What makes a good story?
The answer is a thousand things. It is also a single thing. It can be anything from the way a character cries to the beautiful way moonlight shines on broken glass.
A good story makes you feel something. Anything. Anger. Outrage. Hope. Confusion. Love. Regret. Excitement.
I say ‘good’ story, but what I mean is ‘effective.’ Because ‘good’ is too vague a term, and it makes me think of banana bread and my grandma. A short story is not banana bread. Or, to my knowledge, my grandma.
The next question is usually, How do you write a story like that?
The answer is easy. It is situated right between Hard Work and Talent. It’s the same answer give by anyone who has ever invented, fixed, or created something (from a poem to an airplane): you just do it. You try. You fail. You try again. You fail again. You don’t give up. You don’t give in.
The secret, I think, is to allow those Moments of Despair. You know the feeling you get when you feel like everything you’re writing is wrong – and you’re one step away from blow torching the whole mess? Shriek. Yell at the sky. Threaten to throw your laptop, cell phone, or Kindle out the window. Rage. Eat chocolate. Find some alcohol.
Watch television. Read a book. And then…get back to work. Because the truth is that half of life is simply this: don’t give up.
As a kid, I thought I could get through anything – a hurtful friend, a bad day at school, being passed over for a chorus solo – if I just put one foot in front of the other. One step, then another. And there it is: progress. Writing is the same. You put one word in front of another. Sometimes, it’s like magic and being drunk – and having a really good laugh. Other times, it’s like visiting the dentist, without Novocain, while your boyfriend breaks up with you via text message. Oh, and he’s been dating your sister.
Easy vs. difficult. Not impossible, mind you. Difficult.
The last question is usually this: Why did you write that?
I could lie to you. I could make up a story. I could tell you that I get my ideas from a tiny unicorn that lives in my My Little Pony lunchbox. But that would totally ruin my Rock Star image. The real answer is: I don’t know. For me, most of the time, I start with an image or a line. Maybe it was something somebody said to me. Maybe it was a memory that a certain smell pried loose. Maybe it was the magic unicorn in my lunchbox. I honestly don’t think it matters, as long as the words go on the page. As long as things are written.
This morning, I sat down and I wrote a draft for a story. It’s unlike everything I’ve ever written before, and I’m surprisingly okay with that. If I start writing the same type of thing over and over again, that’s when all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. We all know how that story went.
The best advice I’ve ever gotten is this: don’t give up. The second best is probably: read everything. The third might be: write whatever story wants to be written.
Each short story, each poem, each novel – each piece of writing (complete and incomplete) is a lesson that only you can teach. It’s also a lesson that only you can learn. Not even story is going to be perfect or even vaguely publishable. Some will be complete shit. Some will toil as Really Bad Drafts forever. Some will see character changes and a mountain of post-it notes.
But I’ll say it again: each one is a lesson. It’s a stepping stone, a learning experience. Good stories (effective stories) get rejected. It has to resonate with your audience. Sometimes, that audience is you. Yourself.
Rejection isn’t exactly failure. It’s not a nice day at the beach either, because everybody wants to hear the word yes. But it is what you make of it. It is also what you take from it.
You get what you give. Write the best story you can. Then, write another.
Yesterday, I found an interesting conversation going on at Janet Reid’s blog. The entry was about memoir writing (beautiful quotes there), and I stopped to read some of the comments. I was intrigued, and I put in my two cents.
A commenter was arguing that all fiction is part memoir. Or, put another way, that everything a writer writes is partially autobiographical. The implication is that every work of fiction bears the author’s real life in it.
I can’t agree to that. For one thing, it means that a writer can only write about himself/herself. So, Harry Potter is really J.K. Rowling in disguise. What would that mean, exactly, for Nabokov and Lolita? Or Robert Browning’s erotically charged (and possibly lethal) Porphyria’s Lover?
