The Benefit of Failure

(The following was originally written for a Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents Blog.  It was never used, and I’ve adapted it for my own blog.)


While in graduate school for an MFA, I wrote a work of nonfiction.  The manuscript combined dramatic essays about my experiences as a young physician with the story of my father’s death from cancer.  But I was trying to tell a larger story—one about the awakening of compassion, about recognizing the importance of patients’ rights, and my own coming-of-age as a physician.  It took over three years to write the thing.  A year and a half later I found an agent for the manuscript; he shopped it around to publishers.  No one bought it.

At the time, I was crushed.  I’d put my heart and soul into this work.  But in retrospect I’m lucky it wasn’t published.

Between the time I wrote the manuscript and had it rejected, I suffered from a serious illness.  That experience changed me; it changed my perceptions of medicine, of patients, and of myself as a physician.  I realized I would never write the same book after my illness that I’d written prior to it.  The illness had changed me as a writer and as a person.  When I read through the manuscript today, it seems as though someone else wrote it.

After the rejections, my agent at the time suggested I work on it.  I tried for about six months and returned it to him.  He said, “Nah, it’s not there yet.”  I gradually realized I couldn’t fix it, but I might be able to learn something from it.

I sent it out for an impartial evaluation by a professional at Creative Nonfiction.  The woman sent me a written report that told me what I had instinctively known, but never articulated exactly.  She addressed all those niggling doubts that had plagued me for two years, but I’d hoped no one would notice.  They were hard to pinpoint.  They were problems that are easier to avoid in the first place than to fix, such as inconsistency of voice, inconsistency of pacing, the why of the book (arc and cohesiveness) and ultimately the question of who should care, or engagement of the reader.

My manuscript was a failure, plain and simple.  I never had command of the material.  It lacked an arc.  The transitions didn’t quite work.  It lacked cohesiveness.  The themes didn’t carry through to the end.  The story I was trying to tell was not clear to her.  That made sense, because I had taken too many detours to get there.

When I saw her words on the page, and I finally let go of my own attachment to the book itself, I knew she was correct.  My manuscript would never be a published book.  But it was a terrific opportunity for me to learn from my mistakes.

When I started writing my second book, Good in a Crisis, I kept those issues in mind throughout the process.  I did not begin until the voice and viewpoint was clear to me, until I knew the voice was strong enough to carry the story all the way through.  I knew how it would be begin and how it would change.  I had a strong sense of the arc of the story.  As I put the book together, I kept in mind my previous difficulties with transitions and attempted to make them less jolting, more organic.  With each edit, I wove the themes into patterns that worked their way through the story.  I looked for opportunities for humor and added them when and where I could.  When I finished my first real draft, I felt as thought I had command of this book in a way I never had command of my previous book.  I was in charge of the material.

I found a different agent for Good in a Crisis.  Both agents were great, but agents don’t tell you how to write a book, or how to fix a book that doesn’t work.  For me it has been trial and error.

It has been over two years since I completed this book, six months since it was published.  The publisher has moved on to publicize other products.  While GIAC hasn’t sold very well, I’m proud of my first book.  And I’ve changed again, in the interim since I finished writing it.  As I read out loud at book events, I sometimes cringe, knowing that if I were to write it again today, it would be a different book.  I learn something every day.  I like to think that writing reflects that knowledge.

I wrote the best possible book I had in me as of August, 2011, when Good in a Crisis went to press.  I know more now.  But I believe in bringing everything I know to bear on my writing and in making it as clear as possible. If there’s an easier way to say something, I try to find it.

So here’s my advice since I was supposed to give advice to writers: Tell a story that interests you even though you know the story and have read it a hundred times.  It should still be compelling to you, if you expect to sell it.  Whatever you send to an agent should be nearly flawless.  If it isn’t, don’t send it.  Some things can be fixed.  Some can’t.  If your gut tells you that you have something really good, stick with it.  If your gut tells you there are problems, then there are PROBLEMS!  Sometimes putting a manuscript away, learning from your mistakes, and starting from scratch is the strongest and most positive act of writing there is.  Ideas can be restored.  Bad writing can’t.