The Rule of Nine: Learning to Willingly Fail

To succeed you must fail.

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to fail. Actually, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you really don’t want to fail either. 

I don’t want things to be hard. I don’t want writing to be hard. I want to sit at my laptop and let magical brilliance flow from my fingers to the keys and fill the screen with breathtaking magnificence. 

Instead, it’s a whole lot of work. And sometimes there are problems. And sometimes I feel like I’m failing royally. 

When I come to a problem with my plot, a character, or the whole stinkin’ book, I want to come up with a solution. Right away. Or, better yet, 10 minutes ago. I want my brain to instantly supply the perfect solution. Or I want to go for a drive, talk to myself a bit, and then have it all work out in a nice, tidy manner.

But it’s more like this:

Positive me: We have a problem. But it’s okay. We just need to think it through. We can fix this.

My unhelpful internal editor: You suck.

Me: No, I can do this. I’m going to come up with the perfect idea.

My snarky internal editor: Not something lame again, right?

Me: No, of course not. (insert nervous laughter) This is going to be a stellar idea. Yep. Any minute now….crash! It’s going to come to me.

My overly dramatic internal editor : The book is ruined.

Me: Hold on. What about this? No. That won’t work. Or this? Nah, it’d mess up that other story line. Maybe this?

My just plain rude internal editor: I thought you said you weren’t going to try another lame idea?

Me: You’re right. I suck. Maybe we should spray paint something. Let’s go look at Pinterest…

Hmmm. So, that’s probably not the best way to fix anything. Although, I do have many lovely spray painted items. (I’ve also given loads of spray painted junk to the thrift store)

Recently, I learned a better way to come up with ideas from the book, The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus. It’s called the rule of nine. The idea is simple. For every ten ideas you come up with, nine are going to be utterly rotten. And once you come to terms with this it frees you up. Go ahead, jot down ten possible solutions. Sure nine of them are going to compete with the stink in the back of your fridge. But who cares? You already knew they weren’t likely to work.

Vorhaus says, “Depressing? Not really. In fact, the rule of nine turns out to be highly liberating because once you embrace it, you instantly and permanently lose the toxic expectation of succeeding every time. It’s that expectation and the consequent fear of failure that give your ferocious editor power over you. Remove the expectation and you remove the power.”

I recently hit a rather large snag in my WIP. You could even say that I fell into a massive pit of deep, dark despair. I walked around metaphorically banging my head on every flat surface, trying to come up with the perfect idea, for days and days. For some reason, this didn’t work very well.

Then I tried the rule of nine.

I entertained every possible solution to this problem and jotted it down. I didn’t let my internal editor say a word. (Okay. She probably mumbled things here and there about me being a lamebucket, but I ignored her.)

I was ready to try anything. And as I let myself think beyond that dratted box we all end up in from time to time, I began coming up with more and more ideas. But I didn’t love, LOVE any of them. 

So, I kept going. I filled pages and pages with ideas. Way more than ten. And way more than nine failed. But then…I found it. I found the one! I’m excited again. And now I can get back to writing. 

If I’d continued letting that miserable, killjoy internal editor call all the shots, if I’d continued fearing I was going to fail and simply sat still, not taking any chances I’d still be moping around the house like some whiny girl who can’t choose between a hunky werewolf and a sparkly vampire.

What tricks do you use to give that pesky internal editor the shaft? 


Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are also full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, and pretending she’s a grand artist. 

Fail Differently

During the Christmas break, my son, Sam, found a unicycle for $15 at a thrift store. He hollered, “Mom! Look!” Then he ran to see if his older brothers wanted to pool their money with him to buy it. But he struck out. Neither of them were interested.

Sam still wanted the unicycle though. He carried it around the store saying, “Should I buy it? I don’t know if I should buy it.” 

He wondered if he could learn how. And what if he didn’t? Would it be a big ol’ waste of money? He didn’t have a clue where to even begin. How do you even start to learn how to ride a such a vehicle? 

I think Sam would’ve talked himself right out of buying that unicycle. Luckily, I was there to give him a bit of encouragement. 

It sounded something like, “You can do it. We’ll watch some YouTube videos.”

