You are not a failed writer.

You know what phrase really sticks in my craw?

“Failed writer.”

Who invented that shit? Probably another writer, but that’s beside the point. Every time a writer hears those words, we cringe, and wonder if it could be applied to us.

People talk about successful writers, and people talk about failed writers, but no one ever talks about the people in between. We don’t seem to have a phrase for the people who get up every day and put words on a page, regardless of emotional reinforcement from the world around them. There are all sorts of people who don’t have fan bases, revenue or even readers. For some pernicious reason, these people get labeled as wannabes or worse, failures.

Just what do we call the lunch break writers, the secret writers, the writing group writers, the NaNo folks and all those people who haven’t “made it?” (Oh, and if you want to know my thoughts on “making it,” please see this phenomenal Hank Green vlog.)

P.S. – I’m a lunch break writer. Don’t crap on us.

So when, exactly, did you fail?

Let’s break this down by potential people to call “failed writers,” shall we? Now there may be other reasons for the misapplication of the label, but I’m going to cover what I view as the most common ones: There are people who abandoned their books, people who gave up, people who never got book deals and people who write to the detriment of those around them.

People who abandoned their book

Fun fact: most book ideas are questionable at best, and it all lies in the execution. I’ve seen some terrible ideas become great books and some great ideas become terrible books (and no, I won’t give you examples). So, whether the ideas are good or bad, the odds are great that a first novel attempt will collapse like a souffle in an earthquake. If the writing isn’t coming together, that might have something to do with the fact that novel writing is a discipline. It’s just like anything else: there are some naturally-brilliant people and that’s all good for them. I’m happy for those individuals.

I wasn’t brilliant. I wrote awful books for years and inflicted them on anyone slow enough to catch. Maybe I’m still writing awful books and no one has figured it out yet. What I know is that I abandoned three books before I finished my first one, FESTIVAL OF THE BIZARRE. It was terrible, and I had to move on to more fertile ground almost immediately. I’m still embarrassed of my creation, and regret ever releasing it into the wilds.

(Side note: I only did it to raise money for my son’s therapy. I didn’t want to release it back then, even. So, if you find a copy on someone’s Kindle, have pity.)

So let’s say a writer abandoned their book. That took courage to start over. That’s good, not bad, and they should be proud of the fact that they have a presence and clarity of mind that others might not share. They’ve got killer taste, and fuck everyone who doesn’t get it. Also, it costs exactly zero dollars to start over, so they can feel free to get back in the saddle after they’re done licking those wounds. And if they can’t get back in the saddle, they shouldn’t be treated like…

People who gave up

How does that work, exactly? Do they decide that they’re never going to write again, then some judge shows up and they sign an affidavit? A promise to give up is worthless and unenforceable, but also a personal choice. They could personally choose to start back at any point and the general consensus would be, “Okay, cool.”

Why is it the prerogative of a social circle to say, “Well, he or she gave up, so that person is a failed writer.” It’s silly on its face, and yet I’ve actually heard a similar argument in real life.

Besides, if that makes one a “failed writer,” I guess all of us are “failed astronauts.”

People who didn’t get book deals

Aside from this being a very inaccurate way to measure success, there’s another major problem with calling a writer a failure when he or she is sans-book deal: It could change on a yearly basis.

This probably gets at the heart of why I hate the phrase: a failed writer is a state that sticks to them. They’re not failing. They’re failed–an irreversible status that shall forever be inked upon their form… or something. Authors hear that phrase and internalize it, taking it with them like a parasite. It feeds on impostor syndrome.

Judging success based solely upon publishing methods is obnoxious and elitist. Hell, judging success based solely upon whether or not someone shares their work at all is elitist.

Writing is an emotional journey. Don’t go burdening it with the business end unless the conversation is explicitly about maximizing revenue.

Writing to the detriment of those around him or her

“That guy is never there for his family. They need him, but he’s always trying to write that dumb novel of his.”

That person isn’t a failed writer. Don’t put that on writing. That person is a shitty parent/spouse/significant other.

But there are a lot of extenuating circumstances that might not be apparent from outside the relationship, as well. A few years ago, I was having one of my several charity drives on The Gearheart, and some jackass commented that we were wasting our time on this writing/podcasting thing, and my son would grow up screwed over and neglected.

That cut really deeply at the time, because it was one of my worst fears as a parent. And it wasn’t true. I have always done and will continue to do my best for my family, no matter what. From the outside, it might’ve looked like I wasn’t, but all who knew me knew that I only worked on Gearheart stuff after everyone went to bed.

It’s hard to say that someone is failing in their relationship from outside of it, so just don’t. Don’t with the failed writer, either.

You cannot be a failed writer.

At the very worst, you can only be someone who has decided not to write for a time. It’s a useless phrase that does anything but enhance the narrative of our personal lives.

And that’s why we should edit it out.

2 thoughts on “You are not a failed writer.”

  1. I think the origin of the failed writer thing has to do with today’s ‘Best Seller’ Culture, or rather the perception of what a successful writer is. We have people like Stephen King, JK Rowling and (for South Africa) Deon Meyer who is breaking records in Europe in terms of sales and awards (with Lauren Beukes slowly catching up on him). Modern culture expect a successful author to retire after the first book lands, to reach King / Rowling numbers after a week, to have seven movie deals in the offing with Brad Pitt to star and Steven Spielberg to direct. This is an inaccurate vision of what constitutes a writer as Rowling and King are exceptions. For many its an upward battle and not everyone gets into the foothills. If you’re lucky then you can live off your writing, but people don’t want to work to get to that level or the next; they want it when they press ‘publish’ on the Kindle storefront and see the bucks roll in (EL James certainly has not helped on that front). This is an extremely ignorant way of seeing what an author is but it seems to be a definitive view. It’s like a competition where a band gets a “$10 million record deal” and people think it means they get $10 million upfront to lounge around and record an album.

  2. You have a comment. I am writing this only because I saw a comment, which means someone, at least one, read your prose. You are not a failed writer simply for that fact. I, on the other hand am an abandoned writer. Over 10 novels, and over the past nearly 20 years about $400 realized. On the website, not one comment in several years time. In a business sense that isn’t just failure, that is futility and eventually one has to realize that. Yes, I will probably write again, but never again with the hope of being read.

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