shweta_narayan pointed out--correctly--that I’d oversimplified the issue of “writing better.” There’s a whole long and complicated history behind what anyone says when they say a story is “good.” It’s easy to get trapped into seeing only the conclusion that we’ve come to, and not exactly how we reached it.
The topic interests me very much, what is it we mean, when we say, “that’s a good story.” What is at work when I look at a story I don’t like but I can see it’s good? (Does that happen very often? How does that work?) Most importantly, how do I make my own work “good” in a way that will make an editor sit up and pay attention?
When I say “write better” I mean two things. One--the most "obvious" part, the most susceptible to "objective" judgment--is the technical end. This only starts with things like spelling, punctuation, and grammar. It moves up into clarity of meaning, finesse in construction of sentences so they don't just mean what you want them to mean but are also well-made, and command of a range of different styles of sentence construction, so as to have a wide range of technical effects at your disposal. It also includes an understanding of how different sorts of stories work, and how to use that knowledge in your own stories.
You're asking, perhaps, how you improve those things in your own writing? Since I urged you to, yesterday?
The answer isn't simple. And my answering is complicated by the fact that I'm working on all those things myself. I suspect any writer who's serious about her work is--I think, like the proverbial shark, when an artist stops swimming she dies.
So I can only really tell you what I find works for me, and it may work for you or it may not.
Here's what I do--when I perceive that my work needs something I don' t have the toolkit for, I find an author who has what I want, and I read her work until I can't cram any more of it into my brain. I try to keep in mind, while I'm reading, what it is that I'm trying to learn from that writer, so I can see it and try to figure out how she did it. I have also typed out scenes, and in one case a whole novel that I greatly admired. I learned a lot, doing that.
Half the battle is recognizing that you need something, of course. I try to cultivate a sort of double-mind, one that fully expects rejections, that knows I'm not perfect, that I have big weaknesses and lots of things to learn, but also that believes strongly enough in my work to send it out and continue to send it out. This isn't always easy--a couple of rejections on the wrong day can tip me off balance and it can take a bit to recover--but so far it works fairly well.
I also found one particular book extremely helpful and influential. I suspect it hit me at just the right point of my development, and maybe it won't be so useful to you, but I will mention it anyway. I re-read John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and also On Becoming a Novelist every year or so, and I recommend them both highly. I don't agree with everything he says. When he talks about moral fiction....well, that's a big and messy digression. But Art of Fiction was the first writing book that, when I finished it, I felt like, "Oh, okay, yes, I can do this!" And there are plenty of things that he says in those books that I didn't understand when I first read them, but now make an awful lot of sense. If you haven't already, give Gardner a spin and see if he's helpful to you.
By the way, one of the things he says, I'm pretty sure it's in Novelist, is that when he gave exercises to his students, his ideal was that each assignment be something that was potentially publishable, or a piece of something potentially publishable. Because he felt that if your aim was to be a great writer--he assumes this is your aim, if you're reading either book--then you ought to begin by attempting to be a great writer. He felt that a student should begin by aiming at what they actually wanted to hit. Because that's how you learn to be what you want to be. If you practice at being less than that, you will become good at being less than that.
Anyway. That's actually the "easy" part of "write better." I mean, it's a lot of work. But you can break it down in steps and take those steps, and you will improve technically as a writer. I promise. I don't promise this means lots of sales to F&SF, understand, but just improving your technical abilities, particularly the more "advanced" ones, will greatly increase your chances of getting past the slush reader at the venues you're aiming for. Whatever those are. Because they're not the same for all of us.
The next part is messy and complicated. It's tied in to so many other issues. So it might come out kind of sprawling and digressive.
The other half of "write better" is something that, when I talk to myself, I usually call "honesty" and sometimes "ambition." Or maybe those are two separate things that are hooked together in my mind.
And keep in mind, I'm mostly talking about my own process, my own musings about art, my own psychological quirks and methods for dealing with them. I am not speaking universally--I'm sure--I know, actually, names are coming to mind--fantastic writers who would completely disagree with me about much of what I'm about to say.
By ambition, I mean something like this--there is no such thing as "just a story." Any story you write is important, deserves the absolute best effort you can give it, the most painstaking attention to detail. Even if it's silly and lighthearted--the story may be silly and light, but your composition of it is serious as death. It will be positively the best silly, lighthearted story you can possibly produce at that point in your life.
Come on, you're aiming high, right? You want to be good. Like, really good.
Now, for me, sometimes this "it's all high stakes" is so nerve wracking that it can be a tremendous relief to work on something that isn't high stakes. I've done that. And even sold the results. But it wasn't work that I found....satisfying, the way I find the higher stakes stuff. And for myself--well, the chances of my getting rich and famous off this are pretty damn low. And--connected issue I don’t have space for just here, can of worms lurking in the background--I'm never, ever going to be able to write stuff that pleases everyone. So, I satisfy myself. I want to write things that I will be proud of. Yeah, yeah, part of being proud of it is having readers say they like it--but part of it is knowing I did my absolute best, and achieved the effect I was after.
