Clare Mackintosh on Coping with FailureMar 27, 2022
There are lots of things you can expect from the writing life: excitement, fun, creative freedom, deep rewards, lifelong friends. But another thing you can almost count on is the fact you will, sometime, somehow, encounter failure. It happens to even the most successful writers.
In fact, even authors who’ve won awards and sold millions of copies grapple with failure regularly – just ask Clare Mackintosh. With more than two million copies of her books sold worldwide, Clare is the multi-award-winning author of Sunday Times number 1 bestsellers I Let You Go, I See You and Let Me Lie, as well as bestsellers After the End and Hostage. Clare’s books have been published in more than forty countries. But still, she knows what it feels like to fail.
In this blog post, Clare shares her experiences and advice on navigating the choppy waters of the writing life.
Failure doesn’t stop after your first success
So much is made of the struggle to get a debut novel published; of the agency rejections with which we could paper our walls, and the emails from editors that say this isn’t for me. And it is a struggle. We fail and we fail, and then we fail again, and then – hopefully – we succeed.
But this post isn’t about those failures, important though they are. It’s about the failures that come afterwards. After you’ve snagged your agent, after you’ve secured a book deal. What then?
But this post isn’t about those failures, important though they are. It’s about the failures that come afterwards.
I didn’t struggle to find a literary agent. An introduction was made, and she liked my book, and that was that. I’d made it, I thought. The end goal! The aim of so many unpublished writers! But, just as writing The End on the final page of your first draft is simply a signifier of harder work to come, so getting an agent is just the beginning.
I Let You Go was rejected by multiple editors. The magic wasn’t there for me, said one. I don’t think either the writing or the hook is strong enough to make it stand out, said another. It was, thought one editor, a slightly awkward mesh of police procedure and female suspense.
However, as we all know, it only takes one yes, and that yes resulted in a million sales and translation rights in more than forty territories.
Writing after the first publishing success
When I look back at the years since I Let You Go sold, I see more failures than successes. That’s not to say that I don’t celebrate the great times – I continue to enjoy an incredible career – but I promise you those times look very different from my side of the desk.
I wrote my ‘difficult second book’ and found it not just difficult, but impossible. It wasn’t as good as I Let You Go, and the options were brutal: publish a poor imitation of my debut, or hit delete and start over. I chose the latter. Thus my second published book became I See You and – as is so often the way when we reject the first idea we think of, in favour of something harder to grasp – it was infinitely stronger.
The premise is the key
I was halfway through my third novel when I recognised the signs: the pricking across my neck, like someone was standing behind me, peering over my shoulder. The premise wasn’t good enough. Writing can be polished, characters fleshed out, plotting tightened… but the premise? The premise is everything, and mine was weak.
I jettisoned six months’ work without wasting another moment.
I was halfway through my third novel when I recognised the signs: the pricking across my neck, like someone was standing behind me, peering over my shoulder. The premise wasn’t good enough.
The pattern repeated itself between After the End and Hostage, with an entire first draft of a novel no one will ever read. On that occasion, the premise was strong – brilliant, even – but the execution didn’t work, and I couldn’t fathom how to lift it. Some time after I’d set it to one side, current affairs made the story so politically sensitive, I knew I’d never be able to return to it.
I’ve lost count of the stories I’ve thrown away. The novels I’ve planned in intricate detail, then never written; the dozens of drafts that languish on my computer.
After almost ten years of writing full-time, I have come to understand that failing is part of my process. That I will write ten words for every one that makes it into print, and that rejection – by myself, my agent or my editor – is simply part of the propulsion I need in order to grasp the idea that will work.
Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t hurt any less – I still sob with frustration over months of wasted work – but it is what it is. Each failure takes me closer to my next goal.
How to cope with failure
If you’re struggling with failure, I have some advice for you:
- Reframe failure as practice. A difficult training run, for the marathon you’ve yet to complete; a dozen practice bakes, for the cake that’ll win a prize; the endless rehearsals before curtain-up.
- Consider other people’s failures. There is something deeply comforting about hearing successful people talk about their setbacks. One of the best writing podcasts on this subject is Write-Off, with Francesca Steele.
- Don’t fight a failure. If I’d published that second book of mine, it would have been poorly reviewed. Sales would have dipped. Would I have got a second publishing deal? A third? Listen to your instincts – and to trusted people around you – and know when to abandon a project.
- Never give up. This might sound like it contradicts the previous point, but it doesn’t. Try again – but try differently. Try better. You can do it.
- Members of The Novelry can enjoy a recorded session with advice from Clare in our Membership Library Catch Up TV Area. Sign up today to have a supportive community and a writing coach to cheer you on through failure and see your writing dreams come true!