The Ten Commandments of Writing Failure

new_cokeMr. Donald Keough died this past week. He was 88 and was for a time the number two man at Coca-Cola. This was during an era called the “soda wars.” Keough’s job was to beat back the challenge of Pepsi, which was winning the younger set while Coke was out there trying to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

Keough was also the mastermind of one of the worst product blunders in history.

The original formula Coke (at least the one that came after they took the cocaine out of it) was, and is, the best tasting cola ever. It was Fred Astaire to Pepsi’s journeyman hoofer. It was Spencer Tracy to Pepsi’s high school senior starring in the school production of Our Town.

But for some unknown reason––probably due to overpaid consultants––Keough decided to change the formula, and “New Coke” was born. With great fanfare they rolled it out. And the country responded with a loud, collective YECCH!

So passionate was the push back that only 10 weeks later they brought the old formula back, calling it “Classic Coke.”

timenewcoke-copyAnd sales boomed. The controversy had become national news. The publicity turned out to be priceless.

Some cynics suggested the whole thing had been planned.  If so, it was brilliant. But when asked Keough said, “We’re not that dumb and not that smart.”

Later on, with a bit of self-deprecatory wisdom, Mr. Keough wrote a book called The Ten Commandments for Business Failure. I thought they might also apply to writers, especially now that self-publishing is a viable business option for the “authorpreneur.” Let’s have a look.

1. Quit Taking Risks

Resting on your laurels. Mailing it in. Doing the same old, same old. Maybe that works for a few traditionally published and bestselling authors. But for the true writer, the one who wants to honor the craft and get better, risk taking is part of the plan. Risk in characterization and plot and style and theme. That, in turn, brings a certain excitement to the writing, and you know what? Readers can sense that you’re excited. That makes your writing more appealing.

2. Be Inflexible

“Flexibility,” writes Keough, “is a continual, deeply thoughtful process of examining situations and when warranted, quickly adapting to changing circumstances.” These days, every writer, no matter who butters their bread (i.e., New York or Seattle) needs to be aware of process, changes in the marketplace and distribution channels, and quality improvements.

3. Isolate Yourself

Success in business means being in touch with both workers and customers. A good manager is one who walks around and knows what’s going on in the building and in the satellite offices.

Writers, who by the very nature of the work spend most of their time alone, need to know how to nurture a fan base, work social media wisely, grow an email list and, if contracted with a traditional house, schmooze a little with the increasingly nervous staff therein.

4. Assume Infallibility

You want to fail at this game? Then put a chip on your shoulder and always blame somebody else. Your critique group is a great place to start. Tell them you’ve forgotten more about writing than they’ll ever know. Reject editors’ notes. Then rail at the marketplace when your books don’t sell. Do anything but admit you have weaknesses that need to be addressed.

5. Play the Game Close to the Foul Line

What Keough means by this is that cheating, even a little, will eventually catch up with you. In recent years we’ve seen instances of plagiarism and sock-puppetry snag writers and impact careers. Trust is built up over time but can be lost in an instant. Just ask Brian Williams.

6. Don’t Take Time to Think

The saying in business is “data drives decisions.” You have to stop doing things that don’t lead to profit and do more of the things that do. Which is why traditional publishing companies drop authors who aren’t selling enough books. If you are a midlist writer and that has happened to you, maybe it is time to think … about going indie.

For the full-time indie writer, data is available so you can see what’s selling and how certain promotional ventures pay off. You can keep on developments via many fine blogs (start with The Passive Voice, a good aggregator of publishing news).

When I was running a small business I took time each week for “thinking, planning, and studying.” I called this my “TPS time,” which must never be confused with the TPS in this clip.

7. Put All Your Faith in Experts and Outside Consultants

Writers, more than ever, need to take responsibility for their own careers, no matter what side of the walls of the Forbidden City they’re on. You cannot simply hand everything over to an agent or publisher. You have to know what questions to ask and what terms to refuse. You have to know how to limit a non-compete clause and define “out of print” in a way that is meaningful and fair.

If you self-publish, the worst thing you can do is give some outfit thousands of dollars to get your book out there, and then thousands more for them to “market” your book. You need to know how to do this yourself. You need a plan, like the one I’ve followed and put into a book, which is on special now for 99¢ (you also have to know how to spot a real bargain, and this is one of them).   

