Wednesday, April 11, 2012

13 WOW Wednesday: Hilary Graham on Starting with Failure

Today we're lucky to have Hilary Weisman Graham as a WOW guest. Hildary is an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter. Her debut young adult novel, Reunited (Simon & Schuster), is due out June, 12, 2012. Visit her at:

Start with Failure: The Advice No Aspiring Writer Ever Wants to Hear
By Hilary Weisman Graham

I was 23-years-old when I made my first feature film. It took me a year to write the script, six months to raise the money, two weeks to shoot it, and three months of editing. The following two years were spent trying to find a distributor and crying myself to sleep each night I failed to do so.

Sure, my film played in festivals around the world and earned plenty of good reviews. But failing to secure distribution mean that my film would never be seen by a wide audience, effectively dashing my dreams of being vaulted to indie cinema stardom, like El Mariachi had done for Robert Rodriguez or Clerks for Kevin Smith.

I’d worked tirelessly, for years, creating a film that people actually seemed to like, and yet, at the end of the day, all I was left with was a mountain of rejection letters, credit card bills, and a character-building “learning experience.” I took my film’s failure very personally, and spent the next few years wallowing in self-pity and wrought with guilt knowing that my investors would never get their money back. Even worse, I found myself feeling bitter and resentful whenever other filmmakers found success.

Over and over, I’d ask myself how had this happened to me. Orson Wells was only 24 when he made Citizen Kane. Why hadn’t I been able to do the same?

Seventeen years later, I can laugh at the self-aggrandizement of comparing myself to one of the world’s greatest auteurs. But back then; the pain was very real to me. In my black and white world, I would either establish myself as a cinematic genius right off the bat, or be doomed to a life of misery and failure.

And why am I sharing this painful story with you? Because now that I’m older and wiser I’ve learned how foolish it is to expect overnight success. Perhaps this does happen for a tiny minority of lucky folks, but for the rest of us, the first version hardly ever works—on paper, or in life. Think about yourself in junior high school. Got a mental picture of it?

Just like you were not a suave seductress, tossing out insightful yet witty bon mots about the latest John Updike novel while simultaneously sweating in your jelly shoes at the seventh grade Sadie Hawkins dance, the first draft of your novel (or story or screenplay) is also not quite ready for the grown-up world.

But we all have to start somewhere—in our lives, in our careers, and also when we sit down to write.

And at the beginning, failure is unavoidable. It’s part of the process. Sometimes, it comes in the form of big spectacular debacles that wound you for years (like my first feature film). Other times, it’s as small as a single sentence. But until you learn to accept it, you’ll never be able to learn from it. And as difficult as it is to accept, our missteps have so much more to teach us than our triumphs.

On a good day, I sit down at my computer and the words come effortlessly. I feel proud of my insights. I am witty and eloquent, inventive and wise. But these days are staggeringly rare. If I could call them into existence every time I snapped my fingers, then writing a book or a screenplay would be no work at all. And trust me, it is work.

In Bird by Bird, the wonderful Anne Lamott urges writers to write crappy first drafts. I find this advice to be crucial, if not inevitable. So most of the time, I sit down at my computer and I write a bunch of garbage. At least it starts out that way. But each time I refine it, I discover new ways to make my story even better, until finally, it’s (almost) exactly as I envisioned it. But never completely.

Unfortunately, the inability to let oneself write poorly is the very thing that holds most new writers back. But for some reason, so many of us cling to the wildly unrealistic notion that the very first thing we’ve ever created will be our masterpiece. And when we hold onto that false belief, it hampers our ability to make an unbiased assessment of our work, and we’re liable to make more errors, like mistaking effort for quality.

But take heart—over time, your work will get better. And once you accept the idea that it’s going to take several passes to get it right, the easier your task will be. Learning to revise takes patience and practice, so be sure to give it time. Sometimes, the best thing to do is walk away from your writing for a day or two (or even a month) so that you’re able to go back to it with fresh, unbiased eyes.

Failure may be our starting point, but if you’re dedicated to revising and patient with your efforts, success awaits you at the finish line.

