Learning from Failure

Papers to be FiledLong-time readers of this blog know that I’ve spent the last three years researching, writing and rewriting Ellen, a novel. I showed it to my agent twice along the way, and knew she had reservations about the premise, main character, time period and tone. I wrote the book anyway, and I turned it in. To say my agent didn’t like it is an understatement. She hates it. It’s not a novel she can represent.

I’m very proud of how I listened to her objections. I can see the validity of all her points, and I can’t argue her into liking something she doesn’t, so I didn’t even try. Besides, I agree: the book’s flawed.

Before we were off the phone, I started to think about the next book I’ve been circling around for some time, and I experienced a momentary euphoria at being able to start something new. Then the shock of that phone call wore off and I wept.

I peered into the abyss of despair and considered diving into a tailspin, but that’s so predictable. So I stepped away from the edge and began cleaning my house. Specifically, I started to clean the room that was once my study and is now simply a mess.

Before I had my studio, and when I was teaching all over the state, this room was where I dumped my books, papers, correspondence, short stories, essays, contracts, scripts, receipts, reading lists and the kids’ letters from their gap years abroad. The youngest has been home for five years and is now out of college. Clearly, it’s time to clean up.

Aside from the therapeutic effects of creating order where there was none, I’m deriving pleasure from finally tackling a long-delayed project, surprise at just how productive I’ve been, and resignation at how hopeless I am about maintaining order.

Sorting through several years of past work reminds me of all that I’ve done – in addition to writing a flawed novel. Letters from friends, former editors, previous employers – all these artifacts of a productive life remind me that I haven’t always lived in self-imposed seclusion, and that I do have marketable skills and significant successes.

Every day I spend sifting through the stacks of papers and piles of books, I also consider how, exactly, I’m going to go on. Put another way, what can I learn from this failure?

A lot, it turns out. Including: the world hasn’t ended; my imagination hasn’t dried up; I haven’t run out of paper or ink or pixels or RAM or even things to say. So onward, with spirit!

Wishing good words and wide audiences to writers everywhere.

photo by M. Shafer

photo by M. Shafer

 Deborah Lee Luskin writes Living In Place from her home in southern Vermont.

49 thoughts on “Learning from Failure

  1. You be a deal. With a clean and now organized abode to boot. And as much as I want to ask why you considered the novel flawed, I’m just going to admire your pick ’em up and put ’em down moving on attitude. Good luck.

    • Hi Doug, There are many ways a book can be flawed, and this novel is flawed in several. I set myself the difficult task of telling the story of an unlikable character – and I was so successful, it’s hard for readers to care about her. Since this is a character-driven rather than a plot-driven novel, this is a real problem. I’m intrigued by your question – and will think about it more. When I have more answers, perhaps I’ll post a blog about what makes a flawed novel. In the meantime, thanks so much for reading the blog and taking the time to comment. Best wishes, Deborah.

  2. And a picture of your newly inspired space to go with it, I am sure. I’m glad you found those inspiring things while you were cleaning out and moving on.

  3. Readers often are drawn to unlikable characters. Think Hannibal Lecter. The issue may not be that your main character is unlikable, but that the character is not interesting, intriguing or compelling. Having not read your book, I’m just guessing, of course. Another reason your agent may not like the mss. is that there are no heroes. It’s difficult to like a book without a hero or heroine even a flawed one.

  4. Great post! Thanks for sharing. As writers, we deal with failure and rejection so often. But to be so candid about it is inspirational. Here’s to filling your well and writing your heart out all over again. 🙂

    • Anita, Thanks so much for your kind words and encouragement. I’m so glad you found this inspirational. All best wishes, Deborah.

  5. I can’t wait to read your blog about what made a novel flawed. It will be a great help since I am planning to write one next year. Merry Christmas to you, your family, your readers and wish you all the best in life.

  6. In the most recent issue of the NYRB a reviewer admitted the tank of a tome he chose or was assigned to review was just too mega to manage, so Kindle it he did. His confession felt to me, parts regret, resignation, and relief. Which is a long way to say that many are are seeing the light and so, in celebration of Hanukkah I gave Susan another Kindle that promises better pixel. And she is Christmas giving me, and it’s on my Paperwhite now, a copy of your novel, ” Into The Wilderness.”

    She doesn’t know, in fact, that she has gift given, given that she is still in the mist of a long winter’s nap, But once up and checking how many more episodes of the Gilmore Girls she has to binge, she will notice ( our Tablets/Readers being synced,) that there’s a title that doesn’t speak Doug; thriller, spy, current politics, old philosophers. Over a quarter century of shelving each others’ books give clue.

    But, I want you to know this purchase was not made sans due diligence. A search was made, an except read, a video watched and only then did I decide I wanted to know more about Rose Mayer. I’m lying. I knew from paragraph one, line one that I wanted to continue to read your book. I know little about the literature, but I do know when an author is comfortable in the telling of a story.

