Craft of Writing: Failure to Thrive

Posted: December 6th, 2014 under Craft, the writing life.
Tags: ,

Sometimes a story of any size starts…and then crumbles to dust, or lies down and refuses to move, or otherwise reveals itself as a failure.   I’m not talking about stories completed that never find a market (that’s another kind of failure, which I’ll talk about another time) but stories that you want to write–at least when you start.  Stories that are happy, gurgling, grinning infant stories, that may even get far enough to start crawling on their own–but develop what doctors call “failure to thrive” in spite of your best efforts.

When a story you’re writing fails to thrive,  the novice writer is usually terrified.  Does this mean the writer is a failure?  Can’t write?  Should just quit on the whole enterprise?   Or does it mean the writer should stick to it with that story and push, shove,  pull, drag that story along, word by painful word, until (months or years later) it’s all too clear the time was wasted and the story died long ago?   Neither sounds like anything a writer wants to do–and a born writer cannot quit writing without deliberately poisoning the well of that writer’s talent (something too frequently done with alcohol and other drugs that damage creativity, but that can also be done by deliberately becoming cynical about creative work in general.)

The writer who has experienced failure to thrive in some works–but successful completion of others–may be able to help…and that’s what I hope to do.   I have recent experience with failure to thrive.  Since I finished Crown of Renewal, I have had several (three or four) novel projects die on me, and several short works as well.   Ideas, characters, situations I thought would be good, interesting stories and wanted to write…turned up their toes a short way into the project (but long enough after to take up weeks of time and energy.)   To say this was disappointing is wrong.  It was depressing the first time it happened.  When it happened again…and again…while Agent and Editor were patiently inquiring from time to time how things were going in the new work department, the depression grew.  I know from experience that at a certain level depression undermines my ability to write at all.   I felt stale, empty, and increasingly wondered if simple age had finally gotten to my brain (as well as feet, ankles, knees, hips, waistline, shoulders, elbows, etc.)  and maybe I had actually written my last book.   Twenty-six novels isn’t a bad run for a writer, except when the writer feels inside that more books are there somewhere, if only they can be dragged out into the open and written.

The short fiction I could write helped only a little, because it was only about half the short fiction I tried to write.  (I was trying to write anything that came into my head!)   But this is where experience stepped in and helped me through the worst of the crunch.   And where just maybe my experience can help someone else who is having their work fail to thrive.

As I wrote in my article on the writer and depression ,  and on writer’s block, when more than one project fails, and then the well seems dry down to bedrock,  it’s time to quit focusing on the writing and focus on the writer.  Something’s wrong, and it’s not with the writer’s talent.  (There may be exceptions.  I’m not one.  Yet.)   What is the something else?   Depression’s always a potential drag on talent.  Some is caused by suckage in real life, but there’s always suckage in real life.  Try fixing the suckage (if it’s fixable–a partner with a terminal illness isn’t.  In my life there was political suckage, family health suckage, a dying parent (who died in April),  vision suckage, etc.   There wasn’t a lot I could do about the suckage (other than having eye surgery, not completely successful:  the family medical thing isn’t going  away and will ultimately cost a life, my father died, etc.)   Concentrating on writing wouldn’t help with any of that.   I started working on those things, plus things I knew helped with the endogenous side of depression (exercise, better nutrition, more time with upbeat people and less time with downbeat people.)  A couple of months back on the depression med that works for me.   Giving myself permission to not fret about the writing for a few months, to take off the automatic “kick in the butt” machine that kept kicking when I couldn’t move.

Giving myself, even more, permission to fail.   Accepting that the failure happens, but it’s not permanent.  I’ve had books fail to thrive before (two of them that I remember spending months on.)   I wrote as well or better after that.   With permission to fail, I came through another book failing to thrive this time…and then started the book that isn’t failing, and is past what is for me the “proof point” that the story-yeast is alive and this dough will keep rising all the way into the oven of its final draft.

