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When a Failed Story Becomes a Great Story

Writing

There are stories that are just not well-conceived, stories that, unless they are completely altered, will never be successful. A story like this might have characters that don’t appeal, events that don’t satisfy, ideas that don’t engage, or they may just never connect emotionally with the reader.

Other stories are rough in early drafts, but with a limited number of changes become very effective. How do you tell the difference?¬†Unfortunately, it’s not easy, and for the most part it’s a problem that’s similar to judging your work in the first place, with similar solutions (see “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing“).

Sometimes, though, it can be very hard to have faith that revision can make a big difference. As an example to demonstrate how it can, consider this account from Writers of the Future and Nebula winner Eric James Stone, originally mentioned on the Codex writing group and quoted with permission.

To understand the context, note that we regularly run writing contests on Codex in order to push ourselves, generate new work, and learn from the competition. Weekend Warrior is a yearly event there in which each participant writes a story of 750 words or less from prompts over a 60-hour period.

For 2009 Weekend Warrior, Round 2, I wrote a story I thought it was powerful and might do well in the contest, but I was wrong: 5.35 average [on a scale of 1-10 — Luc], 8th out of 17, closer to the bottom score of the round (4.06) than the top (7.47). It was my lowest point total of the five weeks, so it didn’t even count in my overall score for the contest. That was my biggest flop ever in WW. (I’ve had lower-scoring stories, but I didn’t think they were going to do well in the contest.)

I put it aside for over a year, then deleted three sentences, added ten, and edited seven. That lengthened the story by about 25% and allowed the powerful story that was in my head to come out more clearly. I sent it out and it sold to the first place I sent it [a major pro market — Luc], where it became one of the most-liked stories of all time (at least on their Facebook page): “Buy You a Mockingbird.”

Now, I’m not saying the contest score was wrong — I had not successfully conveyed what I wanted to convey, and I needed to edit the story later in order to make it work. What I’m saying is that sometimes a flop can be turned into a hit.

If you’re interested in Stone’s work, you may want to check out his story collection Rejiggering the Thingamajig.

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