May 26, 2016

Fear of Failure

Oh, man. So much has happened since I last posted here. I SOLD TWO STORIES to Fiction River during the Anthology Workshop (which you, readers who are also my Facebook friends, of course already know about). I worked on a few new stories, though not as many as I wanted to. I sent out all the stories I didn’t sell to various markets and have gathered a nice (virtual) pile of rejections, of both the form and personal varieties.

These are all excellent things – yes, including the rejections! I am no longer bothered by the notion that my stories might suck. Because I can always get better. In fact, I noticed a marked improvement from the first story I wrote for the Anthology Workshop to the last one – and that was just four stories written over the course of a few months. I can do this, guys. I have never been so excited to fail, and try again, and get better and better.


I’ve realized something else today, and I want to blather about it a little bit. Maybe a lot.

Today I was reading in bed, because I have a crummy, sneezy cold and after getting up early and working for most of the day, I ran out of steam by the late afternoon. As an excuse to stay in bed, I started in on some of the writing books I just purchased from a writing bundle. The first one was Stages of a Fiction Writer by Dean Wesley Smith, because I figured I could use a bit of his blunt talk and was curious about these stages he had been referencing in a previous workshop.

From what I read, I am guessing I am transitioning from stage 2 into stage 3, or maybe in the early stages of stage 3 already. Emphasis on early. I have a lot to learn, and I am learning to be patient.

Which dovetails nicely into the revelation I had whilst reading the second book, which was about Heinlein’s Rules.* Now, keep in mind that I know Heinlein’s rules pretty well by now because if you spend enough time around Kris and Dean, you get them drilled into your skull.  I know what they mean. I could recite them to you from memory.

But I wanted an excuse to linger in bed, so I started reading the book anyway.

In one of the chapters, Dean talks about the fears that writers have, fears that keep them from finishing. I immediately remembered the first time I had heard about this, from Kris and Dean at the very first Coast Workshop I attended, and how I had realized how terrified I was of failure, and how much that had been blocking me from finishing any of the stories I started. I’d been so afraid those stories wouldn’t be perfect, wouldn’t measure up to all those daydreams I had about their success.

I spent the car trip home agonizing over this knowledge, once I realized how deeply my perfectionism, my fear, was blocking me. And then spent the following five years trying to figure out how to fix it.

But today I realized something. Somehow, in the past year or so, I had managed to finally internalize that it’s OKAY TO FAIL. Or rather, it’s okay to write an imperfect story. It won’t live up to the ideals in your head, and that is okay. And in fact, as I mentioned previously, I kind of look forward to failing, and learning from my mistakes, and writing more.

I like writing short stories, because I feel safe to experiment, to stretch and grow and miss the mark and maybe even hit it a few times. The first story I sold to Fiction River was also the riskiest story I’ve ever written. (UPDATE 2017: And it’s out now, both in the Fiction River Anthology (which is great, by the way), and as a stand-alone short story for 99 cents.)

From the short stories and that workshop, I’ve also learned a few of my major weaknesses (Information flow? WHAT IS THAT EVEN) and I am genuinely excited to see that they are fixable.

I am even comfortable knowing that I won’t sell many stories right now, if at all. I’m not there yet. I can see the difference between a truly skilled writer and me, and I know I have that spark, that potential to be great, but that I have a lot more writing to do before I’m there, and that’s also a good thing.


Novels. Of course I want to write novels, and not just short stories. I love long-term character development and slow-burn romantic tension and rich emotional arcs and all sorts of things that just won’t fit into a short story. Or even a novella.

But if I try to envision the future, to any one of my half-started novels actually having an ending, I just can’t see it. It’s as impossible as it ever was, back when I was so afraid of failing that I barely even started.

But if I am not afraid of failure as a writer anymore, what is stopping me? Why do I still secretly believe it’s impossible for me to finish a full-length novel?

My first thought was: sheer inertia. I am used to this being a certain way. This is how things have always been. Maybe I don’t have enough imagination to see any different. (I don’t mean the airy-fairy daydreaming I do all the time, I mean TRULY imagining something. Internalizing it so much that you know it will be a reality.)

Or maybe it’s still fear. Because there’s one other, more meta fear of failure: that I, personally, am deficient.

Not that I might write an imperfect story. No, this is that Alex is too flaky. Too distractible, too lazy, too FULL of inertia to EVER see something through to the end, especially if it’s a long slog like a novel.

(Or even just keeping up a damn blog on a semi-routine basis. Heh.)

The thing is, I have lots of evidence behind this other fear. My entire lifetime of evidence. This fear has been with me since I was a kid consistently failing to build good teeth-brushing habits, and it’s tough and tenacious and yes, it was there underneath that other fear of failure, and it’s there right now.

A few years ago, I wrestled with myself over this. I told myself that maybe it would be okay to fail – I think it was when I was trying out 750 Words for the first time. That it would be all right to miss a streak AS LONG AS I didn’t throw my hands up, declare myself a complete failure, and never try again. If I fell off the wagon, I told myself, I had to climb right back on. That was the deal. That was how I would know I wasn’t ACTUALLY doomed forever.

Guess what? I gave up after all. I didn’t climb back on more than a few times before I wandered off and tried to distract myself from my failure to deal with failure.

So. With all that, how am I supposed to pull myself out?

It’s so weird to be feeling two completely different emotions as I write this post.

“I’m not afraid of failure anymore! Yay! My fear of failure is still consuming me! Crap!”

But if I can overcome one fear, maybe I can overcome the other one, too. Which means, weirdly enough, that this post is actually going to end with hope.

Watch out, meta failure. I’m coming for you next.


*Since you MAY want to know, these are Heinlein’s Rules. (The link is to Dean’s blog about the subject, which, incidentally, is the content of the book I just read. So you can read the same book for free as a blog series!)

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