`The Value of Stories That Fail

The Value of Stories That Fail

Good writers aren’t born. Okay, well, actually, they are born, since it would be physically impossible to write without being born… but they’re aren’t born good. At least, I’ve yet to meet a four-year-old wunderkind who’s running around writing Pulitzer Prize-winning epics. I know I sure wasn’t. Instead, good writers are made. Skill isn’t a necessity so much as determination, discipline, and dedication. And a lot of stories that fail along the way.

I started writing when I was twelve. Since then, I’ve written nine novels, almost two hundred short stories, and over one thousand articles. At first glance, that may seem like a pretty hefty number, but there are two truths I should probably mention.

Two Truths About Stories That Fail

Truth #1: The vast majority of those novels, stories, and articles (say at least six years’ worth) are utter garbage.

Truth #2: The vast majority of that garbage is the reason I can now call myself a decent writer without watching my nose shoot out in front of me like Pinocchio’s.

Pinocchio's Nose Jiminy Cricket Lying

Learning to write is often a messy trek along a road littered with cardboard characters, ludicrous dialogue, and boring plots. Not to mention clunky prose and nonexistent grammar. Fortunately, along with all this detritus also comes an equal measure of blindness, which keeps us from realizing our awfulness. Most of the time anyway.

I look back at that dusty pile of manuscripts buried in the corner of my closet, and I see the roadmap of my journey as a writer. The first three novels, although indefinably dear to my heart, are horrible, inexperienced, amateur ramblings. No one but me (and perhaps a few very kind family and friends) would ever care to read them. In fact, it would probably be considered cruel and unusual punishment. All the beginner gaffes are there: POV slips, lack of conflict, overuse of direct address, pages of narrative summary, impossibly far-fetched/impossibly clichéd plots. Believe me, I covered all the bases.

When Failure Meets Education: The Pitfalls

Each of these first three novels showed perhaps, if I was very lucky, minor improvement from one novel to the next. But ‘round about the time the fourth novel rolled off my fingers and onto the computer, something happened. I stumbled across a book on writing at the library, started reading, and couldn’t tear myself away. Suddenly, the whole business of writing fiction started to make sense.

Armed at last with more than mere intuition, I buckled down and finished that fourth novel. And guess what? It stunk. Maybe even worse than the first three. It was more structured, more correct than the first three—but it lacked the spark, the passion, the joy.

I had gained the bones of the craft and lost my grip on the soul. Very depressing, I assure you. In many ways, it was a do-or-die period for my writing. I’d written four novels, and none of them were anything to email the president about. I could so easily have quit writing here; I could have thrown up my hands, thrown a pity party, and thrown in the towel. Obviously, I wasn’t cut out to be a writer.

A Man Called OutlawBut, aside from that insatiable creative itch poking away inside of me, I just couldn’t stand to let the monster of inadequacy beat me. So I sat down and wrote another novel, this one titled A Man Called Outlaw. And something happened to this novel, something that hadn’t happened to any of its predecessors: the pieces—the wildly varied and often elusive pieces of a novel—started falling into place. Finally, I had written something worth reading.

Writing Your “Million Words of Dreck” on Your Way to Success

In the many years since Outlaw, I’ve written four more novels, each one (I hope) a little better than the last. I’m still growing, still learning, still making plenty of mistakes. But with Outlaw, I seemed to cross a threshold: in short, I learned how to write. The scary thing, though, is that if I had quit at Novel #4—if I had given up because everything I’d written up to that point had been dreck—I would be standing just outside that threshold for the rest of my life.

Ray Gun RevivalJohne Cook, sci-fi writer and editor of the space opera e-zine Ray Gun Revival, makes the powerful suggestion that every author:

…has to write out your million words of dreck before you’re at the place where you’ve learned enough to be really ready to start to publish your works on a regular basis.