After all, you can learn anything from YouTube, right? I mean, if I could learn the right way to tie my shoes, then surely we could find videos about riding a unicycle.  

That did it. It was just enough to bolster his confidence.

YES! He could do it. Why not? So, he bought it.

As soon as we walked through the doors of our home, he asked me to find a video to watch. I found this super nifty one made by Coach Bob. 

Doesn’t that make you want to run out and get your own unicycle? 

Sam immediately went to a wall, leaned against it, and attempted to push off and stay upright on his unicycle.

He didn’t. 

But he tried again. 

And again. 

And again.

He started to stay upright…for a few inches. And then a few feet. But then he found he was messing up in the same way. He wasn’t progressing. He could only stay on for a few feet before losing his balance and toppling over.

“Fail differently!” I told him reminding him of Coach Bob’s final tip. 

Oh, man. I love that! Fail differently. Sam needed to try something else. He kept doing the same thing, moving his body in the same way, hoping for different results, and then losing his balance.

He needed to lean farther forward or backward. He needed to find the sweet spot that kept his center of gravity balanced on his precarious one-wheeled mode of transportation. And if he kept trying the same thing over and over again, he wouldn’t be able to do it. He had to try something else, even though there was a pretty good chance he’d probably lose his balance by doing that, too.

He HAD to fail differently in order to succeed.

Wow. I’ll tell you what. It’s like that metaphor became a sentient being and decided to wallop me upside my head. The lesson couldn’t be clearer.

I’ve been failing to meet my personal writing goals for years. And always in the same way. I don’t make the time to work on my craft that I need to in order to find my own balance, to become the writer I want to be.

Instead, I lean forward in the same way over and over, squeezing writing here and there, only finding time to drip tiny drops of work into the cracks of my days, imagining there will always be more time in the future. Or waiting for inspiration, for new ideas, for the solution to a problem before getting to work. I don’t make writing a priority in my life. And you know why?

Fear. Yep. Good old fashioned fear. I’m just like Sam when he was afraid he couldn’t really learn how to ride the unicycle. I’ve been wandering around the shop, wondering if it’s something I can really do, and worrying it’s not. I’m afraid I won’t actually learn how to be the writer I want to be. So, instead of just going for it and trying, putting everything I have into it, I hang back. I wait. I  imagine things will get easier. That the right idea will come. That I’ll simply wake up one day and be a brilliant writer? (Ha!) 

It’s hard to waste time or money on something you might fail at. But Marina Abramovic, the brilliant performance artist said, “I think failure is important because if you go, if you experiment, you can fail. If you don’t go into that area and you don’t fail, you are actually repeating yourself over and over again.”

I’ve been repeating myself for years. Repeating the same failure. 

So, now I need to fail differently. I need to write. Every day. Just show up for it like a job. Because I’d much rather fail by writing and getting things wrong, whole scenes or characters or stories and learn from those failures than fail by simply not writing. 

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll eventually end up as cool as my Sam.  

How can you fail differently?


Erin Shakespear
 writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are also full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, and pretending she’s a grand artist. 

Negotiating Real Life Try-Fail Cycles

This time every year, I often start a battle with a bit of the blues. Not the B.B. King kind (because that’d never be a battle), but the “I-had-so-much-I-wanted-to-get-done-this-year” blues. Weight I’d planned to lose, agents I planned to have, editors I’d hoped would be reading my book. Of course, the year isn’t over yet, and my querying journey has recently transitioned beyond form rejections, but it is also when I realize it’s almost November, which really means it’s almost Christmas, and my goals haven’t progressed like I’d like.

It’s funny how the try-fail cycle is something we try to work in with our characters but try to avoid in our own lives (not really funny.)

And it’s funny how even though I know about the try-fail cycle, I still want to avoid it in my own life (even less funny.)

And it’s super funny that when the try-fail cycle shows up in my own life, in my creative endeavors, in the process of chasing dreams, I really just want try – not quite – WIN! (If you are laughing now it because you relate to this so well.)

