Failure. Sometimes I joke that it’s the story of my life.
It’s not really, of course. I have lots to be thankful for. And I’ve succeeded in all kinds of ways. Last month I became an MFA in Creative Writing, an 8-year dream finally fulfilled. And last year I signed with a literary agent, a life-long dream that suddenly and amazingly became a reality. I have a book on submission to editors. I just received word this week about a new short story publication. A lot is going well, and I don’t want to ever say it’s not.
But failure has also been a huge part of my life, particularly in my creative endeavors over the years, and there have been some dark moments to be sure. Moments where I questioned what I was doing, moments where I thought about just giving up and trying something else.
My first big failure was as a film director and writer in Los Angeles.
I spent about a decade making a go of it in L.A., first making movie after movie during my four years in film school, then spending years making more movies, writing feature-length screenplays, and working in jobs like reality television field assistant and feature film casting associate. For so many years I was pursuing the dream, and then one day, I looked around and said, I don’t think this dream is attainable. At one point I spent nearly a year unemployed, and, with about $4000 to my name, I returned home to Reno, NV, feeling in every way like a big, fat failure.
What hurt the most was that I really had made a major go of a career in film. I wrote and directed more than 20 short films, at least 5 of which I thought were pretty damn good. I put my work online, shared it widely. I worked my ass off at various jobs after film school. And yet things didn’t really work out.
But it was OK. Although that first year back in Reno was tough, my not knowing exactly what my life held in store for me, I had something that kept me going when I was in my saddest times.
I had written my first two novels right before I left L.A. and I realized I could be creative on the page, that I could actually live anywhere in the world and still tell the stories I always wanted to tell. So I kept writing new novels. By the end of that first year in Reno, I had written six books in all. I had tried self-publishing, putting all my titles up on Amazon as I queried my latest YA book, a vampire thriller.
Something spectacular happened in December 2011. I signed up for KDP Select, right at the programs’s beginning, and over one single weekend on Amazon my YA novel Happy Birthday to Me was downloaded more than 10,000 times, and about 500 people bought both sequels. In one weekend I made more than $1000 in my writing, when before that weekend I had made about $100 in total. By the end of that crazy month, when I made $2900 on Amazon, I thought yes, this is it, I’ve made it. I’m gonna write lots more books and self publish them and make enough money to be a full-time author.
But then, you guessed it, failure hit me again.
The first half of 2012 still went well, and I was making on average about $800 a month, but then the money kept going down. In December 2011 I made $2900 and in December 2012 I made about $50. And that was with three new titles I had self published in 2012.
I started to question self publishing. Maybe it wasn’t the route for me. Maybe what had happened had been a total fluke (which of course it was). But I had two more novels in the wings, one YA that I couldn’t find a literary agent to represent, and one New Adult I didn’t know what to do with, so as 2013 began I decided I was going to make one more go at self-publishing. I was going to do a Kickstarter for my YA and spend at least $2000 marketing the book, doing book blog tours, really giving my all to find readers for this latest book. My Kickstarter was a success (woo hoo!) and by the summer of 2013, I thought my writing career was back on track.
2013 was my most trying year as an author by far.
On the positive side, I was a writing machine that year that I’ve definitely never been since. I was deep into revisions on my new book to be self published, Over the Rainbow, a YA fantasy book I loved (and still do!). My Kickstarter went great for Over the Rainbow, and I had an amazing time at the SCBWI Conference at Los Angeles that July talking up my book and meeting so many amazing people. I was accepted to an MA in English program. I wrote the first two drafts of a still unpublished YA fantasy book called Magic Hour. And I also took on a self publishing experiment for a New Adult title that was a whole lot of fun… right up until I hit the PUBLISH button, that is.
On the negative side, I had been querying agents for three years and still hadn’t signed with anybody. (Click here for my story about how I finally signed with an agent after 7 years and 16 novels.) My self published books weren’t selling. A blog I had at the time was getting almost no traction. But there was hope. I was working hard, and I had a lot to be excited about.
Cut to the fall of 2013, a time when I have never before or since felt like so much of a colossal failure.
After 18 months of hard work writing and revising Over the Rainbow, I put it out in the world… and nothing happened. Only a few people bought the book. And mostly, nobody cared. Some reviews were nice, but others were abysmal, and by that September, Over the Rainbow was dead. A book I had believed in more than any other had turned out to be a massive failure, no matter how hard I worked on it, no matter how much I hoped it would be some kind of bestseller.
Around the same time, I put out a New Adult romance book I had quietly been working on since the end of 2012. I didn’t think the book was a Pulitzer Prize winner, but I thought it was a fun yarn, had everything readers of that genre were looking for. I self published it on Amazon a few weeks after Over the Rainbow… and, again, nothing. Well, not really nothing. It sold about 200 copies in its first two weeks, which was kind of exciting.
But what sent to my darkest place ever as a fiction writer at that time was the absolutely shocking reviews of the NA title. At least three people called it the worst book they’d ever read. I’d say 80% or more of the reviews were one-star, all long and in-depth that basically begged NA readers to avoid the book at all costs. A book I worked on for nearly a year and had come to like a hell of a lot was destroyed by readers and by November or so, that title was dead in the water, too.
I had just started graduate school, teaching two classes and taking three seminars, so I was plenty busy to not spend long hours beating myself up. But I was in a genuinely dark, depressed place around then.
I thought, maybe this is a sign that I should stop.
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