Failing, To Begin With.

Carrie Cuinn is a writer, editor, small press publisher, computer geek, and amiable raconteur. In her spare time she reads, makes things, takes other things apart, and sometimes gets a new tattoo. She has an impressive collection of published fiction and non fiction and has been a guest on SF Signal podcasts multiple times. Her website is and you can follow her on twitter @CarrieCuinn.

When I was asked to write for BookLife, my immediate reaction was to wonder what I could possibly have to offer. I am a published author, and editor, and own a small press publishing company, but I spent most of 2011 (and the beginning of 2012) dealing with personal issues that kept me from accomplishing many of my professional goals. I’d started off with the production and publication of a great anthology, Cthulhurotica, which was very well received, but what did I do after that?

To put it simply, I failed.

People fail all of the time. We make plans based on exciting new ideas that we actually don’t know how to accomplish. We have family emergencies, or relationship issues, or illnesses, that take up our time and energy. We have financial troubles. We face job losses and sudden moves and starting over in a new town. We fear turning down new opportunities, even when we’re overburdened, because we’re not sure that we’ll get those chances again. When these things happen, our goals and dreams become unfulfilled hopes, unmet deadlines, and disappointments.

In my case it was a combination of almost everything I mentioned above. While different obstacles rose up, and were met with revised plans and a determination not to fail, it was the emotional aspect of failing that threw me the most. I was afraid of letting down the people that were rooting for me, of losing my friends’ respect, and of disappointing the people who were beginning to consider themselves my fans. I should have stopped trying to manage everything all at once, cut back on my production schedule, a long time before I actually did. Eventually I didn’t have a choice; my life got so complicated it ground to a halt.

I felt as if I’d ruined everything. My one chance to be an author and to make books and to become part of the writing community was gone, because I’d screwed it up.

It turns out that doesn’t really happen.

I got my feet under me again and focused on my immediate needs first: I took care of my son and myself. I kept the power on, I kept us fed. Over time, I began to add in the things I felt I could handle: organizing my finances, sorting out school, and getting rid of a lot of things that I didn’t need (both household objects and sources of stress). I started writing again, and sold a few things. I got over my fear of my own contributors and began to let people know just how badly I had failed.

No one hated me. No one thought I’d missed out on my “one chance”. I got support, I got advice, I got offers of help.

“It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to put a book out,” I was told. “It matters how good the book is once it’s out.”

I started to look at my company from the perspective of making the business work, instead of focusing mainly on how exciting it was to work with great authors and artists, or how many ideas I had. I realized that for me, publishing will be about making the best book that I can, not about producing the largest number in the shortest amount of time. I slowed down our schedule, let people know I was sorry but there would be delays.

Now my 2012 books are coming together, and they’re beautiful. It may another year before I’m completely caught up with where I want to be, but I can see now that I’ll get there. In the end, I didn’t lose anything except my own expectations, and I learned a lot about the reasons we fail. I can’t say that I won’t make any mistakes from here on out, but I know now that I’ll learn from them, and that no amount of failure is permanent. There’s no reason to quit trying.

Five things to remember when it seems like everything is falling apart:

1. Know the rewards: each thing you do has a cost and a payout. This can be financial, it can be an amount of time, it can be personal or social. Part of getting your life back on track is knowing how much it’s going to cost you to get the life you want, and whether you can live with what you end up with. This means knowing, for example, that you’ll need to spend 30 hours of work to write a story which will net you $80, but that publication will get you into the SFWA, a goal you think is worthy of the time spent. It’s knowing when a certain deadline or event will mean that you can’t see your significant
other next weekend, or that you’ll need to order takeout for dinner on Friday because you won’t have time to cook (which means, of course, that you’ll be paying for your lack of time now with having to spend more time making money to cover the cost of that take-out).

2. Prioritize your life: there are always more tasks than hours in the day, but some of them are more important than others. Make a list of your deadlines, write to-do lists. If you know what has to get done vs. what you’d like to get done, you know where to start cutting when you only have time or resources to accomplish some of your goals.

3. Learn to say no: One of the biggest problems I had was that I would accept every bit of volunteering that was requested of me, whether it was critiquing stories, doing line edits, or writing guest blog posts. It meant that I wrote fiction for token or non-paying markets. It meant that I helped other companies with their publication projects. As much as I’d love to keep doing all of these things, it contributed to my inability to get everything done, which led to me failing. I still do help out as much as I can, but I have a much better idea of when I can say “yes” and when I have to say “sorry, I can’t right now.”

4. Communication keeps people informed: Tell your coworkers and your family and your friends what’s going on. No one likes it when you just drop out of their lives, and sometimes we take that personally – it can feel like we’re not important if you’re suddenly blowing off deadlines and become impossible to find. Letting people know why your life is upside down may feel like you’re complaining or you’re weak, but in reality, it lets them know that they were on your mind. It tells people that the way you’re treating them and their projects isn’t personal. It’s much easier to work out a new deadline when you’re keeping people informed than it is to try to rebuild those relationships later.

5. Take it one step at a time: when you have a dozen missed deadlines and a handful of future projects, the moment you start as if you can peek your head up again, you’re buried under work. It’s impossible to fix everything all at once, so don’t. Pick the most important thing, based on your analysis of cost and payout and priorities, and do that. It can be reestablishing your social network, it can be quietly finishing a short story or editing job before anyone knows you’re back in the saddle. Whatever it is, do that one thing. Then do the next thing. After that, you do one more thing. It will all get done, and by learning to work as much as you can but not more, you’re learning how to make sure that you don’t overload yourself again in the future.

After all, everyone fails, but the goal is try to only fail in the beginning.

2 thoughts on “Failing, To Begin With.

  1. Saying no can be a hard one, particularly when you feel you are failing because you feel as if you are additionally failing whoever you're saying no to and the cycle of guilt builds.
    I am so grateful to hear a positive affirmation – to get back up after failure and toil on – there is no one single chance of success, there are multitudes, you just have to strive for them. Thank you.

  2. Learning to say no has been one of the hardest things for me. Maybe not so much with writing projects but just saying no to "fun things" that take up writing time. I still have work to do on that front–less going out, less video games, less TV, etc.

    Good to see you've re-found your focus and are making progress!

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