Tag Archives: writing process

On the benefits of ‘failure’

I set myself a goal at the start of the month.

In fact I set several.

The most salient goal for this blog was the #NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words written in November. I did not achieve that goal. I didn’t even come close. It wasn’t a case of ‘just one more day’, or ‘just a little short.’ I failed to achieve 50,000. I failed to achieve half that.


from this blog on why we shouldn't fear failure: http://aib.edu.au/blog/fear-of-failure-4-reasons-embrace-failure/

sourced from this blog on how to embrace failure

And that’s ok.

Coincidentally, at the start of November, I also started a new job. It’s a similar role to the role I previously had, but the small and specific differences are significant. It’s at a different organisation, and a much larger organisation, than my previous employment. I’ve had to learn the new culture, the new hierarchies, the systems and protocols and all those elements of a workplace which go so often unstated. I’ve had to meet new people, learn names, determine the interconnections between each of them and me, between their roles and mine, how I can help them, how they can help me. It’s been a big transition, and in many ways one which is time-consuming and mentally demanding, coming into an existing project and quickly evaluating how the expertise and experience I bring will contribute. And I feel (one month in) that it has been a success.

I also set a personal health goal at the start of November, because I was feeling run-down and unhealthy, I was overweight (no shaming intended, but overweight for me. You be whatever weight you’re comfortable and happy with. I wasn’t comfortable and I wasn’t happy, so ‘overweight’), I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t eating well, I was stressed… I was struggling. So I made some changes, on my own terms, and I set some health goals and behavioural/habit goals. And I’ve been successful there too, both in terms of the numerical targets I’m hitting and the general feeling of wellbeing.

And then there was the election of course, and all of the existential doubt and fear that flowed from it.

Graph of November

Graph of November (from here)

Life is about balancing things. That’s probably as true for you, reading this, as it is for me. It’s probably true for all of us. But sometimes we see people doing amazing things, devoting a lot of time and energy we don’t see to produce fantastic results we do. I had a friend posting astounding word-counts for the first week or so of #NaNoWriMo, an the temptation to compare myself unfavourably was strong. But I wasn’t competing with her, and her circumstances were not my own.

Recently Kameron Hurley spoke on Twitter about being a ‘binge writer’: writing tens-of-thousands of words a day, for several days on end, rather than writing every day (a nice antidote to the ‘write every day‘ mantra which can lead to feelings of guilt or failure when your life doesn’t allow you to write). But I’m not competing with her, and her circumstances are not my own.

I think there’s a lot to be said for the discipline of writing. One of the most striking changes I see in myself between my earliest dilettante days of ‘aspiring’ to be a writer (the advice to drop that qualifier was invaluable for self-perception) and the ongoing development in the midst of which I sit today, is my understanding of what writing is, what it is not, and what it requires.

Among other things, writing requires failure.

Initially in the sense that you need to accept failure merely to write anything at all, because it’s important to give yourself permission to suck, and to accept that your first draft of anything is shit.

But more than that I think writing (and really any creative/artistic endeavour) requires that we strive for something we know we may never achieve. And yet that we keep striving.

This is why we should not hate bad art. Peter Ball pointed this out for me, and it has changed the way I look at the Beibers of our world. We should critique, of course. We can express our dissatisfaction or distaste. We can call out problematic or offensive tropes and features. But bad art is important. It’s especially important if other people (for some unfathomable reason beyond your ken) like it, even love it. It’s the creative endeavour. It’s someone trying to make something and share it, and maybe you don’t like what they made, but then again maybe you’re not the intended audience, or maybe it doesn’t matter if no one else likes it because bad art matters to the artist. And bad art is so often a precursor to good art, or to better art, at least. If people stop making bad art, or are afraid to make bad art, how can they ever move through that phase to what comes next? As Alison Gerber points out, bad art benefits us all.

