There are thousands, if not millions, of wise words written about failure in publishing. Most of them assert that it is ‘good for a writer’. That it is character building to be told ‘no’, repeatedly and succinctly, or, more accurately, to have your submissions roundly ignored. These tales of rejection are normally told as amusing anecdotes to which the punchline is inevitably… ‘and then they offered a six figure advance and the book went on to become a worldwide best seller and has been optioned by Paramount/Universal [insert name of huge multi-media corporation].’
And so, in the interest of honesty and encouragement, I want to share my experience of failure.
My first confession is that I did not, initially – and by that I mean for the first five years of my writing life – want to be a novelist. What I wanted, what I pinned my hopes and dreams on, was becoming a scriptwriter. Because… well I wasn’t too sure why I wanted to write for TV, I just did. I thought I could recognise a ‘good’ drama when I watched one. I believed I was empathetic and that this trait would guarantee engaging stories/characters. And I was fairly confident I had ‘an ear’ for dialogue – whatever that meant. I chose to ignore that I had no experience – or contacts – in TV production and only a rudimentary understanding of how to construct the technical, working document that is a script.
Nevertheless, I jumped in and had a go.
I developed a concept for a continuing drama based on a running club. It had heartache and trauma, friendship and rivalry, stunning scenery and a great soundtrack – a spin off music compilation was definitely on the cards. It was called CROSSING THE LINE. I still have it, saved somewhere in my back up files.
And, here comes the first lesson.
Ignorance is a good thing when you start writing. Not knowing what you don’t know is helpful because it doesn’t interfere with your ideas or dampen your enthusiasm. Blind optimism motivates you to get the words down and, more importantly, to believe that the final goal is reaching…The End.
Which is why we need to stop banging on about failing, the number of rejections you will get and how hard it all is. Because all that stuff may be true, but if you are too aware of it too soon you’ll never write anything, nor will you keep writing, and the way you get better at anything is doing it – over and over again.
It was only by getting to the end of a script or a story and realising that it has some interesting characters in it and, hopefully, the beginnings decent plot that you gain enough confidence to send it off to… the BBC writersroom, or to the Red Planet Pictures script competition, or any of the other schemes/ comps out there for aspiring writers. Only when you’ve submitted something can you then wait, breath-held, for the rejection or the feedback or – if you’re really lucky/ talented – the long listing, the short listing, even, God forbid, the success. Any and all of the above responses are possible, and each one will add to your knowledge, motivate you to learn more about your craft, make you better at it, and give you the momentum to try and smash it out of the park the next time around.
Which takes me to the second lesson about failure. It is the best way of discovering what you don’t know. If you don’t try and fail, you don’t learn.
In my case I took the feedback from the writersroom and started reading books about scriptwriting and I wandered through the BBC archive discovering what a good script looked like and sounded like. Then I went back to my first idea, revised it, and wrote another two episodes – and the outline for the reminder of the series. Then I entered that into a competition, and got long listed. Next I drafted a three part drama with a clever nod to the zeitgeist, better characters, stronger story arcs and no accompanying music compilation. That got short listed. After that I came up with for a children’s TV concept involving rockabilly teddy bears … the best character was Sassy Sue – she had Prue Leith wing-tip glasses, a swirly skirt and bobby socks. When that fell at the final hurdle, I got fed up, stopped writing – for all of a month – felt sorry myself, then – because no one else was really interested – gave myself a good talking to.
As a result I switched my focus to fiction. Which points to the third lesson, failure teaches you pragmatism and adaptability.
With the new goal of just getting anything published and paid for, I wrote some short stories and, miraculously, won £1000, which sparked a bigger ambition. I decided to write a book.
I wrote a book. Got an agent. Got published. Got a contract to write some more books. Hey presto, I was an author.
The astute amongst you will have spotted that I’ve missed some bits out. Those five years also included; paying to do an MA in Creative Writing, completing my MA, writing two books in one, giving one of those books up, learning how to work with an editor, plus quite a lot of moaning, but also a huge amount of stubbornness and commitment. Which leads us to lesson four, failure is, I’m afraid, the test of just how much you want to be a writer, and how much work, time and tears you are prepared to put into it. It’s boring, but it’s true – writing is an effort. It’s up to you decide if you think it’s worth the trouble. And then – and this is the tough bit – it’s up to someone else works who actually works in TV, Film or Publishing to decide whether to invest in you.
The financial rewards of being a writer are precarious. The emotional and egotistical journey full of high and lows. But please don’t let that put you off.
All writing starts with a fantasy. My advice is to hang on to that and write.
(c) Caroline Bond
Caroline Bond is the author of three books published by Corvus. Her first, The Second Child, was a Simon Mayo Radio 2 Book Club Choice and has been optioned by Red Planet Pictures. Her second, The Forgotten Sister, came out in paperback in February this year and her third, One Split Second, will out on 4th June 2020.
About The Forgotten Sister:
How do you protect the ones you love from the secrets that hurt them most?
Cassie is adopted. She’s never felt like the odd one out in her family, but at seventeen she decides to find her birth mother. As she starts digging, she discovers her adoption was far more complicated than she could ever have imagined. And, in uncovering her history, Cassie learns of a terrible secret that her parents kept from her. A secret that will shatter relationships, expose the decisions of the past and lead everyone involved to question what really makes a family.
‘Caroline Bond has a gift for weaving heart-rending tales of impossible decisions’ Amanda Brooke, author of The Bad Mother
Order your copy online here.