Give Yourself License to Fail
If you’re like me, you were raised thinking that everything you did had to be perfect. In my case, it had to do with upholding the family reputation and position. Our family was an old one, and “we always did well in school.” and “We were always the best.”
The stupid thing is that I believed it. Perhaps all children believe that type of thing. My oldest cousin in the family didn’t do well at all in school and in fact barely graduated high school. And my beloved cousin, who was raised as my sister, though she eventually got a degree in chemical engineering, struggled with her studies and compensated for what I’m now convinced was mild ADHD with a never end of work. I knew this, because I could hear her, (her room was right above mine, with only Victorian ceiling and wood floors between us) study her lessons aloud late into the night. In fact, she repeated them so much that I memorized the out-of-context information. Her studying of the fly for biology sparked in me a life-long love of reading about weird creatures. (The strange part is that I don’t write aliens. Ah!)
And yet I believed I’d be the best — no, that I SHOULD be the best — without study, without effort. And I was deeply mortified when I failed at this.
In a way it kept me from taking a more challenging academic course until I was already committed to language and literature.
Of course, it also kept me studying like crazy after that — finally remembering my cousin’s example — when I realized if I wanted to enter college, let alone finish a degree it was going to be difficult. Despite my facility with English and my ease with French (Partly because I started French at 11, I think, but also because as soon as I could I had French authors I enjoyed reading in their native language) I did NOT have a native talent for language. In fact, like my cousin learning her science courses, it took a lot of insane work, and was probably harder than if I had gone into STEM which came much more easily to me.
If you’re following the drift above: we are not all of us born perfect, or with the ability to do everything better than anyone else. What a funny world it would be. Forget about all children being better than average. All adults would be the best at something, and devote their life to it. I imagine some poor sap would be the best at folding socks and all the socks in the world would be sent to him.
One of the hardest things I have to do when mentoring is dispelling the myth of talent, the myth that as a raw beginner, you’ll be perfect right off the bat. Or that you should be.
In years of mentoring (in this field it often starts before you’re even published) I’ve found only two people who were “naturals” and wrote at a perfect level off the bat: one never finished his novel, the other gave up after her first published work failed to become the next Harry Potter.
I’m not saying that talent doesn’t exist. It does, and it comes in varied amounts. But out of hundreds of people, I’ve found two who could write publishable, professional novels right off the bat.
Because writing isn’t one talent, or one skill. Writing is everything together. It’s not akin to learning to play an instrument. It’s akin to conducting an orchestra.
There are other talents, smaller, not mentioned here because though they can be a delight, they rarely carry a novel-length work. But the talents I’ve identified that can carry a novel even if the rest of the work is crap are the following: Language, plotting, characters, setting.
I grant you that a talent for setting has trouble carrying a novel, but if you make it appealing enough it will draw people in to live in it, and only after finishing the novel will they realize it has neither plot nor characters.
I was given two gifts: the first is the most useless of all, not because it doesn’t impress people — it does — but because it’s both the most common and the one that can actively trick you into making your novel well-nigh unreadable. Yep, language. I can use beautiful language, revel in it. I love historical forms of English, and it took me years to figure out that even my lawyer friend struggled to read the Shakespeare trilogy. Count that under “let it trick me into making it less readable.” If I’m tired and let go, and particularly if what I’m writing is a short story (like, An Answer From The North, say) what emerges is an elaborate prose poem. This is acceptable as a short story. Some people can do it as novels. But you’re going to lose some portion of your audience.
The second is characters. I don’t base them on anyone, and I take no credit for them. They walk onto my page living, breathing and sometimes shouting orders or warnings. They are what they are. I don’t have to worry about developing them. They do that themselves.
The problem with that is that I was so fooled by their realness and humanity it took me years to understand I had no plot in which they could display themselves. Talking heads and deep thoughts, no matter how much it’s some of our lives, is not a novel.
Plot took me very long to learn, and I am still learning to do action. It took me years to figure out I should even work at it.
I would just write, then be embarrassed and upset that I couldn’t make a functional novel, and forget it.
No one is born knowing everything and also get over it.
If instead of storing away my first personal rejection (to the first story I ever sent out) which came accompanied with a copy of the magazine and told me it was for me to see why it didn’t fit and send them something more fitting, I’d taken their hint, studied the magazine and written the type of story they took, it might have shaved 13 years of fruitless work off my slate.
Years later, when I understood I’d have to work to be publishable, I cursed my younger self.
But I’d been trained to think I’d be the best right off the bat. Since I wasn’t, the humiliation was deep and crippling, and if I hadn’t had a… thirst for writing, I’d probably have walked away then, like my friend who walked away because her first novel wasn’t a best seller.
Thank heavens writing is a true-vocation to me, and I can’t stay away too long. (No, seriously, I once gave it up for two weeks, and cleaned EVERYTHING. I was in the bathroom, scrubbing the floor tile group with a tooth brush when the three guys (husband and two sons, the older being then six) came to the door and begged me to go back to writing, because I wasn’t well when I didn’t.) It forced me past my stupidity, past my ingrained pride, past my embarrassment at failure and into actually learning to write.
The learning is not done. At different times, and at different books, I will find something I can’t do at once, no matter how much I want to. Sometimes, if the book is on deadline, I’ll deliver the best patch job I can, and then dive deep in search of books that do it right, so I can analyze, take them apart, and absorb it organically, too.
The latest area of study is writing action. It started with a friend who alas I only got to keep for a month. While he was dying of liver cancer, he critiqued my stories, and told me all the scenes of action I wasn’t even seeing much less leaving out.
After his death, I started a back to back read of Correia and Wilson, and as some of you noted, and told me, my action in Darkship Revenge is much better.
And then I worked with Larry on Guardian, and once more realized I have a lot to learn when it comes to writing action. It will come, but it’s going to be a lot of work.
And sometimes, I still need to remember I have permission to fail. My standards are high, and even though I have more than thirty books out, sometimes I’ll fall short of them.
I know you’ll say “well duh” but believe it or not I can still become deeply embarrassed, afraid I don’t have what it takes, and start thinking of punishing myself by walking away.
I can’t, as I’m actually making a living from this now, and the family can use it, since we’re supporting two sons in protracted degrees. BUT I still feel “unworthy” of being a writer, and think I should run off in pursuit of something — anything — else.
Of course, nothing else could come perfect right away, but the back brain doesn’t know that.
Give yourself permission to fail.
I once read that artists practice every day even if what they’re drawing is awful. They understand it’s a craft, and that as much as art is there, you need to learn your metier. This is not necessarily true. As I’ve found, because I tend to be as stupid about art as about writing, only the ONES WHO SUCCEED take that approach. The others get embarrassed their first product isn’t perfect and run off.
Now you choose what you want to do and what you want to be. In this life, sticktoitness is way more valuable than talent or even intelligence.
If you decide to stick to it and you’re a raw beginner (or a mid-beginner or a late-beginner like me) you could do worse than read or re-read Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. And if characters are a problem for you, you could do worse than Dwight Swain’s Building Story People.
Those two, if you apply yourself and practice should get you to publishable. After that you’re on your own, as each person’s path is different.
But you can’t run away when everything isn’t perfect. And you can’t be embarrassed when you fail one time or ten or seven times time seven times.
The race is not always to the swift nor the victory to the strong, but sheer bulldogedness, work, and refusing to be bogged down in how short you fall of your ideal? That will see you through wherever it is you want to go.
You might be bruised and battered, but you’ll get there.
Never give up! Never Surrender! And don’t sweep your failures under the rug. Hold them up proudly. They’re what you did on the way to success.
Now go write.