If you are serious about writing, you will create bad writing. You’ll fall into cliche, lean heavily on tired tropes, trot out stock phrases, overuse your pet words. You’ll make errors, break grammatical conventions accidentally or with ill-conceived intent, run-on your sentences, split your infinitives, dangle your participles, changed your tense mid-sentence. You’ll be incomprehensible, miss the mark, wander off on tangents, maybe be bland or boring. All of this is part of the process. If we castigate ourselves for these ‘failings’, or worse, if our fear of them paralyses us, we will never achieve the greatness which may lie just beyond them, just a little further along the path, just beyond the work-shopping and revision and re-writing which can only follow once a thing is written.

So what benefits are there in this failure, my #NaNoWriMo failure?

  1. I have about 20,000 words about a weaponised infection, a dying city, and the reluctant poetry student who may hold the key to the cure.
  2. I added another 5,000 words or so to a separate story about a retired government cyber-agent drawn into an international quest to learn the truth about her high-school sweetheart’s death.
  3. I have a much clearer sense of where both of these stories are going, and more fully developed planning documents which will guide me there.

And I have perspective.

The month was not wasted because I fell (well) short of the arbitrary figure set for #NaNoWriMo. I have another month, and another after that, and at 25,000 or so words per month, I’m only a couple of months away from finishing another novel.

That’s an exciting feeling.

What ‘The End’ means (to me).

So recently I had the opportunity to write those final two words of a manuscript…

These two words

These two words

…and I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on exactly what those mean, in this context.

The first thing I did after typing those words, was to go back to the first chapter I wrote and re-read it. It sucked. It was about 1800 words long, as a chapter, and 900 of them were dead-boring info-dump exposition back-story. They read like I was writing to myself and still trying to figure out what was going on and how it all worked. Which of course they did, because that’s exactly what they were.

‘The End’ then just meant the end of the first draft, and the first draft sucked in many ways, which is fine. First drafts are meant to suck in many ways. You need–I have found and other wiser writers have said–to give yourself permission to suck in that first draft. Chuck Wendig has said that the draft is where you make the words and the editing is when you make them not shitty (or words to that effect). So having shitty words didn’t bother me so much. I accepted that was part of drafting and that I would begin soon the task of making them not shitty.

Thus, The End is the beginning

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

But it is more than that. ‘The End’ is a culmination of all the work that got you to the point where you’ve written a story. That Wendig link above gives 25 reasons why it’s important for you to ‘finish your shit’ and I can’t compete with 25 (especially when there are, contained in those 25, all of mine and more). So I won’t talk about why it’s important for you to get to ‘The End’. I’ll talk about why it was important for me.

This is the third time I’ve been able to type those words and each time I feel like I’ve put them on a draft which was better than the last draft I put them on. Not only that, this time it was the quickest draft I have written, the shortest length of time between setting down those first uncertain words and concluding the story which grew from them.

I started planning this story on 7th July 2015 and wrote the first 20,000 words or so in that month before putting it aside and going back to the revisions on my previous novel. I picked up on this one again in September 2015, with this story still only 20,000 words. I wrote ‘The End’ on 7th Feb 2016, by which time there was 91,454. That means over 70,000 in under 6 months. Given this was around a full-time job, two young kids, Christmas, birthdays, family visits, life-in-general, I think that’s a decent pace. I can improve on it, but it’s significantly quicker than my previous efforts. Partly this is because of general improvements in my process and craft. Partly this is because of NaNoWriMo.

I had been very skeptical of being involved with NaNoWriMo before. The idea of sacrificing quality for quantity and churning out words for the sake of words seemed at odds with how I wrote, but I decided in 2015 to use it as impetus to get a few more words on this Work in Progress. I never expected to get 50,000. And then I did.

My daily, weekly, and monthly totals

My daily, weekly, and monthly totals

Nano wasn’t too hard at all for the first 21 days or so. I had done significant planning beforehand, I had a really clear idea of where the story was going and who was doing what with/to whom and when and where and in what sequence and why and such.
But it wore me down. That fourth week was a chore. You can see I skipped two days in that week entirely. I basically gave up. But a big day spent sitting for several hours at a cafe yielded over 6,000 words and put me back in with a chance and my stubborn competitiveness helped get me over the line.