Having crossed that milestone, I can honestly look back and see how my many words of dreck have piled up to make me the author I am today. And I’m certain they will continue to pile up with every novel I write. In writing, there’s no such thing as stories that fail. Even the most ghastly are only a stepping stone to that threshold of enlightenment and, eventually, success.

Tell me your opinion: What have you learned from the stories that fail?

The Value of Stories That Fail

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Oh, dear. I’m not anywhere near my million words. Guess I’d better get back to work then! I have a lot of cleaning out to do. Thanks for another great post.

  2. Actually, I was pretty shocked when I started tallying up my word counts. It’s not as hard to reach a million as you might think. And, anyway, “one million words of dreck” is just a figure of speech, really. I’m sure there are those enviable folks who have reached the threshold of skill after only a thousand or so words. 😉

  3. I ordered your OUTLAW book this afternoon. I’m so looking forward to reading it.
    I love that the more we write the better we get. We don’t have to know all the rules in order to begin writing. Usually if a person loves to write, they also love to read. I’ve been reading much longer than I’ve been writing. Reading gives a writer a huge advantage because we just have a feel for how a sentence should be put together and how a story should proceed. We certainly aren’t “there” when we pick up our pens, but we have a general feel for the direction we should go.
    Thank you for the encouragement in your post.

  4. Thanks so much, Shaddy! I hope you enjoy the read, and I’d love to hear your opinions when you’re done – good or bad. You can contact me directly through the link at the bottom of my website: http://www.kmweiland.com

    I think you’re definitely onto something with the whole “readers are better writers” notion. So much of writing is instinctual, and the more we read, the more we become aware (consciously and subsconsciously) of what works and what doesn’t in a story.

  5. I’ve read three of your novels now and I’m impressed with each one, which is why I keep pushing you. Find an agent. Get out there!!! 😉

  6. Thanks, Linda! Every novel is adventure – and an improvement, I hope.

  7. I have to agree with the idea that readers are better writers – They at least know what they ‘like to read’.

    I’ve read thousands of YA fiction and SciFi/Fantasy books, and enjoyed many of them.

    Unfortunately, the trek I’ve gotten on to make me edit my own novels has also made me edit a little more critically what I read.

    That seems to ‘ruin it’ for me in getting my head in the book – a typo, a grammatical error, a misused word (their/they’re/there now) etc.

  8. Some people recommend “editing” a published book, or even just picking it apart to better understand the structure. But I’ve always shied away from that, just because I’m so afraid it will end up jading my reading experiences period.

  9. Thank you for sharing the truth. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that inspiration is not enough — perspiration — the determination and perseverance to learn and grow cannot be eliminated if we want our words to reach our readers.

    Great posts here. I look forward to reading more.

    Maria

  10. Indeed. Inspiration’s all fine and good, but it doesn’t accomplish much without the elbow grease to push it along. Ultimately, the pieces I’m most proud of are those I’ve sweated and strained over – rather than those that just flowed.

  11. I’ve finished the draft for my second novel and have as yet unrealised plans for a third and fourth. I must say, I have seen my writing style take several massive changes between the first and second, and, as I’ve continued to read about the craft and experiment, I’m hoping to see continued growth as I travel this road. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  12. I find it interesting that every time I *finish* a novel, I can look back and see what huge lessons I’ve learned. But it never happens until I’m absolutely finished with that first draft. Even a day before I finish, I’m still in the dark to whatever growth I’ve gained.

  13. I think all writers will admit that without their mistakes and failures, they wouldn’t be who or where they are today. Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.

  14. I love this quote from Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

  15. Bravo K.M.! Keep it up!

  16. This post was such an inspirational one. Thank you, K.M.

  17. You’re welcome! I’m so glad you were encouraged.

  18. 200+ short stories? I wish I could have that kind of creative juice flowing. Since whenever I make up something in my mind, it is something to add upon on my current novel or a complete novel idea of its own. My mother always suggests to start small and go up. By I can’t seem to get a hold in something short.
    To me short stories are the hardest form of writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I have to agree, actually. I haven’t written a short story in years. These days, I much prefer the longer form.