There's another half to "ambition." Often, in slush, I'll read a story that...that seems like the author had a great image or idea, and immediately sat down and tossed off a quickie story featuring it. I'm not sure how to describe what I'm talking about. If you've read slush, you probably know what I mean.
Here's a pretty image--I bought coffee this morning at the university library, and got a brand shining new, straight-from-the-bank-and-barely-touche
Now. I could sit down and write a story about...um, a woman who keeps a school of fish in her pocket disguised as pennies. And she tosses them in a fountain at the mall and they swim around and...uh...I know! She gets distracted and has to leave, and at night they drain the fountain and give the penny fish to the accounting department to deposit, and they're given out as change all over the city, and...uh...some child somewhere (perhaps we opened with that child asking mom for a fish and she'd said no) puts one in a glass of water and has a pretty fish! And their mom says, "Where did you get that??" The end.
Okay. That's five minutes work, there. Writing it might take a couple of hours. And you know what? Every single slush reader would bounce it right back to me. Unless somehow the language was so pretty that it obscured the total lack of content.
I see lots of stories like that in slush. A writer has an interesting image or idea, but they don't sit down and really think about what there is to get out of that idea, how to really use it. They just toss off two or three thousand words of "here's my idea I had" and send it out.
You want, in my opinion, to really stop and think hard about your ideas. Why do they interest you so much? Is there something resonant there, some question it raises for you? What if you combine it with some other idea or image? Really dig into it, really engage with it, interrogate it, pull it apart. Turn it backwards and inside out. If it's worth working with it'll stand up to that sort of treatment, even reward you. And remember, there's no such thing as "just a story" so that's no excuse for tossing off two thousand inconsequential words about penny fish without really putting any thought or work into it. Because any two thousand words you send out are going to be the best you can possibly produce at that point in your writing career.
Not only will you be much happier with your results, but you will also be much less likely to get bounced because your ideas are cliché, or because they're just like everything else in the mailbox that day. Once you're done, that story is going to be something only you could have written, something unique.
By the way, slushing is a very educational activity, and I strongly urge any aspiring writers who haven't done it already to keep an ear to the ground for opportunities. I hear Strange Horizons is looking for someone just now.
Which brings me to "honesty." Sometimes your most compelling ideas lead...somewhere you don't really want to go. You don't want to write the logical conclusion of what you've set up, now you've realized what that really is. You discover something horrible really ought to happen onstage and...ugh. Or you want a character to do something and discover that, as you've written her, she wouldn't actually say that, or do that. You want a happy ending, but it's not heading that way! Or you want a tragedy, but somehow it's not happening.
Or there's a particular kind of story that you think might have a better chance of selling, and you're pretty sure you can learn to write that sort of thing, but really what you want to write about is this other sort of thing.
And maybe not a lot of editors are interested in what you really want to write. What then?
Well, then you have choices to make, don't you. Sometimes it's an easy fix--go back and tweak your character! Figure out where in the story things took the wrong turn and change that!
Sometimes it's not. Sometimes you have to grit your teeth and read, say, detailed first person accounts of castrations. (There are things I really didn't want to know and now I do....)
And sometimes you have to decide if you want to write the kind of story you think will be more likely to sell, or the story that you're actually finding it's in you to write. Now, I'm in favor of writing the story as you have it, the one that's "true" whether you can sell it or not. But I also admit to sadness when a story like that doesn't sell, goes through submission after submission and keeps coming back to me. And in the end it's your choice as a writer, as an artist, how you want to handle that. Heck, if you can really get to the point where the pros routinely take what you send them, my hat is off to you, however you got there. I doubt the folks who do routinely sell to the pros got to that point by writing stories they didn't honestly believe in, but that's just my suspicion. I have no proof of that.
Which leads me to the can of worms. You can do all of this--become technically brilliant, write ambitiously and utterly honestly--and not sell to any of the big three, not ever win a Hugo. Never make enough to live on with your writing. Never become famous. Because editors do have different tastes, different cultural backgrounds and expectations, different aims for their magazines. Different things that grab them or fail to engage them. Different ideal audiences. I can not guarantee you that if you "write better" you will sell to the big guys.
I can, however, almost certainly guarantee that you will no longer be routinely bounced by slushers. Sure, you will sometimes--but you'll sometimes get rejections that say things like, "Wow, this was close but not quite. Send more." And possibly--maybe even likely--there'll be a semipro out there--or a new pro-level startup--with an editor who's hankering for just what you have to give her.
Aim high. Believe in what you're doing. Write better.
I'm not using the penny fish idea, by the way, so if it hooks you, go with it. It's not my sort of thing, and anyway I'd start by, say, researching coins and metals and goldfish and minnows and references to different sorts of fish in various myths, and in the end would turn out something that bore almost no resemblance to my starting point. So, it's yours if you want to make it yours.