The novice writer has a very difficult time knowing when to quit on a failure-to-thrive and when it’s actually just a hard place in that book.    I know now, by feel, when to quit…but it’s hard to describe.   Here’s a try at that:  if you’re stuck in a hard place, you usually have some idea where the story is going beyond the part you’re writing.  Try leapfrogging past that hard place and see if the story comes alive again.  If it does, then keep going (and come back and fix the hard spot later.)   But if you leapfrog and the story is still limp, if you have no idea what to do with it next (and maybe have tried the ninjas coming through the roof, or the knock on the front door, and it’s still not going anywhere, chances are it’s failure to thrive.  A healthy story pulls you, the writer, along with it most of the time; a failure to thrive has no internal energy.

As soon as you know a story is failing to thrive, quit.   Walk away from it.   Put a big heavy lid on the guilt that will try to blame you for that “failure”.   Don’t even try to write for a day or so…and don’t think about the failure to thrive story, but about the story you most want to read and write.  Be open to what’s around you–are your senses functioning?  Are you enjoying color, movement, scents, textures, flavors, sounds?   If not, concentrate on one sense after another.  Have you shown your friends you care about them, lately?  Are you learning new things?  What excites you?  Angers you?  Intrigues you?   Go for walks or bike rides, chat with friends about their lives, listen to music that makes you happy (avoid TV news!!!!) ,  eat whatever foods you know are good for you (not the same for all),  hug a horse or hold a purring cat on your lap, take up a hobby you’ve left alone for a year or so–finish that birdhouse, that scarf, that curtain.  Look at where in your life changes would make you happier (a new pot in the kitchen?  A different set of towels?)  and start making one small change at a time.

When the next story shows up, go into it with the certainty that it might fail…but you won’t, because a story’s failure to thrive does not mean you are “a failure.”   It means you’re a perfectly normal writer, for whom many stories will fail.  If it doesn’t fail, fine–you got another completion under your belt, and every one increases your “not a failure” inertia.   If it does, consider it the way you consider (or should consider) rejections–you need to have a certain number of them in a lifetime, might as well get on with building up the inventory.   Consider ballet dancers–they don’t make those incredible leaps correctly every time in every practice.  Even the stars make mistakes, have to go back and re-learn something.  Consider sculptors–even the great ones occasionally fail with a piece of rock.   Painters paint over some of their failures, throw others away.

I was lucky enough to hear a great organist at Yorkminster, playing one of Bach’s big organ pieces…and in the middle of it he stopped short, muttered a cussword audible to those of us seated near enough in the choir, and sat silent for a very long minute or maybe two.  No one dared say a word; we hardly breathed.   Then he started again where he’d quit, finishing with the entire cathedral full of glorious music.   He “failed” to play the piece through without any error (Bach had not put a break in there.) But he succeeded in keeping a knowledgeable audience rapt for the entire performance including that space of silence–all of us rooting for him to succeed in the end.  He could do that–sit still, doing whatever he was doing in his head before his hands moved again–because he had been there before, because he had the experience to know that momentarily getting lost (mentally or physically) was a temporary problem that would pass, because he knew he did know that piece and could play it, had played it, and all he had to do was empty his mind of the embarrassment, chagrin, anger at himself, and let the music fill him once more.

As writers, we are fortunate that most of the time we can blunder about privately–dumping the stories that fail to thrive, publishing the ones that come out looking good.  We don’t have to reveal our moments (days/weeks/months) of failure except in those gaps of the publishing schedule.   Our agents and editors suspect something’s wrong but we may or may not tell them.  Our readership is likely to think we’re just goofing off,  traveling the world on the vast wealth they assume we have.  But we do fail, all of us, and it seemed to me that maybe we should reveal the failures and the ways we try to get beyond them.   Every writer is going to have stories that fail to thrive.   To keep going, every writer needs a way to handle it when they go pale and listless–a way to recognize the failure to thrive v.  the temporary knot, a way to handle the failure-related emotions, a way to restore the energy, courage, and insights that make writing possible.  I don’t claim that my ways are the only ways–they’re the ways that work for me.



