FAILURE IS GOOD FOR YOU: how practice novels helped me get published
Fear of failure is a bitch.
It’s like the bitch god or bitch goddess – depending on your preferred visualization – holding sway over so many of us.
We learn young – especially in this culture – that people can be either winners or losers, and to be a loser – to Fail – is a kind of psychic tar-and-feathering that marks us for life.
So we choose what seems like the third option: to fall somewhere in this gray area between that allows us to say: I could be a winner if I applied myself. I just haven’t applied myself.
This is a kind of not-being, a not-realizing of dreams and potential, that feels cosy except for the lightning-strikes of yearning ripping through the different chambers of our hearts.
What we don’t always realize, at least consciously – because as human beings we are so good at things like ‘rationalization’ and ‘denial’ – is that this ‘middle area’ is like a personal cage, if a well-padded one with bars not always visible behind the wallpaper.
It makes sense, to stay in the cage, from an evolutionary perspective. When the basic appetites of life – be they for food, water, shelter, sex, or really cool high-heeled black boots – weren’t driving us out into the world, it made sense to hunker and stay quiet so the predators wouldn’t find us.
Now, of course, we couch it and watch TV, but it’s the same thing. Deep in that reptilian part of our brains we know that Failure will eat us alive.
Becoming a successful writer – and by this I define ‘successful’ as someone who writes publishable fiction, and by this I mean fiction that is skilled and artful enough to create a powerful emotional experience for a reader who is not the writer’s spouse, friend or family member, who doesn’t know or care about the writer at all but would be willing to do something so drastic as to pay money for the privilege of reading her work – is all about writing your way through a succession of big and little failures.
There is the failure to sell your work, and the failure to get an agent, but these are capstones: the major reason why a writer fails at either is, ironically, because they haven’t yet failed enough. They haven’t pursued the craft long enough, haven’t written or revised enough, haven’t taken enough chances or gotten enough constructive feedback. They haven’t learned enough.
In short, they haven’t completed enough practice novels. And what is a practice novel but a novel that fails to be good enough to be looked on as anything else?
There is no shame in practice novels, or in realizing that the novel you’ve been trying for so long to sell or win representation for is, in fact, a practice novel — and it might be time to learn from it, put it away and move on to something new. There’s always the chance that one day you can come back to the practice novel and revise it with enough skill and inspiration that it will no longer be a practice novel but a good one.
What is required, however, is a long-range view and a cool eye. You need to see your completed novel not as your ‘baby’ but one small part of a much larger whole: your education and growth as a writer.
You need to be cool and dispassionate enough to stand apart from your work and understand it as exactly that – your work.
It is not you.
It is not your ego.
It is this thing you made, and by making it you became a better, more-practiced writer, and now you’re going to make something else and, after that, something else again.
It is not a waste of time and effort because it didn’t get published.
It is practice.
Let me repeat that: it is practice.
You can love and learn your chosen craft all you want, love and learn it obsessively, as indeed you should. But the only way to get good at it is by doing it, and doing anything well requires lots and lots of practice. The more you practice, the more experienced you become – and the more distance you put between yourself and all those aspiring writers who will never read or write or fail or practice enough to become truly good, certainly not as good as you know deep down that you will one day be.
In his book OUTLIERS, Malcolm Gladwell presents the argument that the difference between a beginner and someone who is successful at, well, anything, is 10,000 hours – about ten years. When I was a teenager who had just begun to write seriously – that is, with the intention of making it my life’s work – a creative writing instructor told me that the average apprenticeship for a writer was – you guessed it – ten years. (This was the same instructor who told me: “Every time I begin a new semester I ask the class, ‘Who here loves to read?’ Maybe three people will put up their hands. Those are the three people I know will be the best in class.”)
It helped to hear this because from the beginning I assumed that becoming a published novelist was just a matter of work and time. I knew the odds were against me, but also figured that the ‘odds’ failed to take certain things into consideration.
I liked what a film school teacher told a friend of mine: “Everybody tells you that for every job that opens in the film industry, 500 people will apply for it. What they don’t tell you is that out of those 500, 490 will be idiots. The trick is not to be an idiot.”
