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Failed Stories not Failed Writers

13 July, 2010

Focus on writing success, not failure.  Every story you write helps you in some way even if it does not sell or win a competition.  In his article, There’s No Such Thing as a Failed Story, John Smolens suggests success strategies.

Stepping up to the plate

Smolens compares fiction writers with baseball players, in terms of seeking to get a high ‘hit’ average. If you keep writing—step up to the plate more times—you increase your chance of developing your writing skills. It is defeating to believe you must be brilliant every time you go to bat.

It takes 25 stories (ideas, false starts, abandoned drafts, not to mention all the pages that end up in the wastebasket) to make one story that is good enough for someone else to read.

The aim is to keep writing. If you start 5 stories, you have created 5 possibilities.  You may then find that you have only one that you want to develop further. Rather than labeling the other 4 starters as failures,  think of this process helping you find what does not work for you and identify what ‘you should write’.

Developing some of these ‘should write’ ideas into rough drafts leads you to your next success—you have created a collection. From this group, you may find a draft to work into a finished short story.

Smolens suggests that writers also be realistic about their ‘hit’ average. Every writer produces some strong stories but also some weak ones. Keep in mind that Raymond Chandler wrote many stories but only a couple constantly show up anthologies and get used as examples in the writing books. The same goes for Chekhov, Hemingway, Saki, and many other well-known writers, past and present.

I like this ‘slow approach’ idea. It is clear that not every idea warrants the time and energy needed to turn it into a polished story. By developing a draft without the pressure of creating a polished piece  no matter what, you give yourself the chance to assess if it warrants further work.

Emerging writers learn

Smolens says the term emerging writer is apt. It is impossible to learn how to write fiction by creating only 1, 2 or 3 stories. Writers emerge in the field by taking time to ‘learn the game’, developing a discipline and practising a sustained writing effort. However, this work does not guarantee rewards such as publication and winning competitions. These are outcomes beyond a writer’s control.

Havest your dead stories

Sometime emerging writers know their story does not work but they do not know how to fix it, or even if it is fixable.  They may keep reworking a moribund story, hoping for some resuscitation ‘magic’.

If you find yourself chained to a dead story, rewriting and rewriting it, stop before you wreck your confidence as a writer. As part of your writing routine, keep setting yourself new challenges. Doing so ensures you retain the pleasure of engaging your imagination with something new. (Of course, it’s always fun to return to such stories occasionally and see if you have any new insights about them.)

Smolens suggest that one way to deal with these dead or weak stories is to harvest the good bits:

Instead of declaring such stories failures . . . consider them as experiments [my emphasis] that were not entirely successful—and to look for what did work within them. Maybe it’s the voice of the piece, or the dialogue or a narrative passage or . . . a particular scene where a minor character suddenly comes to life (and if so, maybe . . .  try another story, one focusing on that character instead).

How do you keep your writing going amidst the ups and downs of daily life?

Photo from The Fail Blog: http://www.fail.org

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 July, 2010 9:15 pm

    excellent advice – and applies not just to writing but to all those ‘experiments’ in life that don’t quite work out…!

    Like

    • 14 July, 2010 8:07 am

      Hadn’t thought about that but you’re right. I’ve always been intrigued about the two groups of people who look on the bright side of things. In one group are the people who train themselves to see only the positives, ignoring whatever is negative. In the other group are the people who accept that problems arise but they look for positives–either at the time or retrospectively. I find their resilence heartening–so much better than replaying one’s ‘failures’ over and over.

      Like

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