  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — December 6, 2014 @ 5:26 pm


    Ye Gods, tell the book people to bug off. Writing is hard work – and the creative genius is quite fickle.

    Could you hold your nose and just write a piece of trash which will sell?

  • Comment by elizabeth — December 6, 2014 @ 6:31 pm


    Jonathan, I’m not sure who you’re aiming the shotgun at. I hope it’s not me.

    Can I hold my nose and write salable trash? Not intentionally, certainly. It wouldn’t be fun. (Anyone can write trash by accident. I have written crap. I just didn’t know it was crap when I wrote it. SO glad you folks don’t have a copy of my high school output!!! It wasn’t even salable crap.)

  • Comment by Iphinome — December 6, 2014 @ 8:21 pm


    Thank you your Ladyship, and thank you for the difference between blocked and stuck.

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — December 6, 2014 @ 10:23 pm


    I enjoy these insights into the writing process. I suspect the “failure to thrive” syndrome is an element common to all creative endeavers. Like the line from “Little Big Man”, “Some days the magic works and some days it doesn’t.”

  • Comment by Genko — December 6, 2014 @ 10:34 pm


    So much of what we have to deal with is getting past the mind obstacles that try to convince us that we are a failure. I love this whole post, and especially the description of the conductor who was able to stop long enough to empty out the trash and then continue with the music.

  • Comment by Caryn — December 7, 2014 @ 2:57 am


    Good to know. And best wishes that 2015 will have much less suckage.

  • Comment by Joyce — December 7, 2014 @ 8:02 am


    Many thanks for your wise and encouraging words. “And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Or, as a precious saint told me long ago, “Never doubt in the dark what you learned in the light.”

  • Comment by elizabeth — December 7, 2014 @ 10:56 am


    Iphinome: Glad you found it useful. People use the term “writer’s block” for any situation in which someone isn’t writing easily, but in my experience there really were different kinds of stuckness–and then blocked-ness.

    Nadine: I think you’re right, and each occupation has its own name for the phenomenon. But it exists across all the fields of creative arts, performing arts, invention, etc. that I know about.

    Genko: Yes. That “you are (or ‘about to be’) a failure” thing is on the internal tape for most, if not all, of us. Experiencing that performance was a revelation to me–the music, its effect in a cathedral like the one for which it was written (the STONE vibrated with the basso continuo of the big pipes), but most of all the organist’s mistake…stop…silence…the way the audience respected him, gave him time, and the way he used that time. I felt as if I could almost see the mental image of the music he was putting back together in his head, recovering himself and the music until they were once again a single being, and his hands, as much as the organ, the instrument on which it was played. And then he went on, flawlessly, without another hitch, perfectly composed. In our minds, the music healed itself, seamless at the end: I could not tell you now where it was he stopped (of course, I’ve heard that Toccata & Fugue several times since, most recently in the church where I sing and where we’re losing the organist who played it so well.) But I know–I have seen–other musicians defeated by a momentary lapse, who could not go on, who after a couple of false starts gave up and walked away. He was able to overcome the fear, the social awareness we all have when we goof in public.

  • Comment by elizabeth — December 7, 2014 @ 10:57 am


    Joyce, I like your saint’s way of putting it, too. Very much.

  • Comment by Lise — December 7, 2014 @ 11:46 am


    Thank you! That was exactly what I needed to hear going into exams. Even if I do fail something, or blank, doesn’t make me a failure.

  • Comment by Bridget — December 7, 2014 @ 2:56 pm


    Apropos of Joyce’s saint’s comment, I would wonder also if, once one has gotten through the times of suckage which include times primarily of grieving, it does not also work the other way around – “never doubt in the light the things that one learned in the dark”?

