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Aaron Goldfarb on How To Fail

by | Motivation

I connected with Aaron Goldfarb over e-mail a few months back and was immediately hooked  by the ingenious promotional strategy he used to get the word out about his novel How To Fail: A Self-Hurt Guide.  I caught up with Aaron to ask how he took his idea from an inkling to execution, and still managed to have a little fun along the way.

1. Tell us a little about how you chose this particular topic for your novel?

When you’re a fiction writer you’re always trying to think of something “high concept.” I was walking down the street and I thought: “the opposite of a self-help guide, a self-hurt guide!” Had that ever been done before?! I went home and Googled it. Nothing. I had a great idea. Obvious but unique. Ripe with comedy. My mind was instantly flooded with ideas.

2. What was your writing process as you were working on the book? Did you have a set schedule? What were the biggest challenges?

After I came up with the idea, I was in such a creative rush I quickly wrote down dozens of topics and chapters I wanted to cover. I wanted to talk about “failure” in love, sex, friends, family, work, lifestyle, and many others things. Those topics were slowly whittled down and organized until I had an outline. It was a piece of cake to write How to Fail in the beginning. It’s always easy to write at the start of a project. I write fast so each chapter (or footchapter), took only a day or two of work at the start. I write anywhere and anytime, but I prefer to write super early or super late, when the rest of the world is asleep. I also like to write after mid-day jogs when the creative juices in my brain are swimming!

The toughest and ultimately most important challenge is in the editing. I don’t get writer’s block, but I do have write-too-much block. My first draft of How to Fail was a sloppy 550 page behemoth. Everything you read in the book today was there, but so was a lot of crap. Like a sculptor carving a block of marble, you have to excise all the waste down to the essentials. It’s not exactly fun, and takes a lot of discipline, but it’s absolutely crucial for producing your best work. In one read-through alone, I simply eliminated nearly ever appearance of the word “that”–a totally unnecessary word most of the time. This sounds silly, but simply cutting out “that” made the book significantly better. I probably edited my book start-to-finish over 100 times. Noah Lukeman’s “The First Five Pages” helped me immensely with the editing process.

3. How did you get attention for your book, and how did you sell it to a publisher?

It’s tough. The days of just releasing a book out into the world and sitting back waiting to cash your royalty checks are over. You have to do interesting things to raise some hoopla. I wrote a book for people that don’t necessarily read a lot of books any more. And, these kinds of people aren’t at bookstores on a Friday night. So, instead of making them come to me, I went to where they would typically be: the bar. My 30 Bars in 30 Days book tour thus helped in two ways: it brought my book to potential customers AND it got me attention from the media for being unique. I’m always looking for interesting cross-promotions. By selling a book in bars, now both the literary and nightlife media can cover me! It’s all about branching out into as many worlds as possible with your book.

4. Did you learn anything while writing the book that has informed or changed your creative process and how you approach writing in general?

Writing a novel taught me that nothing is too daunting for me to accomplish if I work hard on it. Looking at a blank screen and wondering how it’ll ever be a novel is daunting. So you can’t think that way. You can only start writing and keep writing every single day.

5. What advice do you have for your fellow writers and for anyone embarking on a long-arc project?

It sounds trite, but you have to remember Rome wasn’t build in a day. You have to be able to accept delayed gratification. What you write today might not be read by the public for another two to three years. Or, never. Can you live with that? I had a failed attempt at a novel in my early twenties. Back then, instead of trying to tell a great story, I was simply trying to write 400 pages. With How to Fail, I had a story to tell and it was going to take as many pages and days as it took to tell that story. That would ultimately be 372 pages and a couples of years of work.

I came up with the idea in 2004, didn’t start fully writing it until 2008, and the public couldn’t read it until November 9, 2010. That’s a damn long time to wait for people to be entertained by your work. It’s tough. If you’re an artist that needs constant feedback, you’ll have to find a side project. Blog or Tweet or something to give you that daily “addiction” of putting a little art into the world while you work on long-arc projects that won’t be seen for a while.

Thanks for sharing your insights, Aaron!


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Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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  1. Al Pittampalli

    The 30 bars tour is really creative. Aaron is right, writing a book is an exercise in delayed gratification…but it seems to be worth it.

  2. Al Pittampalli

    The 30 bars tour is really creative. Aaron is right, writing a book is an exercise in delayed gratification…but it seems to be worth it.

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