    And who cares if you are crazy enough to chop wood and walk across water. And who cares that our big dog Coda (110 pounds) is bigger than your fine and frisky critter. But fresh eggs before they freeze does remind me of breakfast, which is just what I’m going to do.

    Stay well.

  7. I am Ellen. I hope you look at your book again one day, and just realise that it may only need tweaking. Or tightening or maybe you need a different agent. A better editor , but where would you be if you gave up on Ellen, and threw her away; because one person didn’t know what she was worth. At the very least I would re look at some of her pointers, adapt the ones you agreed with; and believe in her. The process will better your writing, and who knows; your Ellen may be as lovely as me. Merry Christmas. From a lady that writes.

    • Ellen, Thank you for your very kind words. And fear not: I’ve not given up on your namesake; I’ve just laid her aside for a bit. Last night, I started writing a new story, and I’m enjoying the delicious rush of discovering new characters in a new situation. I’m curious to know how this story will unfold. Meanwhile, in some subterranean part of my brain, I’m thinking about how to bring Ellen into the world – and will be considering answers to all the very good questions you ask. Sometimes, it’s good to let a story ferment in the dark before returning to it with new eyes and ideas. My best to you this holiday season and with your writing. You have a lovely name! Deborah.

  8. Nothing is ever wasted! Keep Ellen safe somewhere and return to her with fresh eyes at some point. There is probably a slightly different narrative simmering just under the surface waiting for you. You are brave and wise to embrace this setback. But you are obviously an experienced writer, so it is just a setback. Keep your nerve – and keep going!

  9. Thanks for the encouragement, Beth. Please see my comment above, to Ellen. I have every intention of returning to this novel sometime in the future – after we’ve both had some time away from one another. Best wishes, Deborah.

  10. How resilient you have been – not just in the face of your agent’s final rejection, but to proceed with your book knowing she most likely wouldn’t accept it. Certainly there is failure in the act of rejection, but not in your actions or completion.

    It’s the mark of emotional maturity that you have pushed through, as we all must with the disappointments and losses we each incur.

    This time of year when so many recount accomplishments and successes, I think I have little to show for my life but failures. Except that each one afforded me the opportunity for resilience and a new direction – the sum of which has led to a place of great contentment. Who could want for more?

    • Hi Sammy D. – I think it was Edison who cultivated failure – and had a great number of successes as a result.
      Thanks so much for reading the blog and commenting. And contentment? Aren’t you the lucky one! All best, Deborah.

  11. Thank you for this brave post. I reject the word failure when it comes to writing a novel. YOU WROTE A BOOK. That in itself is success. Be kinder to yourself, start a new project, and you will figure out a way to “fix” Ellen. In the meantime, take care of yourself, and go through the grieving process. Writing brings joy, but is really, really hard to do. AND YOU DID IT.

    • Thanks for these kinds words, Julie. Yes, I’ve written a book, which is a big, first step. Writing a book that has readers is the next. I’m working on it. Happy holidays, Deborah.

  12. This is one of the most specific, honest and hopeful writing articles about starting over after rejection.
    Before my mother’s dementia, she had this advice about any “big” writing rejection (a book ms., a project you really believed in and worked hard to finish, etc.) “Choose something to paint…a chair, the front door, the walls in the laundry room. Give yourself until the paint dries to moan, mourn and sniffle. Then put away your paint supplies–and tuck the old manuscript in a drawer–and start a new project.” It worked on SO many levels.
    Thank you for this excellent post.

    • Hi Marilyn, Thanks for this story about your mother. I’d paint, too, if I didn’t have to clean first anyway! By the time I get all the files in order, I’ll be itching to dive in to the next book, and housekeeping will go to hell yet again. Oh well.
      Thanks for reading the blog. And my heart goes out to you and your mom. My mom died of complications from vascular dementia; at least she was unaware at the end. All best, Deborah.

  13. Inspirational post and lovely mix of replies. Doug Story’s first response got me thinking about those stories with main characters we don’t like. Gone with the Wind’s Scarlet O’Hara or what’s his name Ewing from the original Dallas series come to my mind. Do we like those stories because the characters we don’t like are surrounded by ones we do like? Because they eventually get what they deserve? Because they change?

    I think you should print your blog and the replies, fold the print like origami, and then tuck it away someplace where you can rediscover it during your next bout of intense cleaning… who knows what might happen in the interim?

    Good luck and best wishes!

    • Yes! This post has engendered a fabulous conversation – thanks for adding to it. I don’t know about the origami, but I’m definitely savoring these comments and feeling supported. I’m not finished yet! – Best wishes, Deborah.

  14. Well Deborah… a novel can be flawed for some and loved by others. Write your other book and come back to this one, I am sure you will find the words to ~ or maybe an other agent ~ modify it a little bit and get it out there.

