Catherine Linka is the author of the two book series, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. Catherine was a YA book buyer for an indie bookstore for 8 years. Connect with Catherine on twitter @cblinka or FB.


thinking brain

Welcome to the newest member of the Tollbooth Crew, writer, editor and teacher, Helen Pyne!


“Failure is success if we learn from it,” said Malcolm Forbes.

My mantra.


I live outside of San Francisco in the heart of Silicon Valley—Facebook, YouTube and Google country. A place where creative young entrepreneurs sit inside bare-bones offices, noses to their computer screens, writing code late into the night.  I imagine them hunched over the remains of their take-out dinners, drafting business plans and dreaming of the legacy they want to create. Who will become the next Bill Gates?

Writers, too, are a type of entrepreneur. With words as our product, we work late and rise early to find time to write our stories. We compose query letters and loglines to pitch our books, dreaming of the legacy we want to create. Who will become the next J.K. Rowling? It’s these commonalities that have convinced me that writers can learn from the successes of Silicon Valley:


Precept #1.  Don’t Be Afraid to Fail:

Many entrepreneurs start businesses that bomb—sometimes multiple times—but if they focus on figuring out how to learn from their mistakes, they’re more likely to find success when they move on to the next big idea. The only real sin is not trying.

As a writer, I try to remember this—especially on the days I’m forced to kill my darlings, delete whole chapters from my story, or change my protagonist’s point of view—again. There’s nothing like a fresh rejection letter to make one reconsider a career in real estate or perhaps a nice niche job like snake milking. But if entrepreneurs can go back to the drawing board after losing millions of investor dollars, I guess I can’t complain about revising an old novel or starting up a new one. Gearing up again is hard, but I’m learning not to feel like a failure just because I have unpublished stories in my desk drawers.  At Vermont College, when my advisors told me to cut lines, I’d save my words in a folder so I could use them again. After all, I reasoned, I couldn’t just throw them out. But gradually, I’ve come to understand that the more good lines I write, the more good lines I’ll write.

Every sentence we slave over, used or not, serves a purpose. Each of our drafts functions as the foundation on which we build our future work. Ideally, better work. Like the entrepreneurs around me, I’ve come to see the value of companies that flop—and fiction that fails. I recognize that practice usually leads to progress, but that there are no shortcuts to success. As my venture capital husband says, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

Remember how the Velveteen Rabbit looked just before he became real? He had chewed up ears and matted-down fur; he was battered, worn and shabby. Well, on some days, after hours of agonized writing, I feel like the Velveteen Rabbit. Alone, abandoned by the muse, and all used up. But here’s the thing. The process of becoming Real (as in a Real Writer) may not be quick or pretty, but what we receive in return for the teeth-gnashing frustration we force ourselves to work through in order to keep our B.I.C. (butts in chair), is that elusive elixir that transforms us. In other words, the work is the reward.

helping picPrecept #2.  Pay It Forward

Take a page from the high tech world’s how-to manual. Sure, Silicon Valley’s competitive, but there’s also an emphasis here on community. And it’s not just wealthy philanthropists who are providing assistance and dishing out the dough. People realize that it makes good business sense to pay it forward. Mentoring is now the new model. Just look at the growing body of philanthropic foundations, nonprofit venture funds, and company-sponsored competitions. Business incubators and accelerators offer resources, services, and funding in exchange for a small equity stake in a company. And Angel investors (affluent individuals who provide capital for a start up) often invest for altruistic reasons.

Mentoring in publishing is on the rise too. Like the tech industry, the book business is changing so fast we must be innovative to stay afloat. Resourceful authors are banding together for book signings, community appearances, promotional tours and group blogs. We promote each other’s work by posting reviews on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads and use social media sites like tumblr and YouTube to share video blogs and book trailers. Last summer, I met filmmaker and novelist, e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, who used Kickstarter to raise funds for a cross-country tour to publicize her latest film and YA fiction. Or check out the innovative ways author John Green combines high tech (like his VlogBrothers YouTube channel) and high touch to create new fans and sell his books.

