Story Fail, Critique Win! Or, My Story Will Rise Again!

Red Bleed by Jon Coffelt
Another post about failing and just how awesome it can be!
I brought the first half of my novelette, Izzy Crow, to my local critique group on Tuesday night where it pretty much totally fell down. While everyone agreed that the writing was fine on the micro level (I like to think that I’ve achieved some competency in that area), the most consistent reaction overall was confusion. I want to elicit many emotions in a reader, but confusion is definitely not one of them.
While writing, I had hoped that I was pulling things off brilliantly. Yet I’m not surprised by my writing fail. Whenever I’m drafting I’m working hard to create the best story I ever have (my goal with each new project). I believe that you have to go into the first draft with a little hubris. A hubris born from an original idea so awesome that it inspired me to undertake the whole mad project in the first place. Hubris is also fuel for the engine that powers me through the thousands of words it takes to get the mangled corpse of the brilliant idea down on the page.
Another other thing that informs my first drafts is a piece of advice that I remember from last year’s Armadillocon. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who said it. It was during the opening session, when all the authors, editors, and various experts were arrayed across half the room, firing all their words of advice at us acolytes like so much buckshot. The advice was:
Don’t be afraid to fail.
A lot of things have to happen if you want to continue to get better. You have to show up and do the work and you have to learn the craft, but you can’t just keep coloring inside the lines. Failing is all about putting yourself out there. Trying something crazy, untenable, something nobody’s ever tried before, because if you always stay safe inside your zone of competency, you’ll never really breakthrough. I believe that to create something great, something transcendent, you have to keep making that leap. Or as Robert Browning put it:
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
And that leap guarantees failure. That’s why failure is my friend. I really believe that you can’t find out what doesn’t work – until it doesn’t work. You can’t skip failing, just like you couldn’t skip falling down when you were learning to walk.
As for as the critique: I don’t bring a piece of writing to the group until I feel like it’s at a point were people can at least see what I’m trying to achieve. But by the middle draft, it’s been just me and the story for so long and I’m so deep into it that I can’t judge it any more. I really can’t tell if it’s great or terrible. And honestly, I’m usually a little bored with it too. Hearing everyone discuss what they saw – and didn’t see – in the story, can both reset my compass, and get me fired up about it all over again.
The group was able to tell me where they were confused and why, and what they were (and mostly weren’t) getting out of it emotionally. This is invaluable. They tossed around a lot of ideas that really got my brain cooking. Instead of coming home depressed that this piece of writing wasn’t working, I was excited and stayed up way too late restructuring, reoutlining, and sketching in the scenes that will make this into a different, but definitely better, story.

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