While I do agree that writing is informed by an individual’s life experiences, I do not think it’s the only foundational element. For one thing, imagination plays a large role in writing. If I imagine a talking unicorn in a book (The Last Unicorn, anyone?), does that mean I see myself as a rare, endangered creature? Or am I simply trying to tell a story – and I happen to think unicorns are cool? That fictitious unicorn is just that: fictitious. It’s a tool. It’s a way to tell a story. It is a means to an end.
I don’t believe we’re limited to only the things that occur/happen to us (as writers). I know I’m speaking like some sort of collective. I promise, I’m not a member of the Borg. (Resistance is futile! Hand over the coffee!) That, in my opinion, is where research comes in. It’s where historical texts come in. It’s how a writer can fill a plot hole or flesh out a character. (That imagery always creeps me out. Flesh OUT? As opposed to what? Flesh IN? Ick.) It is a large part of historical fiction, where the gaps are filled in with truth via research. For instance, Deanna Raybourn’s and Michelle Moran’s novels.
The beauty of fiction (and I hope this isn’t a trade secret) is that it isn’t true – but (good fiction, effective fiction) rings true. It’s why internal struggles resonate with an audience. It’s why people still root for the underdog and for Good to triumph over Evil. I think that if all we wanted from fiction was truth, we’d read non-fiction.
What do YOU think?
So, I think I’ve mentioned my manuscript before (working title: Devil in the Details). I thought it was done. I sent out a few queries, just a few. Nothing came of it.
I felt kind of crappy. I started to think about the manuscript. I recognized some plot holes. I felt like some of the supporting characters were weak. I decided to not think about that. Then, a curious thing happened.
I didn’t query anyone else. I chalked it up to being busy, which is true. But that is also a vile excuse, and I noticed that as I was able to find time to write a bunch of short stories. The truth was that I didn’t want to rehash the book. I needed to, but I kind of felt like I’d failed at it.
Then, something else happened. The other day, I read Kat Howard’s blog about rewriting. It inspired me. But more importantly, she gave me the courage I needed to revist DitD. I like to give credit where it’s due, and since her blog often explodes with inspiration, there you have it. Kat, the sword-weilding writer, is awesome. She also loves Buffy, which makes me happy.
So, yesterday, I started rewriting things. I’d made notes about what didn’t work, what needed to be removed, what should be there but isn’t, and how some characters should be improved. I made it through the first chapter with a better chapter. This morning, I rewrote the second chapter, and it was…fun. Also, extra crazy.
The female lead? Well, I killed off her parents, changed her occupation slightly, gave her a stalker (instead of a crazy ex-boyfriend), and made her best friend into a self-absorbed nitwit. Because it was necessary to the story. It makes it better, more interesting.
I changed a lot of the language too, because it didn’t fit a character. Some of the dialogue was stilted. I had to kill a lot of my darlings. Some of my favorite lines were uncerimoniously axed. But that’s okay. Because it’s not about favorites.
It’s about the story. The words on the page. The book will be better for it.
In the past week, I’ve written four short stories. Each one is a little more bizarre than the last. Writing them, even just the act of getting them down on paper, helped me to evolve as a writer.
How? I stopped censoring myself. I wrote a few things that turned my stomach and made me feel squicky. (Yes, squicky is a technical term. I SWEAR. Don’t question me. Pay no attention to the woman behind the coffeepot. Also, stay away from my coffee.)
I didn’t start out to write something that made me uncomfortable. For instance, I started with an idea – retelling a fairytale. (I blame Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples for that.) I also found use for a bit of imagery I’d jotted down in my notebook.
I started writing, and the characters went off the path. Waaaaay off. And I found myself writing a really disturbing scene. But I wrote it.
There was a time where I would’ve thought, “Oh my GOD – my dad might read this!” Or, “People are going to assume I’m twisted.” (I mean, I am. But not like that.)
This time, it was about the story, and about telling it in the manner it needed to be told. Instead of shying away from the difficult bits.
So this particular story made me feel something. The characters were extremely clear. And I think it might be the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s not the easier thing I’ve ever done. But I think that I got it right – that the words on the page work. That makes me very, very happy.
