The Gift of Failure

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This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for a couple weeks now, but thanks to a horribly persistent chest infection, it’s been on the back burner. The irony of failing to put together a post on failure does not escape me, by the way.

Ask most writers what are the ten things they do most and I’m confident a lot of them will have ‘failure,’ ‘rejection’ or something of that ilk in the higher spots. Ideally ‘write,’ ‘edit’ and ‘engage’ are higher, but that likely depends on the time of year, scheduling and more. Many writers have written about how to cope with the stream of negativity that is failure and rejection, a recent, excellent example of which came from Tim Waggoner’s blog.

I’m not going to write about how to cope with it. Instead, I’m going to write about two specific instances of failure I’ve recently experienced and the positives to take out of them.

Failure Number One: It’s Not Ready Yet

The first is a type of failure I’ve read about from many other authors in the past. That is, writing something that I can’t write yet. The ‘yet’ is the keyword here. I have a concept that relates to time manipulation and science and love and loss and the experience of death. The story is so clear in my head, I can watch it like a movie. I got it onto the page. First draft, second draft, left it to sit for a week, then came back for a polish draft.

It’s done.

But it isn’t. Not really. Something about it doesn’t sing. It isn’t the story that plays on that internal projector in my brain.

I think a year or two ago, taking my first serious steps in my writing life, I’d have been deeply frustrated by this. But anger and irritation rarely get us anywhere, so I decided to think about it in a more creative way. Why doesn’t it work? There are a couple of possibilities.

One is that I haven’t levelled up enough to deliver this story yet. And that’s okay. If I thought that I was at the peak of my powers, in writing terms, after two years, then why would I bother? If that’s the case, the story can happily sit on my hard drive for a while until I’m ready to give it the extra finesse it needs.

The second possibility, and this is one that Bob Pastorella talked about recently on This is Horror, is that the format is wrong. Or the perspective. A big part of me thinks this story, with its subject matter, might best be told as a screenplay and delivered visually. I haven’t got the first idea about how to write a screenplay. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn and do it, bringing the story to life that way. Equally, it might need to be converted to first person pov.

The lesson here is that, no, this story doesn’t work right now. But that failure is not the end of the story. It’s a hiatus. I believe in the concept, the characters, the questions it wants the reader to search for answers to. One day, it will ask them.

Failure Number Two: It’s Not Mine

The second story is borne from something I try to do fairly often: writing outside my comfort zone. The majority of writers have themes that they come back to time and again, even if the formula is tweaked through pov, setting, pace or what have you. I’m no different.

What I feel most at home writing is character interplay, snappy (I hope!) dialogue, and supernatural themes which are woven into the tale, whether real or only perceived by the cast. Something I don’t write much is gore.

It’s not that I avoid it entirely. I appreciate that at some stage, especially in horror, blood needs to be shed on the page. But I prefer to hint at it. Give the reader enough hints that they paint their own bloody pictures.

I read widely within genre and some of the writers I read regularly deliver glorious bloodbaths on the page. It’s not that I don’t like that style of horror. It’s that I don’t like writing it.

Last month, a magazine that I really like had a submission call for this type of visceral horror. I decided I would try my hand at it. I crafted my story idea, tweaked it. Got it down. Draft one, two, re-read, tweak, etc.

Like the first failure, it’s done.

But then I read it back and decided it just isn’t me. It just isn’t what I want to write. I spent ten writing days on this story. And again, I could get frustrated or angry with myself for wasting that time when there are other projects I could have been working on: the novel I need to finish, the story with a 30th June deadline that is almost, almost ready. But this, again, was a huge learning experience.

First of all, I can do it. I can write the type of horror that is a stomach churning festival of gore. It’s good to challenge yourself. Good to overcome those challenges. But most importantly, I’ve learnt about myself and about the writer I want to be (and the one I don’t want to be). And this is important.

Some people are going to like my stuff. Some people are going to hate it. Awesome. Fine. But I have to like it or what’s the point of doing it? So this experiment was fun, but also affirmative in telling me that what I’ve been writing and continue to write is the right spot for me.

The next time you fail as a writer, before you throw the laptop out of the window or screw the manuscript up, like in the image at the top of the page, think about what you learned from this experience. Hopefully, something.

Now I have a story to finish.

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