Despite the impossibility of such things, I've been prodded into action on this front by Ms Bunny, who recently made a request for an essay on writing, and who asked exactly these kinds of questions (my paraphrases):
- How can you tell when a story is good?
- How do you know when a story is finished (ie. the best you can make it)?
- How do you edit effectively?
- How can you pick a good editing choice from a bad one?
- Can you learn "talent"?
My forte is mainly in explaining concrete writing techniques, and these questions are more about judgement, expertise and instinct. That said, I think they are worthwhile topics, so I've done my best to give some useful answers -- thank you for the challenge, Ms Bunny.
My take on the answers is behind the cut, but given the nature of the topic, and that my answers are certainly not definitive, I invite you all to share your ideas about assessing your own creativity: what works, what doesn't, what questions do you still have? I'm very curious to see what other techniques people use and how well they work.
How can you tell when a story is good?
There are a whole heap of general answers I could give to this, such as "reading widely improves your judgement" and "get feedback from others" and so on. But Ms Bunny framed this question specifically about the writing process, not some ideal of objective quality, so I'm going to answer with reference to my own work. As Ms Bunny points out, the quality of my writing has changed over time:
I have read some of your earlier stories, and also your recent ones and I can tell that your writing is better, but I am not sure what makes them better except that when I read them my heart drops in awe. They just amaze me. I am enthralled with them and want the words to stay with me, for my eyes to trace back over them, leap forward in excitement through them, and I want to remember them and tell people about them. But I don't know what has to be done to writing like your earlier pieces to transform them into the amazing texts that you write now.
Putting aside the compliments, there is an objective truth here: whether they are to your taste or not, my stories now are better than the ones I wrote five years ago. And Ms Bunny has already hit on part of the reason why.
One of the main reasons I started this LJ was as a kind of intensive writing workshop. I wanted to be able to write stories that would enthral a reader, make them feel the swooping excitement for words that my favourite authors created for me. I wanted to try out a lot of different techniques and see if they worked for real readers. I wanted to be better.
Obviously I had other reasons too, or I wouldn't have chosen to make fandom and fanfiction my testing ground. But the workshop aspect was a big part of it: I needed practice, I needed smart readers, and oh how smart they were. The feedback alone has resulted in at least half of my improvement as a writer.
So the answer to Ms Bunny's question is that all of those earlier stories were as "good" as I could make them at the time. Yes, those early stories have big flaws: some of those flaws I couldn't see back then; some I could see but didn't know how to fix. It was getting things wrong and assessing what those things were that made me more aware of what worked, of what was "good" in each story. This was my apprenticeship as a writer.
There is, sadly, no short cut for this process. Each writer much go though getting stuff wrong, trying to figure out why, reading feedback, using beta readers, and then aiming higher with every story, honing techniques not quite mastered in previous stories and also trying something new each time.
This brings us to a secondary question, which is: How long does this apprenticeship last? How long does it take to develop a solid sense for when a story is working, and when it's not?
Handily, the answer to this was recently pointed out to me by anatsuno, who linked to this interesting talk by Malcolm Gladwell. Basically, to become expert at something takes about 10,000 hours, or ten years of regular work.
Yes. I know. 10,000 hours! Who has that kind of time, right?
Actually, we all do. Think about anything you've done all your adult life, from cooking to reading, from driving a car to your job. After a decade, you are so much better at it than you were when you first began.
It works just the same way with writing, and it doesn't all have to be fiction-writing to count towards the 10,000 hours (although a big wodge of it does need to be fiction, as there are specific techniques to master). To relate this back to my own writing, about a year after I finished my PhD, I suddenly thought one day, "Wow. I actually know what I'm doing. I'm not a student at this any more." I didn't know about the 10,000 hour rule then, but yes, it was about a decade after I'd stopped fiddling around with the idea of wanting to be a writer, and had actually knuckled down and done the work. At about 10,000 hours I tipped over the magical line and became an "expert".
