

    I’ve got a fun problem with… setting.

    Sadly, I can t use my fav worlds for fiction – they are owned by wizards of coast.

    I think, the world itself isn’t as important as the story (who would learn Elvish language if Lord of the Rings manuscript were lost during WWII?)

    But for fantasy I need races, kingdoms and all this stuff.

    Also I have to make them easy to be remembered. It s easier in historic fiction (I can just describe an imagined state who has relations with real ones, so characters can use Egyptian incenses or meet an Ellynic ship). But in fantasy reader can get lost in all of these Xalluses and Brotherhoods of Swords,

    I guess, it’s mixed with Research. How do pros solve this problem?

    • dwsmith

      Make up your own stuff, Rikki, your own worlds. And learn how to make them real. No research needed, just study on how others did it and then do it yourself without using anyone else’s world.

      Your question shows you are trying to plan things all out ahead (don’t need to) and that you are afraid of just making something up (why not?) and that you think readers only want the old crap already done by other writers. Nope, readers want fresh, new worlds and places to go by fresh new writers. And you create that through your characters as you write. Not ahead of time.

      And right there I have gone against about ten myths of writing and I don’t expect you to believe me because of what you have been trained. But alas, it is the truth and you asked. (grin)

      • Kessie

        Ditto what Dean said. I set out to completely write a superhero story into the dark. No planning powers or funny names or anything. And the ideas that fell out of my brain continually amaze me. I’ve got a hero with an electromagnetic spectrum power, a villain who steals other powers, and a girl who can blot out other people’s senses … and they’re all in this elaborate war for a lost superweapon from Atlantis. No outline, but it’s turning out fantastic.

  • JM

    On the flip side, I seem to recall on one show or other where the person who made it into the show kept singing the same kinds of songs which had worked for them that first time, until the judges got fed up with them for NOT learning and growing and instead hiding in their momentary success far longer than they should.

    Learn from failure and move on and keep working . Learn from success and move on and keep working.

    • dwsmith

      Yup, I agree completely, JM. I find the writers who make a little success, think they no longer need to learn and just keep writing the same thing really sad. Not a darned thing you can do to help them and they are soon gone. I have watched this more times than I care to think about.

      Big fish in very small pond syndrome is what I call it. You see this in the small genres a lot, like sf and horror and fantasy.

  • Maree

    I’ve always heard this termed ‘failing up’. You may have failed at the challenge, but you’ve achieved far more than you would have if no attempt was made.

    Watching Kris’s lecture on writing short stories a few weeks ago I was overwhelmed with great info, but the weird bit of info that kind a knocked me back was when she was talking about challenging yourself to write a story a week for a year. And she said that people who attempt the challenge usually end up writing about 25 stories. And how it improves their skills so much, very recommended etc.

    I was just left thinking wow. You can fail at the challenge 50% of the time, keep coming back , and still win.

    • dwsmith

      Not failing yet, just behind some. Long ways on this 100 day challenge.

      And yup, exactly. Set up a challenge to do a story a week, fail regularly and still write more than most.


    • Phillip McCollum

      Just chiming in here to recommend the short story a week challenge, Maree. I wound up writing all 52 (and believe me, it wasn’t through a lack of obstacles). But the learning part…so fruitful and so amazingly beneficia– not just in terms of growing your skills but also in developing that writing habit.

      • dwsmith

        Writing Habit is so important. Exactly, Phillip. And great job on hitting the 52. Back when I started and was doing a story a week, the best I could manage was 45. (Still amazing.) Now I average more than 52 new stories a year, but I tend to do them in bursts.

  • Dave Hendrickson

    Rewriting the same story over and over was one of my biggest problems before I met you and Kris. It was when you gave me the Story-A-Week challenge that my writing began to take off. Sunday arrived and I had to be done and send the story out. On Monday, I was set free! It was time for a new story. It allowed me to learn to be a better storyteller each week and it was SO much more fun!