I recently wrote a big list on the wall next to me of all the stories I've written to date. And, looking over it, I think I've written more duds than gems. The majority of my duds happened early in my writing experience of course, when I was ignorant of many of the best practices of story telling. That's to be expected. I just chalk these up to the growing pains any writer experiences as he learns a difficult craft.
But my later duds are harder to explain. I've been writing fiction for 15 years at this point. Either I should have learned how to tell a story by now, or I should give up. Yet, again and again, I dud out, and put stories on the page that I'm not only not proud of, I'm actually a little ashamed of.
Why? My flops fall into three categories.
1: I try something new. It gets boring telling stories in the same linear sequence, beginning at the beginning, ending at the end, telling the story with a reliable single POV character. So I occasionally get these brilliant ideas to tell the story backwards, or to make the narrator insane, or to attempt some new voice that I've never tackled before (I have a story called "40 Pound Hammer" that I tried to write in the voice of an illiterate 10 year old child that is just cringe-provoking when I read it). In retrospect, I'm usually tempted to try new techniques and approaches when I'm worried the story needs spicing up to make it interesting. So, most of these failed stories come not only from bad writing, but also have, at their centers, ideas I didn't fully believe in.
2: I try something old. Many of my duds result from my trying to mimic my own successes. My first real breakthrough story was "Empire of Dreams and Miracles." This was a story that initially met with nothing but rejections. Critique groups always split down the middle, with people telling me not to change a word and other dismissing it as rambling and wordy. I believed in the story, and still rank it as among my finest work. But, I have two other stories set in the same setting, based on characters introduced in "Empire." I have a story from the POV of the death-poet Makan called "One Plus One Equals One" and a story from the POV of Alandra, the Empire-protagonists ex-lover called "Tuesday Morning By the Sea When We Were Gods." Both are written in the same sensual, poetic voice I used in "Empire." Both are built around characters I found interesting and worth a second look. Both explore interesting aspects of the world of "Empire." And I gave up on both of them long ago. They just didn't pop for me. They are stories I wrote not because I had an idea that I got excited about and had to write, but because I had some success with a story and then went back to it looking for more ideas I could milk out of it.
3: Sow's ears. You really can't make silk purses out of them. Occasionally, the central idea I have for a story just sucks. I'm excited about them when I sit down to write, but in retrospect I shouldn't have been. These are often stories where I use heavily explored premises. I do this because I've sold heavily explored premises many times. Maybe the world didn't need yet another story about a comet that's going to hit the Earth, but, what the hell, I wrote one anyway, and liked it, and sold it to Asimov's. On the other hand, I wrote a time travel story about a guy who goes back into the past to warn his younger self about a mistake to avoid called "The Machine in His Mind." This was a pretty threadbare premise, but I thought I could make it my own with good writing and a character I loved. Today I still like the character, and I think my writing in that story is some of my best--it's tight and focused, funny when it should be funny, moving when it should be moving. But, I look at the story now as a flop and rarely try to market it. It flops because good writing and likable characters still aren't enough to make readers shake off the "been there, done that" feeling they get when they read the story. No amount of further line editing or tweaking is ever going to overcome the hurdle that the idea the story is based on is well past its shelf date. If I'd written the story in 1890, man, I'd have a hit on my hands. But ten-thousand time travel stories later, there just isn't enough new there to justify the stories existance.
The extra special bonus reason #4 why I often write duds: If you want to be a writer, you gotta write. And my best writing, the stuff I'm in love with, usually comes to me from some moment of clarity and inspiration where I realize I have something big to say and have stumbled upon the proper vehicle to say it. But, if I only waited for these moments of clarity and inspiration, I might be lucky to write a story every other year. If you want to make it as a writer, you have to have the discipline to make yourself sit down and write a story even when you don't have clarity and inspiration, even when you haven't got a damn thing to say, even when you hate your characters and you hate the voice of the story and you hate the stupid premise that you've pulled out of your mental hat. You gotta punch those keys and hope that magic happens. Sometimes, it does. You get 1000 words into the worst story you've ever tried to tell and BOOM, the lightning strikes, and suddenly all is right with the universe. But, if the lightning doesn't strike, you haven't wasted your time. The hours you spend slogging through the swamps of your duds help you build up strength and endurance for when the you finally do have the golden idea handed to you.
To change analogies in midstream, if you're not striking out from time to time, you're not swinging for the fences.