I started November with 25,000 words, and that had been the work of July, September and October. By the time December began I was over 75,000 and planning to finish by the end of the year.

I barely wrote at all in December. I was so fatigued by the November efforts I basically did nothing for a week and then I wrote a bit in the second and third week before Christmas etc hit and I did nothing until January was pretty well underway. I decided I’d try and finish by the end of Jan and missed that goal too, but only by 7 days.

Part of the problem was that I felt so close. I figured another 10-15 (on top of my 75) would get me there, and I was writing that basically weekly throughout November, so how hard could it be? But the push to get words down had taken a toll. Those words weren’t always according to the plan, and the plan had to change, and that’s fine, but I found I had lost my direction. I had to go back and re-write and re-shape and then plan again and draft again and cut and create. It was a tough process. I ended up cutting 10,000 words back out over January and the start of Feb. The last three chapters took forever and changed many times.

And so when I did finally get to write ‘The End’ it was deeply cathartic, to know that it was done, and all of that effort had led to a moment where I could feel, briefly, that the story was told.

Thus, The End means a time to celebrate.

Me, celebrating

Me, celebrating


So what now?

Now I have sent the finished draft off to beta-readers. I won’t look at it now for a month. Then I’ll print it out, chapter by chapter, make my own notes and consider the feedback from my readers and start the process again. Because ‘The End’ is the beginning. And one day in a April or May I’ll be able to come back to ‘The End’ having revised the draft and ‘The End’ will again mean that it is a time to celebrate and reflect.

In the mean-time…

I started something new today. It’s just a series of thoughts and ideas, a totally different story in a totally different world to the last two I’ve written, but I think it has some legs and somewhere to go.  I have 6,000 words down, of which about half are genuine words and the other half notes and planning and reminders and suggestions.

It’s a near-future sci-fi with cyberpunk influences and it opens with a Hemi-powered Charger, some old lovers, a night drive, a quiet bar, a secretive job offer, a computer chip, an ambush, a knife fight and plenty of gunfire.

So the process begins again. Hopefully in six months I’ll get to ‘The End’ of this one.

On arrogance, self-doubt, and sucking at stuff.

Tonight I did some writing and it was hard, and sucky. Just bad, sucky writing that sucked.
It took me an hour too and there wasn’t very much of it. It was so bad it made me wonder why I was bothering to write anything at all.
This is the response that I came up with:

Perhaps any act of writing — perhaps any act of art — must start from the basis of emulation, at least insofar as to say ‘here is a thing which I appreciate, and I believe that I can create something of its ilk. I can create something like this, even something better than this.’
For me the stimulus was (and I mean no disrespect to the author here) Raymond E Feist‘s Magician. On my second or third reading of that book, still a teenager, I started to see that I could parse its structure. I realised that it had form and function. I peeked behind the curtain to see not the players upon the stage presented to me but the craft that had gone into building that stage and showing those players.
My first efforts them were deeply emulative. As Neil Gaiman said, ‘most of us find our own voices only after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.‘  (Have you heard that keynote speech? No?! stop reading this and go watch that now, then come back. I’ll wait…)
I lay no claim to having created anything the equal of, certainly not the better of, Magician. At some point though, as a cocky teenager biting off more than he could chew, I believed that I could. It may be that I yet can. My understanding of the process is deeper now, more nuanced, and still requires a degree of self-belief that spills over into arrogance in order for me to maintain the effort required.
There is a very strange dichotomy at play between the swaggering arrogance (and examined objectively it can be nothing else) inherent to the belief that I can craft narrative from thin air, that I can create prose which communicates emotion to a reader I have never met and do not know, and the depths of despair that haunts and preys and lunges upon the writer, upon any artist, at unexpected times.

