The Importance of Failure

Considering its significance in the life of a writer, we really don’t talk enough about failure. This is a shame, because failure is a good thing. Things are sometimes meant to fail. They can fail for any number of reasons. For one thing, the world may not be ready for them. This is a tough one, and all you can do is shrug and say something along the lines of ‘But your kids are gonna love it!’ (there’s a Marty McFly quote for almost every occasion) and move on.

More frequently, they may not be ready for the world. You may have written something that had a decent idea at its heart, but ultimately failed in its execution. In my case, it’s usually (but not exclusively) the ending that needed more work. But you sent it out anyway, because you’d rushed to meet the deadline, so it would have been a waste of effort, right?

Occasionally, a rush job gets through and while this can be gratifying in the short term, in the longer term it can be something of an embarrassment. For example, my first ever competition winner, the story ‘Convalescence’, was a classic last minute effort. I vividly remember racing over to the University of Hertfordshire on the actual morning of the deadline in order to deliver my entry by hand before 9 o’clock. I had about 5 minutes to spare. I was dead chuffed to win third prize for that, although it was only when I was proofreading my entry for the anthology that I realised that my protagonist had changed his name from Mr Sanderson to Mr Anderson half way through. More importantly, it was only when I submitted it to an audio story magazine for possible publication a couple of years later that I got the feedback I needed to get the confused ending sorted out. So the version that appears in DOT DASH is significantly different from the one that appears in the University of Hertfordshire’s VISION anthology.

What would have happened if ‘Convalescence’ had failed at the UoH, as perhaps it should have done? At the time, it would probably have been a bad thing for me, because the success of that story was what gave me the green light to make a proper commitment to my writing. But what if I’d taken that failed story and fixed the issues with it and then sent it in to another competition? Would it have won a first prize somewhere?

Obviously, I’ll never know. It’s equally possible that it wouldn’t have won anything at all anywhere else. Such is the nature of competitions.

The reason why I’m thinking about failure today is that yesterday I failed to make the longlist for the Bath Short Story Award. I was slightly miffed about this at the time, but after some more thought I’m actually quite pleased, because it was the first time out for the story in question and, while the idea had been germinating for a loooong time (we’re talking several years here), I did run out of road shortly before the deadline. I had to drop one entire section of the story that I just didn’t have time to sort out, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have a proper go at that. Also, in the time between sending it in and yesterday’s announcement (not that I’ve been going over it in my head for the last few months, oh no), I’ve come to realise that I missed at least one significant trick, and there are also things about the overall background to the story that I’ve explained badly or not at all.

So it’s possible that there is a more exciting future for that story. It’s also possible that I may have got it completely wrong and that the central idea is fundamentally flawed to the extent that no-one’s ever going to be interested in it. But what I can say is that the way it was when I sent it in to the BSSA, it didn’t deserve to make the cut. I should add that if it hadn’t have been for the BSSA deadline, it probably wouldn’t have got written at all. I need deadlines, even if the way my brain actually handles them is highly suspect.

Of course, it’s going to be trickier to rationalise what happens when the Bristol Prize longlist is announced next week, because the story I’ve sent there is one that has failed and not-quite failed on a number of occasions already and is now at the point where I think it’s about as good as it’s ever going to get. So next Wednesday could be a difficult day for me 🙂

In other news, I found out yesterday that Poetry Kit have made LOVE AND LOSS AND OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF their Book of the Month for July, so it’s not all bad by any means. And that takes me to another key point about failure. Failure is a lot easier to handle when you have more than one iron in the fire. Chances are that unless you’re amazingly unlucky or inept, something is going to come good.

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