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How to fail at writing


Quote by Thomas Edison, "I have not failed. I have just found 9999 ways that do not work." in blue lettering on white.

I’m all for the idea that failure is merely figuring out what doesn’t work, finding out where you need to focus your energy, and that it’s an important part of the learning process that we often stigmatize to our detriment.

However, I really wish my method for producing a novel didn’t resemble Edison’s light bulb-inventing process as much as it does. I’m mainly a pantser—a seat-of-the-pants or “organic” writer—who doesn’t plot my books in advance. (Believe me, I've tried.) For a logic-oriented person who likes to make lists, and plans just about everything else in her life, this is disconcerting, irritating, annoying, and a long list of other synonyms.

For my books, I have learned that I need to understand what the antagonist is doing and why, or I won’t get past the first quarter of the book, no matter how exciting my initial premise. Without the villain's goal and motivation, I can’t figure out how to escalate their actions against the main characters in a way that makes sense.

I also need to know the inner conflict between the hero and heroine (what’s keeping them apart), and the outer conflict (what’s keeping them together). The latter usually relates back to the antagonist/villain, so it’s all linked.

In order to determine these things—because even when I think I have them, I usually don’t—I must write. I write scenes (or partial scenes), discard them, write new ones, repeat. Every scene (or set of scenes) is a method for testing an idea. It also spurs my subconscious to go to work on the story in ways it just won't if I'm only sitting around thinking or making lists of ideas.

Eventually, I do nail it. (Hopefully, it doesn’t take 9,999 times!!) And once I have the early stuff figured out, the rest of the book comes together much faster. Not fast exactly, but faster.

So, if you've ever wondered why it takes me so damn long to write a book, mystery solved.

I’m slowly learning to, well, not love, but at least work with my method. Honestly, I feel lucky I have a process at all. I’m writing, so life is good.

How about you? Do you have a process for writing—or anything else—that frustrates you, but ultimately works?

Fail big


Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing. ~ Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln knew how to fail big. He also knew how to win.

The path to success in anything will always be riddled with potholes and treacherous drop-offs. Slipping and stumbling along the way at least means you’re on the road. It also means that you’re learning what not to do, so as you progress down the path you keep a sharper eye out for anything that could trip you up.

You learn the warning signs and you arm yourself with the tools you need to make it to the top.

But it’s not easy.

Very little worth having comes easy—if it does, I’d start looking for the scam or the Candid Camera crew—and when things are tough, we get tired. We start to doubt ourselves and our resolve and wonder why we’re putting ourselves through this punishment. Who wants to trip and fall and stumble all the time?

We start to wonder if the end goal is really worth it. Is it worth all of the time, energy, frustration, money, missed (insert whatever you have to give up here), late nights, early mornings, and pain?


Ask yourself how you’ll feel a year from now—two years, ten years, when you’re ninety—if you don’t stick with it. How will you feel if you give up on this dream?

If the answer is, “Thank God I didn’t waste any more time on that crazy idea.” Then go forth and be happy and do something else.

If your future self is more likely to curse you out for not sticking with it, to berate you for failing to believe in yourself, to pester one and all with your stories of regret for the dream you gave up, then go forth and be happy knowing that you’re doing what you’re meant to do.

Setbacks will happen. Pain will happen. Failures. Will. Happen.


But you will—most likely, assuming we’re not talking about death-defying acts of acrobatics and the like—survive. And you will come out on the other side stronger and wiser and closer than ever to your goal.

I thought that today, on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, it might be relevant and helpful to remind you of the many failures and setbacks of the famous U.S. president.

(Click here for a list.)

Lincoln was met with disaster and defeat repeatedly. Interestingly, these often came just before success.

I think the only difference between him and other people who face setbacks is that he kept moving forward toward his goal, in spite of the obstacles. He knew what he wanted and he kept going after it like a K-9 on the scent. Unwavering, single-minded, focused. (Or so I’ve read. It’s not like I knew the guy.)

Even if it’s all a myth, let’s use it as a model, shall we?

Go forth and fail madly and happily on your way to your dream.

I dare you.

Image credits: (1) Brocken Inaglory CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

(2) Mick Garratt CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

(3) By Sister72 ( CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

So not Wonder Woman

Okay, so I already missed my blog post on the second day of the year. Ugh, goals, right? I give myself one day off each week, but since I took most of the week off already, I didn't intend to miss a post this soon. But, really, it was a good thing.

I was too busy writing!

The thing about goals and daily tasks is that they have to be prioritized. In my Daily Writing Plan for this year, the first three items (write 1000 wpd, complete daily tasks, blog) are tasks, and the remaining items are really reminders of what not to do unless the first three are finished.

I put the tasks in order of importance. Notice writing comes first. Huh. Weird. So even though I don't always follow my own rule on this–like right now ;-)–the blog is supposed to be subordinate to writing. As are things like judging contest entries, working on class assignments, and reading email.

Goals and plans are important to me, but I also have to be able to cut myself some slack. As much as I always wanted to be Wonder Woman–she had the cool invisible jet and bullet-deflecting bracelets after all, and who wouldn't want to look like Lynda Carter in a leotard?–I can't do everything.

Understanding my limits is just as important as pushing their boundaries. If the goals weren't a challenge, they wouldn't be worth pursuing. Occasional failure is inevitable.

So, I'm cutting myself some slack, patting myself on the back for meeting yesterday's writing goal, and jumping back on board with the daily plan.

The Daily Squirrel: Eden (a coworker's viewpoint)

Every day, Eden wore her auburn hair in an up-do more appropriate for a formal occasion than a day at the office. As she passed doorways on the way to her office, she smiled at everyone, as if bestowing a gift on them with her very presence. And don't get me started on her outfits. Tall and slim, she knew how good she looked, and every tailored silk suit was an opportunity to prove it.

She thought she was Katie Couric or something with her bare legs and slingback heels that screamed, “You know you want me,” to every man in the office. The rest of us faded into the background like so much wallpaper when Eden was around.