Fail Faster

fail-fast-and-follow-the-fun“It reads like homework.” That’s what my agent said when I sent her the first few chapters of my work in progress (WIP). If you heard a primal scream from the depths of the earth a couple of months ago, that was my soul in agony. I’d been working on this novel for most of the last year and hadn’t gotten very far. I had lots of reasons. I was ramping up for the launch of my first novel. I still had a demanding full-time job in high tech. And then there was just all the normal life stuff. But none of that really mattered. The truth of it was my agent was right. It read like homework because it felt like homework.

Now I should also say that my agent had many, many wonderful things to say about what I’d sent her. There were parts that she threatened me not to take out. (A threat she may have to fulfill when she reads the next draft because I zapped them.) She’s an incredibly supportive person, and I don’t know what I’d do without her. But I love working with her because she also honest with me in all things. And she was right. This draft was physically painful for me to write, just like my physics homework back in high school.

Here’s the thing with me. I’m a published novelist with a Big Five publisher. Believe me, I know how lucky I am. I also know that I got there with not only luck but also a lot of hard work, determination, and (OK, I’ll say it) talent. So this is what’s in my head. “I’ve done this before. I should know what I’m doing. It should be easier this time. I should be writing this second book a lot faster and smarter than the meandering road I took before.” I don’t, it’s not, and I’m not.

When I worked in high tech, I used to hear this saying over and over again. “Fail faster.” The idea is that we should embrace failure because it’s unavoidable. And we shouldn’t even try to avoid it because we learn from it. Just don’t spend a lot of time failing. Fail as fast as you can so you can learn and move on. It’s easier than it sounds, believe me. Actually, there aren’t many teams in high tech I’ve seen who do this well. But despite the lack of good practice, it’s still good advice. In a sense, it just means if it’s not working, then stop and do something else.

So I took a few steps back and rethought the main characters of my WIP and why they were even there. And when I did that, I saw what was completely obvious and what I should be writing. And in this new vision, I see a whole new world. I’m writing with joy again. I’m having fun. And you can tell in the words. It’s no longer homework. It’s passion, and it feels great.

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Shelly is the author of THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING, story of love and books in Silicon Valley. She lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband, two big dogs, and a disapproving cat.

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  1. Shelly, I felt exactly the same about writing number 2 – why was it taking so long? I should be writing cleaner, better prose? Why does it still suck? I get the feeling that never goes away.

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