Lessons from Failure

In the technology field, a popular mantra goes, Fail early and fail often. The idea being to try out new ideas while the company is still new, understand your mistakes, then incorporate these lessons into future products. I’ve been applying this to my writing, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Along the way I learned that this idea is incomplete.  The full mantra should be: Fail early, fail fast, fail often, fail smart, fail forward.

Fail early

A writer’s career doesn’t start with publication. It begins when he puts pen to paper, when he commits to writing. It doesn’t matter how famous that person is; when he’s got nothing to his name he’s writing on a blank slate. At that point, with no writing brand to his name, he can afford to make mistakes. The kind of mistakes needed to grow. Mistakes like telling too much, using overly fanciful writing, switching points of view too many times. He needs to finish his stories and send them out, and learn what he can from the inevitable wave of negative feedback. In my case, I learned these mistakes with the first series of Michael Chang stories, and all the other stories I wrote along the way that never saw the light of day.

Later in the writer’s career, when he has an established brand, failing early takes on a new light. ‘Early’ no longer means finishing a story and publishing it or sending it out. ‘Early’ means the space between writing the first word and before publication. If a pro’s story has to fail, let it fail before people see it. This minimises the risk to a writer’s professional brand, and maximises the space, time and resources available to fix the mistakes that led to the failure. This skill can be thought of as internal quality checking, and it’s a skill that can only be learned by failing early in one’s career.

Fail fast

Writing is work. Writing is an investment of time and energy. As an indie writer, it is also an investment in money — to cover the cost of publication. Failing fast in this context means reaching the point of failure fast enough to minimise sunk costs. For instance, when a short story reaches a point of failure, the writer would have spent between a week to a month working on it. A 300000 word doorstopper, on the other hand, requires much more time to write, and to pick out points of failure. And in that time, that story is not generating any return on investment — only costs. By failing fast, one minimises costs and the time needed to incorporate new lessons. It also enables the writer to produce even more stories, eventually leading to success.

The key to failing fast is producing what is termed the minimal viable product. This is the smallest possible package that encapsulates the functions and ideas of the overall concept. In a computer game, this would be a single sequence that showcases the core mechanics. In the manga industry, publishers test the market by publishing a lengthy one-shot piece, and if the audience is receptive the author is given a contract to extend the one-shot into a series. When seen in the context of writing, this means short stories and novellas. American Sons, for instance, was a proof-of-concept story that opened the way to a wider series. I’ve also been working on a fresh set of short stories, banging out the ideas in my head, and modifying or rejecting them accordingly.

Fail often

One failure is not going to be enough. The craft of writing encompasses a staggering array of fields, some relevant to a given writer, some not. Some writers (like myself) have a huge array of interests, and the only way to tell what works and what doesn’t is to write stories and see which work the best. When a writer goes pro, he has to decide what price points and distribution channels work for him, because everybody’s situation is different. The only way to learn these lessons is to see what does not work and adapt accordingly.

This ties back to the earlier principles. Failing fast and often is practically a necessity in fast-paced fields, and the indie publishing revolution is transforming the industry into one. To fail often, one needs time, energy and resources; to minimise expenditure of these assets on failures, one has to fail fast and fail early. I have a portfolio of about two dozen short stories, written in the past two years; a number of them are too poor to be published, but they served as lessons for the road. By failing often, a writer learns that much more often.

Fail smart

Failing is easy. One simply refuses to experiment, refuses to think, refuses to plan, refuses to do. But that’s not the point of the failure mantra. To fail smart is to look back on one’s failures, to understand what worked and what did not. This is the point of failing so many times. By not picking up these lessons, there is little point in failing to begin with.

Failing smart requires a great deal of honesty and professionalism. Creators need large egos to stand true to their work during the process of creation, but when it is done they need to be able to stand apart and understand what went wrong. This means knowing when to stand fast and when to adapt, when to defend yourself and when to acquiesce. This means being so well acquainted with the bitter taste of failure and criticism that it is no longer repulsive. At that point, the writer can look back on his work with a critical eye, and learn what needs to be learned.

Fail forward

The final edition of Keepers of the Flame was nowhere close to the first draft. The novel went through five major revisions and multiple minor ones before taking its final form. And yet it only took a little over two years of total writing and editing time to complete. That was because I made a point to apply the lessons I had learned and quickly turn things around, revising over and over and over again until I could not improve on the manuscript any further. I failed early and fast enough that mistakes could be corrected, often enough that I picked out the major flaws of the story, and set myself up to fail with an eye towards learning.

The principle of failing forward is to apply the lessons you have learned. If you must fail, do so with an eye towards self-improvement. Do it consciously, so that it becomes a learning process. Failure is something to be acknowledged, to be embraced, and to build upon. Otherwise, failure simply becomes the equivalent of mindlessly bashing one’s head against a concrete wall over and over and over again.

Embracing failure

Singapore is a risk-averse culture. Singapore is a place where failure is verboten, a sign of weakness and lack of capability. I suspect this is true for every culture and institution that seeks to create people who to perpetuate the system instead of creating new things. Yet failure is precisely what is needed to grow and to create. The school of hard knocks endures because sometimes it is the only way to truly learn something.

Embrace failure. The road to success is pitted and rocky, and those who walk the way of the pen will trip and fall many, many times. But each failure contains the seed of success, showing how to avoid future pitfalls and how to find smoother roads. This is the philosophy I choose for my work, and maybe, just maybe, it will pay off soon.

Lessons from Failure
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