Self-doubt. What a son-of-a-bitch is self-doubt. Here you are, going merrily along, assured of your own brilliance,  reading over the words you just put down and wondering how you managed to write so wonderfully, and then one day… one day you just get an hour to yourself with something to write and crack your knuckles and get started… and you realise it sucks. All of it. What you’re writing now sucks. What you wrote yesterday sucks. Everything you’ve written so far sucks. In fact the entire concept sucks. Why are you writing this thing at all? This sucks. You suck.
This is what happened to me tonight, and in the past this would have sent me off into other things and I would have shelved the writing and come back weeks or months hence and started anew.
This is what self-doubt does. It takes something you’re doing, smears it in sucks, shows it to you, and aims to make you so revolted that you flee. It has conquered me in the past.

Not this time.

This time I recognise this phase for what it is. I have discovered — with thanks to social media and generous, honest writers who’ve shared their travails as well as their triumphs — that this is a common part of the process for even those successful, professional writers, and undoubtedly artists in all media and form. It is important to make mistakes (you watched the Gaiman video above, yeah? Good).  You must give yourself permission to suck. You must, as Kameron Hurley implores, persist.
So I shall.
I took some time away from the Work In Progress to get these thoughts down for two reasons. The selfish reason being that by writing them here I am at least writing something, and in the process of writing them I have reinforced their value for myself. The second reason is more altruistic. Surely there are others out there who have hit this same point and not had the strength or the support or the advice to go on. If you’re there now and you’re reading this, chin-up, fist-bump, I’ve been there too, and others have, even the best have.

The difference, I believe between the best and the rest, between the successful and the unsuccessful, is that the best, the successful, kept writing even when it sucked, and they fixed it later. So that’s what I’m going to do. 

From an idea to an act of creation

When I really should have been working on other things there suddenly popped into my head a line:

They rode out with the intent to kill Old Man Madigan, and the means to make it so.

This happens to me sometimes. Sometimes a line, sometimes a description, sometimes dialogue – even whole conversations. I use the notes function on my phone, or I scrawl this stuff on scraps of paper that I then keep in a completely chaotic and highly intuitive mess around my house, or occasionally in a notepad I bought, long ago, for the purpose.

And so this line about Old Man Madigan sat ignored for some time, until I came back to it and questioned what I had made. Who is/was this old man? Who was out to kill him, and why? why ‘riding out’?

Initially my answers to that were confused collisions of genre, or reductive allusions to things I’ve liked elsewhere. I wanted them a long way from authority, such that they had to take ‘justice’ into their own hands. I wanted to explore that ambiguity of authority, or its absence. I wanted to question whether these men seeking to deal death were agents of justice or of revenge. Was this a community coming together against a predator, or was this mob rule, unfettered in its attack on an outsider?

I liked the idea of a posse.

So the US perhaps? A western? Shane, or The Searchers? It made sense of the ‘riding out’, but it just didn’t grab me. A space western? Perhaps Joss Whedon’s fault. I could almost see Nathan Fillion sneering my line. Awesome… and yet not my own. The space thing was interesting though.
So they’re in space, a long way from Earth. Colonisers then? Something between LV426 and the Wild West writ extra-planetary? Barely more original than channelling Mal, but perhaps something I could work with. If I could steer clear of a Takeshi Kovacs analogue. No horses I suppose. Are they riding out on bikes? Hoverbikes?

I followed this path for a while. Researched light-speed, the fastest man-made objects, the nearest goldilocks planets. Nothing there unless I’m prepared to have spacecraft travelling up to percentages of light-speed  and even then the travel time is decades. So perhaps a moon, Saturn has plenty, Jupiter too, some potentially life supporting. But these men riding out should not be in space-suits. That’s not what I see. That doesn’t work for me.

Back to the notepad and disorganised filing then. For weeks. Months. I start writing other things. I’m in the middle of something that’s pretty hefty. Novella at least, perhaps room to grow. And then Madigan’s back.

