Fail Fast or Succeed Slowly?

I know that the “fail fast” mantra of the tech world is not universally accepted, but  I’ve heard it repeated frequently enough to wonder at its wisdom. In the world of Silicon Valley start-ups, a fast failure yields lessons learned, some takeaway that will leave the entrepreneur better positioned to monetize his or her next idea. But here on planet publishing (an alternate and occasionally dystopian reality peopled with fewer angel investors) I think “succeed slowly” makes more sense. Publishing is a long game–a marathon not a sprint–and good books take time. A work in progress can pass through several unsuccessful iterations before it sells, and the learning curve (though painful) is an essential part of the process. Writing is one of the few fields in which the totality of a practitioner’s lived experience counts as on-the-job training. I’ve seen writers whose first (several) attempts at authorhood flopped go on to become “overnight successes.”

Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing—the notion  that a writer should omit details in order to allow the reader to fully apprehend the whole—could just as easily be applied to the process of becoming a writer.  Most of the time, every visible published work floats atop a submerged mountain of failures, false-starts, and otherwise discarded manuscript pages sturdy enough to down a Titanic.

I’m no Luddite, but I’m skeptical of the fail fast preachers and their proselytes. Of course, the book business has little in common with the tech industry—no snack filled break rooms, no on-site dry cleaning , no  IPOS. As far as I can tell, conversations via emoji are still rare (and I dispute the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words, because really, can a winking smiley moon face ever be  le mot juste?) but here I’d say that’s just as well.

What do you think—can/should writers fail fast?

3 Responses to Fail Fast or Succeed Slowly?

  1. A good question.

    As an Agility Consultant in the computer technology field, I make a lot of money ripping out old, dead, moldy and downright money-sucking project processes from developmental groups and applying updated industry-standard methodologies. Agile developmental methodologies work in my industry very well, otherwise, nobody would make a living “installing” them.

    Can these agile concepts translate to writers? That’s a trick question. At its core, “fail faster” is simply the acknowledgement that mistakes will be made and that the sooner you make them, the better off everyone will be.

    But, and this is a mega-big-but, (heh, heh) agility processes are not failure based. Agility development is an advancement in fields that rely on creativity. Creative processes are organic and come from people. Creative people, by and large, need flexibility to produce creative output. That is the core of being Agile.

    Failing faster is just a side benefit.

    Your musing on fail faster talks about industry but then you ask your question about writers and that is the trick question. Writers on the traditional publishing track are already subscribing to a process. Fail faster has no process attribute other than the query pass/fail process. Once “in”, they don’t have a choice.

    Independent authors, on the other hand, are an Army of One even when they act as hiring agents for editing, cover art, etc. They are already agile. While I’ve advised writers on failing faster, what I’ve tried to instill in them is the concept of learning by getting product in front of readers.

    Could the publishing industry apply agile methodologies and produce better books for more readers faster? Absolutely, but agility has to start at the very top. To become agile you have to change the processes, programs and people. The top of the food chain must be the first convert, because the people who won’t change have to be let go.

  2. D.C. DaCosta says:

    Fail fast or succeed slowly = sell junk now, or write valuable literature a little bit later on

  3. Lynn says:

    I think you answered your own question. It’s impossible for a writer to fail fast because it takes a long time to write a novel, so there’s nothing fast about it. Then there’s the slow process you mentioned for a manuscript to reach publication.

    Unless I misunderstood your question and you’re asking whether a writer should give up quickly, well each person has to decide that for himself. Still, I would venture to say, the time a writer has invested in his/her story, s/he isn’t going to give up that easily.

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