Thankfully, there is a great international program starting next week that gives me a chance to have a win. That, of course, is NaNoWriMo. There is something about watching a little line of progress climb, a drive to hit 1667 a day (more at the first of the month to avoid total anti-social behavior around the holidays) that can often draw me out of my slump.

Last year was the first year I’d won. And for the first 1/3 of the month, I typed my words with just my left hand because my right had just been reconstructed. It was the year of all years that I should have added to my fail tradition of Nano (I’d gone six years without hitting 50k), and instead, it was the year I won.

And that’s the funny thing about the try-fail cycle. For our great fictitious heroes, we all know that their greatest victory comes when they have sunk to a low that they are certain is lower than they can bear. Victory comes after struggling through challenges, after beatings from disappointment and sorrows, when the last flickering flame of hope is about to go out. And maybe, for an instant, it does. But then, always then, something happens within the hero, something that begins to burn brighter that the previous flame could have ever hoped for.

I don’t know a single person in any creative endeavor who had their pursuit go according to plan. I don’t know a single successful person in any entity who had victory after victory, who simply gathered hopes by the dozen from the conveyor belt of achievement.

Perhaps the victory starts small – a 1000 word day when the hope was for 500. A request for a partial when expecting rejection. Suddenly understanding a character’s motives and how it affects the plot.

Yes, they are small.

Yes, they are barely measurable.

But a win is a win.

So, if you, like me and so many others, are feeling a little down at where you are, remember to take a look at your journey so far, re-read/re-watch your favorite hero and track how far they fell before climbing started to work again.

And then, my friend, keep working your way through the cycle. Because the blues can be beat, and victory can absolutely be yours.

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

Failure and Knowledge

It takes me about 7.62 times of starting a story to get it close to right. It will feel a little right, but then not, repeat, repeat, repeat. I’m normally not a fan of go back and edit because progress gets thwarted, but if the beginning is really, really off, there isn’t enough in the middle or end to get it back on track. 
I spend a LOT of time in the beginning thinking, researching, reading, thinking. And each time that I have to start over, the whisperings of failure start appearing in my mind. 
“What if I never get this on track?”
“What if this isn’t really a story?”
“What if my characters are meh?”
“What if I’m not really a writer?”
“What if I’m the biggest fraud that ever lived and my family has had to deal with me ignoring them and I have put all this time into something and cried tears and laughed joys and all of it ends up with me being a great big sucking loser?”
Ahem. That last one may be an exaggeration. Maybe.
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My high school writing students are finishing their second story of the year and they are starting to know enough to understand the story isn’t where they want it to be, or to feel that something isn’t working, but they don’t know (or read) enough to know what and why and how to fix it. We do a couple days in class of what we call “Decrapification” where they have the chance to edit and tweak and fix and ask me questions before the final is due. I can see the stress on their faces as they recognize what they just wrote might not be the next multi-million dollar novel. 
My daughter recently performed a piano duet with her cousin for some judges. They felt their two pieces were where they needed to be, played reasonably well, bowed, and sat down while the rest of the students in the session had their turn to perform. One of the other partners played a piece that was the same as my daughter’s. 
They played it better. 
And I’m so glad they did. 
As she was sitting there, my daughter commented on dynamics, speed, enjoyment in the performance, etc. She is starting to know enough about music to understand the elements in her performing that weren’t as good as the second one. She saw where she did some things better, but how those some things didn’t count as much when the bigger elements (playing up to speed for one) weren’t present. 
I can’t think of a single author who, either while writing or going through their first edit, doesn’t make comments about how it is splotchy, or too big, or too vague, or, or, or. Sometimes they can identify on their own what needs to be fixed, sometimes they have to rely on supporters/editors/readers to point it out. 
But all of them learn something during every single book.
But for most of us, that failure that lingers in our minds is an invitation to learn – learn more about the craft, about the characters, about the business, the writing life, the time it really takes to accomplish a goal, what we, as the creator, need to do to pursue and not punish. Those doubts that creep in should be greeted with a “Well, so and so does it well, and I might not know how, but I know they do.” Self-degradation isn’t the highest form of productivity and bemoaning that something is wrong doesn’t make it better. It is dedication to continually improving that makes well-known authors well known.
What do you do when failures arise? Any favorite resources when the learning needs to be amplified?
Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is an editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter and can be found here

Defeating Discouragement

When we become passionate about something, often we expect that, because we really want it and are working hard, we will be rewarded equal to our efforts.  But often it is a dusty, dirty crash into you head on like a semi truck road of discouragement.

