I Don’t Want to “fail better”

A few minutes ago I was on the verge of writing a different sort of post than this. I was going to write about the number of rejections I’ve been getting from literary magazines. I would have included a screenshot of my Submittable account, which shows the twenty-four submissions I’ve made in the past few years and the word “declined” beside all but the two most recent, which are still under consideration. I was going to laugh it off and maybe speculate about whether or not I should give up writing because I just don’t have the natural talent for it. But just as I was about to take the screenshot, I thought, This is really pathetic. I felt a prick of self-respect or reason or something and almost started to blush at the idea that I was on the verge of pseudo-celebrating my own failure.

Perhaps there is a time and place for that kind of attitude, but you also have to take yourself seriously. If you’re just laughing about your failures, you’re not learning from them, you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to actually develop and start to write for a real audience, even if that audience doesn’t exist yet.

For me, laughing off failure is a kind of perverse acceptance that has left me feeling as though I’m on the sidelines, out of the real game. I took up residence in the land of failure. I even started to write for the land of failure. In this land there are no real readers, no opinions, no ears, no hearts, no hope. It’s a ghost land.

Think about how you might call across a field to someone who might hear you. Compare that to calling across a field to someone whom you know is out of the range of your voice. One voice is full of urgency and power, the other is not. In the land of failure you write like the person who is calling to no one.

Becoming stuck in the land of failure is not entirely the writer’s fault. It’s an occupational hazard. There are not enough readers for all of the writers. There are not enough spots on the team. Not enough jobs for all of the applicants. And yet one goes on writing–but into a void, where the words reach no one. They are never stress-tested, fact-checked, or refuted. They exist in their own la-la land where irrelevance and insignificance can persist without any reality-check.

If I were to read through my texts that received twenty-two rejections on Submittable, and if I were unflinchingly honest, I think I would find many examples of these land of failure characteristics, which are sometimes the result of self-indulgence but more often laziness (which is probably at the root of self-indulgence anyway). The tendency for land of failure writing to have these weaknesses is somewhat understandable. To put it in psychology-textbook terms, there is no reward for the artistic effort when there is no reader, whether from pay or from praise.

But looking at the reasons why writing is a challenging occupation is not all that productive. It might be true that those writers who have a readership are, indeed, fortunate to have the motivating rewards that come with a readership, but envying them doesn’t help me write better. Similarly, while it could be helpful to realize when I’m in the land of failure, spending too much time looking around, half-admiring it and painting it, only prolongs the amount time I spend there. I really just have to pack up and move back over to where the action is and elbow my way back into the game, cheesy metaphors and all.

The Samuel Beckett quote “fail better” is often used to inspire people to be more determined, and I have consciously espoused it a few times myself, but looking at it now I wonder if it’s such good advice. I always thought of it as ironic and humorous, which is probably why it appealed to me. It laughs off failure. Perhaps, there are times when it’s constructive to laugh off the current failure, but then you have to get serious. Maybe instead of “Try[ing] again. Fail[ing] again. Fail[ing] better”, I should “Do it again. Do it better. Succeed.”

But I’m making myself cringe with these inspirational quotes and I’ve spent enough time writing about how I should be writing. I think now it’s time to go and do it.

I Don’t Want to “fail better”

Current First Chapter of New Thing

This is what I have as the first chapter of my current novel-in-progress. I’ll come back to it again–and again, but at the moment I’m building a little ways further of the trail. These are the pages I always see, though, when I first open the document. 

Ed went up to the door with thin notebook in his hand. The man who answered was a few inches shorter than Edward. Wisps of pepper hair had been stretched neatly across the top of his head. He wore a white short-sleeved t-shirt, tucked into tightly belted pants.


“Yes.” He took a quick look at Edward and invited him in. The apartment was nearly empty. Edward was led into a room with a sliding glass door that opened onto a porch and a tiny yard. Plastic boxes were stacked in one corner. In another a small desk held with a monitor and keyboard. The computer tower sat on the floor.

“So, Edward,” Calvin said. “How long have you been making videos?”

He kept his answer simple: “Three years.” He tried to read Calvin’s reaction, but it was a fairly inscrutable nod.

Calvin pressed his fingertips together and cast his eyes toward the floor. “I wanted to speak with you about an idea. I’ve been thinking of starting a Youtube channel about yoga. I would be in the videos. I would put a new one out each weekday maybe. They would be short, just a pose or asana each day. Something like that. What do you think?”

Calvin didn’t strike Edward as a particularly engaging presenter, and there were probably already a few hundred yoga channels on Youtube, maybe thousands. “I think it’s a pretty good idea, sure, but there is probably a lot of competition.”

Calvin downplayed the competition. Yoga was very popular and there were a lot of people willing to watch a video that had some intelligent substance to it, not just pretty people wearing trendy tight clothes. Edward politely conceded the point.

The fingers came together again and Calvin pondered the parquet floor. “Okay, Edward. Let me ask you: would do you think about partnering with me on this? You would do the production. I would do the content and I’d be willing to split the revenue fifty-fifty. Of course, there won’t be a lot at first, but if we stick with it, I think we could really have something. Is that something you would be interested in? What do you think?”

Edward opened his mouth to speak, although he still had not found words that were both polite and honest.

