Thursday, May 14, 2009

Uses for failed writers

I've heard people say agents are just failed writers a couple of times. I read those sentiments again today in a blog post, only it was about editors and critics.

Consider this: the one person who knows how really hard it is to write a good novel is the one who has tried to do it.

I've failed at a number of things. I won't enumerate them but let's just say I know there are a number of things I'm not very good at. Every time I see someone do one of those things, and do it well, I know it's not just luck. When I see someone do one of those things and make it look effortless, I know I'm seeing thousands of hours of practice and a singular devotion to excellence.

I know this from actual experience so my understanding isn't just cerebral, it's visceral.

The next time you're tempted to believe agents and editors don't understand you, you might want to think that maybe they understand all too well.

38 comments:

Ricky Bush said...

Well, I couldn't do anything else, so I taught for 29 years. That's what some say about teachers. So, maybe I'll just skip finishing my manuscript and become an agent. Same stupid reasoning. Anyway--

Sarah said...

You can say the same thing about teaching/ tutoring.

Often, those who are absolutely brilliant in a subject can't help students who are struggling with the content. It's really difficult for them to recognize all the tiny mental steps the student must take to become proficient.

Sometimes, the best teachers are the ones who didn't automatically and intuitively grasp the subject when they learned it.

Sarah said...

Oh, wow, Ricky! Didn't see your comment when I made mine!

David Eric Tomlinson said...

I think the people who say that kind of thing are frustrated with the seeming power imbalance between agents/editors and themselves as authors. From where we (as the writers) stand, you guys all seem like the gatekeepers, and focusing too much energy on that dynamic can be unhealthy and damaging to your writing.

But those authors who focus their energy on what they can control - a schedule that keeps you at it every day, a reading regimen that opens you up to new ways of thinking about how sentences and thoughts can be strung together, a critique group or editor who can challenge your assumptions and help you look at your writing in new ways - won't be overheard putting people down like this because they'll be more concerned with developing their writing than with trying to control what people think about it.

Miss Rosa said...

As an editor and writer, of course I know how hard it is, and think perhaps people who says things like 'editors and agents are just failed writers' are likely failed editors, agents, AND writers. Just a thought.

Steena Holmes said...

Sounds to me like some people don't handle rejection too well.

Laura said...

People are bitter, sad little things sometimes, aren't they?

It's upsetting that writers would say that about agents, critics, anyone they feel stands in the way of their "genius."

Lilith des Cavernes said...

Failure is in the eye of the beholder... Because you chose an alternative doesn't make you a failure, IMO. You took what knowledge you had and applied it elsewhere. That makes you a success. If you still want to write, perhaps your work as an agent will someday offer you the inspiration to write a masterpiece... selling aside, failure is in not doing, not rejection by others.

Blessings,
Lil

hippokrene said...

It’s an odd viewpoint, but one I’ve heard many writers espouse.

I’m of the opinion that failure or success in writing is not about being published. It’s about whether writing and having written enriches your life.

Moreover, being a successful agent is as important and worthy a work as being a writer. Agents help others fulfill their dreams – that is something to be proud of. Agents contribute to our cultural and literary traditions by being champions for their books and authors, and in the current publishing world, even a great book will often need a champion.

Rick Daley said...

In my day job, I sell software. I can't write software, and the people at my company who do write it are not adept at selling it.

In order to sell it, though, I do need to know how it works and what makes it good.

"Mastery of grammar and rhetoric does not a good storyteller make."
- Yoda (I think).

BookEnds, LLC said...

Brilliantly said!

Fawn Neun said...

Janet,
That essay was written BY an editor and is meant to be humorous.

These items detail LIES about editors - and discusses how they aren't true.

Either you have the wrong link or you need to look at this piece again and read it more closely.

Constance said...

I see agents more like umpires in baseball. Yeah, they have power, but they also do a fine job of orchestrating the mechanics and keeping the game flowing.
Some writers hit home runs, some strike out, and a few get beaned by pitches, as maybe they should. :)

Robin Becker said...

Every writer is a failed writer!

Mnemophiliac said...

The whole idea of the failed writer is misdirected. Think of Melville, Moby Dick long behind him, walking the docks as a port inspector as he worked on his decades-in-the-making long poem.

To all appearances, he was a failed writer. Nobody knew who he was.

Lumpy Dog said...

Far better to be a failure than someone who never tried.

Jason Crawford said...

I'm mesmerized by American Idol when the season begins. You know, before all the horrid singers are kicked off. Certainly some of the auditions are just a joke, but there are a number of people who are horrible singers--just horrible. And they don't know it.

Most folks think Paula is the nicest judge, but I say Simon is. He tells so many of them that, "hey, you've got a talent, you need to find out what it is, but it's not singing."

Agents have the same task. They get the unfortunate privilege of telling many (MOST) of us that we should be doing something else. None of us want to hear it, but most of us need to.

jimnduncan said...

