5 Things I Learned By Failing.

I’m taking a little breather from Right Reader related stuff to talk about career planning.

Sort of.

When I got my first contract at 26, I had a goal.  I’d sell 100,000 copies, I thought.  That’d be a decent start.  Then I’d start really making some big numbers.

(If you’re not laughing now, you should be. Trust me.  100,000 copies is nuts, especially for a debut series romance author.)

Still, once I “made it” through the door, I was determined to hit the big leagues.

The one where I decide to become a bestseller.

I have been a fanatical plotter.  My career was no exception: I schemed and plotted that thing within an inch of its life.

I signed contracts for about two books a year. I looked for new markets, and hammered out proposals.  I hung out on email loops (this was pre-Facebook.)  I dropped a couple thousand on a website and business cards. I taught classes and spoke at conferences and established myself enough that I got quoted in papers like the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.

Yeah, I had a day job, but I didn’t have kids.  Besides, sleep was for losers.  I had a boatload of caffeine and the determination of… well,  a lemming, in retrospect.

Where life says: “LOL! Good one!”

Life intervened.  My plan — crafted desperately, rather than carefully — crumbled around me.

And about three years ago, I hit a death spiral.

Productivity was a laugh. Contracts went late. I ducked deadlines like dodge balls.

And new writing?  Not even with a gun to my head.

What I learned by failing.

1.  Know what it takes.

When I started, I had no real concept of the numbers it took to make a “bestseller” — or how the industry worked.  I didn’t understand how publishers sent books to booksellers, or what sell-through was and why I needed to care.  I certainly didn’t know I could go from selling 50,000 copies of one title to being left off a catalog the next.

Without understand what needed to be done, and what was in my control (and what wasn’t), all my efforts were like trying to light a fire in the ocean.  It wasn’t for lack of persistence… it was just sheer stupidity.

2.  Know what I’m good at (and what I’m not.)

And we’re back to the Hedgehog.

My world got rocked, and not in the good way, due to circumstances that had nothing to do with my writing.  For me, writing was no longer a sideline dream — it was a bill-payer. And I had a new little human that had expenses.

I actually went to one of my editors and said: “I will write about anything.  I will write about lesbian crack-addicted nuns.  Tell me what the hole is in your list, and I will write it.”

(Yes, I said that.  Verbatim.)

Thanks to this little jaunt into creative problem-solving, I learned that  I can come up with plot ideas all day long.  Doesn’t mean I can write them… which really sucks to discover after I’ve signed the contract on a paragraph proposal, with a seven-month delivery.

I’ve also learned erotica is a very precise art form, and while I admire those that can write it, I’m not in their ranks.

Basically, if I want to sell a lot… I can’t sell out.  Period.

3.  Know my limits.

You know how you can pull all-nighters when you’re twenty, and suddenly you’re thirty-four and something comes up and you think, “I’ll just stay up all night?” Remember how wretched you felt — and how surprised?

I’ve learned that if I’m unhappy, tired, frustrated, or going through cataclysmic life changes — surprise!  It’s incredibly difficult to write!

I know I can’t write the way I used to, in tsunami-styled waves of words.  That said, this “defect” has helped me develop a neat thing called craft.  Like an athlete that discovers natural talent only gets you so far (and seems to decrease as you get older), I am discovering the beauty of developing my skills beyond hotdogging.

4.  Hold the dream, but make the plan.

There’s this Persian saying:  “Trust in God — and tie your camel.”

I was too into the “tying your camel” bit early in my career, admittedly.  In fact, I nearly strangled the thing.

Then, in the dark days of write-for-hire, I sort of abandoned the camel altogether.

I’ve learned the happy medium.  In order to rock my writing, I need to stay connected to why I write — what I do best, what I love.  And then I’ve got to plug into what I want, and how to get there.  What’s in my control (learning, attitude, craft) and what isn’t (the market, editors, readers, sales.)

Most of all, have a smart, achievable goal.  Build gradually, and track progress.  See what’s working and what isn’t.

I am still planning on being a publishing success.

My definition’s changed somewhat — and I’m open to it looking different than my assumptions.

More importantly, I have every intention of sharing my hope, experience, and knowledge with other writers who are muddling through the journey, with nothing but a dream and a plan that isn’t working.

That’s why I started Rock Your Writing.   Because that’s the last thing I learned:

5.  Everyone writes alone.  No one succeeds that way.

In fact, maybe I should’ve opened with that lesson.  It was one of the hardest, strangely enough.

But it’s definitely the most important.

What about you?  What have you learned by “failing,” or not succeeding quite yet, or succeeding and having it look nothing like you expected?

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22 Replies to “5 Things I Learned By Failing.”