Calvin jumped in again: “Obviously, we wouldn’t get together every day. We’d film ten or so episodes at a time and then put them out each day.”

“It’d probably be more like five,” said Edward. “It takes longer than most people think, especially if there are just two of us.”

“Okay, five, but we wouldn’t have to get together every day. What do you think?”

Edward straightened his spine and rocked to the side. “Ahhhhhhhh, I don’t think I would do it as a partner, but I would certainly do it and charge you a day rate.”

Calvin looked as if he’d just had his heart broken. Edward found the reaction excessive. A few moments earlier he’d found Calvin to be naïve and slightly pitiable. Now he began to dislike him.

“What’s your day rate?” Calvin asked.

Edward knew that Calvin would be surprised and disappointed, but he answered with a certain amount of pleasure because he was eager to let Calvin know how much his services were worth. “For a regular kit of equipment, it’s $400 a day.”

Calvin’s eyebrows registered his amazement and incredulity. He looked out the window.

“So we could do only a week of shows for $400. That’s only about eight minutes of video,” he added, as if the math would reveal the extravagance of Edward’s prices.

“That’s only for shooting,” said Edward. “There would also be editing.”

Calvin laughed a little. “How much do you suppose for the editing?” he asked with an amused smiled.

“You have to cut the footage together. Add an intro, I imagine, music, render it out, upload. It would be more work to make the first one and then it would go a little faster for the others. I would have to think about it more, but let’s say the first five episodes would take two to three days to put together, say 20 hours, maybe more. The next weeks a little less.”

“What’s your hourly rate?”

“I think it’s about the best you’ll find. My expenses are much less when I’m at home editing. For a recurring job like this, I could do it for $25 per hour.”

“So the first five shows would cost me how much, roughly?”

“Four hundred plus twenty-five times 20. That’s four hundred plus five hundred. Nine hundred.”

“Oof, oh my god. How long is it going to take me to make nine hundred dollars on Youtube? That’s the question.”

It wasn’t really a question for Edward, but he had an answer. “Realistically? Ten years. Five to twenty years.”

“No, no, no,” said Calvin. “I know it won’t take that long. But still, I guess it looks like I’m going to be working with a student. It won’t be the same level of equipment, but you have to start somewhere, right?” He looked directly at Edward. It was a challenge, perhaps a bluff, but still a challenge. Could Edward let the job slip into the hands of “a student”?

“There’s a lot of stuff on Youtube that looks pretty crappy and gets millions of hits,” he acknowledged.

“That’s the thing, Edward. That’s the thing. I didn’t want to do something that looks crappy.”

“Well,” said Ed, bored and eager to leave, “you know my prices now. I’d be happy to work with you if you’re interested.” He slowly made his move toward the front door.

Calvin followed. “I’m interested. I’m interested. I just need to get some content … need to get a pilot, like on TV. Anyway, I guess you’ve made up your mind.”

He didn’t make eye contact again until they shook hands goodbye. Calvin acted as if Ed’s price had wounded him. It was manipulation, Edward could tell, and it usually worked on him, but he was trying to be tougher. He wished Calvin all the best and walked to his car.

Current First Chapter of New Thing

On Flashbacks

There’s a movie in which Chevy Chase plays a wannabe writer. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the entire movie, but there is a scene at the beginning that I will always remember. Chase’s character has given his wife his novel to read. When he asks her what she thinks, she starts to cry and says that it is terrible. She says something like, “In the first five pages there are three flashbacks, two flash forwards and I think there’s even a flash sideways.” Ouch.

I imagine that most writers can sympathize with this scene insofar as handling time can be tricky and we all get ourselves into trouble sometimes. Hopefully, we tidy up the narrative before publication, though.

How tidy should the narrative be, though, in a novel? My own novel currently relies on flashbacks (for lack of a better word). It’s hard for me to keep track of them at this stage of writing, when I still haven’t settled on what exactly my story is, and I have been very tempted lately to restructure the novel to avoid the flashbacks. I would just start it in the past and tell everything in chronological order. That would keep it simpler for me and the reader.

But there are arguments against this approach. First of all, there may be important backstory that doesn’t really fit into the dramatic structure. A character’s childhood is important, but every hero’s story doesn’t have to begin at birth (or before). Sometimes it is better to focus on the main action and use a flashback to fill in a detail as needed.

At first this argument struck me as the most important, but I actually think there is an even better defence of flashbacks. At any moment we are influenced and propelled by something that happened before. Our pasts are alive within us. When a character walks around in this moment, she is also carrying the past inside of her. Backstory is always present and the past and present speak to one another. This I think is why using flashbacks (and again there is no doubt a better term) seems to suit my novel. My character has in some ways re-started his life but his old life hasn’t left him. The challenges that he faces in this phase of his life are heightened because of the significance of his past.

The flashback, looked at in this way, is I suppose related to stream of consciousness. The novel, way more than the film, can capture inner life. One way to evoke this inner life is through stream of consciousness; another is by using clearly demarcated flashbacks. Flashbacks are a little more methodical, but overall, they have the effect of charging the narrative with the significance of the past.

Or so I am hoping, though I am doing my best to avoid flashing sideways.

On Flashbacks