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astronomers, stolen from bellatrys
So, yesterday I said that if you want to “work your way up” as a writer, the thing to do was aim high and “write better.”

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.

Aim high.

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-touched-by-human-hands penny in my change. They're so shiny at first! Even when you leave old pennies in lemon juice and salt overnight, they don't look so bright as they do at the very first. I had a thought--throwing a handful of new pennies into a fountain that swim off as bright, shining fish. Pretty!

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.

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The Penny Fish Anthology!

Good work here, worth reading.

You are a very smart woman.

Your subject here is of interest to me because I have started to make myself write a story, or something at least, on a weekly basis. This has been good for getting me to write or thinking about writing on a consistent basis, but it also means I get rushed and put something out just to meet my self-imposed deadline. I'm writing, but I'm either cutting a story short or not revising enough. I'm getting a habit for writing, but I'm not necessariy honing the craft.

Mur Laferty often stumps on "it's okay to suck" in order to persue some strange idea. I've also heard the advice of "you need to write so much crap before you begin to write well". I guess those tidbits are probably more in the "if you want to be a writer, you have to write" vein. But I can really get into your concept of "there is no such thing as 'just a story'". I like that. The challenge will be to get beyond the intimidation that brings and still write with it all on the line.

I'd be interested to know what your typical timeline on a story might be. How long does it take you, from concept to submittal? What are your ratios of research vs. writing vs. revising? I know it's different for everybody (and probably per story), but I'm interested in what it is for you.

Again, thanks for the insight.

Oh, you don't want to imitate my production speed! I can take anywhere from a week (for flash that doesn't need much research, if any) to six months or more.

A concept can sit at the back of my mind for years--or it can grab me and I'll chew on it for months before I'm ready to even research anything. I also often do lots of reading and research before I put my fingers to the keyboard. I personally--this doesn't work for everyone--find that the more concrete details I have about things that are even tangential to the story, the firmer my grasp on not only what the setting is but what happens next and how it should happen. So I want to know not only how the buildings were set up at Catal Hoyuk, for instance, but what they ate, and how they cooked it, what animals they herded or hunted, what they painted on their walls. There are lots of aurochs horns and cranes in that art--now I'm off reading near-eastern and indo-european myths involving bulls and cranes. Oh, hey, there are other groups of mythologies that deal with bulls and cranes, what do they have to say? What do I know about cranes anyway? I chase any tangent that appeals to me. That period can last weeks or months. Once I get writing, if I get stuck, I often find I can unstick myself by discovering whatever it is I need to research to move forward.

Mur Laferty often stumps on "it's okay to suck" in order to persue some strange idea. I've also heard the advice of "you need to write so much crap before you begin to write well". I guess those tidbits are probably more in the "if you want to be a writer, you have to write" vein. But I can really get into your concept of "there is no such thing as 'just a story'". I like that. The challenge will be to get beyond the intimidation that brings and still write with it all on the line.

This is where that "double mind" comes in handy. And btw I love NaNo and think everyone who wants to write should try it at least once. And I totally agree that it's okay to suck--with a qualification.

It's okay to suck. Fact of the matter is, for most of us, our first efforts will more or less suck, even when we're giving them our absolute best. That's what the "write a million words of crap" thing is about. That's what it means--you have to start somewhere, and chances are you're starting at the bottom. And that's okay. It's okay to suck.

It is also the absolute, unalterable truth that, with some exceptions, first drafts suck. They just do. It's hard to get things perfect on the first try, easier to fine-tune and perfect once you've got something to work with. That first draft is gonna suck--you're going to do your best to make sure the final draft doesn't. If it does--well, you did your best, and you'll do better next time. It's okay for first drafts to suck.

But you're right, taking every project seriously--that's scary. It's intimidating. It's nerve-wracking. When I first read Gardner, I couldn't understand what he meant when he said that writing seriously was like working in a tank full of sharks. That's when you need the double mind the most, that's when "Hell, it's a first draft, it's supposed to suck!" can get your fingers moving past that horrible fear that what you're about to type is the stupidest thing you've ever thought of.

