They taught me not to fail

They didn't teach me to succeed.

Most if not all aspiring writers go through a phase in their careers where they find themselves collecting a lot of rejection letters that begin or end with the dreaded sentence, “There is nothing wrong with this story, but I’m not going to buy it.”

This dreaded phrase often, then, results in the gnashing of teeth, wailing, some cursing, and ululating cries of “But if there’s nothing wrong with it, why won’t you buy it?!”

Truly, one thinks, editors are the biggest asshole gatekeepers of all. What does one have to do to impress these motherfuckers?

And so I thought also, until by various means I was enlightened.

So here I am to share that enlightenment with you, and it will not even cost you a fruit basket.

The sad fact of the matter is simply this: stories don’t sell because of what they don’t do wrong. They sell because of what they do right.

Any quick scan of forums talking about the Harry Potter books will confirm this for you. The internet is just chock full of people who are extremely angry that J.K.Rowling is a popular as she is when she Does So Many Things Wrong, with the adverbs and passive voice and so forth.

A lot of writing advice books like to concentrate on all the things you’re probably doing wrong, it so happens, and tell you how not to do those things. This—along with modern school systems where the goal is Not To Fail—trains writers to think in terms of not doing things wrong, not making mistakes, etc.

That’s because it’s much easier to tell people what not to do and set up a bunch of arbitrary rules about that stuff than it is to tell them how to do things right—because doing things right is hard and complicated and nobody can really tell you how to do it. You just have to play around, practicing and developing your voice and learning how to double down on the things you do well and do them ever better, until you learn how to catch and hold the interest of readers. Not all the readers (I’m not sure anybody can do that) but at least some of the readers most of the time.

I’ve often said that following all those rules about what not to do without developing a list of things you do right will turn you into the literary equivalent of a garage band, and the thing about garage bands is that they all sound alike. Bands that develop a sound, though—those can go on to greater things. With luck, and more luck, and some persistence.

A lot of that sound is composed of shortcuts and tricks and idiosyncracies, and that’s fine.

In writing, we call this thing voice, and in my estimation it’s probably the single most important thing in making a story compelling. Unfortunately, except for those rare writers who seem gifted with it out of the gate, the only way I know of developing it is a lot of practice, and a lot of reading and thinking about what makes one like or dislike another writer’s work.

Then you steal their tricks, and come up with a few of your own, and voila, before too long, voice emerges.

Voice is not the only thing one needs to do right, of course—and the more things you can do right, the better your chances of building and sustaining a career.

So stop worrying so much about whatever Bob in your writing group told you you were doing wrong, and think more about doing things right. Because not failing is not tha same thing as succeeding, don’tchaknow.