    As for cleaning your office… hmmmm… I’ll have to do it too… it is a humongous mess… and I also have a huge drawer full to the top of yellow pads… themselves full of ideas, notes, thoughts, articles and books ideas, quotes, etc… a mine of wonders. I will have to take a week off to pass through all that ~ will I have enough of one week… maybe 2 weeks or… a month? ~ but it will be exciting to plunge in that drawer and find long forgotten treasures.

    Wish you a feeric christmas and may the New Year brings you the realisation of your dearest desires.

    • Hi. The good thing about housecleaning (or office cleaning in this instance) is that if you don’t do it, it doesn’t go away. It will still be there when you’re ready. Also, it doesn’t all have to be done at once. Today, I’ve boxed up 2014. Now, it’s time to read. Thanks for joining the conversation. Best wishes for the holidays, Deborah.

  15. Let me add another few comments, please. First, agents are often wrong. We’ve seen it in many books that became bestsellers. Second, sometimes agents won’t rep a book because they don’t know how to sell that kind of book. Third, there’s often a difference between a commercially viable book and one that’s a fine book but not commercially viable. This may the case in your situation. Fourth, and almost last, have you tried another agent? Fifth, if you think the book is good then keep trying to sell it. If you think it needs fixing, that it’s flawed, then fix it and try to sell it again. Never, ever give up on something that you believe in.

    • Thanks for this advice, Larry. I’m not giving up; I’m giving it a rest. More than that, I can’t say, except, again: thanks. Deborah.

  16. So brave to write this! Be kind to yourself as you go forward. Thanks for being so true and honest. Now write the real you not what others want! You needs compassion so have a great holiday and Don’t beat yourself up. Angie

  17. Excellent and honest article. We should learn from our failures and accept them as a learning curve. Never give up, because failure is an exams which many successful people have taken over and over again.

    • Agreed. Thank you for your kind words. Failure is a kind of success, isn’t it? I tried; I learned; I’ll put the lessons to good use in the next book. All best wishes to you, Deborah.

    • Thanks for reading the post and for your kind words. Call it courage, single-mindedness, an itch that must be scratched: there’s no avoiding the call to write, not if I want to stay healthy. I think you understand what I mean. All best wishes, Deborah.

  18. I started writing a novel 5 or 6 years ago and believe me, until now I still haven’t finished it yet. Everytime I plan on writing the next chapter, I always re-read the whole finished part first and then end up re-writing them. I keep changing the chapters. I hate myself for still not finishing it. T^T

    • I’m sure you’re a good writer with a great story to tell, and that it’s the self-hatred that’s getting in the way. What would happen if you changed how you talked to yourself? I think it’s the mark of a true writer that after six years you’re still trying. Consider giving yourself another six – with kindness – and see what you can do. As a writer, I know you can control your voice – that’s what writers do.
      Thanks for reading the blog and commenting. Deborah.

    • I’m always glad to see you among my readers here. Thanks for your concern. Yes, there’s some hurt in this situation, but there’s also liberation: I’m now free to move on to a new project and let one rest a while. Developing a thick skin is almost as important to a writer and to simply keep writing. I hope you are . . .Best wishes, Deborah.

  19. Wishing you the best as you move forward. Sorry for how things turned out but I’m sure you’ll turn out something new and amazing and this will be just another step along the way. 🙂

  20. Deborah – firstly you don’t need to thank me for my kind words, you’ve done plenty of that here – it is I who needs to thank you for showing me the way to survive a failed project so very gracefully. Just a thought, if you are thinking of shelving “Ellen” why not instead make the book available for feedback and comment on Wattpad? There are many really fine authors – eg. Paulo Coelho, who find the time to drop in and give well considered, helpful feedback. I feel it is very brave of you to explore writing a novel with an unlikable main character. And what is unlikable is what we cannot accept about ourselves. Would be interesting to see which of Ellen’s characteristics “mirrors” for your agent 😉 Is there a chance of a “your weaknesses are your road to your power” twist to the tale? Wishing you a Blessed and Joy filled end of the year celebrations.

    • Hi Diane, I’d never heard of Wattpad, so I looked into it. I’m concerned about some of their terms of agreement, which are murky about who has rights to the distribute the work. I probably will return to Ellen at some point, and I wouldn’t want to compromise its commercial potential with muddy rights. That said, your idea to seek other readers and more advice about how I might make it a better book is a good one. Thanks again, Deborah.

  21. This is very flattering. If you’re serious, please visit my website, where you can find out more about the educational services I can provide. Thanks for reading the blog. Deborah.

  22. I enjoy your posts.
    As a relatively new (at a serious level) writer, I would be interested in reading your thoughts on what makes a flawed novel.
    I also have finished a character driven manuscript with an unlikeable protagonist. She slowly evolves into a likable, strong woman, but with editors and potential agents reading only the first ten-fifteen chapters, it has been hard to get it past the front door. It may never see publication, but perhaps the story only needed to be told and read by me.
    Have fun organizing, sorting and purging. I do it every other year. I learn a lot about myself from the stuff I couldn’t throw away.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s