The sharks are you. And your defense is "yeah, yeah, it sucks and I don't care, so there, you stupid sharks don't scare me!" and secretly you cross your fingers behind your back and you say to yourself no it doesn't, no it won't, if I do it right this will be one of the best things I've done.

This is very useful, thanks, and chimes with other wisdom I've heard along the way.

Might be worth pointing people to the famous "Slush Killer" thread on Making Light: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004641.html

And playing around is all right. Some of my better stories came into existence because I was fucking around with language.

But at some point in the process, it's usually necessary to take the work seriously. Yeah, okay, so I'm making fun of the concept of pirates by writing about my pet rats taking to the open seas, but where's the life of this story? The core of it? The fun of it? Where can it go?

Oh, yay, you did the thing I don't have spoons for, and now it exists :)

Thoughts: I love what you're saying about ambition, but wonder also what you think about the difference between high stakes and big events.

When a story of mine works, it's because at its heart, one or two characters resolve something emotionally (or fail to), and the reader understands them well enough to figure it out. And that's true whether the one or two people are a shopkeeper and some college kid, or A Famous Conqueror and his nemesis/foil, though in the latter case the overt stakes are much, well, bigger.

Another thing I wonder is whether you've tried Le Guin's Steering the Craft? It's really focused on helping the writer gain control of the tools and expand the toolkit to get the effect we want, so it's open to/helpful for a large range of writing. I've found it quite helpful, so if you've tried it and had a different experience, I'd be really interested in that.

When a story of mine works, it's because at its heart, one or two characters resolve something emotionally (or fail to), and the reader understands them well enough to figure it out. And that's true whether the one or two people are a shopkeeper and some college kid, or A Famous Conqueror and his nemesis/foil, though in the latter case the overt stakes are much, well, bigger.

When I say "high stakes" I mean for the writer. The stories that are difficult to write because you, yourself feel this is really important to do well, for whatever reason, something about them makes them important to you. And when I say "you" of course I mean "I" because I'm the one who's beset by that "you can't do this and you suck might as well do something else and not fail so bad!" voice when I'm working on something I really, really want to get right.

And yes, IMO that "important" story can be pretty much anything, in pretty much any sphere, and the story can be about Saving The World, or about making tea...anything. I work on the assumption that if it's really grabbed you as a writer, there's something important about it that you want to say or explore, and that alone makes it (potentially) "high stakes" writing. If that makes sense.

I think I've read bits of Steering the Craft, and I really should get a copy of it.

So -- for clarity -- do you not mean the kind of stakes that, for example, Donald Maass means when he writes about upping the stakes in Writing the Breakout Novel? I think that use of the term refers specifically to how much is at stake within the story.

I may just be confused, of course.

I do not mean upping the stakes within the story. And I'm not sure I'd say that every great story has to have stakes that are particularly high. IMO that's something that really depends on what your story is, what you're trying to do.

I'm talking about upping the stakes in terms of how seriously you take the story. A story I really care about and have poured a lot of hard work into--the risk is bigger, if I fail to do what I'm trying to do, I'll feel it. The low-stakes stories I've done--eh. They work or they don't work. They're just games, just fooling around a bit.

You know the kind of thing, maybe--I don't see it much in my current critting partners, but I used to, back in the day when I was beginning to write seriously--you offer criticism of a story, something the author could fix with a bit of research or thought, and the response is something like "lighten up, it's just a story why are you taking it so seriously?" And that's when I say to myself, "They didn't take their work seriously." That was low stakes for them. When they answer like that, chances are all their work is low stakes, or they'd have said something different. "Oh, what I was trying to do was..." or "You know, you're right, but I just can't bring myself to care about this one." Or something.

(And yes, btw, sometimes there's a...slightly different context for that "it's just a story" response, and...yeah. Can of worms. But there's no such thing as "just a story.")

Makes sense to me now :)
I was interpreting it the other way (which I find somewhat problematic, as I don't find your actual way).

