by | Jul 6, 2022 | Gayle Lynds, On writing | 22 comments

by Gayle Lynds

This is the best writing advice I ever got.

Learning to write well is like climbing a greased pole. You make a couple of feet of progress (exhilarating!), but then you slide back a foot, or more (groan!).  

In the beginning I was climbing and sliding, climbing and sliding, having difficulty finishing some projects because I sensed something was wrong or I just didn’t know where to go with the story. And of course one blames oneself for not being smarter, more talented, more industrious. Truthfully, one feels like a failure.

In those early years, my mentor was Los Angeles Times literary critic Robert Kirsch. Yup, the one for whom the Los Angeles Times lifetime achievement award is named (I was one lucky beginner!). I still can hear his growly voice advising me: “Make many mistakes now. Later on, when you’re publishing and getting noticed, it’s a lot more embarrassing.” 

Gayle Lynds learning to fail with grace.
Gayle Lynds hitting her stride as a writer. At last.

Oh, boy. He turned out to be so right: A few years later I changed an automatic pistol into a revolver in one of my novels, and then forgot I’d done it. So in a later chapter, I screwed a sound-suppressor (AKA: a silencer) onto it, but you can’t screw a sound-suppressor onto a revolver and make it work!!!! Sigh. My editor and copyeditor missed it. The book was published.  Readers noticed and emailed me. I’m still apologizing for it.

And that brings up the question of how I finally did manage to write ten published novels, win some awards, hit bestseller lists, and still make such a whopper of a mistake?  

Well, it’s partly Bob’s fault (or success, if you will), but it also dates back to a writers’ party for beginners. I was in a funk, drinking cheap red wine as were my fellow partygoers who were also in various stages of feeling sorry for themselves. (If nothing else, we writers are dramatic.)  

I was people watching, looking for ideas for characters, thinking about the story I was working on, and trying to figure out a plot. Well, truthfully, I was also eavesdropping (it’s okay if you’re a writer, or a spy). That’s when I heard something that kinda made sense….

I sidled closer to a couple of older men.  

One was an overworked stay-at-home dad who’d recently abandoned a professional career so he could focus on housework and kids, which meant he’d have “time” (sure, right) to write The Great American Novel. The other had been writing off and on for a decade but had never managed to finish a single manuscript (it happens, folks, alas). 

These were my people!

So the first guy (the dad) advised the grumbling second, “I hear you. But in parenting class we learned anyone who does stuff can fail, but that doesn’t make them failures.” He poked the chest of his friend. “We’re not failures.”

They talked on, debating the merits of creative pain and whether it might actually spur one to write better (i.e., the myth of the talented artist starving in the attic before being good enough to be “discovered”). Meanwhile, around me the partygoers distilled into shapeless swirls of color, and their voices seemed to fade….

Gayle Lynd's The Assassins. Now Available, this thriller is an example of the successes that come when you learn from times you fail.

Ahhh, I was having an epiphany. (“Epiphany” is writer talk for insight, which I had recently learned.) I remembered Bob Kirsch telling me to make a lot of mistakes, to try things, to experiment, to fail. And now I’d just heard a fellow writer explain that things we do can fail, but that doesn’t make us failures.  

I’d never looked at failing that way. I’m not a failure!

This became an important turning point for me. Over the next several weeks I found myself wrestling with my life, not just the writerly parts, but LIFE, and I began to see that people who do things and want to succeed, have to be willing to fail along the way.  

I remembered something the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “Whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” He didn’t mention success or failure, just get your act together and try.

Have you ever heard of a successful new car going from first draft into production? No, of course not! 

Since then, I’ve considered everything I do to be a prototype. Draft after draft is no longer failure. Prototypes are necessary to achieve anything, to be successful, from creating winning race cars to writing good novels.  

May all you writers, readers, and human beings out there enjoy your drafts — your “failures” — as steps toward your goals. Thank you, Bob Kirsch.