I started playing the piano when I was four.  When I think back over my experiences, the dedication cannot be questioned.  I practiced every morning from 6th to 12th grade at 6:00 in the morning for an hour, and more after school if necessary for a particularly difficult piece.  But thinking back over my experiences with the piano, there are also many times when I was in tears or pounding on the ivories with the grace of an elephant because I just couldn’t get my fingers to do what my brain was telling them to do.  And then there was the time when a judge tore into my 16 year old self without a shred if dignity or encouragement when I almost gave up. 
Anyone who is alive has experienced discouragement, but somehow, when it is something you have invested yourself into, when it is something that you believe is filling your soul with life, when it is something that you can’t imagine not having anymore, every realization that the goal hasn’t been reached yet feels like a blow from a heavy weight hitter.  
In the last few weeks, our writer’s group has experienced complications and delays with buying and closing on a house, bringing home a very preemie baby, having a whole pivotal chapter lost and receiving *nice* rejections after full requests.  It can be frustrating.  It can turn a regular day of the week into a double-fisting Diet Coke I’m going to eat all the cinnamon bears I want kind of day.  
But we are ALL going to have these soul sucking days.  There is only one thing we can do on these kinds of days and that is to find something that is guaranteed to help us recharge, weep (literally or figuratively) on the shoulders of our greatest supporters and tell life to keep looking for the weakling because s/he doesn’t live here.  As creative people, we simply need to refill the creative tank and keep plugging on, because if we don’t, we end up in a rut.  And as everyone knows, the only difference between a rut and a grave is the time spent digging.
How do you conquer life (and a little bit yourself) when it’s trying to defeat you?  

Why I Won’t Fail

I recently watched a Ted Talk called Why you will fail to have a great career.  It’s about 15 minutes long, but no visuals so you could listen and do whatever else (yup, I’m all about multi-tasking).

Here’s the basic idea – a life full of interests is going to result in a life not lived.  A life full of excuses is going to probably end up being good, but not great.  And we are better, can be more, should be more.

I’m showing it to all my high school juniors, students who, in five quarters, will be graduating high school and entering the pseudo-real world, full of decisions about their future.

But I thought about my own life each time I’ve watched it.  For a long time, I dismissed the idea of writing because I had my kids to take care of, my husband to spend time with, etc, whine, excuse…you get the idea.  And I had some decent animosity to these people for making me miss out on my dreams, but I didn’t really tell them what they were in the first place, certain they would scoff and point fingers or something.

But my family is the most supportive thing out there because they can see that mom is chasing a dream, has a goal, is full of ambition and not the reincarnation of the wicked witch of the west anymore.

Is it a juggling act?  Like no other I’ve ever had before.  Each of us who post on this blog work, have children, service projects/endeavors, etc.  But twice a month, we get together, with the pages that we managed to do, because we have the deadline, external motivation, what have you, and our writing is progressing.

But even better than that, for me, is that my kids see that, with some group work and lots of dedication, I can still chase dreams.  And if I can, so can they.

What are you doing to make sure you don’t fail to be great?  How do you overcome the inevitable complications that could make you end up good?  What or who has motivated you to be better?


One of the hardest things, for me, about being a writer is learning to push through moments of self-doubt–those awful late night (or early morning, or mid-day) moments when you’re convinced that nothing you write will ever be any good.

In those moments, I like to remind myself of a TED talk by Richard St. John, where he argues that one of the secrets to success is to persist. Especially, we have to persist through CRAP:

I also find a lot of comfort in the following quote by Ira Glass (many of you may have seen this before):

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

In other words, the fact that I don’t feel good enough  yet matters less than the fact that I keep trying. And the fact that I know I’m not great yet means that I do know what good writing looks and feels like–and that means that someday, if I keep trying, I may just get there.

What about you? What helps you get through moments of self-doubt?