Whenever I put more hours of writing into whatever novel I was working on, I knew I was that much closer. Whenever I tried and failed to get a novel published, I knew I just wasn’t good enough yet. The key word being ‘yet’. I didn’t blame the marketplace, I didn’t blame the idiocy of whatever agent or editor had just rejected me, I didn’t really blame anyone. I absorbed the rejection as a sign that I was one more ‘no’ closer to my eventual ‘yes’.
I knew I was tackling an enormously difficult goal – selling my work, getting published by a major publisher, having my books in bookstores across the country, even the world – and I had respect for that. If it was easy, everyone and their Aunt Hilda would have a book contract. By loving what you do and learning and doing what you love, by embracing failure, by moving ever forward, you cut yourself apart from the pack.
This is my list of my own ‘failed’ or practice novels:
The first ‘book’ — and I use the term loosely — I ever wrote. I was in fourth grade and I wrote it in longhand in a yellow spiralbound notebook. It wasn’t a novel but a series of anecdotes about my father, ‘Terry’, the beagle he had when he was a boy and their adventures together. The way it came about was this: I wanted a dog and my parents kept refusing me in what I considered a cruel and heartless manner, so to compensate my father would talk about the dog of his own childhood, named Nipper.
I showed the work-in-progress to my teacher, who had me read it to the class. The kids loved it and wanted more. It was my taste of commercial success. It was heady stuff indeed. From that point on, I had an identity within the classroom, and then the school, and then the community, as a writer and storyteller.
I’ll be honest. I continued to work on Nipper and I wrote many other things, but it wasn’t for the love of the exercise. At that point, I didn’t want to be a writer when I grew up; I wanted to be a vet or an actress on a soap opera (SANTA BARBARA was to have a big impact on me, and more importantly on my hair, which I grew long like Robin Wright’s, the young actress who played Kelly Capwell before she went on to become the Princess Bride and the on-again off-again love of Sean Penn. I still love her. But I digress). I wrote because for whatever strange mishmash of genetic, psychological and environmental reasons, writing came easily to me.
I did it for attention and praise.
I was your basic eight-year-old hack.
SECRETS OF THE CRYSTAL UNICORN
Sixth grade. Don’t remember much about this manuscript except that I typed it out on a little white electric Olympia typewriter, which would be my main writing instrument for many years and help me acquire a typing speed so impressive I would become the county typing champion for several years straight (while barely managing to pass the subject itself, since I would spend class typing poems instead of the deathly tedious assignments).
I assume from the title that influences at the time included Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, etcetera. Unlike Nipper, this book had an actual plot. I just can’t remember what it was.
This book was to be a pivotal experience for me. I was twelve or thirteen when I wrote it, around the time I was beginning to make ‘developing a body of fiction’ my life’s mission statement. KELLY’S GHOST, about a young girl who moves to a new town and realizes that her house contains the ghost of another young girl who is endangering her younger sister, was a breakthrough in my understanding of both plot and characterization. By this point I had also developed a lyrical writing style.
This book almost – almost – got published. It kicked around Canadian publishing houses for a while, I received my first lessons in constructive feedback and began to learn about the process of revision. When I was sixteen I met with an editor who enthusiastically championed it inside her publishing house only to get shot down by the powers that be. This is otherwise known as my first ‘near miss’. C’est la vie.
Ninth grade. An incredibly forgettable exercise involving a witch who lived in a house in the woods. One of my favorite authors at the time was Lois Duncan and I know I swiped at least one plot element from her novel Summer of Fear. I struggled with this book, didn’t like it much, was happy and proud just to finish it.
Even as a kid, I wasn’t the type to store my manuscripts in a Trunk somewhere; I would stuff them in a drawer beneath my bed, then come across them sometime later when I was cleaning my room, glance them over, feel my skin crawl with the kind of burning mortification you can only experience as an adolescent, and throw them out.
This one I threw out.
THE PSYCHIC TWINS NOVEL
Ninth or tenth grade. About a pair of twins who can communicate telepathically with one another, and one of them gets kidnapped. I have the horrifying suspicion that I gave it the title Double Trouble.