      • Yeah, short stories are a good form of fiction. You convey so much in so little pages. But I personally am the novel person. So I work on that 😀

  19. thomas h cullen says

    Content is its own merit. The more experienced, and the more practised you are, and you’ll be better equipped to decorate the story whose content is inherently insubstantial, however that will never undo the reality of there being those stories which are of higher substance than others.

    Leading on from that, the relevant issue then becomes how the better writer gets told apart from the lesser writer. Is it that the former can make the supernatural fantasy more fun and emotionally involving than the crime drama, or family saga? Might it be, that for all its inherent silliness and camp, the comic book, graphic novel or sci-fi story is able to stand far better the test of time than the ostensibly serious and deep political drama, because of its intelligence of humane vision, and ingeniously incorporated realism?

    The Representative operates outside all the known parameters. The most unprecedented of visions, incorporating the real and political and tying it together with the fantasy on the scale of level never before experienced, I’ve succeeded to the point where I know it’s useless to try again:

    There is now nothing more to achieve!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, I find that a little sad, although I congratulate you on the always wonderful feeling of accomplishment. The journey is much more interesting than the destination. I would regret the day when I felt I had nothing more to say, nothing more to learn, nothing more discover.

      • thomas h cullen says

        Day by day, the recurring thought to make me sad, is that of human beings having no worth – of our base system of living meaning our having no one-to-one responsibility to one another.

        We do accept the general routine, but only on the basis that tangible results get experienced and enjoyed every so often – at the price of day-to-day social rejection, and shunning.

        I finished The Representative in the July, 2013. Sooner or later, for however much longer, it’ll perform the tangible result I intended for it back then:

        Serve balance, to the sheer amount of day-to-day excessiveness that’s had to be relentlessly experienced ever since.

        (Amongst the many, many things The Representative is – the most final of political tools is just one of them.)

  20. To a writer who is about to release his first novel in the coming weeks, this article is both terrifying and encouraging.

    Terrifying because you’re completely right: I have blinders on, and have issues picking up on my own inadequacies. I rely on others to do that for me, but of course friends and family aren’t always the most honest bunch. They tend to pump tires and give you the ol’ “you can do it!” plug, when all you need is some brutal truth.

    Encouraging because you mention there is room for growth, and while that would seem obvious to many, it becomes easy to forget that we ARE getting better. I believe Stephen King said, good writers can never became great (ie: Steinbeck’s, Joyce, ect), but bad writers can always became good writers.

    Thank you for your wonderful post Ms/Mrs. Weiland. I look forward to following your blog in the future.

    Dustin

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s a great quote – and very true. Writing is a skill that is totally learnable. All of us can only move forward toward improvement – and that *is* encouraging!

  21. Your story at the beginning – it’s also mine.
    I’ve been trying to write stories since I was nine, and failing terrible. I wrote a whole fifteen hand written pages by the time I was eleven of the worst, stupidest book ever. Basically, it was Brisinger with a magical pig and a bunch of shapeshifters who sang a stupid song.
    Then the real magic happened.
    When I turned twelve I found Spilling Ink, one of my favorite writing handbooks. It unlocked my passion for writing again, and I started a class that taught me how to examine books for truth and themes.
    Then I had a dream.
    And I haven’t stopped writing since, and even though it’s only been a year and a half I’ve already started 24 stories, finished one, and am halfway through several others.

  22. This is so encouraging. Thank you, K.M.W.

    Most of the time I love my story, but sometimes, when I’m less intoxicated by the giddy joy of writing, I see the holes in my plot, the mechanical, clipped prose, the cheesy dialogue. I begin to think I should stop wasting my time. But then what would I do with all those story ideas? And the characters in my head that want fleshing out? Writing poorly might be easier than not writing at all.

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