Category Archives: novels

The Hidden Power of EPIC FAIL

I came across a couple pieces this week that synched up nicely, clarifying a point that’s been bouncing around my skull for awhile.

Item One: an episode of Extra Credits titled “Fail Faster,” about the power of doing and correcting rather than trying to build a perfect foundation.  EC’s actually a show about game design, but this episode’s broadly applicable to any creative endeavor.

Item Two: an editorial from New York Times Magazine called “Be Wrong as Fast as You Can,” detailing the author’s experience as a failed writer – and his ultimate realization that failure is a natural and powerful part of the creative process.

Though by no means a summary of the full article, here’s a great pull quote:

I recently saw a Charlie Rose interview with John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar, about the creative process behind his movies. Pixar’s in-house theory is: Be wrong as fast as you can. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process, so get right down to it and start making them. Even great ideas are wrecked on the road to fruition and then have to be painstakingly reconstructed. “Every Pixar film was the worst motion picture ever made at one time or another,” Lasseter said. “People don’t believe that, but it’s true. But we don’t give up on the films.”

Both of these hit on a point I’ve been revisiting lately: that while it’s important to outline and develop ideas, you can’t get bogged down in thinking about a story rather than writing it.  It’s a common trap writers fall into – even professional ones – and it’s often driven by the fear that we won’t do our story justice, that we’ll get it wrong and make mistakes.  That it won’t be as good as something else already out there.

Fun story: In the early drafts of Frozen, Elsa was a straight-up villain like Hans Christian Andersen’s original Snow Queen.

Yeah, not so great. The movie was fun, but didn’t have much heart. Then Robert Lopez and Krisen-Anderson Lopez wrote “Let it Go,” and the team thought, Hey, maybe Elsa’s a tragic figure.  So they had an interesting villain and a show-stopper, but something was still missing.  That is, until an early read-through of the script spat up so much chemistry between Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell that the team thought, Check it – what if these two are sisters and the story’s about family dynamics.

BOOM. Hit movie.

As Extra Credits says, every great game course-corrected for success.  To scatologize John Lasseter’s classy quote, every Pixar film was, at one point, a giant turd.

Popular wisdom states that you can’t polish a turd, but that phrase ignores something more important – poop makes excellent fertilizer.  In the same way, bad ideas aren’t worthless or hopeless if you take the time and patience to grow a good idea from their nutrients.

But to do that, you have to have some crap to work with.

So go forth and fail today.  Make crap – a giant mountain of it – then use that fertilizer to grow a tree, a field an entire orchard of tasty fruit.  All you need is time and patience.

And shoveling.  Crap requires a lot of shoveling.


Writer-Sense: Being Your Story’s Peter Parker

The Gut.  The Bullshit Detector.  The Internal Editor.  Everyone’s got a name for it.

I’m a geek who grew up on Spider-Man cartoons, so I like to call it my writer-sense.  As in, My writer-sense is going crazy!  

Your writer-sense is the dashboard indicator that tells you something’s wrong.  A plot point doesn’t work. A character needs to be cut.  Your book is too long, or your article doesn’t have enough supporting evidence.  The writer-sense is one of your most important skills, and you ignore it at your own peril.

But we do ignore it – a lot.  Out of laziness.  Out of over-fondness for our own writing.  Out of fear that changing this or that element will gut our story. But the most common reason I ignore my writer-sense is that I don’t totally trust it.  Writers – even “successful” ones, whatever that means – tend to walk around with a big lump of self-doubt caught in their throat.  Their writer-sense is like a malfunctioning gland, producing way too much self-suspicion than is necessary.  It stops serving as an Internal Affairs auditor keeping everyone honest, and becomes a micro-managing boss.

As a solution, writers generally tune their writer-sense out for the first draft.  Like a movie crew on a short schedule, they just keep shooting and if anything’s wrong – well, screw it, just fix it in post-production.  Character motivation not ringing true?  Fix it in post.  Gun in a desk drawer never mentioned before?  Fix it in post.  Burt Salamander’s ploy for infiltrating the Central Iguana Agency is stupid and contrived?  WHATEVER, JUST SHOOT THAT SCENE IT AND FIX IT IN POST.

None of this is really a problem, except when you get too used to tuning out that writer-sense, and this attitude carries into the second, third – or God help you – even the final draft.  Join any writer’s group and you’ll hear all the excuses for it: “My internal bullshit detector’s broken,” is a common one, as is  “I hate everything I write,” but the old down-home classic is always, “I never know when my writing’s good.”

Let me put this to rest: yes, you do know when your writing’s good.  Your writer-sense told you during editing, but you didn’t want to listen.  You left all that nasty stuff in there just in case it passed the sniff-test, either because you were too attached or couldn’t be bothered to do the work.  Don’t do that to your readers.  Don’t reveal all that gross, behind-the-curtain messiness.

You just had a beautiful story-baby, don’t show everyone the afterbirth and claim it’s part of your child.

I recently critiqued a friend’s novel.  It was quite good overall, but had some small issues with character dynamics and world-building.  Nothing drastic or major, just tweaks and spot rewrites.  When I emailed him my critique sheet, he replied that he was already aware of many issues I pointed out, but was glad I’d confirmed that they were a problem.  I can’t fault him for that, since it’s the same with me.  I know that when he finishes critiquing my novel, I’m already going to know half the things he’s going to say.

The middle sags.  Your secondary character’s motivation isn’t clear.  There are too many scenes where characters wax expositive.  The romantic sub-plot deserves a trip to the guillotine.  I know all these things, but I haven’t acted on them.  My writer-sense was going crazy, but I wanted a second opinion. In the meantime I’ve let these elements sit like prisoners on death row, hoping for a reprieve that’ll never come.  Better to act and be done with it – but I didn’t.

Because the truth is, rewriting can be a hard and painful process.  A second draft feels like re-setting bones.  To heal the story, you have to break it first, then put it back together with pins and plates.  If you don’t, the plot heals crooked and warped, and each successive draft covers the injury with scar tissue, making it more difficult to fix.

With this book, I didn’t trust my writer-sense.  I let fear take the wheel and tell me my writer-sense might be wrong, that I might cut something oh-so-valuable that I’d never recapture again.  That’s crap, by the way – if you’re smart about it and save your drafts, you can salvage anything that you find yourself missing too much.  But here’s the kicker: once it’s gone, you probably won’t miss it anyway.

Listen to your writer-sense.  Let it tell you something’s wrong.

Don’t make excuses.  Don’t hand your readers half-finished work. Fix your story today so it doesn’t limp through life.

Break your story’s legs so it stands tall and straight.