Each of the four stories have gone through my own edits. They’re off to several beta readers for shredding. This is progress. This is a good lesson.
Like Poe did, write what scares you. Write what disturbs you. Write the story as it’s begging to be written, not some user-friendly, whitewashed version of it. Step to the ledge and jump. Let the story write you.
I have a wretched fear of writing short stories. This isn’t one of those inexplicable fears, either (like, say, the fear of clowns – which, by the way, are freakish and scary). It all started during my first semester of college. Or maybe it was the second semester.
I wrote what turned out to be a ridiculously bad short story. So bad that, after the fact, I deleted from my hard drive and shredded all available paper copies. If it were possible, I would’ve burned it and danced around the embers.
I had a favorite English professor who (whom?) I trusted. I valued his opinion. Since I wanted to start writing more seriously, I asked him to look at my short story. (Prior to that, I was mostly a poet. And still learning. A lot.) The Damned Story (as it shall henceforth be known) was meant to be a symbolic masterpiece. (Feel free to snarf your coffee while laughing at that.) I thought about the unique meanings found in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and I thought, Hey! I’m going to write a short story with a lot of sketchy symbolism.
I still cringe whenever I think about it, even though it’s been about ten years. The whole ordeal left me feeling embarrassed, as if I’d just walked into gym class, buck naked.
Why? I mean, aside from the obvious feeble attempt at something I’d never tried? The reaction of my professor was pretty jarring. Not in a constructive way, but in the way that made me feel wretched and a little ashamed.
I emailed him my story. He had agreed to read it prior. Then…a week went by. Nothing. No response. No “I got your story.” We had class, and he said nothing. So, I mustered up my courage and went down to his office to ask him about it. He told me that he hadn’t gotten it. It was a lie. A bad one. He babbled something about how he didn’t have time, anyway (so, resending it wasn’t an option). By the end of the conversation, I was ready to go cry in my Shakespeare. (Honestly, he wasn’t a bad guy or a bad professor – but this was a flaming mistake of hideous proportions.)
The next semester, I wrote another short story. It had taken me months. I didn’t want to fail again, as I had. I didn’t want the embarrassment that comes with that kind of learning, especially if there was no chance of a cushioned landing. For whatever masochistic reason, I asked that same professor to read it. He agreed.
A few days later, he informed me that it was “much better” than my last story. The story he’d claimed to never have gotten or read. And I looked at him, and said, “Yeah, you said that you never read it.” And he proceeded to turn the color of a very ripe tomato. Once again, I had that I Need to Flee feeling, but I didn’t.
The problem was this: that was the wrong way for him to handle the situation. I didn’t learn anything from it, except that my short stories were so terrible that my professor had to lie about them in order to save face. (His or mine? Who knows.) All I learned from it was that I should probably NEVER write a short story again. Ever. Upon penalty of DEATH. Or the Pain.
I didn’t for many, many years. I’m not kidding. I shunned them so spectacularly that Dwight Schrute would be proud.
Until a few years ago. I wrote one. It didn’t fill me with an all-consuming sense of shame. Sure, I knew it wasn’t a literary masterpiece, but the wording in a certain paragraph wasn’t bad. And I liked a small bit of dialogue. Since then, I’ve written a lot more. Some were hopeful little duds. Some I’ve shared here. I sent one or two out as submissions.
Every time I write something, I learn something new. (I also learn by reading, but that’s another story.). No one taught me how to write a short story. Learning the basics is one thing, but mostly you learn by doing. By writing. From there, you have a basis on which to improve. A starting point.
My short stories no long make me feel panicky, sick to my stomach, or like I should be flogged by French monkeys. (What? All monkeys are French. Didn’t you know that? Also, mad props to the person who tells me what tv show that’s from. Plus, see the Eddie Izzard sketch. Le singe est sur la branche.)
The lesson here is this: be careful who you share your work with – and take criticism as it’s given. The very grave error my professor committed was failing to teach. Ironic, I know. But if he had sat me down and given me feedback – even just to point out the myriad of ways The Damned Story didn’t work, I would’ve been better off. I would’ve been enlightened. I would’ve had a starting point besides complete abject terror.
