When you write or make art, then you’re going to make mistakes and fail sometimes. It happens to everyone. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Not only does it mean that you’ve tried something a bit different, it also means that you’ll be able to learn from your failures too.
So, in that spirit, I thought that I’d give an example of learning from a failed project. If you aren’t interested in reading about the many ways I failed at a writing project, then just skip to the final paragraph for some general conclusions.
Earlier this year, I posted a series of short stories set in the 1990s here. In contrast to the previous two short story collections that I’d written (which can be found in the “2016” section of this page), this one only lasted a mere five stories before it ran out of steam.
The first sign that it was something of a mistake came from the fact that it took me a few days to work up the enthusiasm to start the project after I’d had my initial idea for it. Usually, when I have an idea for a project that is going to go well, it’s the sort of thing that I have to start working on right now. But, this was different. It was a cool idea and I wanted to make it, but it didn’t really have the impetus that these kinds of projects usually have.
At the time, I didn’t think to refine the idea until it provoked these hyper-enthusiastic feelings in me. Instead, I mistook my mild enthusiasm for technical problems. After all, I was writing historical fiction – a genre that I haven’t really written in before. So, I thought that I’d have to spend some time working out how to write these stories. For some writers, this sort of thing leads to good stories. But, for me, too much slowness tends to drain the life from a project.
Another problem was the fact that I’d tried to write relatively ordinary stories about ordinary life. This is a genre that I usually consider to be “extremely boring”. But, I’d thought that the historical nostalgia elements would help to keep it interesting. They didn’t. Yes, ordinary life was slightly different in the 1990s, but it was still fairly.. ordinary.
This, of course, made coming up with interesting story ideas surprisingly difficult. One of the main advantages of genres like science fiction and horror, and stories that are set in stylised versions of the real world, is that you can use your imagination to come up with all sorts of strange things to add to the story. You can create entirely fictitious settings that are more imaginative than realistic. You can add futuristic technology, unrealistic events etc… and see how your characters will react to them.
I’d always known that there was a reason why I preferred to write in “unrealistic” genres and this failed project reminded me about this. It gave me an actual physical example of what happens when I try to write the kinds of stories that don’t often interest me as a reader.
The other problem was probably the research. As fascinated as I am with the 1990s, I quickly realised that most of what I knew about the decade came from second-hand sources. After all, I was only a young child in the 1990s. So, whilst struggling to come up with story ideas, I ended up focusing more on things that are related to the media than anything else.
After all, since my preferred writing style tends to be fast and regular, I pushed myself to write one story per day. This didn’t leave a huge amount of time for research. So, I ended up setting many of my stories in fairly generic locations, with only a few subtle details that implied that they were set during the 1990s. So, again, this reminded me of how much easier it is to write stories that are set in entirely fictional locations.
Likewise, it reminded me of the difference between writing and other forms of creativity. Whenever I’d made art or comics that were set in the 1990s (like this one), I’d always gone for a stylised version of early-mid 1990s America, because it looks cool. Of course, fiction is a non-visual medium that relies a lot more on descriptions.
So, I actually ended up relying on my childhood memories of mid-late 1990s Britain (and things from that time and place that I’d watched or read) quite a bit. This led to the project having a totally different style and tone to what I had expected. Most of the stories were set in 1996-9, which didn’t really seem as fascinatingly “historical” as I’d originally expected. If I’d paid more attention to the differences between visual art and the written word, I could have come up with a better idea for this project.
The common thread in all of this is that you tend to produce your best work when you know yourself well and know where your strengths lie. But, on the other hand, you’ll only learn about this if you fail a few times. So, don’t be afraid to fail!
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