8. Love Your Bureaucracy

In business, the bigger the organization the harder it is to move. Traditional publishing has been living this challenge for the past five years. Why only five? Because when digital publishing took off in 2008-09, the main reaction of the Bigs was to see it as a blip, nothing to worry about. They had their comfy bureaucracies.

Oops. Now we see all the changes that have been happening inside the Forbidden City, from the cutting of editorial staff, to tussles with Amazon, to new direct-to-consumer programs. It’s been a difficult transition period and it’s still going on.

The indie writer, on the other hand, can move quickly, but can also fall in love with systems that aren’t ultimately helpful. For example, if you’re spending 80% of your time on social media and 20% on your writing, you’re actually heading backwards.

9. Send Mixed Messages

In business they say “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” As a writer, your main thing is to tell great stories. If you also want to be a bad-boy blogger, or a mouthpiece for some political persuasion, just know that readers will have mixed reactions. If that doesn’t bother you, fine. Just be intentional about it.

I consider myself a writer first and a teacher of writing second. What I do on this blog and in social media is consistent with those two things. That doesn’t mean I won’t share the occasional opinion, or even write a book with opinions in it [drop intriguing teaser about upcoming book here]. But I keep most everything consistent with those two roles.

10. Be Afraid of the Future

Oh, this is major. For 150 years the publishing industry has operated one way. It had a settled distribution system and there were plenty of bookstores for their stock. All that has changed in a flash, leaving agents, editors and trad-based writers wondering how this is all going to shake out. To which the answer is: no one knows. It’s like what old Carson the butler says with a sigh in a recent episode of Downton Abbey: “The nature of life is not permanence, but flux.”

So the successful writer keeps writing and doesn’t let anxiety freeze up his flying fingers. Keep writing, keep trying to get better.

Keough finishes his book bonus eleventh commandment:

11. Lose Your Passion for Work, for Life

You’ve got to find ways to keep the joy in your writing life. That doesn’t mean it’ll always be unicorns and rainbows. A lot of the time it’s tar pits and tsetse flies. But an inner core of love for what you do, and hopes for what you can achieve, will keep the fire burning.

When the flame begins to dim, take a couple of days to relax, regroup, rethink. And reread. Take a few of  your favorite novels off the shelf (or off your ereader) and look at a few chapters. Get caught up again in the romance of great storytelling. Soon enough you’ll be itching to get back to the keyboard.

So here’s today’s command: write your best scene ever. When you’re done, pour yourself a Coke … the real thing. Once in a blue moon the calories won’t hurt you!

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25 thoughts on “The Ten Commandments of Writing Failure

  1. Jim, thanks for another great post. Lead, thesis, evidence/examples,call to action. It’s all there – including the real thing.

    Keough’s book reminds me of IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE, Peters and Waterman, 1982. It’s full of great advice on what makes businesses successful, and lots of examples.

    Back to your points and Keough’s book. I’m working on #8 today – Love your bureaucracy (writing policy and procedure manuals to keep the feds off my back at my daytime job). Obviously that brings into play #2 Be inflexible, #3 Isolate yourself, #6 Don’t take time to think, and #7 Put all your faith in “experts.” And it results in #11 Lose your passion for work and life.

    I think I’ll go pour myself a Coke.

    • I read In Search of Excellence when it came out. Several of the companies covered in the book did poorly after it came out. I wonder if anyone did a study on what they did wrong?

  2. All good, wisdom-laced tips, Jim. And of them all, I consider #1 the most important. Take risks. For most writers, especially those with traditionally published novels, taking the risk to indie publish is the biggest risk with the biggest rewards. Thanks for sharing.

    • Right, Joe. I didn’t mention a certain author I met once who truly was “mailing it in” because, well, his books still sold well enough that the negative reviews didn’t keep him from enjoying his yacht.

      To me, such a person is no longer a writer.

