Fixing Your Story
Learning how to be a better writer can be a little overwhelming.
Perhaps your ideas are not clear enough. You have something to say, but you’re not sure quite what that is. Master authors seem to build their tales around strong themes - do you have some? Or are you simply writing one word after another and hoping for the best?
Is it your characters that are failing you? Have you not developed a powerful leading figure who captures readers’ hearts and makes them want to read on to find out what happens to this almost living, breathing person with whom they have suddenly fallen in love?
What about your other characters? Do they fall into place in a way which appeals to readers? Are they performing the required functions in your story?
Is your plot strong enough? Are readers compelled to turn the page because they want to find out what is really going on? Or are they frustrated because they have no idea what the story is about?
Is it style you should be working on? Putting words together in ways which grip and enchant the reader, sentence by sentence?
All of these facets of fiction writing and more can spin around in front of you until you end up confused and don’t know where to start. How do you make things better?
The truth is that individual writers each have different aspects of their writing which are spoiling it for the rest of the work. Some have fascinating, poetic styles which ooze confidence and ability, but can’t seem to create convincing characters; others have dynamic plots which race the reader along through a series of gripping events, but then fail to fulfil their promise at the end by finishing on an anti-climactic note. I’ve read some drafts which captivated me on a word and sentence level, with the writer showing a mighty command of the language and of drama, but where the plot wanders all over the place. Reading such stories, one feels, after a while, that one is lost in a beautiful labyrinth with no way out.
Some writers have excellent ideas but their writing styles are so awkward, jumping from past tense to present tense and back again randomly, with pages and pages full of short, uninteresting sentences, that the ideas don’t stand a chance of making it through to the reader.
Others write material full of rich description and superlative dialogue which has no overall shape, form or purpose.
The big problem is that you can rarely tell, on your own, exactly what the problem is. If you could, you’d probably be working on it already. What you need is another pair of eyes. This must not be a pair of eyes which already admires you or your work, like those of friends or relatives - ideally, you need someone to read your material who has the experience and ability to tell what is wrong but also the perception and understanding to tell what is right.
Telling you what is right about your work is actually extremely important. No editor, or beta reader, or agent, or publisher, should simply criticise your story’s failings - they must, if they are doing their jobs professionally and properly, tell you your story’s strengths. This isn’t just to be polite (though that helps too): a succinct and clear analysis of what is right and working in your fiction is a key part of being able to work on what is wrong.
A certain percentage of editors and publishers and the like are in their jobs because they like to tear other people’s work to shreds. This is by no means the majority - most people in the field love stories and want to help. But even they get caught up in the practice of being critical of another’s writing, especially when they are busy and pressed for time. Perhaps it is easier to point out mistakes sometimes than it is to indicate what is good. ‘Your grammar sucks’, or ‘This character doesn’t work for me’ is probably less effort to say than ‘Your writing style is actually quite poetic’, or ‘This plot set my heart racing’ for some people. Either way, adjudicating what is working and what is not in fiction is a real skill, which can only really develop over a considerable time and after a great deal of reading.
Is it purely subjective? Is what one reader says just as valid as what another says? Should you pay any attention to what anyone says?
That depends on what you want and whether you are prepared to look and learn.
But the essence is rightness.
Something in your writing will be right: ideas, characters, plot, structure, style - something will be working better than everything else. Finding out what that thing is serves multiple purposes:
• it can empower you to do more of the same. If your characters are strong, you can create more of them; if your writing style is solid, you can write more in that style with confidence.
• it can give you hope. Even if the rest of the work is weak, the fact that you are able to do a few things well means that it might all be worthwhile.
• it can pull everything else together. Perhaps your plot structures are your strong point - so work out how you can build on that to lend strength and power to everything else.
When healers work with people who are sick, one of the first things they usually do is ensure that what is working in that person continues to do so by providing support: patients are given nutrition or oxygen or physical assistance or medicine so that the sickness is prevented from spreading. A story with weaknesses is the same: rather than putting attention on what isn’t working and concentrating all efforts on that to the detriment of what works, a good editor or beta reader will at first indicate the areas where the story is functioning well. There are usually some of these; it’s unlikely that everything about a story is on its deathbed.
But first you need some way in which to break a piece of fiction down so that you can tell one part from another - a set of diagnostic tools, in other words, to continue the medical analogy. Many editors and beta readers can’t see beyond the matter of style - the words on the page, sentence by sentence, act as a kind of screen so that they don’t look beyond them and so fail to see the wood for the trees, as it were. You need someone who can virtually ‘X-ray’ your story and see its component parts laid out for what they are: ideas, characters, plot, style and a few other pieces. Are these pieces functioning well individually? Are they supporting each other, operating like an engineered machine? Or is one piece letting the others down?
To use another analogy, if your car breaks down, you take it to a qualified mechanic who can tell from the noises it makes what needs fixing. And what doesn’t.
Stories are the same.
For 'X-ray' techniques and much more, see my book, How Stories Really Work.