Stories about Stories

The Courage to Fail

September 1st, 2009 · No Comments

One of the things I learned at WorldCon: the big writing workshops aren’t about helping the writers make something publishable. It’s about helping them make something that’s going to fail in the biggest ways.

Why? Because you learn more from failure than from success.

I used to be a big proponent of this sort of writing. I knew people who were very competent at juggling a couple things in the air, but that was their skill range and it rarely got larger. Instead I would throw a whole pile of stuff in the air, and try to catch whatever I could. I got pretty decent at juggling a few things at once that way, even if most of my stories were a total mess. I used to sneer at people who took the safe and easy road in their stories.

But it can feel really good to succeed at something, and eventually you get tired of feeling like you’re not a good writer just because you keep trying to accomplish crazily difficult things. So I’ve written a number of things in the last couple years because I knew I could write them well enough to succeed at them. And I did, and I’m happy about that because it shows me that I really do have some sort of talent and learned skill here. But trying to write for a success you already know that you can create normally means producing mediocre work.

I was just reminded of this today, working on my puppet test pilot. While writing up ideas for a treatment I had come up with a great idea – except that I was worried it was too ambitious, too likely to confuse audiences. Now, having talked with people about it, I know that it is the pilot – or at least that it will lead me to my pilot. Because it is ambitious. Because it is crazy enough that it could confuse audiences, and therefore is creative enough that they won’t know what’s coming next. The story has it, and it is exactly what writers need to embrace.

One thing I’ve learned from doing a bit of producing: It’s incredibly difficult work, and no one is going to want to do it for you unless they are in love with your idea. Which means the idea needs to be great. Easier said than done? Yes, except . . ..

Except today I think I figured out how you can tell if it’s great (or at least good): because the idea is like a window leading out into open space, bright but vertigo-inducing. If you’re not scared by it then it’s probably not good enough. In which case you need to keep writing around the idea until you open a hole into someplace else.

And then fall through. Writing, like flying, is all about the controlled fall.

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