Today I want to talk about someone else’s blog post, because she nails it (and not just ’cause she mentions me): Christie Yant, Assistant Editor at Lightspeed Magazine, writes about what she’s learned in a year of working on the magazine. And what she’s learned is the difference between “pretty good” and “great.”
I think she’s right, and I’ve been there myself.
The most frustrating phase of my career came when I had sold my first couple of stories, but I wasn’t selling consistently and I hadn’t sold a novel at all. I was almost there. But I wasn’t there yet. I was pretty good, but not great. I’d reached a plateau. I couldn’t see how to improve. I joked that my progress resembled Zeno’s Paradox: I was always covering half the distance to the goal, which I would therefore never actually reach, and the strides I did make kept getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. (I think this still holds true — if the goal is to write the perfect story, I’ll never get there, but I’m always making progress, however little it seems.)
It’s a tough spot. Once you’ve eliminated all the mistakes from your writing, and you’re still not selling, you need to consider — what are you missing? What separates competent stories from great, sellable stories? This may be the hardest hurdle to overcome on the road to getting published and establishing a career. Because once you’ve internalized the concrete skills, what’s left is intangible. Things like voice, theme, meaning. The “so what?” factor. Why did you write this story and how do you get that across in a meaningful way?
Christie Yant identifies three points that separate pretty good from great: structure, voice, and something to say. Here’s how I see those three things:
Structure: Can you identify the beats in your story? The important scenes and pivotal moments? Are they building toward a climax? Or do things just happen? Have you trimmed everything that doesn’t contribute to the story’s meaning? Can you identify a reason for every single element of the story to be there?
Voice: Is every word is in the story there for a reason? Does every image reflect the story and evoke meaning, or is the prose dependent on clichés? Can you tell who is narrating the story just by the words used? Are the words you use, the phrasing, the way they’re put together, appropriate for the character and setting? Does the prose evoke confidence and personality? Does it convince the reader that the author knows what she’s doing?
Something to say: Take a stand in your story. I’ve seen “pretty good” stories that are so careful to remain neutral and inoffensive that they have no power, no punch. I read them and think, “So what?” Don’t be afraid to express an opinion, to dramatize that opinion in the story. If the story’s about war, it should say something about it: bad, good, necessary, pointless, or what. Am I supposed to like or hate the main character by the end of the story? Does it make me laugh or cry? Am I still going to be thinking about the story a day after I’ve read it? Do I, the author, really care about the topics in the story? If I’m writing about something that makes me angry, happy, sad, frustrated, whatever — does that come through? Because it should.
These are tough areas to work on. They involve risk — putting yourself out there. Not playing it safe. It’s a whole lot tougher to think about your emotional attachment to a story than whether or not you’ve got a decent character arc. But in the end, I think the risk is worth it.