What is it to fail as someone who wants to write? It’s far too easy to link the question to publication. Must get published – must get published. But is that really the measure of failure? Test it on those who’ve got a book out there…there’s always a what next…

So if publication still isn’t enough where does that precious commodity failure lie? If publication’s not the winning line then what? Global readership, critical acclaim, the test of time and the homage of history…

Hang on though. There’s plenty of worthy writing that hasn’t succeeded in commercial publication. Plenty more that briefly flapped its wings and died, unremembered. Surely publication and readership has too many external factors to make it a sign of a brutal divide between success and failure.

These are the successes and failures of business and of marketing. These failures are at the mercy of a demanding audience, over-hyped on quick-to-get entertainment industries and addicted to same-but-different ploys. They are failures of cafe society recommendations or literary club quirks. However useful a quality control this may be, however true that literature is a dialogue between text and society, there are other ways we should judge our work and our works.

There are failures that are far more common, far more damning and far more readily fixed: not finishing, not pushing to get the very best from an idea, not being humble to an exacting and difficult craft.

So let’s think again about which aspects of a practice we can fail better.

Fail better

A defiant part of me, a cryptic crypto-literary part of me, would call a writing blog “throw up and go.”  Great line. Taken of course from everyone’s favourite piece of easy-entry comic prose, Worstward Ho!. A fabulously memorable little snippet that sticks in the memory and makes you want to cuddle into a black polo-neck sweater and cardie-combo next to a full-cream Dublin Guinness. You know the one. “Sick of it back sick of the either. So on. Somehow on. Till sick of both. Throw up and go.”

Or maybe that’s not the most well-loved and memorable snippet…

Yet it is a sickening thing, the old writing. Very occasionally rewarding, very often essential, always interfrastic. Sometimes the only recourse and the only sanity. But sickening in many ways.

In an ocean of utterances of all kinds and the daily maelestrom of messaging spoken words there’s something about pace and process that draws us to writing. Pseudo permanence. Pseudo transference. A presumed audience a believed audience an absent audience. Readership of none but potentially of digitally-networked millions. Crusoe casting bottles into the sea in hope.

There’s something else other than just putting pen to paper or its digital equivalent. There’s something in the need to write that is to do with improvement and this is where the field begins to narrow. If there is improvement then some writings are better than others. Some writings are read and some are not. Some are lauded and some are not. Some are lasting and most are not.

“Sick of the either” would be an even more cryptic two-per-center as a blogger’s title, perhaps. Another popular gem from Worsward Ho! and inadvertently a reminder that most of “the best writing” is utterly unreadable. What we are most comfortable to call “good” – especially in covertly combative social groups – needs to have been rubber stamped by authorities in publishing houses or universities or schools, or by strict parents and sneering students. Then there’s the other “good” that has no critical acknowledgement of its worth but has a short-term world-praise by a few hundred thousand eyes and hearts. That makes us scurry anxiously to cling to or condemn the notion of literature, of high art and of taste. At that point we’re surely lost.

And that’s the point at which you wonder whether how Beckett’s later work would fare without the aged Beckett behind them. How good is good – and is it the writer’s whole-life good or just some freak singular good – or is it the readers’ good?

The best known quote – if we’re honest, the only known quote from Worstward Ho! unless you’ve had it as a set text in a class – isn’t the two above. Chances are it’s this one:

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

It’s the one that everyone rallies to if they have forced themselves into a diet of rejection and a hankering for some nebulous hope of improvement under the terms that unknown people might bring under the cover of night.  It’s also a useful if perplexing example of what lasts, what doesn’t, what outlandish contexts bring what texts out and what meme-ification has done for the world.

Why try to write fiction?

We write because we have to. It will help us through and keep all those hopeless and very human feelings of pointlessness at bay. If failure is the ultimate goal of art then no better way to try failing than as an amateur writer – amateur in both its current English sense and the more wholesome original, French, and differently pronounced version.

Writing as an amateur is to spend time alone doing something that is unlikely ever to get an audience.  Unlike cookery, gardening, landscape painting, silversmithing, drama, interior design or cricket, there are no obvious opportunities to deliver work to an appreciative local circle. Instead writers cluster together, trading read for read in a curious session of I’ll let you show me yours if you let me show you mine.  Test it. Friends rally round anyone who’s half decent at baking, they’ll stick an amateur watercolour on a wall or even buy one. They’re happy to admire a companion’s begonias or sit in the sun and watch the village pub team trundle a medium paced over or two. But ask someone to read your poems and they run a f**king mile. As for prose it’s unlikely any offers to read don’t come from someone in the same game.

So that’s your lot. Writing is meant to be for someone to read but most writing is a lonely business. No-one to be a trouble to. No opportunity for dismissal or appreciation. For many it’s a lottery-ticket hobby, fuelling the slush piles of unwelcoming commercial entities who themselves are struggling to see what glow fiction can provide for a naughty world. So it’s a lonely game – the only game in town and one for metaphors that Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody should be left alone with – and that can easily feel like failure if you let it.

Leap in. Get better. Not by failing, necessarily, although if not getting readers is failing then expect that in spades. Get better by tangible notions of what works – for you, for an unknown audience, no matter.

There’s bags of advice out there, of course. Storygrid.com is my own current hope and salvation along with McKee, Iglesias, David Lodge, John Gardner, Maggie Hamand and many many more. Hopefully whatever you’ve found so far has been fabulously helpful and you’re ready to get going. As someone who’s started more novels than they’ve finished and finished more novels than they’ve published and is still rewriting those nearly-but-not-quites almost to death, there are a few things that I wish someone had given me all those years ago when I first started.