You only improve by doing. People can give you helpful feedback, but it might be wise to choose carefully. I thought I did, because I respected my professor. He wasn’t a creative writing teacher. And, as it turned out, he was a terrible liar.
Don’t be afraid of bumbling your way through things. Do what scares you. That’s good advice for life and writing. Write a character a life. Give the madwoman in the attic a voice. Remember that And sometimes, a kiss might kill you – but you don’t know, until you try.
I’ve spent years perfecting the art of writing with too much blinding light – so that you had to squint to see the words, and even then, only half of them fell through. The words on the page matter. Nothing else. That is the only thing you’ve to work with. You can infer whatever you like, but if you can’t back it up with the text itself, your interpretation of things isn’t valid.
But that’s only part of my point.
My point is a story that isn’t mine to tell. I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know how to get rid of it. I don’t even think I could if I wanted. But it needs a place, a home. Something to get it off my mind and out of my hands. (Let’s pretend that’s a possibility.)
Life shouldn’t be a carefully edited story. Life’s a messy, almost ridiculous first draft. There are words crossed out. Pages crumpled in the corner. Sometimes, there are footprints, ink stains, and even notes jotted in the margins. There are bits of unfamiliar languages, snatches of dialogue that no longer make contextual sense, and there are expertly captured moments that were rendered immortal through the stroke of a pen. Or pencil. Or keyboard.
Stories, we hope, last. A novel – our life. We want what is remembered. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or easily understood (Joyce, anyone?) – as long as it remains.
Such is the stuff of personal memories and history. Every misstep brought you here, whenever here is. Every success and heartbreak formed the You that is sitting there, reading this. Would you be different if things were a little easier, if another person never existed within your world? Yes.
But that doesn’t mean you’d be a better you.
Over the years, I’ve realized that circumstances cannot be taken away. The choice is always there. The situation exists. You choose. It’s that easy and that simple.
You love or you don’t. You leave or you stay. You say what you feel or you hide it.
It’s how you handle something that matters – not that you feel love, or grief, or some unlabeled ache.
As a writer, I think you write the story that chooses you. Inspiration appears like freakish lightning, and you deal with it. You try to pull it out of the dust and create something. Sometimes, you end up covered in mud, twitching in the corner, feeling like your Watcher slipped you a potion – and you’ve lost your Slayer powers. Other times, damn it all to hell, if you haven’t beaten the odds, died twice, and STILL saved the world. A lot. (Is there still a Hellmouth in Ohio?)
Life is the same. All you have is a choice. It doesn’t often change the fiber of things – the situation, the problem, the Way Things Are. The Powers that Be are kind of unforgiving.
How you handle something? What you choose to do? That’s up to you. That’s on you.
Some people, upon discovering a hangnail or cold, fly immediately to Twitter, Facebook, or their blog – and broadcast their ills to the world.
Fine. Okay. That’s a choice. That enters into the narrative, though. You are, with everything you do, telling a story.
The other day, I wrote a story that turned into something I didn’t expect. At all. In it, a formally dead woman wakes up in a graveyard, has a talk with a few crows, and gets a little bit of revenge. There’s more, but that’s the gist.
I’m editing it right now, with my lilac colored pen. And I realized something: I can’t leave humor out of my writing. I’m a wisecracker. I’m of the Buffy Bunch. I wanted to be one of the Scooby gang, damn it. So, I quip. I mock. I put characters in slightly crazy positions, because it’s funny. Except, I didn’t mean to write this story in this way. It works. I think.
It’s totally outside my realm of normal. A few bits required research. I added Old Norse. I then had flashbacks of an undergrad class where I had to read out loud in Old English. If anything in my college career made me want to cry, it was that class. Old English might as well be greek with a bit of nonsense thrown in. I am really bad at phonetics, too, which did not help me.
But my point…I like it when characters surprise me. I like humor, when and where it will work. That’s pretty much my approach for life, so it makes sense that it’d seep into my writing.
