Failure is an option here. If things are not failing you are not innovating.—Elon Musk
Let’s just stipulate that I’m highly innovative. And yes: I fail. A lot. If you want to be a writer, you must brace yourself for a series of truly ridiculous cosmic bitchslaps. Never has there been an endeavor more fraught with options for failure* than deciding to write a book: you can fail at writing the damn thing, of course, but you can also fail to get an agent, fail to acquire a publisher, fail at marketing, fail at publicity, fail in the eyes of professional reviewers, fail at sales, and hoo boy, can you ever fail in the opinion of other people. Nothing makes people more contemptuous or casually dismissive than the option to evaluate another person’s creativity.
Certainly there are people who have had everything happen perfectly in the process of traditional publishing and they are named AJ Finn.** For the rest of us, the stumbling blocks are legion. And most of us have unrealistic expectations about how the whole process is going to go down. Being human beings, we just naturally assume that this book, this darling product of our years of angst and toil and sacrifice, will resonate with everyone. Or if not everyone, then most people. Or, if not most people, then someone.
But in the beginning, at least for me, I finished writing the book and doing all the revising things and then sent a letter out to agents with glorious expectations of the drama that would ensue as they fought to represent it. Did that happen? Nooooooo, it did not. The silence was, as they say, deafening. It took over a year and many revisions of my query letter before anyone noticed. And once the stars aligned and I had an agent and a publisher who loved the book*** then I was finally able to sit back and bask in the adulation of readers, who appreciated the book for its humor and poignancy and stellar vocabulary**** and complex structure and realistic depictions of motherhood and medicine and friendship and love-gone-wrong and all the things I love about the book. And sales: The Queen of Hearts would be an instant bestseller, of course. It would garner reviews and blurbs from all the famous literary people and explode in a viral book bomb, saturating the universe with its unrivaled brilliance.
Ha! Did that happen? Nooooooo. Well, yes and no. Some people did read it and love it, and it did merit lots of reviews. But it didn’t become an instant bestseller, of course. Some readers did not love it. Some readers actively hated it, with the same venom you’d expect for a dictator or a pharmaceutical company executive***** or someone who strangles kittens. Some things I desperately and embarrassingly wished to have happen did not happen. Sometimes I said desperately embarrassing things in interviews. I now realize all the book’s tragic flaws, the million ways I could have written a better story, the chances I missed, the opportunities lost, in this, the writing and marketing of my one and only first novel, and I feel ashamed. So much failure, so many different ways. What was I thinking?
Well. Here’s what I was thinking: I wrote the book I’d want to read. I did the best I could possibly do at the time: I spent hours and days and months and years absolutely consumed with this one thing. Anything creative is subjective and people love to get all judgey when it comes to books; if you’re going to create art of any kind, guess what? It is going to fail in someone’s eyes. Quite a lot of the time, it is going to fail in your own eyes. For every success, there will be an exponential number of prior failures.
It’s an enormous win to struggle through the infinite sea of words and emerge with a published book. It’s an enormous win to finish writing a book, for that matter; do you know how many people in America want to author a book and never do it? If you manage to do it, you have not failed. You’ve achieved a unique and magical alchemy: you took your weird thoughts and turned them into words and strung tens of thousands of them together to create a story that is the only one of its kind in the history of human civilization. Art is the best thing about humanity: as a species, we are driven by this mysterious impulse to create things that are psychologically impactful. Books don’t feed us or keep us warm****** or, for most of us, provide enough income to stay alive. We do it because we are drawn to the complexity and beauty of ideas, and written language is the perfect medium of expression for those ideas. Writers are the epicenter of the creative universe. As long as you are willing to accept failure as part of the process, writing is the ultimate form of winning.*******
*Other than becoming an actor or hosting a denuclearization summit.
**In case you haven’t heard of The Woman in the Window, the author received a rare seven-figure advance, huge film stars were lined up before publication to make the movie, and it debuted at #1 on the NYT bestseller list.
***They loved it so much, in fact, they asked me to rewrite the entire second half.
****I’m a massive nerd, and yes, I really do talk that way.
*****I’ve now offended the entire pharmaceutical industry, most of whom are not Martin Shkreli. You can see how I got in trouble with the book.
******Unless you eat them or burn them.
*******My original sentence autocorrected to Writing is the ultimate form of whining. Which is kind of true, but also a good argument for proofreading.