Are You Still Quitting When The Going Gets Tough?

Writers: How do you bounce back when setbacks happen?

Adam Cairns
4 min readJul 29, 2019
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be — John Wooden

The Setback

It’s every writer’s worst nightmare.

30,000 words down the pan.

Some writers concentrate on just getting the story out there in their first draft, rough edges and all.

I’m a fiddler.

I look at what I’ve written each day and adjust it. It’s my way of getting back into the zone.

Unfortunately, I discovered I’d wandered way off track.

It had to go.

Setbacks Create Doubt

It’s painful when you’ve laboured over many thousands of words only to discover they’re not needed.

Sometime it’s enough to chuck your whole writing project over a cliff edge. All that wasted effort is too painful.

Making mistakes creates doubt. You wonder whether you’d be better off packing up and going home.

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can become a more resilient writer.

I’ve noticed a big contrast in the way I deal with setbacks as a writer when compared to what I do at work.

Adopt Your Work Persona

I’m a CEO, have been for years.

I’m used to high pressure, intrusive scrutiny from regulators and politicians and hitting plans when the chips are down.

As a CEO, you must be resilient, willing to endure, persistent. When I thought about it, this is so different to the attitude I’ve been bringing to my writing.

As a writer, I’m a more delicate flower, apparently.

Easily bruised, quickly knocked off course, poor at handling disappointment.

Increase The Consequences of Failure

Why is it that in one world, I’m as tough as teak and in another I’m, let’s face it — a wimp?

I reckon it’s because I’ve been dishonest with myself about the consequences of failure.

It’s been too easy to quit quietly and without fanfare. You just stop showing up for a while and slowly the flame dies. Other than me, no-one notices.

So I’ve raised the stakes.

I’m making the consequences of failure bigger, louder and more visible.

I’ve installed a progress bar on my homepage, like the one below. The purple bar shows how far along I am (15,700 words out of a target 90,000 as of today). The second bar in green shows how far I’d got before I realised I had blundered into a blind alley.

My writing progress — compared to the when the setback happened

I’ve done this is to make myself more accountable. I’ve told my family there will be a first draft to read by Christmas.

I’ll update it every week. It means I’m burning my bridges — removing any chance of hiding failure.

Change Your Attitude, Change Your Experience

Note to Self: Get better at handling setbacks and disappointments as a writer.

My attitude has to improve.

It’s as though when writing, I’ve forgotten about the hard-won qualities I’ve developed which serve me well at work.

I react to setbacks in ways I wouldn’t normally tolerate.

My whole career has taught me that anything worthwhile is usually difficult.

Setbacks and complications lead to changes of approach all the time. That’s all okay too, because it’s what will ultimately get the job done.

I’ve sometimes spent months on a work project only for an unforeseen event to derail it at the last moment. When that happens I have to remember I’m the CEO.

You can’t go off in a huff or start complaining. So, you knuckle down and look for alternative ways to bring home the bacon.

You’re only finished when you stop moving forward, right?

Why Not Treat Writing More Like Work?

So why the heck do I crumple like cardboard in the rain when my writing runs into a siding?

That’s not how you get things done — and I know this too.

The question is, why don’t I become more like the ‘me’ at work — the tough, pragmatic guy who sticks at it, through thick and thin?

I understand writing a novel’s a creative process, but it’s still a process. You start somewhere with a vision of what you want to accomplish. Then you make a plan — unless you’re a Pantser* (see here).

Then all that’s left is that you stick at it until it’s done.

*Even Pantsers have routines, habits and disciplines.

Be Serious About Writing

Writing can be joyful, stimulating and entertaining.

It can also crush your soul when ideas dry up, your characters mutiny and refuse to behave, and your dialogue reads like a transcript of a call centre conversation.

After years of not completing my writing projects, I’m more confident that with a fresh mindset more aligned to what I’ve learnt at work, I’ll get my novel over the line.

Time will tell, but I’ve made myself a promise.

I will bring a CEO’s mindset to my writing practice. That’s a mindset which adjusts to setbacks.

When something unfortunate happens, I’ll not give in. I’ll tell myself it’s a normal and inevitable part of making anything of value.

I will consider what I’ve learnt and move on.

It’s what people who are successful do.

What about you? How do you deal with setbacks?

Originally published at on July 29, 2019.



Adam Cairns

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