Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Writing Wednesday: "He never wasted a single failure"

I got dragons to write, so this one's going to be short and sweet :)

Writing Wednesday: "He never wasted a single failure."

So as you guys might know, I'm a pretty big anime nerd, and my current show of obsession is Food Wars (aka Shokugeki no Soma)!

This show is SO GOOD, YOU GUYS!

On the surface, it appears to be just another goofy shonen school fighting anime that picked cooking and rampant nudity as its hooks to stand out in a crowded market. I actually ignored it for several months because I thought it was all gimmick, but after one episode, I realized I was epically wrong. Food Wars is amazing! Not only is it a perfectly executed fighting anime with some of the best tension I've ever seen (trust me, give this thing three episodes and you will be obsessively binge watching anime characters cook rice just like the rest of us) and awesome cooking techniques that are based in reality, the writing is really freaking good.

This is noteworthy in and of itself. I'm a pretty big anime fan, but even I can admit that story, especially on the episode level, is sometimes a weak point in the genre. This goes double for a weird series like this that has so much else going on, but so far Food Wars seems incapable of screwing up. The tension mechanics at work so perfect it hurts and the large cast is both amazingly well drawn and expertly handled so no one gets lost. These would all be (and are) fantastic reasons to watch the show, but what really knocked my socks off was the dialogue writing. Even in translation, there are several lines that made me green with envy, but my stand out favorite of the first season was

"He never wasted a single failure."

Staying vague to avoid spoilers, this is a line said about the main character Soma (the red head in the picture above) during the season finale. One thing to understand about Soma is that, while he is your typical shonen hero in that he is freakishly good in his chosen arena (cooking, in this case), he earned every bit of his expertise and power. There's no Ichigo nonsense here where power's just handed to a random Japanese teen who then goes on to use it better than anyone else. No. Soma freaking worked his ass off, failing over and over again as he learned and practiced his craft. The anime shows us this very cleverly in multiple ways, teaching us about the enormous amount of work that went into Soma's extreme confidence. He's confident because he knows he is good, and he knows he is good because he has practiced his entire life.

So what does all of this have to do with writing? Well, one of my favorite parts about Food Wars is the emphasis the story puts on practice and technique. With one notable exception (cough, Erika) no one in the series gets by on natural talent. Everyone competing in the insane cooking-is-everything world of Totsuki Academy got to where they are by working their butts off. Every character--heroes, villains, side characters, comic relief--is constantly shown practicing their chosen area of cooking and straining their brains to come up with new creative twists on old recipes. These people don't just cook for the battles. They cook for fun, they cook for each other, they cook just because they can. They cook because they love cooking and dream of getting good enough to what they love for a living at the top level, and this emphasis on the joy, skill, and creativity of practicing a craft this makes the show one of the closest, most accurate parallels to my experience of writing that I've ever seen in any media.

Also, because this is a cooking anime and not a fighting show, losing a fight doesn't mean dying. Counter intuitively, this lack of life-or-death stakes actually raises the tension of the show because you don't know if the main character is going to win. He can, and often does, fail. But the show doesn't stop there. Not only do Soma's failures over the season serve to heighten the tension of the show as a whole, but the story has him learn from his mistakes. As the series unfolds, we learn that Soma has actually failed way way WAY more than we initially realized, and the strength of his character isn't just that he didn't let these set backs kill his dream, it's that he had the presence of mind to learn from every single one.

Every time he was defeated or a dish failed because he made a mistake or a wrong choice, he took a lesson from it. He didn't mope or cry to try to blame his failures on the circumstances. He took personal responsibility for each one, because he was the chef, and the chef is responsible for the kitchen. He also looked critically at each failure and learned from it, taking new techniques and experience from every set back. Lessons that he then turns around and uses to enormous effect at the end of the series, prompting my favorite line:

He never wasted a single failure.

The moment I read it, this line became my new mantra, because writing is full of failure. It's a hard craft that relies enormously on experience and personal creativity. It's not something you can just walk into. To get good at writing stories--really good, publishable quality good--you have to practice, which is a nice way of saying you have to fail. And if you want to stop failing quite so much, then you have to learn from those mistakes.

When you look at it that way, failures aren't actually failures. They're chances to improve. I know that sounds like some cheesy self-help book nonsense, but it's true. If you're serious about improving your craft, then you can not afford to get emotional about your inevitable mistakes. You can not waste a single failure. Writing is hard work. Things go wrong. But if you respond to mistakes by just throwing up your hands or getting emotional without stopping to figure out why the mistake happened in the first place, then you are wasting all of that effort. You are wasting your failure, and that's a crying shame, because you already paid the price. You already screwed up, losing your words and the time it too you write them. You probably already feel bad about it, too. That's a hefty price to pay, so why not get something useful for it? Never waste a mistake. Learn from your failures, and they are what becomes the foundation of your experience.

When you see an experienced writer with multiple books under their belt, you are seeing someone who has failed multiple times and not just persevered, but learned from their mistakes. This is true in writing or cooking or any other creative craft. This is why experience is so vital, because it is painful to get. Experience is failure. It's messing up, learning, and moving on to do better. And that's wonderful news, because it means failure isn't actually failure. So long as you learn something from your mistake and improve over all, then you haven't actually failed. You've just become more experienced,

It's the whole "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" idea, but better, because survival is guaranteed. No one died from a writing mistake, and that gives you power. Power to mess up as many times as you need to. Power to make the mistakes you need to become the best version of yourself. I find that incredibly motivating, and I hope you do, too.

Thank you for reading, and I really hope you give Food Wars a watch. It's utterly ridiculous with completely ludicrous amounts of gratuitous, inexplicable nudity for both sexes, but if you can get past all that, there is an amazing show underneath that is absolutely worth your time.

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♥ Rachel


Ken Hughes said...


All I can say is, this really does nail down what it comes to. "Never give up" is so straightforward it's a cliche, but this zeroes in on those "failures" as what they mean *next*, as a chance to not just endure but take control of a chance to learn. Even then, it pushes it further: it's not just a "chance," it's a *waste* if you don't take it.

And like you added, it's a particular waste since we've already paid the hardest part of the price.

--Or have we?

There's a wrinkle: if we *do* waste a failure, what does that mean? What is it we're putting ahead of success-- denial about what it is we could improve ("my plot must be fine, I'll just do another two rounds the dialog"), or about change at all ("the editor's wrong, this book is fine"), or just lack of commitment and the energy to push through these? I'd say it's people who get past those limits that can live that lesson, and the ones who don't that have "reasons" for staying stuck.

But man, I have to look into that show now...

Nick Green said...

Sounds a fascinating show in many respects, but I've never been able to watch more than five minutes of any cooking show! The obsession with cooking that some people have has never touched me. Shame though... They could have called it The Hunger Games.