Aiming High Part 2: Failure = New Information

Last week I worked through the idea of trying to capture one’s aspirations with as much detail as you can bear. The justification being that specific objectives enable one to create a useful plan or map of how to reach those objectives. The alternative is a sort of fuzzy goal that may or may not be succeeded at any one time, because the definition of failure is also iteratively fuzzy. Writers seem to be particularly poor at defining success in this way. I’ve given it a little thought and there seems to be some sort of connection to personality types. A short while back I wrote a couple of posts on creative personality types and whether one could be orderly and creative.

It would make sense that writers, being skewed towards the creative end of the personality spectrum, but perhaps scoring more lowly on the analytical and/or conscientious side of things, enjoy the experiential journey aspect of writing; the voyage of discovery that occurs upon the blank page. Often the destination becomes secondary to the simple joy of seeing the words pile up. And that may account for the reason why writers love to write, but don’t necessarily have specific end points in mind. This problem is exacerbated by the ferocious competitive nature of the arts – the chances of having a submission accepted by a literary agent and/or publisher tend towards zero because the industry is so demanding and the potential entrants vastly outnumber the amount of spaces on offer. So even the specificity of a goal such as “attaining a literary agent” is attenuated by the vast number of other people also vying for the same endgame, with such a small chance of success. A reasonably specific endgoal becomes something rather vague.

Engineers on the other hand, to take an example, are driven by the solution to a problem. the how matters, of course, but not as much as the fact that you’ve solved the problem. That’s the critical issue. And engineers are particularly good at fathoming pathways that will lead to the desired goal. They’re also good at introducing test points in their methodology, and then including scope for modification.

A couple of weeks ago I watched the excellent Netflix documentary Return To Space which heavily focuses upon Elon Musk’s company SpaceX and its efforts to revolutionise the space sector. Traditionally (and rather amusingly), the space sector worked in much the same way as your common or garden fiction author. Develop a rocket, get it to the best possible quality you absolutely could in the lab and testing facilities (or writing group), and then launch it. It’s a bet-the-farm approach. If it fails, then you’re nowhere. Musk’s approach is to “move fast and break stuff.” That is, develop a product at pace but rather than spend huge amounts of money and time on reducing the window of risk of failure to 0.1%, allow for a much larger window of failure, but develop it at pace, test it, and if it breaks, learn what you can and move on. As such, Falcon 1 only launched successfully at the fourth attempt. That rate of failure would cripple any traditional launch programme.

Move fast, break stuff. Literally.

In Musk’s eyes, each failure brings with it a wealth of new information, and opens up windows of understanding that can only be accessed by letting the rubber hit the road.

Could this approach be applied to writers, especially those who are subbing manuscripts to agents? Well, to an extent we already do this, but rather imperfectly. We develop a manuscript, send it to agents/publishers, and let the rejections mount up. Very occasionally we receive feedback, (which is gold dust by the way. Hoover that stuff up) but most of the time it’s a flat “no” without explanation. So you can intimate that something’s wrong but you can’t put your finger on it. And without that it’s hard to know what to fix, and how to modify your plan.

This is where the engineering mindset may come in useful. Taking a new look at the system may enable us to examine alternative means of achieving the goal, or even tweaking the definition of the goal (without reducing its specificity). Last week I mentioned that I reached a point , after around ten rejections or so of my manuscript for The Green Man, and I realised I couldn’t go on with this endless cycle of tweaking the cover letter, tweaking the synopsis, and going again. Something had to change.

For me, starting Chronscast was that thing that I did differently. And allowing the rubber to hit the road of that allowed me to learn on how to improve it and what I could tweak to allow me to wend an alternative way to reaching my goal.

Now, it’s not like everyone will want to create a podcast. But what it revealed to me is that there is always something different and innovative that is available to us if we allow ourselves to think about it. There may be events and communities to join or leverage. There may be social media, or book groups, or festivals. Read more books! (That one never gets old. Almost every guest on Chronscast recommends that old chestnut). You can allow yourself to be freer in these novel exchanges. Move fast and break stuff. Figure out what leads to new opportunities, and what’s a dead end, without the abject frustration of sending your novel off into the ether and waiting three months for a form rejection. What became apparent was that Chronscast was not directly a way to get published. But it would give me different perspectives, different ideas and different angles I hadn’t considered. And each new idea helped me to add more detail and more possibility to that overarching plan.

And that enables us to get back to enjoying the experiential journey, which is where a lot of writers (me included) derive their pleasure. But all of a sudden we get that extra kick of dopamine in the knowledge that these new activities are driving us towards our specific goals.

So my recommendation to writers who are frustrated by the constant grind of submissions would be to stop and think again about what’s possible. Writing is a very slow business. Committing two or three years to a manuscript that fails without explanation is pretty mortifying. So are there ways in which you can fail quickly? What do you think?

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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