That article stated that as a general rule, editors/critics are not failed writers. I wasn't sure if you were saying the article was wrong in what it said or not, but thought I would point that out.

BJ said...

Agents, editors, critics = failed writers? And coaches are failed athletes. And teachers are failed... well, whatever they teach, supposedly. Have to admit - it's true of some, though not all.

The thing is, failed or not, one thing these people succeed in is helping others in that business. They are mentors, teachers, coaches, professors, and leaders who help to develop and grow careers in their fields.

Those who fail to see these people's importance in their respective fields won't learn from them and won't grow. Thus, the writers who can't understand that these people are there to help them, not block them, have failed before they started.

Eric said...

If experience is good for anything, it teaches you. Failure (at anything) should teach you to be better. So calling editors/agents/publishers failed writers should imply that they have learned more than most. Like others have said, it sounds like sour grapes to me rather than addressing the real problem - the quality of the writing.

Robena Grant said...

Great article, thanks. I enjoyed Tolbert's humor and his honesty. He should write he has a great voice.

These are hard times for many of us beginners but my motto is when in doubt look within, that's why I'm taking a break from submitting, will let everything stew for a while and see what bubbles to the surface.

lotusgirl said...

So right. It's important to appreciate each other's talents. I could never be an agent. All those contracts and numbers and cocktails with editors. I'd be insane after the first week. Bless you for what you do.

MaLanie said...

Great post, Janet! I think you literary agents are amazing; how you can disect a piece of work and bring up things most of us would never see. I WANT TO DO THAT TOO ONE DAY!

I have learned alot from your Query Crits. (And I am only a four month old writer!) I am in awe of people that have the skills you agents have.

We all try new things, some are a fit and some are not. And it doesn't make one a failure just because it did not work out. Who (with a life) gives a crap!

People that make comments like that are probably young and/or inmature. I would discard comments that are aimed to hurt you.

melissablue13 said...

Looks like I'm not the only one tired of all the bitterness floating around in the blogsphere.

Can't we all just get along?

Mystery Robin said...

That was an excellent post. People shouldn't be nasty, regardless. You don't combat criticism with bitterness - it's a vicious cycle. If you don't want criticism, put your novel in a drawer, don't publish it, people!

Merry Monteleone said...

That was great... though I was kind of figuring on buying the editor drinks after they were half in the bag... then I could sneak in a contract when they're totally cockeyed and save a little money on the bar bill :-)

(what, like none of you thought about it)

As far as the whole, 'they're only failed writers...' line of thinking, I'm guessing those statements are usually made from failed writers. When they stop blaming other people for their perceived failures and start learning from them, maybe their success and mindset will both improve.

Suzanne said...

I think the comment reflects a reaction to the snark. Your post is a kind reminder that perhaps beneath the bluster beats the heart of an agent that actually knows how we feel...or not.

Peg McGuire said...

Mean people suck

LitWitch said...

I never understood this argument. Empathy would be a #1 advantage when selling your hard-won work.

But I will admit to being leery of agents who are also trying to be writers AT THE SAME TIME. It may be a bias, but I find myself asking where is their focus, really?

2KoP said...

I've had similar thoughts about expertise lately and, in fact, plan to write a post about it soon. I believe you are correct that, as someone who has tried to write, you probably have excellent instincts about writers and writing, and what it takes to be successful. You have to eat, sleep and breathe your passion to turn it from talent into success. Perhaps what agents bring to the mix is the talent of spotting the person who is willing to work, write and hone to perfection.

gingin said...

this is why you are at the top of my query list.
muchas gracias.

BuffySquirrel said...

I got into editing (in my small unpaid way) through my love of writing. For me it's all part of the same process--editing is creative, just in a different way.

Of course it hurts to be told you're a failure; especially if you suspect it's true. But if I can't (yet) hold my own book I can at least hold the magazines I help create :D.

Marie Devers said...

It's good to know I have something to fall back on.

Matilda McCloud said...

You make a good point. I may fail to write a publishable novel, but along the way I have gained an appreciation of how incredibly hard it is to write a good novel. That's worth something.

kitty said...

Quoting Jeremiah: Next time you’re at a convention, go to the bar, and buy a drink for your favorite editor. Make sure you do it early on, because seven or eight drinks in, we’ll never remember your name. We’ll be lucky to wake up in the right hotel room, or even the right state. Who bought the drinks on a night like that will be the least of our concerns when we wake up naked atop a desert mesa covered from head to toe in blue paint.Why Mizz Janet, that's not true, is it? ;~)

...

Aimless Writer said...

A writer is not a success because he has never failed, but because failure has never stopped him...

BuffySquirrel said...

Eh, no point in buying me a drink; the doctor's forbidden it. Sigh.

the enforcedly-teetotal (three years and counting) sqrl

BJ said...

But Ms. BuffySquirrel, may I buy you a Haagendaas milkshake?

(everyone has a price)