How and When to Fail


As promised.

How (And When) to Fail

I know. You’re looking at the title of this post, and and the noble glitter of self-sacrificing patience has come into your eye. “Emily,” you say gently. “I don’t think I need help failing. It’s the succeeding I could use some help with.”

Well, surprise surprise. I think you’re wrong. (I always think you’re wrong. Haven’t you been reading my blog? Don’t you know that?)

Every writer, my dears, has a slush pile, and every slush pile exists because every writer isn’t churning out Nobel Prize for Literature winning palimpsests every palimpsesting second. If you continued writing every story in your slush pile until completion, you would

A) Have wasted a shocking amount of time, and
B) Have produced a shocking amount of things to start fires with.

And I note that ‘produced your masterwork’ is nowhere in that description.

For real, though, let’s talk about this. Some stories–well, they’re failures. You started them, something went wrong, the magic went somewhere else, you got distracted. The question is, should you let them rot in the wastes of Slushpilia? When–and why–is it okay to fail? The answer is simple:

When the Magic is Gone.

I want you to note: I am NOT talking about ‘when it gets a teensy eensy bit hard to write it for a day or two’. When this happens, slog on.

I’m talking about that moment you realize you’ve patched fatal holes in your plot so often your story is more plothole correction than story. When you read a few pages out loud to somebody, and they nod and smile and ask you “so what happened, again?” If you’re juggling so many corrections your outline looks like a football play, it’s time to consider giving it up and starting from scratch. You don’t need to edit, again. The damage is too great for a mere edit. You need to rewrite. Whether the story is worth rewriting, I can’t tell you–only you can decide that.

Being a writer is a little like being a magician in some regards: you put a lot of work into something, a whole hell of a lot, but the last thing you want is for someone to see where you’ve been working. Your story has to look as effortless and instantaneous as a big stage illusion–when people can see where you’ve had to work for something, it loses credibility as a world of its own. If you can’t patch it seamlessly, don’t patch it. Rewrite it, or leave it to moulder.

Speaking of rewrites:

If You Like It, Don’t Be Afraid to Write It Again.

Rewriting is tough. It sucks. You start to question your own usefulness on this planet, whether you’re going to be writing the same story, over and over again, until you finally die, and whether or not hell is going to be a sad Sisyphean endlessness of the same goddamn story from here to Ragnarok. (Do you like mixing mythologies? I sure do.)

But rewriting is useful. I actually like to do it, on some things–when my first draft, for instance, went in a direction I wasn’t expecting in the first few pages. A rewrite brings everything together–you’re writing, after all, in full knowledge of what’s going to eventually happen (I’m a pantser. No outlines for moi. Have I mentioned that?). When you rewrite, you automatically have more control over the story. And, oftentimes, a story you were unable to complete the first time winds up being a VERY good story the second time around, when you’ve had a chance to iron out the plot or what have you.

Again, though, I’ve got to tell you:

I don’t know when you’ve failed.

Only you know that, Skipper. But you can feel it in your bones–trust me on that one. And what you do after that is up to you. Trick is,

Failing is Always a Learning Experience.

There are some times when you’ve had a terrible idea, and your execution was terrible, and you’re just going to leave those five or ten pages to molder on your hard drive until the kingdom comes, and that’s just fine, kthxbye.

But even those shitty ten pages happened because you had an idea. And you’ll have that idea, should you need it, forever.

That failed novel idea about the laudanum-guzzling sailor with a speech impediment who solves petty crimes? It might not’ve worked out, me matey, but perhaps you could use him as a supporting character somewhere else. Perhaps, in your steampunk adventure novel, your main character needs to be told the airship’s moving hard to thtarboard at least once. My main trilogy character, Jin, was actually a supporting character in a failed novel I wrote about ten years ago–and part of the reason it failed, I realized when I looked back on it, was because Jin (then named Jinnever) and her unlikely husband were actually far too interesting to be side characters. They stole the show whenever they came onto the scene.

So they got their own story. A much better story than the one I abandoned, all those years ago. I stopped working on the old story and moved on. I’m glad I did.

Because failure isn’t the shitty thing it’s painted to be. It’s a learning experience, and a damned good one. Even when you’ve failed utterly, you’ve still created something, and there’ll come a day–maybe a week from now, maybe twenty years from now–when that something will come in handy.

And if you keep trying to hash out your failures forever–if you buy in to the whole ‘never give up’ mentality–you’ll write glossy, completed failures. And nobody wants that.

Only you can tell when something is working, once more: but trust me. You can tell. And it’s worth rewriting a few thousand (possibly tens of thousands) of words just to make that happen. No one likes failing–certainly not I–but if it has to happen a few times to make your successes possible, then that’s just how it is. Failure is a part of the writing process. A big one.

6 thoughts on “How and When to Fail

  1. Sometimes it’s hard to give up on a loved one like that, but this is an excellent point. I’ve been stuck on one book for ages, and when I put it down to work on something else for a bit, I realized that the first book had become a tedious chore in rewriting, not beyond salvage maybe, but worth of scratching a very large part of the story and starting over, perhaps even with new characters. I forgot how much fun it could be noodling around with characters who are engaging and leap of the page seemingly of on their own. Anyhow, it’s human nature to cling. I believe it’s the real reason programmers talk about ‘legacy code’ – doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that the code is old, and no longer works properly without lots of fidgeting, no it’s legacy because someone left it and it might be more trouble than it’s worth to put a real solution in place because someone’s feeling’s might get hurt. People just don’t know when it’s time to throw shit away.

    1. Oh, you’ll get no argument out of me here. 😛 I’ve got a NaNoWriMo novel I wrote about twelve years ago that, for reasons I couldn’t explain, I just keep trying to rewrite. I KNOW it’s godawful. I know the whole idea behind it is absurd. But it’s tough to let it go. It really is.

      In the meantime, though, that failed novel has worked its way into almost everything I write. The characters pop up here and there, little bits of the plot (such as it was). So it wasn’t a total wash. It keeps on living, in other forms–even if the original idea is quite beyond repair.

      I like to think of it as never killing my darlings. I just make them better darlings, and move them somewhere they’ll behave.

  2. The stories that are started and shouldn’t be finished can become blog material, like short stories or cut up for parts as you suggested. We should not be ashamed of our early works or our partial efforts we couldn’t figure out how to fix, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep them or publish them. It’s difficult to say, Gee, I’m a better writer now, I need to fix that 30,000 word rambling thing I spent three months on two years ago. Well, maybe not. Part of you feels like 30,000 words shouldn’t go to waste and par of you feel like 30,000 wasted words is enough. That’s what drawers are for. Put it in one.

    1. I actually have a whole file in Word for this. It’s called Slushpile. I page through it occasionally, just to see if anything’s striking me, but for the most part I leave it as a mass grave for all those useless words. 😛

      I’ve always thought it would be cool to have a ‘recycle for parts’ database for writers…a bunch of unfinished stories people have donated, that anyone is free to try and complete and/or use for inspiration. It’s a shame working out all the copyright info for that sort of thing would be next to impossible, it would be pretty fun.

  3. Failure is such a subjective thing. What we think is rubbish could be fascinating to someone else. It becomes an irregular verb: I fail; you persevere; he/she gets a five book deal with Random House…

    1. I don’t know. I just sort of assume I’m failing until I don’t feel like I’m failing any more. Does it sound gloomy? Maybe. But I have a nice peaceful life. None of this ‘hopes getting dashed’ mess.

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