For years, I resented short stories. Most of the ones I had to read in school bored me. I would breeze through them as quickly as possible, and pray for that unit to pass as quickly as it could. Gradually, as recently as a few years ago, I came around. I found short stories that absolutely amazed me. In short, I got over it. And I started writing them with regularity. (I’d written a few, but they were–if I’m being honest–horrible. They should’ve never seen the light of day, let alone the poor editor at a press who I tortured with it. Who, by the way, was kind enough to write back with a personal note.)
I have a slight phobia with the short stories I write. I do not yet feel totally comfortable writing them. I always harbor a fear that it’s not done. That the ending sucks. Or that I have no business writing them. I started out writing poetry. I’m more comfortable with that. But I feel like I’ve learned so much — and that I’ve improved.
Stories often surprise you. Characters, too. They should. To me, if something unexpected occurred, the story is organic. I believe that instinct should lead, not some pre-planned piece of plot. What I believe in the most, though, is that it’s necessary to push yourself. Don’t limit yourself to writing only one thing, even in terms of genre. You learn by trying, by doing. You learn by surprising yourself with the unexpected story.
There are conversations I don’t like having. These conversations usually begin with an innocuous seeming question. This is merely a clever disguise for a lightning sand conversation, which then brings the burst of fireswamp fire, and if luck is not with me, the ROUSs.
Things like, “Are you seeing anyone special?” or “What do you do?” or “Why aren’t you married yet?”
These things are the Gateway to Awkward. But the “What do you do?” is a flaming hoop that bounces, and I usually try and jump through it as quickly as possible – the conversational equivalent of, “Chug it! Chug it!” Hold your nose, and swallow the medicine. As fast as you can. There is no sugar for it.
“I’m a writer.” [blank, or possibly curious look] Then I’m usually asked, “What have you published?”
At this point, I try and hide. Or I pretend to choke. Or I mutter. Or I just talk very fast in the (vain) hope no one will understand me – and no follow up questions will be asked. (This rarely works.)
I’ve had a few poems published. A couple of articles. I’ve written two books. None of my short stories have seen the light of day, yet. I’m shopping the second book around, and I’m still vaguely hopeful about it. Because I like the story. I had fun writing it. And I think the characters are interesting.
But will it sell? I don’t know. That is not, however, the current point.
As a writer, I often walk around feeling vaguely fraudulent. Like I have adopted a clever disguise, and I’m playacting. When I tell someone that I haven’t published a novel (yet), I usually get asked, “Why not?” as if agents and publishing contracts are something you order from a catalogue or off of the television.
“I’m in the process of looking for an agent” is often met with, “Weren’t you doing that last year?”
Er, um. Yes? But here’s the thing: I haven’t found one, yet. It can be about as difficult as finding a job in this bloody effin’ mess of an economy – which, by the way, affects everything, from agents to book-buyers.
Being a writer takes time and talent – and I have at least one of those things. (Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be here all week.) It has never once occurred to me to give up, which either means I have tenacity, faith in myself, or I am incredibly stubborn. (Possibly a mixture of all three, but I won’t tell you the proportions for that particular cocktail.)
I am, however, lucky in a lot of respects. I have family and friends who believe in me, even when they suspect I might be crazy. There are people in my corner, so I’m less likely to pull a Hemingway every time I get a rejection notice. (If I can find it, I NEED to share with you the worst rejection I ever received, with the name redacted of course. It was traumatic and childish all at once.)
I’m also lucky that I have people in the writing world that I consider friends. People who have been through the trials, tribulations, and trenches – and have emerged victorious. (No name dropping, but you all know who you are. One of you has purple streaks in her hair. Another has fabulous taste in clothing and shoes. And I owe another a long-deserved drink.) This means if I start to panic, or I’m worried about something, I can ask a question. And I do.
There is a sense of camaraderie. (This is the very first time I’ve been able to spell that word correctly, EVER.) There is a sense of, “I’ve been there. I know what you mean.” I’ve also been at this a while that I know a few things, so I can advise others (minimally, in my opinion, but still).