      • I fully agree, Jim. I’ll self-publish my first novel soon and I do have those dreams of being successful over time. But I often think of one of the fans of my blog, who found me there and became a dear friend and cheerleader of my writing. Thanks to her I finished my first novel (she reads chapter by chapter, asks brilliant questions, and asks for more to read) and have written 3/4 of the second (the second will be written in record time for me – within less than half a year with a baby-girl to take care of during the day and in the evening together with my husband of her big brother too). I remind myself of the reasons this dear friend likes my writing and likes me as a writer. Because I hold a personal contact with her, even if we never met in person yet.
        Engaged writer is a true writer.
        Thank you for this reminder. 🙂

  3. Jim,
    I laughed and I nodded as I read these “Ten Commandments.” Not only because they ring true but because I’m currently reading Ryan Holiday’s “The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs”. From U.S. Grant and Thomas Edison to Amelia Earhart, Steve Jobs and host of others, Holiday looks at how to perceive a problem for what it is and the opportunity it represents, and then how to take action. Plenty of Stoic philosophy included here. This morning’s chapter was “Practice Persistence,”, with a tip from Epictetus himself: “Perist and resist,” meaning continue your efforts and don’t give into distraction, discouragement, or disorder.

    As always, thanks for another thought-provoking post!

    • Ah, Epictetus. My man.

      I forget who said it, but there’s a quote about every obstacle carrying with it the seed of a greater benefit. Writers need to face all writing challenges that way. A setback is an invitation to get better, stronger.

  4. For me, everything about this weekend has been far overshadowed by the death of Leonard Nimoy. While Gene Roddenberry may have created Star Trek, it was Nimoy who made Spock larger than life and my favorite character of all time across film, TV, and books. It’s relevant to this post for 2 reasons.

    The first is that unfortunately, bonus #11 is one I’ve already fallen into–I’ve lost my passion for creativity, for reasons I won’t waste folks’ time on. But it leads me back to Leonard Nimoy and it’s link to #11. I never really knew a whole lot about Mr. Nimoy the actor–but in reading brief summaries of his life, I see the one thing he has consistently done is pursued his art in whatever form—whether that be his inescapable role forever linked to the Star Trek universe, a multitude of other acting roles across the decades, photography, poetry, etc.

    I don’t know what Mr. Nimoy would say if someone asked if he felt he pursued every creative opportunity he could, but he sure gives the sense that he did. It seems to me he wasn’t afraid to try different things and he seemed always to keep the creative fires going. Another reason he will be missed.

    And why #11 on that commandment list is the most important to me.

  5. It’ll come back, BK. Sometimes it just takes a season of rest.

    As for Mr. Nimoy, I know for awhile he wished to break away from Spock, writing the book, I Am Not Spock. When he found he really couldn’t, he embraced it again and wrote another book, I Am Spock. He found a way to be happy there, to send himself up (e.g., The Simpsons) and still do poetry and plays. In short, he was a true pro.

  6. “Reject editors’ notes. Then rail at the marketplace when your books don’t sell. Do anything but admit you have weaknesses that need to be addressed.”

    We all tend toward this at times, but I’m afraid self-publishing has made this tendency worse.

    No doubt the priesthood of agents and slush editors made occasional bad calls, but they did weed out a lot of bad writing. And while some truly great works have come from the self-publishing phenomenon, a lot of junk has managed its way into the marketplace.

    So it’s hard for readers to know which is which.

    • Eventually the readers figure it out. There’s a rough justice that happens over time. I always tell newbies to put themselves through a “grinder” every bit as rigorous as a NY acquisitions editor would. It takes longer, but this is a long tail game now.

  7. What a great post, and what a swift kick in the ass! Today I start again, with a to-do list based on these commandments. Thanks!

  8. Good wisdom in here, Jim. Am late to post tonight because was tied up with work all day but just wanted to reiterate your point about risk…or it is bravery? My new book is such a weird departure that it made me wake up in sweats at 3 a.m for the last 9 months. So be it. It had to be done. Will it be accepted by my series readers? Who knows? Just know it I had to take the leap.

  9. You’ve just helped me make a decision about my next novel. I’m going to risk first-person POV because I want the challenge and to grow as a writer. Means re-plotting but it will be fun. Not that I needed a new challenge to keep on being excited and passionate about the story, however. The passion is still alive and thriving.

    It’s interesting that you mention the nervousness at the major publishers. About 5 years ago, Anne Rice posted to the Kindle boards about the same thing and provoked quite a discussion. Personally, even though I have only a small publisher, I would hate for the big ones to disappear, as Andrew Lownie has said they might. Yes, even the big publishers publish crap from time to time (to survive), but on the whole they do filter out most of it. I read a lot of debut novels from big publishers, and almost without fail, the first thing you notice is VOICE. So many self-publishing authors send their work out there long before they’ve discovered their voice, which I think does all writers a disservice.

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