And yes, I have trouble with people who will say "just a story". I can't really see a serious musician saying something's just a song...

I liked the idea of looking for an author who uses the toolkit you don't have to solve something. I just wish I was well read enough to know who that might be for me in every instance.

I have occasionally had to go asking people for suggestions. Sometimes I've had the helpful author in my library already but not seen what it was I could get from them. At least once I've picked up a book off the shelf more or less at random and suddenly realized that it actually had something I could use.

I will add a recommendation to write pastiches of that author. There is no substitute for actually trying to imitate an author's techniques when you want to learn them.

Of course, the end result is very likely to be unpublishable. . . .

Yes, pastiche! I totally forgot pastiche, but I shouldn't have. I've done that one too.

If you're a member of a fan community--well, the pastiche isn't sellable, but it might be something you can post and other fans will appreciate, especially a certain sort of pastiche. And there are ways to do pastiche that are salable--especially when they're imitating people who are in public domain, like, say, Lovecraft. But generally, yeah, not publishable.

But very rewarding!

I've been at the 'ambitious, honest, failure' stage of writing for a years, now. I've sat down in person with famous editors and had them tell me that my stories were flawless but too weird to make print. I've got stacks of rejection slips that read, "This is great, but doesn't fit our needs".

It's incredibly frustrating.

I no longer worry about my technical chops as a writer. My challenge is to connect to other human beings, with whom I barely have anything in common. That's a much, much, more difficult challenge. I envy those who have an innate knack for understanding people and society, and who only have to learn how to write.

That is definitely a hard place to be!

My challenge is to connect to other human beings, with whom I barely have anything in common.<.i>

That is the trick, isn't it. And sometimes it's really hard to do. I think that's where the sort of bloody-minded persistence and belief in your work pays off (for certain values of "pays off" of course). Surely someone someday will say, "Ah! Oh! yes, that's exactly right!"

I can't guarantee it, of course, and it's a hard wait, isn't it.

A couple of people linked to your entry, so I stopped by to read it, and I really enjoyed it. You covered lots of different points, and your advice and observations seemed really sensible.

Truth. And good truth. Thank you.

Thank you so much for writing this.

Through trial and error (mostly error), I've blundered into some of what you've written here by myself. I now get past the slush reader sometimes and occasionally, I get a very nice rejection from the editor asking for more of my work. (One was almost exactly "Wow, this was close but not quite. Send more." I was happy beyond reason. The rejection email arrived just before I left for an audition. Not even the audition stress could pin me to the ground.)

I've been wondering if this is how it goes. And now I know. Thanks again.

Great post! Thanks for taking the time to post it.

Wow, some really great stuff there. Thanks for putting it down! (linking to it for my readers)

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My work here is done! :)

I was struck by the part about needing to develop your images, because this is something I struggle with. I write absurdist comics, which tend to feature situations like a town where, once a year, everyone straps squirrels to their heads. Which might be fine for a weird one-panel drawing, but when I spin the idea out into a story (something I've done less and less recently--I really have to get some ambition back) it needs to have some kind of internal logic, and an underlying metaphorical layer. Not only because stories are about things, but because an undeveloped weird idea isn't funny... it's just a wacky juxtaposition. ("Look! It's a chicken! Wearing lederhosen!")

I don't think I'm anywhere near where I ought to be in terms of making work that means something.

Excellent post!

Thanks for sharing :)

I found my way over here via jongibbs, and I think I'll stick around. :)

This is a thought-provoking post. I like it a lot, and I think I'll link to it in my next Aswiebe's Market List newsletter, unless you object. Also, when I went to add John Gardner's books to my Amazon wishlist, I found they were already there--so I suppose I really should read them sooner rather than later!

P.S. Also, I really enjoyed listening to "Marsh Gods" on PodCastle. The ending was most satisfactory.

Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed "Marsh Gods."

I have no objections at all to your linking.


Aim high. Believe in what you're doing. Write better. *love*

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