What I remember most about this book: I was beginning to experiment a bit with language and atmosphere in a way that interfered with the pace of the novel. I also learned about motivation when my writing mentor, Scott Young, pointed out that the bad guy who kidnapped the twin didn’t really a believable one. He was a high school teacher who devised this heinous scheme so he could collect ransom, go away somewhere and write his novel.
Scott suggested that the pursuit of one’s artistic development might not be a compelling reason to kidnap someone and I should just make it about the money.
The greed for money, he assured me, was enough on its own.
This was the first book where I got to kill off a character. I had the teacher fall to his death from the rafter of a barn, where the novel’s protagonist had gone to get away from him. How she got up there in the first place, and how he managed to chase her up there, escapes me. I was a suburban kid. I knew squat about the architecture of barns.
THE WEIRD SERIAL KILLER NOVEL
I wrote this one summer between first and second year of Queen’s University (in Kingston, Ontario, Canada). The book was set at a fictional university based on Queen’s – I loved the place and whenever I love something or someone, or am just intensely interested in them for whatever reason, sooner or later I’m compelled to write them into fiction.
This was during pop culture’s rise and reign of the Serial Killer Novel. I was reading Thomas Harris and John Sandford and Anne Rule, and I didn’t just want to have a serial killer as a bad guy, I wanted to explore his psychology. Which basically amounted to the guy having flashbacks to some horrible experiences with his mother. She gave him really, really hot baths.
By this point I had read a great deal of Dean Koontz and Stephen King – along with Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, they were probably the writers who shaped me the most throughout my teen years – and the Koontz influence got pretty obvious when the book took a weird supernatural turn about three quarters of the way through.
I have two vivid memories associated with this manuscript. I tried, at least briefly, to find agent representation and also submitted it directly to a few publishing houses. It was roundly rejected – the crap query letter, written by someone who didn’t know anything about writing a query letter (this would be me), didn’t help – but one editor scrawled, Shows potential, no question on the bottom of the form rejection. I understood that in the hierarchy of rejections, getting any kind of personal note from an agent and or editor was a big step up.
Another memory involves a dinner table conversation between my mother and my sister. They started talking about one of my characters, the rich-kid male protagonist with the shaggy surfer hair. I don’t remember his name – it might have been Mark, I was calling a lot of male characters Mark back then – but I remember how impressed I was by the enthusiasm with which my mother and sister were talking about him — and not to me, but to each other.
It was like they were talking about a real person who had totally charmed them; they thought he was funny and interesting and hot, and tormented in all the right ways. There was a light in their faces, a warmth in their voices, inspired by this person who didn’t exist except from my head. It was the first time any character of mine had inspired such a reaction, and it was an incredible high.
I wanted to do it again.
VAMP NOVELLA #1
I wrote two novellas about vampires about three years apart.
The first one came after Anne Rice’s first three or four epics about the vampire Lestat, whom I adored in the way a seventeen year old suburban smalltown girl is fated to adore such urbane decadent bad-boy types (and an early sign that my future love life was to be a bit, shall we say, turbulent).
It was set in Australia, where I was living as an exchange student at the time in a small country town called Wagga Wagga about six hours’ drive from the coast. I loved describing the hot Australian climate, the stark, sun-scorched colors of the landscape. The story involved two girls, good friends, who go out bike riding and end up at a mysterious house where one girl is destined to be some kind of blood sacrifice for the urbane, witty, decadent bad-boy vampires who have gathered there. There was also a good guy, a love interest for the protagonist, but I can’t remember how he gets mixed up in the mess, only that I’m relatively sure I didn’t kill him off.
This was the first story I ever wrote involving actual violence (this came just before the weird serial killer novel described above). I remember sitting in the library of Wagga Wagga High, probably when I should have been in math class, writing out this story in my notebook. I came to a scene between the good guy and one of the vampires and as I launched myself into it, feeling the heat and flow of it, the part of me that wasn’t quite fully lost in the dream-state of writing suddenly realized, The vampire is going to break his arm. (By ‘him’ I am of course referring to the good guy, the love interest. I can’t remember what I named him. Probably Mark.) I didn’t want it to happen, partly because I liked Mark, partly because I didn’t feel fully equipped to write such a scene, either in terms of skill or life experience, and also because it grossed me out. More than that: it disturbed me.