Expert knowledge doesn't mean you're intrinsically and always good, or that you can't make mistakes, but it does mean that you have a huge body of experience to draw on. You are able to make subtle, precise judgements about your own work, even when you've only just finished writing it.
In short: you can learn to judge when a story is "good" through practice. Lots and lots and lots of practice. Ten years will about do it.
How do you know when a story is finished (ie. the best you can make it)?
Lots of factors come into this, like deadlines, and the reason you're writing the story. But let's assume it's a perfect world, and you have all the time you need.
I found this question very hard to answer, because I trust my gut on this. It tells me when I've nailed a story, or if it still need major work. I've been trying to quantify what it is about stories that gives me that feeling.
For instance, I have a "finished" Stargate: Atlantis novella sitting on my hard-drive. It's been sitting there for over a year, because the shape isn't right. There isn't enough build-up and the payoff isn't big enough. To fix it, I probably need to add 10,000 more words.
I think the key word here is "shape". I've talked before about Robert McKee's book on writing: Story. In it, McKee says that each act of a story must have a climax larger than the one before, and the final climax must be the biggest of all. What is missing from my novella is this sense of growing tension, each climax isn't bigger than the one before. That's why the shape is wrong.
How do I know? When I read a good story, even if it's one by me, there are scenes that make me go, "Oh, wow! I've always wanted to read that!" and my stomach kind of tenses up with the goodness. Each scene leaves me more twisted up, until the climax resolves everything. In the Novella of Doom, there aren't enough of those scenes. Don't get me wrong, there are some awesome scenes in it, scenes that I've never read in an SGA story before. But there aren't enough increasingly powerful "wow" moments for the tension to twist up and up, so that by the end my jaw is clenched and then -- BAM! -- climax, and I feel kind of melty. Until that's fixed, the story won't be "finished".
One of the ways I usually make sure that the structure of a story works in this pattern (twist-twist-twist-BAM!), is to map out a brief outline and then fill it in.
For instance, with Class: Insecta, I knew I wanted to write about bug!John, so I went and did a whole heap of research on bugs. After looking at the information, I was struck by the pattern of insect life cycles, so I decided to structure the story around that. I chose words from each stage of the cycle, but which also had another meaning, and used them as the key points of my outline. It worked out so well, I kept them as chapter headings. I split the parts up as follows:
- Yoke -- yolk/egg.
- Puppet -- pupa.
- Imagines -- imago.
I used that as an ironic framework for John's story, but it also worked to keep me on track as I wrote; I could work on each section as a self-contained piece with its own climax. I knew the story needed to follow this pattern:
- Yoke is the setup.
- Nymph and Puppet are the complication and change.
- Cocoon is the overall story climax -- the longest section and the biggest bang.
- Imagines is the afterglow.
Using this kind of sketchy framework has proven to be the most reliable method for writing stories I've so far found. It means I can hit the right high points in the first draft, and the re-writing tends to be minimal. Tellingly, I didn't use this method for the Novella of Doom.
I decide a story is a finished first draft when: I have that good feeling that the story has the right shape; there are lots of "Oh, wow" moments; plot and characterization seem solid; I can't see any glaring grammar or sense errors; and I've spell checked it. At that point I've usually read it all the way through at least three or four times, and the individual sections many more time as I write and revise.
Then I send it off to a beta-reader for a second opinion, read their thoughts, and do the final re-write. Then it's done.
These days, when I'm sure I've nailed a story, that tends to be reflected in both beta comments and reader responses. Occasionally I'm wrong, but mostly my gut is a good judge. Of course, knowing what readers will respond to is also practice -- you only get a sense of it by publishing lots of stories and listening to the feedback.
I'm sure there are many other ways to judge if a story is "finished". I'd love to hear what your processes are.
How do you edit effectively?
This is a whole, huge topic in its own right. The short answer is: regularly save your work so that you have multiple versions of the story as you progress; then you can make radical changes without fear. You can always revert to the old version if you go astray.
