Fail Better Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-05-25 12:00:00 No comments

The trick to learning from failure, I think, is to not make it into a morality play. This is something my friend Steven Savage had to grapple with recently, when his attempts to apply Agile methodology to his new writing project hit a roadbump. When he tried to pull together a plotline for the project, he ended up with something that felt patchy, stale, not entirely there, not entirely alive.

What went wrong? Long story short, he'd ignored a lot of his own advice to others about worldbuilding; he assumed that because he'd internalized the advice, he had automatically followed it, instead of being explicit with himself about what things did in fact need to be done. Good news: He's already back in the saddle, and the whole thing served as a good learning experience that was worth documenting.

I had a similar experience back at the end of 2015, when I was gearing up for a project tentatively titled The Palace Of The Red Desert. It was, and still is, intended to be a pseudo-historical fantasy, with a setting akin to Imperial China plus the Josen Empire of Korea plus Japan's Edo period plus many, many way stations on the Silk Road. I had, or so I thought, everything I needed to get going: characters, a plot, some themes.

What I did not have was that indefinable additional essence that makes a story more than just the sum of its well-intentioned and well-deployed parts. It was a project but not a story, and all the way through my work on the plot outline I swatted away that nagging feeling instead of paying heed to it. By the time I had the outline finished and had embarked on some provisional writing of the first few chapters, that nagging doubt had ballooned into a full-blown sense of failure. I didn't really know where I was going. Or, rather, I knew that if I went where my current outline took me, I would have to scrap it and find something entirely new. Not in in the sense of writing one draft so that I could write another one, but in the sense that the whole premise was failing me, or I was failing it.

It took switching to an entirely different project (more on that in a moment) to figure out what was wrong. The story, as I had conceived it, was boring. It was an academic exercise, not a story. If I'd written it, it would have bored even me. Better that I own up to that and do something that I actually wanted to do, instead of something I just told myself I wanted to do.

Artists, as a general rule, have a hard time distinguishing the functional failure of their work from a moral or personal failure. Their identities as creators are bound up in their creations, so if you produce something that doesn't work, the easy conclusion to draw is that you don't work, that you've blown it, that you really should have known better, etc.

Psychic morality plays arise naturally from such thinking. But morality plays are not strategies. They only feel like strategies, because most of us associate creative work with the feeling-emoting-empathizing size of our lives rather than the planning-architecting-triaging side. It's hard to believe that you don't need to punish yourself (if only inchoately) when a creative project fails to come together. But it's vital, because failure is far more common than success anyway. You have to do the right thing with your failure as much as you do with your success.

For a novel I hope is a success and not too much of a morality play, check out my (new!) novel Welcome To The Fold, and showing your support for it by registering at Inkshares and adding the book to your "Follow" list! Failing that, you can always buy one of my existing books, available on Amazon Kindle and in dead-tree format.

Tags: creativity creators fail writing