Thursday, October 9, 2008


I want to talk today about failure. It happens to all of us, and it sucks when it happens. Specifically, I'm talking about failing as a writer. I've gone through this feeling multiple times since I was in the first grade.

I've been writing short stories and the like since first grade. In the first grade, there was a series of books that was out about different animals. Usually the titles were alliteration like Bobby Bobcat, Sandy Skunk, Ricky Rabbit, etc. Those aren't actually the names of the books, but that was the gist of them. Anyway, I wrote some short stories for a contest where the winner would get his story published. It didn't win. That was my first failure. I tried and failed, however, being a kid, I quickly got over it. Kids have the amazing ability to bounce back from things like that. I continued to write, despite my rejection, but eventually, the bug seemed to die and I lost interest in writing.

In sixth grade, for some reason, the writing bug came back strong. I think we were doing something that had to do with creative writing in my reading class, and when she was explaining what a prompt was, she gave us an example of a kid finding a gigantic hole in the playground and investigating it. I was immediately seized with an idea, and I went home and started writing. The story actually turned into something way different from what I thought it would be, but I loved it. It was the first time I ever wrote a fantasy story. It was about some kid that was the decendent of a king and how he had to fight the evil wizard from back in the day in the modern world because he was up to no good. After that, I wrote constantly.

I didn't think about it at the time, but I never finished any of my other stories. I had some great ideas, and I would start them, but eventually I'd run out of steam and go on to something else. I did finish a few more stories, both of which were sequals to the first story I wrote in the sixth grade, but over the next several years, nothing else got finished.

By the time I got into high school, the writing bug had died again. Not for long. Eventually, I was talking to one of my friends who liked to write, and that got me started again. By then, I had discovered that writing was a career and I had chance to become one. A slim chance, but a chance nonetheless. So I started writing a "novel." I started with a map. I was just bored one day, and started doodling, and eventually, I had the idea for this great fantasy epic. This was just after I'd gotten into the Shannara books. That story, however, died. I wrote a lot -- probably 68 pages, which was a lot for me at the time -- but I just ran out of steam. Over the course of my high school career, I would restart on it every now and then, trying to rework it and make it better. Eventually the notes were long gone and I was just working on what I remembered, but I always fizzled before I really got started. Once

Senior year, I got the idea to start fresh. If you guys have followed this blog far enough, you'll see where I planned stuff. I designed a really detailed culture, a pretty good religion that based itself off of Christianity, but also threw in some ideas from other religions that I had studied during World History. It was going to be even more epic. I had probably 40 pages of notes alone, with tons of notes on characters, notes on cultures, religions, customs, clothes, and a HUGE amount of back history that dated back probably 4000 years before the story took place. Eventually, I felt I was ready to start writing. However, same as with all the other times...EPIC FAIL. The story died a horrible writhing death. I tried desperately to save it, but there was no way to do it.

Of course after that, I began to wonder about myself as a writer. I mean, I kept losing interest, I kept quitting and moving on to something else, or leaving writing behind altogether to pursue other interests. Was I really cut out to be a writer if I was so undisciplined that I couldn't come home and write and stick with a story until it was finished?

With that in mind, I decided to start experimenting. I wrote one short story in the theme of stuff I used to do as a kid -- sort of dark, horror/thriller/paranormal stories. It came out okay. I posted that a while back. Then I wrote a murder mystery because I'd been reading a lot of them and wanted to give them a try. It came out okay, too. They were finished though, and that was a big victory for me. I decided to send them off to a magazine -- a first for me, and a huge step. They got rejected, though. ...FAIL. However, rereading them, I can obviously see why, now. Not my best work, in my opinion.

So, then I tried to write a science fiction short story. I decided it would run toward the long-ish spectrum of the short story section, and I wouldn't consider the story at all. I would write "by the seat of my pants", as some people say. Well, it fizzled and died, too.

What is my point from all this rambling? I seriously began to doubt myself as a writer. I mean, what kind of writer hasn't finished any but a handful of stories? What kind of writer starts huge projects and doesn't finish them? And more importantly, what kind of writer gives up writing, the thing that's supposed to bring them the most joy? Surely I just wasn't cut out to be a writer. I decided I didn't have talent, I needed to give up on my dream and settle on something else, something easier, that I wouldn't epically fail at all the time.

Well, I've learned something I didn't fully connect together until recently, but each one of those failures taught me a lesson about writing. My failed novel in high school? I had not planned anything at all about my story, just vague concepts of plot and characters. Because of that, I had a ton of random scenes that didn't further the plot at all. The second novel? I learned from the first time. I took a ton of notes for my worldbuilding, but still I had no real idea where anything was going. I basically had a setting. My short sci-fi story? Once again, with no idea where it was going, it fizzled and died.

So basically, I learned that I'm not a "seat of the pants" writer. I tried an "outline" for my first high school novel, but what I actually had was a list of what Holly Lisle calls "candy bar scenes." There were huge gaps where I had no idea what I wanted to do, and so I tended to ramble and pad my novel with filler scenes and fluff.

So what you could say I took away from this was that I learned that I need a general guidline to get me from start to finish, but I also learned, and I think this is the more important lesson, that just because I haven't finished many projects doesn't mean I'm not cut out to be a writer. I obviousy love writing, or I wouldn't keep coming back to it. From now on, whenever I fail to meet one of my writing goals, I'm going to step back and examine the failure from another perspective and see if I can't find the lesson in that "failure" and view them instead as "opportunities for growth."

So what about you? Have you learned from any failures?


PJ Hoover said...

Yikes on failure. I try to push the negative aspects from my mind as quickly as I can and ask myself "How can I make this lemonade."

S William said...

I have learned much from failure. I learned that the opening to my first book was weak. I learned that seasonal books are unwelcome tomes.

And I learned that writing can be so amazingly hurtful that the only sanity a writer has is to write for themselves.

S William said...

BTW, I doubt myself nearly everyday. I think it's part of the game of writing. I hate my writing and think I should just write something commercial. And then I try and fail.

I also learned this: you must have a character that you care so passionately about that you can't not write about them. And if that character is boring, tune he/she up.

Create a character first - a character that you love. It makes the journey so much easier.

And write for yourself. It's not that you're a failure...You're not.

You just haven't found your perfect niche yet. For me, I want to write adult fantasy epics, but can't. Why? Because my personality is loony, and children's fiction works better.

What you want to write, and what you should write are 2 different things.

I also learned that when I read a good book, I instantly want to write a book like it. Bad idea! Analyze what you liked about the book. usually it is the mystery, or a character, or a journey.

I love any and all adventure tales. Clarke's Rama series. The Hobbit. Different genres, but at their core, both adventure.

Don't quit bro. You KNOW you're a writer when you doubt you're a writer. It's the writers who write without pain that usually churn out crap.

When you care about something, you ultimately put effort into bettering it.

Jason said...

PJ: That's what I try to do to, or if I know that I made a mistake I try to figure out how I can remember that later and not make the same mistake.

Steve: Ha, there are times where I'd argue about writer's having any sanity at all.

Thanks man. That's really good advice. Yeah, I'd love to write thriller stories, but I can't seem to pull them off convincingly. Something about them always feels forced. Same with mysteries.

I was listening to a podcast that agreed with you about characters. They said it was the heart of the story, the part that we relate to. They're basically the core of the story.