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Tracy Clark

    What wise words, and oh so true. The more we fail the more we learn. The more we learn the better we become. Thanks for this wonderful reminder,Gayle.

    • Gayle Lynds

      I love the way you put it, Tracy! Yes, yes, yes!

  2. Karna Small Bodman

    Oh boy, can I ever identify with your words, Gayle. As for a quote/inspiration — I remember a great bit of advice I gleaned from Steve Berry (former head of International Thriller Writers) who said, “You only fail when you quit.” And, trust me, YOU didn’t fail — you produced a ton of terrific thrillers. I read them and was amazed and delighted. Thanks for a great blog.

    • Gayle Lynds

      I have endless admiration for you and your work, Karna, your constant creativity, and the way you understand and relate story! Thanks for your kind words!

  3. Karna Small Bodman

    Can dan truly identify with your sentiments, Gayle. I recall a great quote from Steve Berry (former head of International Thrillers Writers) who said, “You only fail when you quit.” thanks for a great blog.

    • Karna Small Bodman

      I meant to say, “I can truly identify…” Guess I typed too fast.

      • Gayle Lynds

        LOL, Karna! Sometimes our brains are faster than out fingers! 🙂

  4. Chris Goff

    How does the old adage go—you can’t fail if you don’t try. Unfortunately, you can’t succeed either. Lucky you to have such a great mentor. Lucky me to have a mentor like you!

    • Gayle Lynds

      I’m lucky to have you, Chris. Such a great writer and storyteller! I can’t wait to read your next novel!

  5. John

    This blog was written about me! I keep telling myself it’s okay to fail, that writing fiction is about failing and then trying again and again. It’s reassuring that someone with Gayle’s record of publication is telling me it’s okay not to get it the first, or second, or third, or fourteenth time! Thanks, Gayle.

    • Gayle Lynds

      You’re such a wonderful writer, John! And that darn “failure” thing is such a pain. We all go through it!

  6. Elizabeth Zapata

    Thanks so much Gayle – the timing of these words of wisdom could not be better! Cheers.

    • Gayle Lynds

      So glad it was timely, Elizabeth. Wonderful to hear from you! Gayle

  7. Deb Carlin

    Good insight for all of us. Thanks for the motivation Gayle. I’m not a writer, but their reinforces all aspects of life. Very good read.

    • Gayle Lynds

      It’s so true, as you say, Deb. Forging ahead is much easier without the yolk of “failure.” And fun, too!

  8. Alex Kava

    Gayle, you’ve been an inspiration for so many of us, especially women writers. I remember reading “Masquerade” (which I still love) back when it was first released; back when very few women authors were able to find success as “thriller” writers. Thanks for sharing this. It’s such a great reminder!

    • Gayle Lynds

      That’s so nice of you, Alex. As you know, I love your work, too!

  9. Colleen winter

    Thanks for a great post, Gayle. Every writer should read this on a regular basis, especially me! Without failure, none of the books we love would have been written. Great timing!

    • Gayle Lynds

      I’m so happy the timing is good for you, Colleen. I know what you mean!

  10. Mary Monnin

    Great advice, Gayle! And a timely reminder to me as I struggle with a plot hole. My next couple of projects are fermenting in my mind, and I’ve been afraid to look too closely at them. Time to get those ideas down on paper. I can always hit delete and try something else.

    • Gayle Lynds

      Oh, my, plot holes! I don’t envy you, Mary. It’s wonderful to have ideas for books in the future, even though they may feel chancy now. One never knows — sometimes what looks like fools gold turns out to be 24-karat! You’re a terrific writer! Gayle

  11. Gayle Lynds

    Oh, my, plot holes! I don’t envy you, Mary. It’s wonderful to have ideas for books in the future, even though they may feel chancy now. One never knows — sometimes what looks like fools gold turns out to be 24-karat! You’re a terrific writer! Gayle