Maria_Nov2013by Maria Gianferrari

Embrace Failure: A Recipe for Success

Prep Time: Indeterminable

Yield: Infinite Possibilities


  • 1 cup of Inspiration
  • 10 cups of Perspiration
  • Spread with Failure
  • Sprinkle with Hope

With the lightbulb logo as inspiration, I thought I’d quote Thomas Edison: “Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” So get out that deodorant and sweat away!

Now that you have a bunch of ideas, it’s time to play with them, and fail. Most of the time, we have to fail before we can succeed. Let’s face it, failure sucks. I hate failing. It’s painful. I go through cycles where I feel like a fraud and a complete loser. Some days I still want to give up. But I can’t—it’s in my blood, and yours. Writers, Artists, Scientists, Musicians, Inventors, all creators, more often get it wrong before they get it right. Failure is integral to the creative process.

Giving ourselves permission to fail is very liberating. How can we fail at writing a sh*tty first draft? The only way we can truly fail is by not writing. Not drawing that first line. Not trying. Being too afraid.

So jump right in and fail! Here are some ways to embrace failure:


  • Keep Kneading: Change genres/formats

I had my first close encounter with a coyote on a moonlit night in January 2007. I became obsessed with coyotes. I researched—I even interviewed a biologist for the nonfiction article I’d be submitting to Highlights. I subbed. I waited. I hoped…REJECTION. But the coyotes kept howling in my head. This failure was an opportunity to begin anew. I re-worked the article into a poetic nonfiction picture book manuscript. I submitted, got rejections, revised. Three years later it received a Barbara Karlin commendation, and helped me land the incredible Ammi-Joan Paquette as my agent. In May 2013, COYOTE MOON sold to canine lover Emily Feinberg at Roaring Brook Press—six years after the early version failed.

  • Marinate: Let It Sit a Bit

I’ve love raptors, especially red-tailed hawks. In 2009, Highlights rejected “Highway Hawks” because they had too many bird stories. It sat for three years before re-surfacing as PiBoIdMo idea #21 last year: convert hawks article to a haiku picture book! It didn’t end up in haiku form, but it also sold to Emily at Roaring Brook this past summer—four years after the initial rejection. And even better—it will be illustrated by the phenomenal Brian Floca!

  • Fold in: A New Point of View

“Terrific Tongues” began as a poem in 2004 when my then 2 ½-year-old daughter became obsessed with tongues. Tongues everywhere were greeted with the German word “Zunge” since we were then living in Berlin. Inspired by her fascination, I penned a poem for Highlights, though I never submitted it because it felt incomplete. I toiled, researched creature tongues and it evolved into a nonfiction picture book. I revised, incorporating a second person interrogative refrain that gave the story an interactive feel. Though I received some nice comments from editors on its originality and kid appeal, it continued to be rejected.

In 2008, I submitted it to the PEN New England Susan Bloom Discovery Award contest. I received the form rejection letter and filed it away. A month later I received a phone call from Judge Susan Goodman explaining that my manuscript had been a contender, but for the failure of a too-technical ending. Grateful for her encouragement, I re-worked the ending and re-subbed it to the contest in 2009 when it was one of the winners! Though the award didn’t lead to acquisition, it was how I first met Joan. This manuscript sold to Rebecca Davis at Boyds Mills Press in June 2013—nine years after the initial inspiration.

  • Set Aside: Take a Break and Procrastinate!

One of my all-time favorite movies is “High Fidelity,” starring John Cusack. It’s one of those rare movies that’s actually better than the book (no offense Nick Hornby!) The main character, Rob, is a charming cad who owns a record store and confesses to the camera like he’s our friend. He and his musical snob sidekicks, Dick and Barry, make “Top 5” lists for: Mondays, memorable break-ups, death. Watching the movie inspired me to insert lists into the picture book I was then revising. PENNY AND JELLY was my first sale, acquired in a two-book deal by the lovely Cynthia Platt at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt! Newcomer Thyra Heder’s humorous and warm illustrations will accompany the text.

Find inspiration in creative procrastination: watch a movie; go to a museum; explore nature; read poetry; listen to/play music; dance; garden; bake; craft. If you’re an artist, try another medium: switch sketching for sculpting; exchange knitting for painting; choose collage over clay.


Here are a few other ingredients to spice up your failing manuscripts:

  • Stir in a new setting
  • Truss with structure: lists; recipes; manuals; formulas; diary/letter formats; musical compositions
  • Beat in a dance tempo: waltz; disco; cha-cha anyone?
  • Frost with layering or a dual narrative (works especially well for nonfiction)
  • Blend poetic forms: sonnets; haikus; acrostics; ballads
  • Render your MC from human to animal; female to male; animate to inanimate object (or vice versa)
  • Mince previous PiBoIdMo ideas together to form something new

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time,” said Thomas Edison.

Give yourself the permission to fail—you never know what you might discover in the process! It will take time, but don’t give up! You will get there! If you’re completely passionate, perhaps even obsessed with your manuscript, all the better. This energy will give you the momentum to glide over bumps in the road.

So try that picture book text, those illustrations, just one more time. Embrace failure, and you will surely find success!


Maria is currently failing on 2012’s PiBoIdMo idea #29. She is a nature, creature and dog lover who grew up near a farm in New Hampshire climbing trees, smelling maple syrup clouds, and slapping cow patties. She now lives in northern Virginia with her German-scientist husband, Niko, their artist daughter, Anya, their Dixie Chick rescue dog, Becca, and two rescue rats, Lucia and Nera. She has three fiction picture books forthcoming: two PENNY AND JELLY books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) as well as OFFICER KATZ AND HOUNDINI (Aladdin); and three non-fiction books: COYOTE MOON & HIGHWAY HAWKS (Roaring Brook Press) and TERRIFIC TONGUES (Boyds Mills Press). To learn more, check out her website:


Maria is giving away a picture book critique!

One winner will be randomly selected at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)

Good luck, everyone!