Well, I thought that I’d talk about failure today. This is mostly because I finished a failed creative project the day before I wrote the first draft of this article. It was my first attempt at writing a novella in quite some time and, although I completed it (it was about 15,600 words long) it wasn’t exactly the best thing I’ve ever written. I mean, there’s a good reason why I haven’t mentioned it in previous articles.
Yes, it started out well. Yes, I felt inspired at first. Basically, I tried to write something similar to the old second-hand 1970s/1980s horror novels (in particular, the sub-genre of monster-based novels inspired by James Herbert’s “The Rats”) that I used to read when I was younger and rediscovered when I got back into reading regularly a couple of months ago.
Since giant rats, evil scorpions, carnivorous beetles, giant evil crabs and monster slugs were already taken by actual ’70s/’80s horror authors and because I wanted to write a slight parody of the genre, I ended up choosing adorable badgers – albeit ones that have become immortal, and very hungry, thanks to a mutant version of the rabies virus.
Here’s a short extract from one of the more dramatic and well-written parts of the novella: ‘In an instant, Wilson saw everything. The cattle stalls were a disorderly mess of steaming offal and buzzing flies. In the eaves above, Jerry sat on a beam with a pitchfork in his arms and a look of abject terror on his face. A low chittering sound echoed through the air. Wilson spotted movement next to one of the beams. At first, Wilson thought it was a stray dog. But, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he noticed that it was a badger. Crimson foam frothed around the creature’s mouth as it stared up at Jerry and clawed at the beam.‘
However, large portions of the story really aren’t as good as this short extract. If I was reviewing the novella, I’d probably only give it two or three out of five. It was, in short, a failed project.
So, I thought that I’d give you a couple of basic tips for what to do when a creative project fails. And, yes, you’ve probably heard these before – but they’re well-known pieces of advice for a good reason.
1) Do a post-mortem: This one is fairly obvious, but it can be a bit of challenge if you’ve never really done anything like this. In essence, you need to take a step back and look at both what went wrong and why it went wrong. This might sound like a rather depressing thing to do, but it can teach you what to avoid in your next project. In other words, it reduces the chance of making the same or similar mistakes again.
In addition to teaching you general lessons, this also helps you to get to know yourself better. Because one of the best ways of finding out what your strengths and weaknesses are is to actually make something and then see what parts of it do and don’t work. Once you’ve found this out, you can play to your strengths and/or focus on your weaknesses in your next project.
For example, with my failed horror novella, some of the major flaws/lessons I found included:
– There were literally too many characters for a story of this length. Not only that, since I knew that all of the main characters were going to be eaten by badgers, I instinctively skimped on the characterisation since I’d find it too depressing to put too much emotional effort into developing a well-written character who was going to suffer such a tragic fate. So, the lessons here were to include fewer characters in my next project and to ensure that the characters have a good chance of surviving the story.
– A lack of pre-planning (resulting in somewhat uneven plotting) and the fact that I tried to write it relatively quickly (in about 18-19 days) meant that, whilst I was able to stay motivated, the writing would often get somewhat repetitive. I’d often re-use descriptions (eg: when describing the sounds the badgers made etc..) and many of the story’s dialogue segments would also sound incredibly repetitive too. The lesson here was to spend a while longer planning the story and to focus more on quality than quantity.
– The narrative voice throughout the story was incredibly uneven. Some chapters were supposed to be a parody of bad writing (which quickly turned into actual bad writing), some chapters sounded very “modern”, some chapters read like something from a thriller novel, some chapters had a more American-style narrative voice etc… A lot of this stemmed from the fact that I’d used third-person narration, and I’d had more practice with first-person narration in the past.
I could go on for quite a while…. But, working out what failed and why will help you to improve any future projects.
2) Remember that it happens to literally everyone: When a creative project fails, it can be easy to make the foolish mistake of thinking that you are a failure. That you’re not as good as the writers, artists etc… who inspired you to start your project. Well, I’ll let you into a secret. They’ve failed before, just like you have.
In fact, it is impossible to get really good at anything without failing. The only reason that the people who have inspired you seem like talented geniuses is because you haven’t seen their failed practice projects. They’ve failed just like you have. And, after they failed, they learnt from it and then tried to make another project. Eventually, they got better at writing, making art etc… because they refused to give up.
I mean, there’s a reason why – for example – pretty much every piece of writing advice out there will tell you not to publish your first novel (or first three novels or whatever). It usually takes quite a bit of writing practice before someone can produce a publishable novel. It’s not something that most people can get right on the first try. And, that’s ok. After all, you wouldn’t expect to be able to – say- play the guitar perfectly after picking up the instrument for the first time.
In other words, if you’ve tried to create something and failed horribly at it, then you’re doing exactly the same thing that the people you look up to have done in the past. In other words, you’re doing the right thing. At the very least, you’ve actually created something. Most people don’t get to this stage. So, consider your failure to be one of the steps on the road to greatness.
So, yes, failure happens to literally everyone. It is how you think about it and what you do afterwards that really matters.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