Online contests for aspiring authors are pulling in participants too. Last year, I was the lucky recipient of one of those slots when writer/blogger Krista Van Dolzer ( mentored me through novel revisions for an online agent auction. No money exchanged hands; I had nothing to offer her other than my undying gratitude and willingness to work hard. But Van Dolzer, whose first two novels are coming out in 2015, understands that it really is about paying it forward by creating community and providing opportunities for others.

Which is why I am thrilled to be joining this blogging community of VCFA writers. Whether we’re selling books or businesses, we are all risk-takers willing to work hard to see our dreams become reality. Writers and entrepreneurs are the kind of people who strive to generate breakthrough ideas that disrupt the status quo. Could there be a better calling?


    1. I bet you’d be a great snake milker, Jill! As an author yourself, you know that writers who aren’t afraid to take risks often reap the greatest rewards. But I also believe that every writer is, in essence, a risk-taker AND entrepreneur.

  1. What a great post Helen–such wise advice to start the new year! Thank you. (Love the snake-milking, too!)

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful post, Helen! I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. But I am slowly getting used to the idea. And like you, I’m looking to authors like John Green for ideas on how to engage an audience and connect with readers.

    1. Thanks, Frances. Yes, John Green is an incredible role model–both as a writer and as a promoter!

  3. Great post, Helen, and an excellent way to look at our tough, ever shifting industry. We ARE entrepreneurs! So glad you’ve joined the Tollbooth.

    1. Ann, I’m so glad you enjoyed the blog. I feel really lucky to be a part of the Tollbooth crew!

    1. Thank you, Tami. Coming from a writer like you, that’s a real compliment. Silicon Valley IS a fascinating place to live, and although I will always be more interested in people than technology, sometimes the two can merge in intriguing ways.

  4. Congratulations and great debut piece, Helen! On a cross-country book tour, I listened to the biography of Steve Jobs and found it quite inspiring. I find that I’m really good at failing, which means a lot of learning experiences and a lot of characters who fail convincingly in the pages of my novels. In Silicon Valley, the guys who try a lot of different things and fail tend to get capital over the ones who play it safe. Not sure that’s true with writing, but I’m going to test it.

    1. Lyn, What insightful and articulate comments! How wonderful to hear a writer of your caliber reframe this concept of “failing” by showing how it can be an advantage when you want to create characters who fail “convincingly” on the page. As the saying goes, “Good judgement comes with experience, but experience comes from bad judgement.” Meanwhile, I’ll continue to test out the theory alongside you!

  5. Helen, your analogy between writing and tech start-ups is right on! As the founder of a new social venture, I completely resonate with your description of learning from failure. Actually, the word “failure” isn’t even in our vocabulary. Each day, every conversation, brings new information which causes us to flex and evolve–hopefully towards a better outcome. And yes, absolutely, we could not succeed without our community of “angels” which are all around us, in so many forms. Well put!

    1. Amanda, I love the fact that the word “failure” isn’t even in your vocabulary! Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with everything you’ve said. Passion and vision are two of the qualities entrepreneurs like you share with writers across the planet.

  6. Helen,

    Thank you for this excellent post! I agree that celebrating failure is a key to success, and never connected that belief to all the entreprenuerial energy here in the Bay Area. I’m sure that’s where a lot of my “try again” attitude comes from when it comes to my writing. So, I’m off to try (yet again) on the first pages of my novel. Congrats on your debut on the Tollbooth.

    1. Naomi, Thank you for YOUR excellent post. As a published writer and founder of the Society of Young Inklings writing program, you’re someone who has experience in both worlds. Since I believe there’s often only a minuscule difference between “try again” and “throw in the towel,” I’m a big advocate of finding entrepreneurs and writers (like you) who can model that sometimes elusive quality of stick-to-it-ness.

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