Learning to Fail Better

“Learning to Fail Better” is a chapter title in Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of A Story. The chapter is about revision, but I have been thinking of the title in the context of my overall journey as a writer.

Like many fiction writers, I started my journey writing short stories during my elementary school years. I still have some of those stories. They are charming. They show real promise, a sense of detail and some imaginative twists, but are fundamentally derivative works, inspired by the stories my teachers read aloud in class.

In late elementary school, I tried my hand at a longer piece and got stuck trying to develop a plot. I couldn’t figure out how to build a narrative and I abandoned the project in despair. That failure was pivotal in the path I have taken on my return to writing fiction as an adult.

I was the perfect participant for NaNoWriMo, that annual mad dash of bad novel-writing. I had wanted to write a novel since elementary school, but had let my fear of writing a bad one stop me from writing at all.

The first year, I gave myself permision to write a horrible novel. I wrote a 50,000+ word narrative centered on a single character’s journey. There were some interesting characters, but the plot was horrible. Realizing this, I spent the next year studying plot. The following November, I dove into NaNoWriMo with an outline of half a plot and an idea of where to go from there. But, the idea wasn’t enough and I stalled.

But, I wasn’t done. I kept thinking and studying and writing some short stories.

The following year, I started NaNoWriMo with a full narrative arc planned and a Liquid Story Binder file with a description of what would happen in each chapter. By writing each chapter in that outline, I ended NaNoWriMo with a complete first draft of a middle-grade novel.

It was a messy first draft, but it was my first complete long-form narrative.

I was still failing to write a publishable novel, but I was failing better.

No book is ever perfect, but maybe, if I keep going, one day, I may have failed at a publishable level. And that is the goal.

What does the idea of learning to fail better mean to you?


About Kate Arms-Roberts


Posted on April 13, 2012, in Education, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Great post! I loved hearing about your creative progression and your current levels of success. Congratulations on the middle-grade novel! Hearing about your achievement makes me want to get one of my half-finished YA novels out of the archives of yesteryear and start writing on it again.

    Your progression sounded pretty normal to me – similar to phases we all go through to develop our writing – including the time gaps in the learning curve. Which brings me to one answer to your excellent question: learning to fail better means judging myself less harshly for my needed learning curves.

    Another one is faster recovery time. The pain of failing, or of being negatively critiqued, is no less intense than it used to be. But I can (usually) recover much faster these days.

    Thanks for the link to the Liquid Story Binder. I didn’t know about that. I’ve bookmarked it in case it calls to me at some stage as a tool that would help.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      The point about faster recovery time is a great one. I hadn’t thought about that as part of my journey, but it absolutely is.

  2. I get why you’re describing this as “learning to fail better.” To me it’s “applying the left brain to a right-brain pursuit.” It may seem intuitively obvious to you that if you write a book with a weak plot, you recognize that and start studying plot. But the self-improvement steps you describe here are not often enough pursued by creatives. I’m glad you do, but I’m not surprised.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Balancing the creative and the analytical is hard. Once that logic brain kicks in, it doesn’t want to let go. I think a lot of creatives struggle with the balance. If the relationship with inspiration feels at all tenuous, inviting the analytical is frightening.

  3. John Stoltzfus

    Thank you Kate for writing about learning to fail better, and for asking what it means to me.
    “Learning to fail better” sounds to me like
    shaking free from my insistence to get it right the first time,
    breaking loose from my hesitation to engage in further
    while thinking I won’t get it right,
    and breathing more freely now.

    Have an awesome day

  1. Pingback: You Can’t Be Published If You Don’t Play « The Artist's Road

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