On Motives and Failure

A recent post on The Guardian has been making some rounds in the writing community, and a few of the forums I frequent (including Chrons and Fantasy Faction). The short depressing tail from “anonymous” is stirring up frustration from some, and sympathy from others. It got me thinking about this thing we do called writing and the lofty goals we hold so dear: getting published.

Haven’t ranted in a while, so here I go.

Firstly, if you didn’t want to read the link, here is the summary: Anonymous showed every sign of being a writer, even from a young age. She called writing her destiny. She excelled at the craft, finished a manuscript, secured an agent… and then floundered. In her words:

I defiantly started a second novel. It was my masterpiece, but it bombed, too. Years of work and emotional investment wasted, I finally gave up, to save my sanity.

I have two comments I’d like to make about this, the first regards process and the second regards motivation.

Process behind success

A couple years ago I read the book the Millionaire Fastlane by MJ DeMarco. It is one of these self-empowering, feel-good books but with a few more practical actionable items for thinking about and achieving success. On the whole, the book isn’t particularly relevant to this discussion except for one bit: the author spent a great deal of time talking about process.

Success is the end result in a long unseen process of trials, errors, headaches, hours, and investment. It is very easy to look at someone else’s moment of success and fixate on that event itself, and think the event is what made the person. The moment an author is signed. The moment an author reaches the bestseller list, etc. It is natural to see that event wonder why the same thing isn’t happening to you.

Success isn’t the result of an event, it is the result of a long-unseen process marked my a multitude of failures. Maybe an event pops up along the way, maybe not. This is true in business and it is true in writing as well. Would-be authors ought not forget this. Getting an agent is great, but look at it as just another step in your ongoing process towards success. The moment you fixate on the event itself and lose track of the journey, you set yourself up for disappointment.

That friend of yours who self-published and is selling 50K books a month may have a million+ words in failure novels under their belt. Success was only the very last step.

Ok, enough about that. I think Anonymous made the mistake of assuming an event meant success, and when they signed an agent, they lost sight of the process. This is the wrong mentality to be successful. Every up might have a down and you either keep pushing, or you are better off not even getting started.


Another issue with Ms. Anonymous was thinking publishing was her fate. This immediately signals a problem: was she in this just to be published? Was she in this just because she wanted to “be a writer?”

Unfortunately, that is not good enough. The wrong motivation and the wrong reasons won’t carry the day. It is like picking up a guitar because you want to be a famous musician, not because you have music to share with the world.

You’ve probably heard people say they write because the love it. Maybe you agree, or maybe deep down you think, I enjoy it, but I really just want to make money at it. If so, best of luck to you, but I think you are in the wrong game. Breaking out is a huge amount of work and the only way you can possibly keep the momentum going is if you genuinely love what you are doing. There are easier ways to make money.

Anonymous seems to have fallen into this trap somewhere along the way. Anyone writing only with an end goal in mind is missing the point. Write because you love it. Write because you’d do so anyway, even if you’d seen the future and knew nobody would ever pay you a dollar for it. If you do this, and you end up making money, well that is about as good as it gets. If you don’t end up making money, who cares? You are doing something that makes you happy.

/End rant

Those are the ingredients I think almost all successful writers must have:

  • A true motivation to want to share stories, no matter what.
  • An understanding that success in any field is the result of a very long process, and not the result of achieving any one event

Anonymous, if you are out there, don’t give up. Rediscover what it was that first excited you about writing, and return to that. Forget about being published, forget about the rest of it. Feed on the excitement of telling stories, and see what comes.

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