If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.
Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a part of success.
The master has failed more times then the beginning has even tried.
Give yourself permission to fail.
We hear these motivational bromides all the time, but what do they really mean? And how can they help you become a better writer?
There’s nothing wrong with screwing up or writing crap. Just keep trying. Even if you haven’t written in ten years and decide “Today I’m going to write a novel.” When you say this you’ve taken the most important first step of your life.
So how can you incorporate the “permission to fail” ideology into your daily writing routine? There are two ways. First, when stuck with a difficult situation for your characters, choose a solution that absolutely cannot work. Then make it work. Finding out that it didn’t work, and more importantly why it didn’t work is as important as anything else. Second, look back at previous writing and see what didn’t work and why.
I’ll give you some examples from my own writing.
I wrote a short story about a grandmother who falls victim to a confidence scheme. When I was trying to figure out how the granddaughter, who was helping the conman, was going to become involved, I couldn’t think of a reasonable reason for a granddaughter to take advantage of her grandmother. So I decided to make it all about the money. Ridiculous, right? What granddaughter is more concerned about money than family. So I made the granddaughter’s situation more desperate. I had her kids at risk. Then it all started to make sense. While I didn’t use it in the end, it gave me the answer for how to push the grandmother over the edge. And it ended up tying the story together in a neat way.
In the one novel I’ve managed to finish and self-publish, Grasping for Dreams, I wrote the bulk as my NaNoWriMo project. I laid it down in December and didn’t return to it until March of the following year. I then figure out how to write a few scenes, polished up what was there and gave it to a few people to edit before sending it to CreateSpace for my free proof copy.
I’m proud of it, as I think it turned out pretty good. But I never thought it was 100% right. There was always something nagging at me and I could never figure out what it was. Enter Scribophile.
I’ve written about Scribophile before and I’m going to again. It’s an online community of writers where you critique other writer’s work and they critique yours. You had to write a lot of critiques to earn “points” that allow you to post your own work, but there is a premium option where you pay a yearly membership fee and earn points faster and can post more stuff. If you can afford it and lack a writer’s group, I highly recommend it.
I posted the first half of my chapter for my novel as my first post and got a lot of amazing feedback. And most of them said the exact same thing: lose the first scene, nothing happens, open with the second scene.
I went back and looked and realized how right they were. It sucked because I’d written the novel so that it began and ended with the same line (which I stole from S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders) but that didn’t bother me that much. It was a device that wasn’t necessary for the story and I could lose it. But I really enjoyed the scene. I remember writing it that very first day of NaNoWriMo. The scenery and imagery it evoked were both very powerful to me. But it had a ton of problems too.
First, the scene introduced the MC and his best friend, but it didn’t move the story forward in anyway. Second, the MC does this thing where he obsessed over a piece of dirt on his shoes as though he’s OCD, but I never show that aspect of the character again throughout the entire novel.
As I went back through the whole story, I noted mistake after mistake. Truly, it was pretty disheartening to see how awful it was. There are three key scenes, one where the MC is injured playing baseball, another where a student is playing for him is injured, and then the MC is injured again.
First off, I never describe the scene where the student is injured. That’s just foolish. It would’ve been a key plot point and I could’ve tied another moment to it. But I missed it. And second, when the MC is injured again, I don’t tie it back to the original injury scene. How did I miss that?
In A Farewell to Arms, there are three key scenes that are all connected by the imagery of rain and mud. Hemingway does a crazy good job of setting you up for the big moments and you don’t realize it unless you’re really paying attention. Symbolism and imagery are rarely evident in the first draft, but one should be cognizant of them when revising and look for those small moments where one sentence (or even one word) can change the impact of a scene.
Now I know you’re thinking that this has nothing to do with faults, this is just bad writing. But it has everything to do with failure. I screwed the revision of this novel in many significant ways. But, I can still go back and fix them all. I can make the novel better and resubmit the manuscript to the publisher.
But, and this is far more important, I now see that I have a tendency to make these mistakes. Most editors advise you to skip a soft opening and get right to the story. I don’t always do that on the first swing, but I know how to spot it and get rid of it in the editing process. I look for that symbolic scene and try to tie t together with other scenes.
It’s not the failure that makes you better. It’s recognizing the failure and fixing that makes you better. Never worry that you’re going to get it right the first time and never worry about weaknesses in your first draft. It’s called a writing “process” for a reason. There are many steps in the process and screwing up is one of them.