My website:
Twitter: @HilaryGraham

REUNITED is available for pre-order here:

REUNITED – Synopsis (Coming from Simon &  Schuster - June 12, 2012)
1 Concert. 2,000 Miles. 3 Ex-Best Friends

Alice, Summer, and Tiernan are ex-best friends. Back in middle school, the three girls were inseparable. They were also the number one fans of the rock band Level3. But when the band broke up, so did their friendship. Summer ran with the popular crowd, Tiernan was a rebellious wild-child, and Alice spent high school with her nose buried in books. Now, just as the girls are about to graduate, Level3 announces a one-time-only reunion show. Even though the concert’s 2000 miles away, Alice buys three tickets on impulse. And as it turns out, Summer and Tiernan have their own reasons for wanting to get out of town. But on the long drive cross-country, the girls hit more than a few bumps in the road. Will their friendship get an encore or is the show really over?


  1. Thanks Hilary for all the great advice. I remember being so much more starry-eyed 9 years ago when I started writing. Even though I'm not published, I'm more realistic now and I can see how much my writing has improved in general.

    Good luck with your debut.

    1. It's odd that we all think this process will go overnight, isn't it? There's a lot to learn--so much that if we knew how long the journey would be, we might be less starry-eyed starting out. :D

      Thanks for stopping by, Natalie!

  2. The line that stood out to me was, "We all have to start somewhere." Yes, so true. I think I forget that when I'm feeling down and like I'll never get anywhere with my writing. Everyone started somewhere, and for most, it's a long journey of learning before even the smallest success. I'm impressed at the task you took on at age 23! Wow! You've obviously never been afraid to try. Bravo on the book! Sounds great!

    1. Isn't Hilary fearless? I think back to myself at 23 though, and I realize it's easier to be fearless when you're that age. We may have more unrealistic expectations when we're young, but I wonder if I would trade those for a little more of the reckless drive and passion.

  3. This is such a fantastic post, and so eloquently stated. I think every writer (or filmmaker) has been there, at some moment or another. We all write our acknowledgements and awards speeches in our heads as we type THE END and sit back, mystified, when our phone does not immediately ring off the hook with offers. It's a process, and the lower we keep our expectations, the less likely we'll be to give up on it and keep it real.

    1. I'm laughing and tearing up a little reading this. Yes. We all do. And I hope we always will to a small degree. We HAVE to believe, don't we?

  4. An excellent post and extremely helpful. My mentor keeps saying. 'Small steps', and that's very true.

    1. You have a wise mentor, Carole Anne!

      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Learning how to let go and draft is very important, but so is the "refinement" part you mentioned -- that, and knowing when to stop ;), has had a huge impact on my craft. So glad things have started to come together for you!

    1. That's a great point about knowing when to stop. I'm still working on developing that skill. And isn't it great that Hilary's career has not only succeeded on the film side, but also branched into writing for young adults!

  6. This is so right-on! That point in the writing life, where you realize that failure is not only part of the process, but necessary for learning how to overcome it (because it'll happen again and again), puts you on the road to where you want to go.

    Many years ago I stopped submitting stories because of the rejections, and didn't start again for 15 years (when the pain of not moving forward overcame the pain of rejection). Then I'd pull the rejection letters out of the mailbox and my husband would laugh as I'd celebrate each one of them. They were my sign that I wasn't being stopped this time, that it couldn't hurt me, and that the manuscript was one step closer to finding its home.

    Not only did all those negative thoughts propel me forward to being a published author, they helped me become a more effective creativity coach. Want writing success? Welcome failure and invite anxiety!

    And remember to celebrate.

    Well done, Hilary...

  7. Thank you, Hilary, for sharing your story. There are so many authors-in-the-making (me among them) who have had this "check" happen. It's been a few years since I learned what "cutting my teeth" on a manuscript really meant, what it felt like to have that 10 minute session at a conference with an agent and they nicely tell you that you're just not ready yet when you think you've got the best manuscript since sliced bread waiting for them on your computer.
    Anika Noni Rose said it beautifully during an interview. She was asked how it felt to be an overnight success. She smiled, answering that her overnight success took several years to happen. I know all too well what she means. I'm still working toward my dream, with determination.

  8. Love to hear "success" stories, no matter the time it takes.


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