I am not and have never been attracted to these genres for the violence; if anything I love the so-called ‘darker’ genres in spite of the violence. I had read all kinds of horror by this point, including the ‘splatterpunk’ fiction spearheaded by writers like John Skipp and Michael Slade, and although violence made me uneasy, and queasy, I took it as a matter-of-course.
I sensed that if I didn’t carry through with this scene, I would be betraying the story and the characters, even if I didn’t understand exactly how. But since writing is probably the only area of my life where I have never doubted my inner, intuitive voice — or even second-guessed it — I believed that voice when it whispered to me that the story’s integrity was at stake.
So I wrote the scene. I tried to be truthful to the fictional experience without exploiting it; I tried to imply the pain and gore rather than describe it straight-out. I didn’t linger over the details. I discovered that I was not a splatterpunk writer, no matter how much splatterpunk John Skipp I had read.
(Years later I would meet John Skipp, and he would include a zombie story of mine in an anthology called ENCOUNTERS WITH THE HUNGRY DEAD. He’s a cool guy.)
VAMP NOVEL #2
I wrote this my second year of university. It centered on the friendship between two women. There was a serial killer involved (are you surprised?). One woman develops a romance with this cool artist dude who turns out to be a vampire (are you surprised?). When the killer goes after her friend, she gets cool artist vampire dude to turn her into a vampire so she can seek revenge.
What I took away from the experience of writing this was a distinct shift (or so it felt to me) in my prose. At the time I was reading a lot of contemporary poetry, as well as novels by writers who doubled as poets, such as Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood.
Atwood’s prose especially had a way of getting under my skin. It wasn’t pretty and lyrical so much as sharp, packed, precise, sometimes barbed, loaded with levels of imagery and meaning that took my breath away. She had a way of ending sections of narrative with the same verbal dagger with which she’d end a poem. I began paying less attention to the ‘lyrical’ quality of my prose and more attention to what it evoked and implied.
So Vamp Novel 2 became a mash-up of sorts: although the content had a lot in common with the dark fantasy writers I’d read all through my teens, the voice of the story was coming from a different place in me, shaped by a different set of influences. If my earlier fiction had a tendency to mimic Stephen King, this story was attempting to channel my inner Atwood (and maybe some Joyce Carol Oates).
Ah, Sway. There is a special place in my heart for Sway, which I like to call my Post-Graduate Transgressive Literary Novel (PGTL for short). I began it about midway through my last year at Queen’s University and it was supposed to be a novella I would print and pass out to my little circle of friends as a souvenir of our times together (even though the story and characters had nothing to do with them).
Except I didn’t finish it in time. It grew novel-length, and I would go on to finish it in my shoebox apartment in Japan. I spent the year after graduation living in Nara and teaching ESL in a country town called Shintanabe, about a twenty minute commute on the train.
My neighbor was an American ESL teacher named Wendy, and I fell into the habit of reading the chapters aloud to her as I wrote them, bamboo rustling outside my scrap of balcony, the peaked roof of a temple visible in the hills.
I sensed, with this effort, that I had reached a new level. And, some months after I left Japan, I managed to land my first literary agent.
The book was roundly rejected by all the major publishing houses, and my attempts at revision only taught me that I still had a lot to learn.
Another thing I took away from this experience were the comments from the editors who had rejected me. The agent compiled them in one long email and I showed it to my boyfriend (who would go on to become my husband, and then my ex-husband) whom I was living with in one of the towns that make up Silicon Valley, and I also forwarded the email to my father back in my small Canadian hometown.
Their reactions were polar opposites. My father said he sympathized, that I must feel “punched in the gut” and demoralized.
My boyfriend said he thought the comments were positive on the whole, that the editors had said a lot of good things about my talent and my characters, and that even if this book fell short, my next book would make it all the way through to publication (he was right).
My own reaction fell between my father’s and my boyfriend’s. I was disappointed, sure, but I knew I could do better. I knew the book had problems with structure and plot. Truth is, even before I got the rejections I sensed on some level that the book didn’t work. But I didn’t feel “punched in the gut”; I’d gotten some time, attention and genuine feedback from editors at the major publishing houses, and I knew this was no small thing.