Australia. Red dust. Post the exploration, pre-Goldrush. Madigan’s an impossible survivor from the prison fleets, fled or released upon his term and free now either way. He’s impossibly old, and the means of his longevity have earnt him the antipathy of the young community nearby his secluded home. He had fled other men, at least the white ones, but now the communities are growing, the Europeans spreading, and it has brought him into conflict. How? A young girl, missing, killed perhaps, perhaps used by this secluded old man. An angry father then, a community of angry fathers. The men of a fledgling town drawn together by their hatred and fear against Madigan, their common enemy.

But if Madigan is so long lived? Will he be so easily killed? What means do these men have? What assumptions do they make, and are they valid? And what is the role of the local inhabitants, considered fauna, shunned, ignored. What do they think of Madigan, what is he – this European interloper who will not die?

The images were coming thick and fast now. Red dust, hard men worn by weather and work, stern women with determined jaws, children casting off their parents’ culture for one all their own, the Aboriginal tribe, shifting and displaced, those caught in the middle – part of both worlds and neither…  and in this Madigan – a spider in its web. Or is he? Is he really the villain of the piece?

So I started writing. And suddenly I had 4,000+ words and a couple of thousand to come. A short story. Not yet born, but gestating nicely and not far off.

Excerpt here.

The re-write is complete


Now that was more an effort than I realised it would be.

I removed about 40,000 words from my manuscript over the past few months. That’s nearly a quarter of its weight!

Many of these were removed on a line-by-line edit: clarifying sentences, dealing death to adjective clusters, seeking out adverbs remorselessly and casting their brutally beaten bodies from my work. I did away with many dialogue tags. I found ways to say with ten words what I had said with twelve or fifteen. I found all of these little slivers of fat that still clung to the meat of my tale and I carved them off with a wicked sharp blade.

Then I had to really get stuck in.

This wasn’t my first pass with the scalpel, and on a project this size trimming fat didn’t shrink the manuscript by the requisite amount, so I started cutting away at the muscle, the flesh, in some cases the connective tissue. That hurt. I lost some good stuff I think. A character was erased from existence. Another had his role cut significantly. Two characters became so peripheral that to survive they had to undergo a melding of bodies and minds and become one. Details were lost, poignant moments, not-quite-salient anecdotes, slightly obscure back-story, geographical references, subtle foreshadowings… but these things ultimately were bloating the story into something more than what it should have been.

So now I have 131,000 words. Still big by the standards of a debut novel, but it’s a manageable big.

I asked a few agents (through the wonder of Twitter) what would be a maximum word-limit they would consider as a submission from an unpublished novelist and the answers were in the range of 140,000 to 150,000. I’m happily below that upper limit, and I’m sure the manuscript is much better for it.

I said at the outset that my goal here was not necessarily to become a professional writer, not even necessarily to become published, though both of those are measures of success. My goal is to become a better writer, and whatever comes as an outcome of this process I feel that the process has already achieved some success toward that goal. I made brutal decisions, but they were the right ones. Some years ago, perhaps even some months ago, I would have baulked those decisions, and I would have remained in a comfort zone of bloat and easy-living. That is not a good place for a writer to remain.

I also now have a much clearer delineation of writing and editing. When I was starting I would open the document and start editing the material I had just written the day before, and so writing was a crawl. I would write a couple of hundred words in a day, but then spend a day or two editing those before adding another couple of hundred and restarting the edit process. It’s a dysfunctional approach. It’s the wrong one. To borrow from Chuck Wendig:

“Writing is when we make the words. Editing is when we make the words not shitty.”

I believe I have done that. I believe my words are not shitty.

And now? Now I get the query letter dressed up. Now I nail that synopsis. Now I go back to Chapter One, Page One, Paragraph One, Word One. Now I make that opening irresistible. Because this week the queries go out (agents be warned) and I think I’ve got a good chance now of putting my best foot forward. That might or might not lead somewhere, but at least I’ll be stepping out knowing I’ve put the work in to make it possible.