For writers to become any good, we must be allowed to experiment and expected, at times, to fail. We have to try out different stuff if we are ever to write a book of value. These efforts are what I’ve call “necessary failures.” But is embarking on The Great American Failed Novel, one that is never seen in print and never read, an important part of our growth as writers? Should we indulge ourselves in wild endeavours that we later kill?
The technology world has a new notion that it is important to “fail fast” and “fail often.” Astro Teller of Google X*, gave a TED Talk in February in which he encouraged businesses to create environments in which their employees feel comfortable working on big, risky projects, many of which are likely to fail. Google X, a company that has been voted number 1 in Best Companies To Work For seven times over the past ten years, has a unique working environemnt. Teller says, “We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong,” he explains with a joy that makes it clear he loves his job. “We make it safe to fail.”
Teller even rewards his staff for abandoning a project due to evidence of its eventual doom as a product or service. Whoever heard of receiving a bonus for proving your idea is a bad one? And yet, this is exactly what Google X gives its employees who kill their own projects. What are the reasons a project is killed? Too expensive, too unwieldy, doesn’t produce the desired results, atrociously uneconomic, or outright dangerous, to name a few.
Not every business adopts the “fail fast, fail often” model. Despite being reliant on innovation and genius ideas from its authors, publishing is the very opposite. Most authors, lucky enough to be published in the first place, have possibly two books to prove their commercial value. If these books don’t sell well the author may struggle for a contract on the next.
Publishing is a “fail & you’re fired” environment, at least if you are an author. And if we aren’t being warned directly of our tenuous place on a publisher’s list, we can read about our doom every day in the trade papers. I often feel like one of Henry VIII’s wives, just waiting to either be banished from the kingdom or publicly executed.
The Big Picture
Sometimes, you can sell well and still piss off a publisher. If your book doesn’t sell as well as the publisher expects, for example. I remember a good first novel by Douglas Kennedy, The Big Picture, that was sold for a six figure sum to a major American publisher in the late 1990’s. I loved the book and was surprised when Kennedy told me years later that he’d had a hell of a time after that novel, because while the book had sold very well, it hadn’t made the astronomical numbers that had been expected of it. As a result, he’d had a difficult time getting back into the American market. Since then, of course, he’s sold 14 million copies of his books in 22 languages. He is considered very much a “selling author”, so let that be a lesson in tenacity for writers feeling undervalued. Kennedy won in the end, as talent and hard work usually will, but would a different man have given up? Possibly.
I don’t feel a lack of commercial success is a writer’s fault. Smashword CEO, Mark Coker, tells us, “Publishers can only guess at what books readers want to read and mostly they guess wrong.” So, if they are guessing wrong, how can writers be expected to always guess correctly? We cannot. But it is we who will pay the price for commercial failure.
Some publishers buy books they love, not expecting instant commercial success. Those rare birds include one of publishing’s most acclaimed editors, Nan Talese, whose own imprint is part of the giant Penguin Random House. Nan represents such giant critical and commercial successes as Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, and Pat Conroy. She once cheered me up by saying, “Ian McEwan took many books to get any real sales. I can remember back when he was selling 9,000 copies.” Sadly, few publishers have the patience of Talese, whose authors adore her and whose books largely succeed. But they are out there, if you are lucky enough to find them.
Creating Our Own “Safe To Fail” Environment
As the reading market dwindles and more books flood the market, we authors may find it difficult to allow ourselves the room we need to invent our best stories and develop our best characters. We may feel led to abandon our attention to language in an effort to produce a page-turner. Or hop onto the latest trend, however little interest we have in fifty shades of ugly. Ours is not an industry that tolerates failure, but we must give ourselves space to try things out.
The best we can do is create our own Google X environment at home in which the concept of “fail fast, fail often” works well. Google X creates prototypes quickly, figures out what is wrong, then feeds back into the R&D process. They fail again and again until they get to where they want to be and consider the failures badges of honour. This is the “business model” I use for my own writing. I will try something every which way, put it on a shelf and forget about it for awhile, then get it out and re-think it through. I will throw it out, rekindle it, transform it or abandoned it. I am allowed to do anything in my space of invention. And while I don’t congratulate myself for killing a book altogether, I do sometimes breathe a sigh of relief.
Am I doing the right thing? The economist, and University of Chicago professor, Steven Levitt, thinks that I am. “I always tell my students to fail quickly. The quicker you fail the more chance you have…to eventually find the thing you don’t fail at.”
The Perils Of Ambition
As a writing tutor at the University of Oxford, I’ve often talked with students who were determined they had to complete market-ready books during their master’s study or else their time on our program was wasted. I’ve had to talk students out of their ideas to give themselves four-month deadlines to write a novel start to finish, or who insist they are “writing a bestseller” ,or whose stated goal is to make a living from writing.
“All that is bullshit,” I tell them. “Who is putting such ideas into your head?”
These writers are young, talented and driven, but they often drive themselves right into a wall. The better ones labour ferociously on a scene, revising and re-writing, unable to see the scene’s faults, unable to see how it doesn’t fit into the rest of the novel at all, becoming seduced by the sunk costs of their own labor and now too emotionally attached to the scene to cut it altogether. The less gifted slop through several hundred pages so impressed by their ability to produce a novel-length manuscript that they will need a dozen or more agent rejections before they ask whether a love story about sea monkeys really has a place in today’s market.
Am I, myself, ever guilty of keeping alive works that ought to be put in a manuscript box and buried in my cupboard? Yes, of course I am, which is why I have a great deal of empathy for these students and all writers. My awareness of my own faults and idiosyncrasies, the touching silliness of my dreams to become better than I can be, my faith that the only talent that can’t be improved is one that never existed in the first place, is what makes me a good (I think) teacher, and causes me to write the very words you are now reading.
*let me help you with that: this is the name of a man followed by his place of employment