When I revise I have a kind of checklist of things I do:
- Read through a section, looking for awkward wording, illogical flow of ideas, and things that don't make sense. A good way to do this when you're just starting out is to notice if you have to read a phrase or word more than once, or if your eye stutters on it, especially if you pause at that point every time you re-read the section. That's a sign there's something wrong, even if you're not sure what. Reading out loud also helps with this, as it will make "stoppers" clear -- things your mental tongue trips over.
- Think about what it was I was actually trying to say.
- Try to re-work the section so that I'm actually saying what I mean smoothly and clearly, instead of speaking all around the topic without hitting it.
- Play around with different solutions: new combinations or sequences for the sentences; new wording to make something clearer; deleting ruthlessly if it just doesn't work; breaking into separate paragraphs, or combining paragraphs to make the idea more succinct; changing the pronouns (he/she) and names so they map correctly.
- Once it's working, go for the art: add in repetition, word patterns, punctuation and white space for dramatic effect.
- Stop once I can no longer spot any rough bits or things my eyes trip over when I read it back, and move on to the next section.
- Once some time has passed, read that part again to make sure I didn't miss anything.
I use this same process first at the paragraph level, then the chapter level, and then the story as a whole.
Once I've finished revising, I send it off to a beta-reader. I give instructions to look in particular detail at anything I'm not sure about. For instance, I always have trouble with endings, and usually need to re-write them. I nearly always ask beta-readers to give extra feedback on the ending.
How can you pick a good editing choice from a bad one?
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Which version makes more sense?
Always, always go for sense. Really. Even if the story is meant to be a postmodern ironic lampoon of the senselessness of life, your readers will find it much funnier if they get the joke.
- Which version gives you that "Oh, wow" feeling most strongly?
Always go with "Wow".
- Which version is fresher, and which reads more like a cliché?
Always go for the fresher option, unless you want to deliberately play with the reader's expectation of the cliché. If you do play with the cliché, make it pay off -- there must be a climax.
- And if still in doubt, ask your beta-readers which version they prefer and why. Listen to your beta-readers.
Can you learn talent?
This is not a yes/no question. I strongly believe that almost anyone can be taught how to improve their writing to the point where they can construct a competent story.
That said, some people seem to have a talent for spotting and using the "Oh, wow" moments, and others always seem to miss them. I'm not sure how much of that can be learnt. Clearly, it can be honed and improved; as Ms Bunny pointed out, my own stories are better now, from a purely objective point of view. They are more assured, have better technique, and get to the heart of what I want to say more precisely. But are they great stories? No. Not yet. I still don't get to the "Oh, wow" moments often enough.
One of the things I do in order to try and get to the "Oh, wow" more often, is to take note of these things:
- What do I respond to in other people's stories, especially my favourites? What makes my heart race; what makes me cry?
- What do I love openly and will talk about for hours?
- What are my secret desires -- the ones I never admit to anyone? How do I respond when I find those desires in a story?
- What makes me close a browser window with a horrified flinch, or throw a book across the room?
You might have noticed that I have something of a talent for writing badfic. This is mostly because I've paid attention to what makes me roll my eyes and stop reading a story (often accompanied by little bleh bleh bleh noises :).
The more I learn about writing, the more I've decided that a lot of it comes down to waking up the reader's lizard brain. This actually takes a fair bit of technical skill, as you must first lull the reader into the state where they're not really aware they are reading. But once you have them there, you need to tap into the things that make them hurt and love and want and cry. You can only do that if you really, truly know what makes you do that yourself.
Then? You slide that want into your story like a secret knife, and cut open your reader's heart. That is the secret to talent, in my opinion, but whether it can truly be learnt I really don't know.
And that's all I have to say about that. So what do you think? How do you know if your work is good? When do you decide a story is finished? Do you have any fool-proof editing tips? Do you feel you've become a more talented writer with practice?
Talk to me.
ETA: Sorry, I'm having a bad day. Please go ahead and keep talking -- I'm reading and enjoying what you have to say; I just can't reply like a reasonable human being right now.