  1. wow, this was a beautifully stated and well needed breath of fresh air for this writer. I also find myself caught up in the endless spiral of write/sell/edit/pub/promote to the point where I do lose track of how much I enjoy just creating. I also own a craft microbrewery and handle all aspects of marketing for it (and we are doing VERY well after just 7 months open) so my time carved out for writing is precious to me. Time to build gradually, track progress, keep the dream but be real about it. thanks so much for this!

    1. Liz,

      I’m glad the post spoke to you! It’s so easy to drown in everything we’re supposed to do. Hang in there! 🙂


  2. Great post, Cathy!

    I’ve learned that sometimes what looks like failure (i.e., losing/firing an agent, losing a book contract) can actually be amazingly freeing creatively. Going from pleasing someone else to pleasing myself as a writer brings a smile to my face, even when I have moments of panic that without an agent/contract I’m back to newbie status. It was scary at first, but it has been a surprisingly and delightfully happy time!

    1. That’s true. What I’ve considered “failure” has never been permanent, thankfully. It just feels like that. And great point re: the creative freedom! It’s such a difference, writing without your imagined editor/agent/whomever peering over your shoulder. And I’m glad you’re having a delightfully happy time. I know happy things have definitely been a result… you Happy Writer, you!

  3. I think you learn more by failing than by success. Getting success right out of the box is not good — all you have to do is look at the lives of Hollywood people who shot to stardom overnight, or writers who get 6 digit advances for their first book. What have they learned? Not much and when all that money and hype get to you, you probably haven’t learned how to live with success.

    I fail for any number of reasons, and each one taught me something. But you did make one comment I have to respond to:

    “You know how you can pull all-nighters when you’re twenty, and suddenly you’re thirty-four and something comes up and you think, “I’ll just stay up all night?” Remember how wretched you felt — and how surprised?”

    I’m 55 and I can still pull an all nighter — as long as I’m busy. If I’m actively doing something, my writing is flying or I’m in the company of other people I can stay up for a lot longer than one night. I’ve had a number of times I’ve traveled and would wake up (or stay up) until 3 or 4 am to get a flight. Spend all day traveling to say Los Angeles or Hawaii (I can’t sleep on planes), get where I’m going and stay up for a few more hours, or if I do get to bed, have to get up 3 or 4 hours later to do a panel or something. Probably the longest I’ve stayed awake since hitting 50 was probably 35-40 hours. And even after that, I may or may not get a lot of sleep to catch up. That’s what going home is for. LOL.

    1. You can still pull an all nighter… with no consequences? Holy hell. I’m bowing in awe here.

      When I had my son and started a regular regimen of sleep deprivation, I thought I’d go psychotic!

  4. So true, so true, so true! I took an online writing workshop from Jerry Cleaver’s “The Loft” in Chicago and I never forgot his advice to ask yourself every day, “What do I have today” – and write it. That’s all you can write – what you have today.

    I starting writing fiction later in life so I have other challenges – like those “over 40” moments when you need to remember something about your plot – lol! I also feel the clock ticking when it comes to wanting success to happen now. But I also think I can embrace acceptance more, too, at this stage of life. What will be, will be.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Cathy!

    1. I love that writing advice. I think I should put it up on my office wall somewhere. And totally understand re: wanting success now vs. acceptance. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  5. I’m in awe of Pat as well–I can hardly stay up past 11pm these days. And I love Kathy’s advice from The Loft too. That’s worth writing down. 🙂

    I totally agree about knowing your limits. I worked this past week on a construction job that would’ve been a breeze to me even five or six years ago. As I write, I’m nursing a sore back and shoulder, hoping to finish the job this week (grateful for a rain day). I’ve had to face limits in my writing this year too. So long, four and five thousand word count days. Gramps feels like he has to work this scene through before just typing away. And I’m sure it’s for the best.

    Your last lesson is important, and one I resisted for a long time. One of the things I found most appealing about my preconception of a writer’s life was solitude (after twenty years with scores of employees, it was bliss). But I had no idea how tough the rest of it would be alone, after the first draft was done. I didn’t realize then how much I’d enjoy/learn from/be inspired by, those I’ve met as I seek success in this crazy business. Thanks, Cathy, for being one of them.

  6. Thanks for a wonderful post. I’m really scared about making a living from writing. I luckily have a part-time job (20 hours per week) that pays rather well. But it does limit my writing productivity and I’d love to give it up and live off my writing. You need to be able to sell at least 3 books a year and I’m struggling to finish that many. Now I’m not sure how I’ll ever achieve that. Sigh – but it’s good to dream.

