Fail Faster

Time for a postmortem of my latest novella. Normally I’d just write an afterwords and move on but this time there were a lot of issues with Out of Water beyond what I’d normally write about in this space so, instead of doing a standard afterwords, I though I’d write something a little more technical.

“Fail faster” is a common adage in the creative community; whether it be in terms of art or general “design” the notion gets bandied about a lot. In point of fact, one of the few groups of creative people who don’t say it a lot are writers. There’s good reason for that as I now understand. See, the notion is to start doing something, screw it up and then immediately stop, examine what went wrong and start over on a newer, better product. It can be hard to leave your babies behind but iterative work is a big part of improving on craft, whether it be carving, painting or furniture design. The faster you can make something and judge it’s effectiveness the faster you can get started on hammering out the flaws and trying again.

Of course, writers do have fail faster safeties if they want them. That’s why they can outline, for instance. Making character sketches is another tool in this vein. But the ultimate test of writing comes when you set pen to paper or pixels to bytes and start your actual writing. Some flaws in your story just don’t become apparent until you’re writing it.

The writing equivalent of fail faster is kill your babies.

I knew, somewhere around chapter eight, that Out of Water had gone off course. Not just because I was really busy at the time, although that certainly didn’t help. No, there were fundamental problems with the story and how I’d gone about executing it, namely –

  •  I’d tried a new method of outlining. Normally I use the beat outline but I thought I’d experiment this time around and, long story short, the method I’d decided to try out did not match my writing style well and I hadn’t seen problems I probably would have noticed otherwise.
  • There was too much in the story. Again, I might I have noticed it with a better outline but I was trying to tackle a story with too many subplots and characters for the format I was trying to execute in.
  • Speaking of, the novella format was chosen without regard to what the story actually needed. I’ve had a rough outline of what I wanted to happen with Oscar, Herrigan and the whole nation of crusty former prison colonists for years. Tossing the Australians into the mix was something I definitely wanted happening at this point but I didn’t stop to ask myself whether a novella would work for that story – it didn’t – I just set out to write one because I really enjoyed writing The Antisocial Network earlier this year.

As soon as these problems were apparent I should have stopped, posted a quick apology and shifted content to other stuff I’d been wanting to write about. I even considered doing it for a week or so. But I decided to press on and the story truly felt worse as a result.

The fact is I wound up with two stories, one establishing a trio of new Australian characters and just as many new trenchmen, with all the dynamics and tensions that many characters are naturally going to have, and another focusing on Herrigan, Lauren and the question of how a society can draw boundaries without being hypocritical. I’d always thought of Alcatraz as a uniquely libertarian kind of society as a kind of rebellion against its prison roots and I wanted to explore the limits, pros and cons of how such a society might deal with law breakers, especially as compared and contrasted against one more like the modern West.

Unfortunately I don’t think Out of Water was that story.

While it may have been better to terminate Out of Water early and start afresh I did learn the lessons of the story clearly. The new outline format was interesting to experiment with but I won’t be using it going forward. In the future I’ll be especially mindful of how much I bite off for each story and how the format meshes with it. I don’t know if an expanded version of Out of Water is in the works or not, given that a big part of failing faster is moving on quickly to new projects rather than dwelling on those that may not be salvageable. Time will tell… but I would hold my breath.

Tune in next week and we’ll talk about something (or somethings) evil. And no, they’re not vaguely bad thematic puns.

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