    Many thanks for the outline of the difference between the feeling of being a failure as opposed to the work failing – the difference between the person and the job.

    Have followed this blog for at least a couple of years now without ever posting, having found it after reading your books for years. I have thoroughly enjoyed this blog Many thanks for the time you take to keep it going and the thought that goes into it.

  • Comment by elizabeth — December 7, 2014 @ 9:03 pm


    Bridget: Thank you for joining the conversation. And, like Joyce, I think you’ve added another dimension. When our son was little, one of the things we were told was that autistic people have trouble learning to generalize what they’ve learned–to apply it in a different circumstance. And I thought even then “But that’s true of everyone.” For instance, someone who learns some of the laws of physics–who makes a perfect score on a test covering that material–may fail to apply them when driving on a snowy road. And it’s true of animals as well; I have a friend whose dogs have all won multiple awards in agility and obedience, and she say she has to train them in varied environments for a particular command/action to be really trained. I know that’s true with horses, as well…the horse that performs perfectly at home in a quiet setting may go all to pieces in a noisy show ring or parade route. We all have a tendency to forget–or doubt–what we’ve learned in one place when finding ourselves in another situation. I know I do.

  • Comment by Iphinome — December 8, 2014 @ 1:21 am


    @Lady Moon

    It was more than useful, it was _perfectly_ timed. This post, with its links that create a bigger picture, appeared 36 hours after I started banging my head against the desk.

    For the record; the situation is stuck. And thank the gods for that, dead at 55000 words would be too depressing.

    So again, thank you. There will probably be a gift of chocolate next time we cross paths in meatspace.

  • Comment by Wickersham's Conscience — December 9, 2014 @ 12:01 am


    Some of my writing – my day job is lawyering – is on absolute, inflexible deadlines. Sometimes it is written arguments to a court; sometime it is trying to explain arcane law that barely makes sense to me to a layperson. Some of it is ordinances for cities and boroughs (counties in the Lower 48). Some of it is contracts involving multiple orders of magnitude more than my net worth. Among lawyers, the technical term for “stuck” is “cratered,” or as it is happening, “cratering.” As in, the line of argument cratered. Sometimes working on the project all night helps; sometimes it just makes you exhausted and depressed even before you start the next project.

    So, yeah, your distinction and analysis make a lot of sense. And I suppose as you come up on editorial deadlines you come up against the same sick feeling of panic. Knowing your choices are turning in a piece of crap or worse. Keeping your focus a deadline looms and there aren’t any excuses or ways to get more time; that’s the worst for me.

  • Comment by elizabeth — December 9, 2014 @ 11:23 am


    Wickersham’s Conscience: That sounds like a job that could be fun and interesting sometimes, but has the potential to be difficult and boring simultaneously at others. Inflexible deadlines and difficult writing tasks make life difficult for anyone in any part of the writing world.

    Iphinome: I’m glad your project is “only” stuck and hope it comes unstuck soon. I imagine every writer has a different spot before which projects can die, and after which they don’t (although they do get stuck)..for myself, I’d feel safe in claiming “Just stuck” before 55,000. But that’s because all my failures to thrive were much shorter than that when they were clearly dead and had been.

  • Comment by Linda — December 9, 2014 @ 9:26 pm


    Both this blog entry and the twitter reference to the article explaining anxiety to someone who is not anxious are enormously helpful. They leave me musing on why preachers never seem to manage a sermon on such useful topics.

    I feel like someone who has managed to spin her wheels in way too much of her life, even if folks who know me tell me they admire my talents and “output”. Depression and anxiety make “all shall be well” seem a delusion … the misery life hurls at us can take all our energy and as Paks experienced, our “courage.”

    Thank you for using your own experiences to teach and uplift. Keep reminding us that courage is keeping on … and that an apparent failure (Gird’s Cow) may turn out otherwise … and that it’s okay to stop attending to the “news.”

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment