Tony Vanderwarker: How To Fail and Fail Again

by Guest Contributor

Tony VanderwarkerToday’s post is written by Tony Vanderwarker.

Forget the MFA. What writers really need is to go to a school where you learn how to fail. That’s because failure is the one element of the craft that’s guaranteed.

With seven unpublished novels languishing away on my hard drive and an overflowing shelf of rejection notices, I know a bit about the failure thing. Sure, when I left the ad business to write 20 years ago, I was aware that even luminaries like Grisham and King, Hemingway and Faulkner, have had books that never sold, stories that didn’t work, characters that didn’t come alive, agents that never returned their calls and stacks of rejection slips. But I had no idea how hard it would be dust myself off and keep going after pinning my hopes on a novel that got ashcanned. Punching somebody maybe, getting infernally drunk or putting my fist through the wall would’ve seemed a lot more natural.

At first I could deal with the rejection letters. Reading the first five, I’d think, “Hey, what do they know?” But when they just kept coming, they began to batter me. “Is somebody trying to tell me something?” I started to wonder. “Should I be taking up competitive croquet?

Getting turned down’s hard for anybody, but when you’re a writer, your active imagination immediately goes to work coming up with things you’ve done wrong. I used to analyze every word of each rejection letter that landed on my desk. A phase as simple as, “Sorry, Tony, but this didn’t work for me,” would leave me convinced that:

  • the opening was all wrong. That’s why he hated it.
  • the main character wasn’t likeable enough.
  • there was too much detail about nukes and other Cold War relics.
  • the story just wasn’t compelling.
  • everything about the book was wrong, wrong, wrong.

All these wrongs became especially painful after my friend and neighbor John Grisham offered to mentor me in writing a thriller. Travelling together, sharing holidays, we often talked about his writing but seldom about mine as there was little to talk about. Occasionally he’d ask, “How’s your writing going?” and I’d have to give him some stiff upper lip kind of answer like, “Going fine, just started a new one,” when the truth was my stack of rejection notices was getting so tall it was threatening to topple.

Then one day at lunch, after asking how my novel writing’s going, John said, “Be glad to help you, kind of mentor you, if you’d like.”

I pitched him three story ideas and he bought the third. For the next two years, John took me under his wing, teaching me his plot development techniques. Outlining furiously under John’s exacting eye, I was convinced that I had a bestseller going and the key to success in my pocket. My imagination went haywire. I daydreamed I was on the set of the Today Show, that Harrison Ford had been asked to star in the movie version of my book.

When John was finally satisfied with my outline 12 months later, I launched into the writing process. For another year I wrote and wrote, scrapping draft after draft until I had a final manuscript whose plot was in killer shape. The characters were strong, the story was good, my confidence was at a high.

Then came John’s reaction: “Vastly improved.” Grisham code for a grade of C. The book—Sleeping Dogs—landed in a market glut of similar thrillers and the rejections poured in.

So what did Tony do? Let the rejection letters get the better of him and gave up. Devoted himself to environmental causes instead, becoming chair of a regional land conservation and public policy organization. We protected 350,000 acres of land, stopped Disney from building a theme park, kept Walmart from putting a store in the middle of a Civil War battlefield and prevented a utility from stringing a powerline across our conserved Virginia landscape.

Looking back, I realize that this was my only real failure: giving up. That there’s a big difference between failure and rejection, and I’d gotten them mixed up. One person’s “wrong” is another person’s “right.” Didn’t Kathryn Stockett get turned down by something like sixty-four agents over a period of four years before the sixty-fifth picked up The Help?

Rejection is unavoidable for writers. The best way to avoid experiencing it is to stop writing immediately. The way to minimize the pain and aggravation, however, is to embrace rejection as inherent to the process and to redefine failure as, simply, a reluctance or refusal to write. For a writer’s only real failure is…not writing.

Dorothy Parker once said, “This thing we call failure is not the falling down, but the not getting up.” Luckily, she was right.

After three years of full-speed-ahead conservation work, the writing itch returned. Loping through my mind was the idea of writing a book about writing a novel with Grisham. Taking what I’d learned from working with John and applying it to the tale of us collaborating, I took a few stabs at a memoir and found the key. Treating it as a narrative made it work—he said this, I said that, I wrote this and he wrote that—the way it actually happened. I asked John for permission to use his notes and critiques, he said yes and I was off to the races.

The memoir, Writing With the Master: How a Bestselling Author Fixed My Book and Changed My Life, got turned down too, by eleven or twelve agents, until my present agent picked it up. And it was passed on by a bunch of publishers until a small publisher, Skyhorse, bought it. It’ll be coming out in early 2014.

Confident now that the only thing “wrong” with the other books I wrote was me for having let the rejections cloud my vision, I’ve decided to self-publish Sleeping Dogs as well as two of my earlier, comic novels, Ads for God and Say Something Funny. It’ll be interesting to see how three books rejected by a raft of agents and publishers will fare in the marketplace.

Who knows? If one takes off, maybe the others will too. It’ll be fun to watch, and certainly will create a whole new perspective on what failure means in the writing biz.

Winston Churchill elegantly put his finger on it: “Success is going from failure to failure with enthusiasm.”

Founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, Tony Vanderwarker is author of the memoir Writing With the Master (Skyhorse, January 2014) about his experience being mentored by John Grisham while writing the thriller Sleeping Dogs, releasing in 2014. He has also penned the forthcoming novels Ads for God and Say Something Funny.

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