Is your story good enough?
I recently, and unexpectedly asked myself this question of a “finished” story. I came to the conclusion that not only would I have to do a rewrite, but that “good enough” was not really good enough anyway!
I was just finishing off the second draft of a 10,000 word story. The draft was mostly to get rid of some embarrassingly bad prose that I knew was in there. I was expecting to do a rewrite after I had had it back from friends, but realised that I was settling for a good story when what I need is a great story!
I’ve found a new favourite podcast. Adventures In Sci-Fi Publishing has some great discussions and interviews. On the February 11th episode was an interview with Ferrett Steinmetz. Although Ferrett calls himself a “beginning writer”, he’s good enough to be up for the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer, and is currently a slush reader for Apex Magazine.
Good vs. Great
Nobody gives a crap about good stories. They want great stories
Ferrett reads a lot of stories. He also reads a lot of good stories. That’s the first thing to note – there are a lot of good stories out there. Another good story is not going to stand out. As Ferrett notes, you will get to the end of a good story, but you won’t remember it.
You want to write a story that people are going to be thinking about three days later
I also got the impression that a good story is written by a capable writer, but that it’s not the writing as such that’s the problem. There is a lot of talk about good stories having worthwhile prose and dialogue. But that’s not enough.
Thankfully, he does get specific about the difference between good and great, but before we get to that, I’d like to clear something up.
Why didn’t I know my story was only good?
I agree, it does seem silly that I should need a shove from a podcast to know that my story wasn’t up to scratch. But I do think it’s an easy trap to fall into.
Like so much in life, I think it came down to a subconscious decision I made.
I was concentrating on getting the story done. In enforcing this mindset, I had somehow made the decision that I was going to do a certain amount of work on this story, and that would be it, at least for a while, so I could go onto the next one.
What I hadn’t realised was that making the story great lay outside these perimeters. Hearing the podcast allowed me to take a different view – one where I was looking down at the story from above, rather than looking out of the story from within.
What distinguishes a great story?
Anyway, back to the main event. We have already seen that a story can be good, but it’s not necessarily the writing that makes it great. There’s some discussion about the central idea being the distinguishing factor, but even that won’t satisfy Mr. Steinmetz:
… a lot of it is not only just having that idea, but finding away to focus it, so it’s really interesting…
So it seems an idea can be good but not great, as well. Fair enough. So what is it about an idea that can be great and really elevates your story? Ferrett Steinmetz calls it specificity.
[...] if I tell you, there’s this guy and [...] he’s gonna be stuck in a haunted house for a while, that’s not really gonna stick with you. But suddenly you take, here’s a recovering alcoholic, he’s previously abused his family, he’s got a son who has problems and his wife’s passive aggressive, and they’re gonna go to the overlook mansion where they’re gonna be snowed in [...] that specificity brings you to [...] the Shining.
When put like that, it’s easy to see how specific details create a situation that’s unique to your story and that is far more interesting to explore.
There are many more points raised in this podcast episode so I encourage you all to go and listen. Even if you’re not interested in Sci-Fi specifically, their discussions are broadly about writing anyway and you are sure to get something from them. For example, this particular episode also features a discussion on how many drafts you should do (also of particular interest to me at the moment).
How I’m making my story great
So, back to me.
My story was good(ish). Its themes were well-realised, but what it really lacked was heart – an “emotional centre” as Ferrett calls it.
My central character was an observer only, pretty much. No one reading the story would truly care what happened to him, because even though he witnesses what takes place he didn’t have much to say or do about it. He was bland.
Also, the antagonist in the story does things that are not altogether explained and the reader can be left wondering what exactly his motivations were (in a bad, confusing way rather than a good, thought-provoking way).
The answer? Specificity!
So I wrote out a series of questions about these characters that I would have to answer. The theme of these questions was basically, “why the hell should we care”? Which itself boiled down to, “why does this character care?” What is it that ties them painfully to the events and themes in the story, what drives them to do the things that they do?
Free-writing the answers to these questions gave me a rough backstory that I could draw upon. Now I’m ready to hack away at it again.
Incidentally, freewriting is a great way of world-building. I am constantly surprised at what I can come up with by giving myself a few prompts and then just bashing away at the keyboard. I am now adding this method to the prep I do before writing a story. I addition to this freewriting, character/world-building exercise, I will also ask myself the following questions:
Is this a great story idea?
- If I were to read it, would I give a crap?
- Is the idea specific?
- What is the emotional centre of the story?
- Have I picked the right moment for the story to take place? What are two other moments where it could take place, and are they better?
This is a list I will likely add to over time, and it’s worth pointing out that I may not have all the answers before I start writing. So much that is new comes out of the process of actually writing the thing, and I don’t want to bog myself down in prep, just get myself to think a little more deeply before I begin.
More important, is what my answers might be at the end of a draft. So, I will ask myself the same set of questions at the end of a story, too, and see what’s changed.
That’s it for this week. I hope you get a chance to listen to the podcast (I mayself am going to slowly make my way thruogh the previous episodes as well). If you’ve listened to it already (or even if you haven’t), I’d love to know your thoughts on this topic, so comment away! There’s a few useful links below.
- Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing
- The episode in question
- As Below, So Above by Ferrett Steinmetz
- Ferrett Steinmetz’s blog (not all about writing)