    1. The fear’s always there a bit, but I do understand your predicament. THe dream of writing full time seems to be one we’re all chasing. When you say you need to be able to sell at least 3 books a year… what are you basing that on? I know it’s easier to sell when you’ve got a series, definitely. Are you thinking traditional publishing, or self publishing, or any publishing at all? There are a lot of different ways to get there. Also, it depends on what your “escape number” is: your income goal, etc.

      It is good to dream. And you’re definitely among dreamers. 🙂

  7. Thanks for those inspirational words. Funny how they’ve come up twice for me from two different people which means I need to sit back and listen. I’m just now venturing into the realm of authors and the marketing industry. Sure I’ve written books before, have six books already published, even won an award for Best Self-Help book, yet it all seems new with my two latest books. And it’s different with these two because I’m actually marketing and doing everything to promote them and make them real. With BDSM FOR WRITERS and BDSM THE NAKED TRUTH I feel like I’m really changing the world and the way they think not just helping someone embrace their sensuality. Given the craziness that surrounded these books before I decided to self-publish, I’ve been dragging those camels to where I think they should go instead of sitting astride and enjoying the ride. This doesn’t mean I won’t hold the reins and set the course, just that I won’t be dragging them to it any longer. Thank you for helping me see that. I’m taking this weekend to sit a bit and enjoy myself and think about the path I wish to take with them and ensure to remind myself to stay seated and joy the ride…bumps and all.

    Now, on a side note: just one question…what’s “sell-through and why do I need to care”? Smiles, since I’m self-publishing these two books, I’m trying to learn all I need to know to ensure their success.

    Live with passion,

    Dr. Charley Ferrer

    1. Having a passion, a mission, makes the marketing that much easier, I think. And it makes the setbacks harder, because it’s so much more personal! But it sounds like you’re getting some balance, and that’s good.

      If you’re self-publishing, or e-publishing, then you don’t need to worry about sell-through. What it means: the percentage of books ordered vs. books actually sold. So if a bookstore ordered 100, and you only sold 50 before they decided to send the rest back (they sell on consignment) you had a 50% sell-through. Which makes a traditional publisher say, hmmm, do we really want to keep betting on this author? Generally, they like a sell-through of about 75% or higher, I hear. If you’re e-publishing, there’s nothing to ship back. I’m not sure how traditional publishing is measuring those sort of things on that front, now that I think about it.

      Thanks for stopping by — come back anytime. 🙂

  8. Cathy, Thanks so much for your candor, and your sharing your journey with us. I learn so much each time I read your posts.

    I thought I failed when I couldn’t get my novel published after trying for 5 years, polishing, editing, tweaking, and still a bunch of rejections, and what else do you have? Now, I’ve realized a few things from that: my writing is good, and agents do want to see more of it. (Yippee!) And two, in the time I’ve worked on that novel I’ve indie published 7 books, for myself and others. So when a friend of mine encouraged me to self-publish my own novel, I knew I could, and I knew I’d also be faced with a whole new set of challenges, that I totally enjoy (most of the time). I still will send out a manuscript to agents, the next one, just not this one!

    Beth Barany
    Author: Henrietta The Dragon Slayer

    1. That’s fantastic, Beth. I’ve been lucky to watch you on a good portion of your writing journey, and it’s so exciting to see the projects you’re developing! Definitely a case of “failing” being a setback rather than an end result, because I think you’re kicking ass now. 🙂

  9. OMG – this is so timely it’s spooky. I have been struggling with all of this recently and have just sent in the final contracted book (hit the send button not 6 hours ago). And what have I decided to do next. Pretty much everthing you said above. I have been so lost in trying to be a published author that I have forgotten why I am a writer and I think I need to find that again. I have just hit the bottom of that death spiral and am now pulling in the reins and going “whoa nelly, lets slow this carriage down”. I need to connect with my inner writer again. I’ve lost her and I miss her. Thanks for saying exactly what I am feeling.

    1. Weeeeeird. 😀

      I am sorry to hear that you bottomed out, but at least you’ve hit the resting place. And connecting with your inner writer is wonderful. I can vouch for that.

      Hang in there, and take care of yourself. Watch some good movies, drink tons of water (I sound like a Mom don’t I? I’ll stop!) … Just replenish, since it sounds like you’re tapped out.

  10. Excellent post! It’s easy to get bogged down with rejections, they really bothered me at first, but each one has made me more determined to succeed. I’ve received some excellent feedback and am now working with editors on a couple of my stories. Things can only go up from here. It’s important to remain positive if you want to someday achieve your goals.

  11. Cathy, I was out of town when you published this post, so I’m catching up on some of your old ones. But I just had to say THANKS for this one. It’s wise, honest and full of heart, and I appreciate it ;).

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