So, I’ll deal with the awkward silences. They’re par for the course. A right of passage, I suppose. Until I can point to my novel, and go – Look, Ma! Top of the world!
Well, that might not be exactly the words I’d use, but still. Without the awkward silences, how could one appreciate the (future) thunderous applause? Or, in more realistic terms, without the error, I can’t learn. Without the difficulties, I would not appreciate the eventual wins. Let’s face it – if everything came easy, and everyone got exactly what he/she wanted without having to work for it, what fun would that be? It would be boring. And we’d all be very bored.
Plus, every writer I know does not write because it is his/her job. He/she does it because of love. Because it’s like breathing. It’s necessary for life. The same goes for every other artist. A painter paints. A sculptor sculpts. A photographer photographs.
We see what we see. And we want you to see it too.
- “Why haven’t you published your novel, yet?” (Pause) “Why not? Can’t you just find a publisher?” Yes, yes, I can. I don’t know why I’m dragging my feet. Perhaps it’s because I’m too busy chasing after a leprechaun and his magic pot of gold. Or I’m lazy.
- “Why haven’t you found an agent yet?” Wait, the agent’s LOST? Damn, here I was thinking I needed to query agents. Apparently, I just need to submit a missing person’s report. Who knew?
- “You know, I want to write a novel. I have all these great ideas. I just never have the time.” Because time grows on trees. It’s not something you make, right? And, you know, IDEAS are enough to make something happen.
- “Why isn’t your poetry easy to understand?” Why is your baby ugly? Seriously, what kind of question IS that? Sometimes, unfortunately for you, you have to think. Meaning isn’t dropped on your head from a four-story window. If anything, that’s a piano—in which case, RUN!
- “Hey, if you’re famous someday, will you help me prompt my novel/screenplay/slam poetry?” Yes, if I’m famous that’s EXACTLY what I’m going to do – focus on YOU. That’ll be my sole purpose in life.
- “Why don’t you write a book about [insert trend here]?” Gee, I don’t know. Why don’t you, if it’s that easy? It’s not like I need to have a story idea or a plot or anything. I can just sit down and write out the next blockbuster hit about wizards who are also vampires, learning spells at an academy in Narnia. Of course, they aren’t your run-of-the-mill vampires – they’re vampires who like DISCO! Or I could write a bestseller about werewolves locked in an epic battle with zombies, who are busy trying to fend off the Bennett sisters.
- “Would you look at my novel/screenplay/short story?” No, no, no. A world of no. What would I then do if your writing, well, sucked? Danger! Danger, Will Robinson! Now, if you want me to proofread something, I could be persuaded, but there’s a small fee involved. It usually includes COFFEE.
- “Isn’t writing easy?” Just go away before I smite you. That’s like asking a lawyer if law school is a walk in the park. The short answer is NO. The long answer involves me verbally stringing you up and letting a pack of wild word-dogs ravage you for your insulting supposition.
- “Can I read your manuscript?” Sure. As soon as you give me a publishing contract. In other words, no. Unless I ask for your advice, I don’t want you to read it. I’m most likely filled with abject terror that it sucks – and that the literary community will mock it for years to come. I will not share it with you, my mail person, or the guy I bump into at the coffee shop. I CAN’T HANDLE THE PRESSURE. *ahem*
- “Hey, did [insert thing that happened in novel/short story] this happen to you?” Unless it’s an autobiography, NO. Fiction. Creative writing. I am not writing my life story, yet. When I do, though, it is going to be EPIC. Or, at the very least, I can get back at that one kid was made my life HELL in grade school. I mean…*sheepish look*
- “Why do you write?” Gee, I don’t know. Why do you ask odd questions?
- “You don’t need to finish the novel before you query. Just have a really good first chapter, right? I mean, that’s all agents look at.” Exactly. Good advice. It’s a bad idea to have a finished project before asking people to put their name behind it. And agents really don’t want to read the full manuscript. That’s just SILLY. Thank you for being an expert on all things literary.