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.
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 Gearing up again is hard, but I’m learning not to feel like a failure just because I have unpublished stories in my desk drawers.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.
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 (http://motherwrite.blogspot.com) 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?