So, I think about writing all the time. About characters and settings and plots; about, in the end, the stories that are more than the sum of all those things. I think about not just the stories I write, but also those I read.
It’s important to think about, and to learn from, the stories and writers you admire. Whether that admiration is for the whole package, or for just an element or two, there is (almost) always something to study and learn. But just as important — if considerably less pleasant — is the need to learn from the…err, less successful* stories and writers.
*And, yes, I am in fact using “less successful” as a euphemism for BAD.
When I watch some jackass set himself on fire in a drunken stunt gone wrong, I learn that most important of human lessons: don’t do that. When I read some book where everything falls apart in a raging inferno of shitty characters or bad plotting, I (hopefully!) learn that same lesson: don’t do that.
But learning don’t do that isn’t enough, no more than is just learning the other great lesson of be more like this. No, you have to continually work and think to apply those lessons to your own writing, too. You have to be able to look at your own stuff like a reader, and to find and understand the flaws in your stuff even more than you do in the works of others.
There are a great many people who can identify the flaws in what they read. Whether they have knowledge and vocabulary to explain those flows is immaterial, they can see and feel them. What sets the “few” apart from the “many” in this respect, however, is the ability to see and feel the flaws in your own stuff.
My whole object in thinking about writing all the time is to learn that third great lesson of life: try to fail less. You can’t beat yourself up about failure — that way lies madness, trust me — but nor can you be afraid of it. If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never try…and that lack of trying is the greatest failure of all.
Look, everyone who writes starts off rough. Everyone has their collection of “trunk material,” the stuff that will never (and should never, honestly) see the light of day. As Stephen King once said, the first million words are practice. But those initial, arguably necessary, “failures,” those opportunities to learn, are one of the greatest barriers to making this whole thing work. The vast majority of folks, no matter how great or how small their talent, often give up the authorial ghost with that first “failure.” They simply stop trying.
Which of those failures was worse? Writing a bad story? Or refusing to start on the next one?
By now, you probably know my answer to that…
Now, I do have to add one caveat here. If you write that first bad story, then start on the next one with no effort to learn from the first, nor to improve…well, let’s just add that to the list that defines writers who are less successful.
The military has this concept of the After Action Report. It records everything that happened in a particular incident (battle, accident, event, etc..). Now, the record itself is valuable, but the greatest value is found in explaining and understanding the mistakes — of judgment, of execution, of command — that are part of any operation. Listing those mistakes, and going on to define the Lessons Learned for the future, is the heart of the whole damned thing.
In writing terms, that translates to doing an After Action Report on what you write. What went right? What went wrong? What can you do differently to improve the next one?*
*By the way, this whole concept works in pretty much any sphere of life — I used to do it after every single project, back when I was still living the life of a cubicle-weasel.
I would guess that most writers already think about that stuff when wrapping up a story, but just thinking about it gives far too many chances, and too much excuse, to “forget.” Or even, sadly, to ignore. No, do yourself a favor and do an actual written AAR document. It is really hard to not internalize and understand/learn the lessons when you write them out.
On a personal level, I have an ever-growing spreadsheet of Lessons Learned from every story I’ve written — good, bad or indifferent. And I fully expect to keep that sheet
growing as I keep writing. Remember, my goal is not to not fail, it is to fail less. In the end, the only way to not fail is to go all Wargames and not play, and that’s just not an option.