The novel is about a cool girl named Alix, who gets involved with Julian, brother of her enigmatic roommate Cat, only to discover that Julian and Cat have a history of passionate brother-sister incest. My agent-at-the-time compared it to the novel (and movie) DAMAGE, and she liked that it was set in wealthy urbane circles instead of “Arkansas or something”.
This is the book that my mind sometimes goes back to. I sometimes feel the urge to revisit, rewrite it. It’s an irony that ‘plot’ was such a problem, because I tried so hard — too hard — to plot the story.
Also, it was too long. Going back, I would make this book a novella, and it would focus on Cat and Julian andexplore their psychology: how a relationship like theirs began and evolved, and the consequences. I would write it to satisfy my own curiosity, perhaps not even to sell – although maybe offer as download to anyone who wanted to read it.
Looking back, I’m reminded of something I often told people who would ask me about my writing. I was very glad, I said – and I still am – that I started so young. I said this because I felt fortunate to have reached the end of my ‘apprenticeship’ by my late twenties, which was when I wrote the novel that finally became my “first” novel – as in first published novel – called Bloodangel.
I was glad that I’d never gotten what I considered “sidetracked” – gone to law school, for example, only to decide two or five or ten years later that what I really needed to do was write fiction. Then I would still have to face all those years of struggle and rejection, all those ‘practice novels’, with no guarantee that I would ever get where I wanted to go.
I have a different take on this now. There’s something to be said for starting out later rather than younger.
I spent so many years waiting for my life experiences to catch up to my fiction: I could write, but I didn’t necessarily have anything to write about. Although I worked through my share of crap jobs before moving to the States, I have limited experience of the working world. Instead of being a waste of time that could have been better spent writing, law school – or any other profession that I, in this alternate universe, chose to pursue – would have given me a new body of knowledge and experience, a certain perspective, to draw from in my writing. I had the advantages of youth, but I also had the disadvantages: erratic work habits and lack of discipline, some arrogance, massive amounts of insecurity, and not to mention the lack of perspective and maturity that can only come with age.
If I had come to writing later rather than sooner, it’s possible I would have worked a lot smarter – as well as more consistently– and brought a depth and seasoning to my fiction that I lacked when I was younger. My “apprenticeship” might have been shorter, my practice novels fewer.
What I did have, though, was a sense of play.
I would be lying if I said publication wasn’t the end goal – of course it was. But I had the naivete of a child whose talent was recognized early and applauded by teachers and parents and peers. I won writing contests, I was published in the local paper, I received an award upon my high school graduation that the school’s English department invented specifically to recognize my creative writing. I won a four-year partial scholarship to a prestigious Canadian university partly on the strength of a humor essay I wrote as an English assignment. Not until I left that sheltered world of my childhood did I begin to realize that when you tell people you want to write fiction, they don’t exactly pat you on the back and say, “You’re great and you will succeed. Go for it!”.
In short, I was deluded.
Publication, to me, was inevitable: it was the golden grail waiting at the end of the journey, I just didn’t know how long that journey was going to be (years and years longer than I expected or wanted). But I didn’t worry about it. I wrote a novel for the fun, the self-discovery, and the experience. I didn’t feel I had anything at stake. I didn’t worry that I was being “selfish” or feel the need to justify — to others or myself — the time I spent writing instead of doing other, more “productive” things.
This was an attitude I took for granted and then lost altogether.
By the time I finished Bloodangel, I had that feeling of: If this doesn’t get published I will die. If this doesn’t get published I am a loser. If this doesn’t get published I have wasted and ruined my life.
Holy stupid melodrama, Batman!
This kind of attitude, I realize now, is a mistake, that can strangle your creative spirit and kill your dreams. It puts way too much importance on an outcome beyond your control. I don’t know what I would have done if Bloodangel hadn’t sold: how this would have affected my ability to write, if I would have tried to write “for the market” (akin to shooting yourself in the foot. and the other foot). But fortunately for me, about eight or nine months after my agent – my second agent – took me on, the book sold to the ROC imprint at Penguin. It was a dream realized, a lifelong goal attained, but I don’t remember feeling much joy. What I felt, more than anything, was relief.