Here’s a universal truth for you: everyone fears failure. Here’s another universal truth for you: failure is inevitable. I believe those two truths are responsible for more people not pursuing their dreams, writing or otherwise, than almost anything else.
We fear failure, rightly, because it’s emotionally difficult. Those sloppy, ill-considered, early attempts at something new don’t seem to measure up. We look at our heroes, compare our work to theirs and are struck by shame or inadequacy. We just aren’t good enough. We’ll never be that good. What the hell were we thinking even trying this new thing?
That negative self-talk leads to one inevitable conclusion. Go back to what you know. Go back to what you’re good at and never try something new again.
Of course, there is also the inevitability of failure. We go into most new things cognizant that we probably won’t succeed the first time or the second or probably even the ninth or tenth times we try. That inevitability paralyzes us because we also know, going in, that we’re going to feel like crap when we do inevitably fail.
The thing about failure is that it’s largely a matter of perspective. The first novel I tried to write…in point of fact, the first three novels I tried to write were awful. I’m talking awful on an epic scale. Aside from a few concept level things that I cannibalized for other works, there was almost nothing redeeming about those books. By my current standards, those novels were failures. The operative phrase in that last sentence is “by my current standards.”
At the time, I was writing as well as I could. From my perspective, then, those abandoned attempts at novel writing were not failures. The words I put on the page were trite, contrived, pretentious, clichéd and derivative words, but no more so than any other novice writer cutting his or her teeth. They were not failures, but learning experiences. Incidentally, if you can avoid being self-critical, all failures are learning experiences in the long run.
Since I took my first swing at novel writing, I’ve had a lot of practice at writing. If I had to take guess, I’d say a couple million words worth of practice. Practice taught me a lot. Study of the craft hasn’t hurt either. I’ve probably read tens of millions of words in the intervening years, which was a learning exercise in itself, as well as reading some excellent and not-so-excellent guides on craft. All of that has given me a very different view of what comprises good writing.
Here’s another truth, the sting of failure fades. It doesn’t necessarily fade quickly, but it does fade. The sting of regret, on the other hand, lasts for a lifetime.