The writer’s needful– Part One– the beauty of failure

This last week I basically hit my first roadblock with Princess of Fire— nothing major, mostly just real life pulling me away for its own nefarious purposes, as it is wont to do. I’m at 34,000+ plus words, whereas if I had maintained my original pace I would be somewhere in the vicinity of 39,000. I’m not overly dismayed, though– delays and setbacks are part of the process.

At one point this week I found myself posting a comment on a young lady’s blog, offering her advice on what to do about a short-story submission required for an application to a master’s program. When I was done, though, I had to stop and ask myself– who the hell am I to be giving anybody writing advice? I’m a self-published middle-aged geek who is certainly not setting the literary world on fire. ‘Obscure’ would probably be a generous adjective in describing me. And I can’t pretend that my own writing is an example of literary perfection. In a universe filled with first magnitude stars like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, I’m basically a brown dwarf. Do I have any substantive advice to offer other writers?

Well, maybe— if I stick to the things I know, and don’t try to get all fancy and highfalutin about it. I can honestly talk about the things that have impacted my writing. And since things like “you have to write” and “you have to build a social network”, etc., etc., have been done to death, perhaps I’ll just talk about needful topics a little off the beaten track (disclaimer– having said that, pretty much nothing I talk about will be original with me. I just don’t see these issues talked about a lot).

Okay, so, first topic– failure.

Unless you’re one of those (extending the astronomical metaphor here) very rare supernovas that suddenly explode out of nowhere, you are going to fail. And even someone who suddenly hits it big is not immune to failure in the objective sense– and, yes, I’m talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. In my opinion, you can make a ton of money and your writing can still be an utter disaster. So in my definition failure consists of failing to write, and failing to write well. If your measure of how good your writing is is how much money you make, go away. I have nothing to say to you.

If you apply yourself and stick with writing for any length of time, you are going fail over and over and over again– and your failure is going to take a myriad of forms– everything from the phrase that you just can’t get right, to the novel on which you write 50,000 words and then lose the mojo to carry it any further. Brilliant ideas that burn in your mind turn to wet mud on the page. You edit a novel for three months, publish it, and then discover that a piece of grammar on page 312 would embarrass a third-grader. And then some days you just can’t drag yourself to the computer.

At this point, you may be saying, Whoa, how is failure needful for a writer? Failure sounds like a lot of pain and humiliation.

It can be. But, as the chestnut says, in writing, as in any other endeavor, you really do learn more from your failures than your successes.

If you’re paying attention. If you don’t have blinders on, if you don’t keep telling yourself you’re the best thing in literature since Chaucer, if you’re not sure that every word you type is a shining pearl of prose. If you’re stuck in that sort of egocentric self-adulation, you will be blind to the horrors you commit on page.

When I started writing, many, many years ago (before cell phones, even) I was somewhere close to that egotism. It may have come from the fact that no one in my culture of origin wrote, or, at least, wrote the sort of stories that interested me. I had no personal reference points by which to judge myself. That, and some early praise that went to my head, kept me from judging my own work objectively for a long time.

Applying myself to writing in a serious way, though, eventually ground that egotism right out of me. The accumulation of failure after failure, rejection slip after rejection slip, at last got my attention and forced me to reconsider how I executed prose.

An important part of that grinding was the feedback I got from other writers, online and in face-to-face groups. This feedback was sometimes excruciatingly painful– I often staggered out of a critique wanting to hide from the world, or maybe just get drunk (a strange impulse for a teetotaler). But, in the end, I came to value this kind of feedback. It made me more aware of my failings, and offered me information on how to remedy them. If a writer is not getting external feedback from other writers, I really doubt their writing is as powerful or competent as it could be.

Along with real-life feedback is reading the best of whatever genre you write. You have to know what works for your kind of writing, and, more than that, be able to compare your prose with writing that has proven to be successful. It might not even be a style of writing you want to emulate, but if it’s good writing, it will contain lessons for those who pay attention.

So– lose the ego and acknowledge your failures. More than that, study your failures, pick them apart, comprehend how you might do better, and apply the lesson to your next work. It’s really the only way to grow as a writer.

But it is not easy. Understand that part before you begin.

Next topic– courage.

Later.

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