Failing Forward: Why Every Draft Counts
March 21, 2019 § 14 Comments
In 2005, I wrote my first book—a horror thriller about a deranged clown who takes a group of modeling-agency students hostage. Over the course of a day, he kills them as they strike poses on the catwalk, certain the most beautiful pictures they’ll take are their last.
It was fun to write, and several friends enjoyed reading it. At the time, I met with a critique group who gathered twice monthly around our leader’s dining room table. Between drinks and snacks, we scribbled notes to each other based on lively discussions about characters that worked and plots that didn’t. Most of our members were working on short pieces for publication or MFA applications. They’ve all gone on to do amazing things and I feel grateful to have worked with them. There was only one problem: the group had never workshopped a book and neither had I.
Feedback on my manuscript was slow and contrary. The most frequent comment I received was a discouraging, “meh.” I muddled through a second draft based on their single-chapter reviews and tried to address their every whim. My energy flagged as I forced myself to find a pleasing narrative arc. A year into revisions I quit. The draft exists on my hard drive, but that’s it. From a commercial perspective, the project is a total failure. Unfinished. Definitely unpolished. Probably not even that good. For a while (okay, maybe a few years), I lamented my inability to finish the book. Sure, other projects had stalled, but this one had taken up years of my life and all it’s done is collect virtual dust.
Thirteen years later, I’m grateful to that failed project. It taught me everything I needed to know about how to write a book. Those devastating “mehs” became the fuel I used to find my voice. Along the way, I realized writing fiction shielded me from the true stories I was afraid to tell—the ones that came more naturally if I gave myself permission to write them.
In 2015, I attempted a second book—this time a memoir about how I believed carrying my belongings across a divided highway at seventeen would save me from the people who had loved and hurt me most. As I sat at my writing desk, I was terrified by what I might discover—or feel—but I never worried about whether I would finish. That 250-page failed killer-clown manuscript proved I could break the first-draft barrier. It also taught me about the second-draft blues, and the importance of choosing critique partners who understand long-form writing and finding beta readers who will read your entire manuscript. Most importantly, I learned I could let a project go and write again.
My second book has gone through eight full revisions. When agents praised my writing but said my narrative arc needed work, I sought editorial advice on the entire manuscript. While I waited, I recorded the lessons I’d learned about how to heal, how to write about trauma, and how to persevere. I also started a new memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped me survive my brother’s suicide. I just completed the revised first draft and sent it to editors at a conference.
It might be The One.
Or it could be just another lesson.
What I know for certain is that I couldn’t have written this manuscript without writing my first memoir exactly as I had. Not one word was wasted, even if the narrative arc needs adjustment.
Writing is a process made up of failures. Projects that stall. Unsuccessful drafts. Rejections. Our job is to learn something from each one. As Abby Wambach said in her 2018 commencement speech for Barnard College, “failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on.” Each draft teaches us something about finding our voice, the power of perseverance, and how to peel back the layers of meaning in our work. Our job is to pause, celebrate our efforts, and find those valuable lessons, having faith that each failure brings us closer to success.
In a few weeks, I’ll receive feedback on my latest manuscript, brush a few books and papers off my desk (or maybe not) and begin the long slog of revision. As I do, I’ll enlist a kinder, gentler version of my killer clown (think less Pennywise, more whimsy) to remind myself that the process is all that matters. Failure just signals our projects can ascend to higher levels.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her survive her brother’s suicide. To learn more about Lisa’s work and writing, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.
Thank you, Lisa, for your encouraging story. We’re there with you.
Thanks. I needed that.
You had me at deranged clown who takes modeling students hostage. And then you held me for the rest of the piece. I think a lot of us have that failed project somewhere. Thanks for this reminder of what it was.
Every word that comes into our lives means something and has something to show us. Thank you for sharing!
Great piece, Lisa, thanks for sharing. And as you know, I think your current memoir sounds AMAZING – can’t wait to read the whole story!
Two things jumped out at me in this post: first, that we don’t have to feel so bad/frantic/guilty about unfinished stories (I’ve got a mess of them) as long as we recognize that we’re doing that most important of things: learning by writing.
And second, having your writing group workshop your long-form writing piecemeal is crazy making. I plead guilty to giving uninformed feedback (how can you know if you don’t read the whole story?) to fledgling novelists — “slow and contrary” to be sure. You mention using beta readers and editors, and those are good routes, I think. I’ve been a beta reader and I gave much better feedback that way than I ever did the chapter-by-chapter approach.
Thanks for the insights and encouragement!
The wisdom here resonates. Life in my business–that of historical research–is not just about discoveries, but also about eliminating possibilities. It is good to remember that each moment is a further step along the way. Thanks for a thoughtful post.
This was refreshing to read
Thank you. It makes me feel better about letting go all the poems and work in progress my daughter erased from both my email and computer as she thought she was helping me keep things neat. I wanted to hang her but remembered she was just 11 years old at the time, and more important to me than anything in the world. Now I started my memoir as a novel in vignettes. It’s a painful process because
Writing is healing but sometimes it drowns me in my own emotions. Now my work is safe though; my daughter is 16 years old and we each have separate computers.
I love this essay! For one, my first and still-in-draft-form novel is a horror novel. It might never see the light of day. I also wrote it in the mid-2000s. Here’s my takeaway: “Each draft teaches us something about finding our voice, the power of perseverance, and how to peel back the layers of meaning in our work.” Yes!
Wow! Writing is a three dimensional story carrying the despair and eternal excitement in one hand. I always write and pause, never do I figure out a plot that can give me the needed adrenaline to write a whole book.
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