You have a story in your lap. You’ve finished, alpha to omega. Your man has been in the tree, you’ve thrown your stones, you’ve solved problems and learned and grown and all your characters have warm, fuzzy, and or dead feelings. It’s time to get down to work. Nuts and bolts buddy, nuts and bolts. I have written at length about editing your work and you should scroll down and read these posts. I will only reiterate that after you clean up your text and do your minimum read through count, it is time to look at the story as a whole and ask yourself some tough questions.
Is my story compelling? What do I mean by compelling? Simply, do I want to read/know what happens next. First you should ask yourself if you find it compelling, and be honest. You can lie to anyone you want for whatever reasons and you are only a lier. Lie to yourself and you’re a fool. Now ask someone else to read it and not lie to you. An acquaintance of mine, Chris, read some work I had done. I had written the stories about four months ago when my current profligacy and ferment were just getting going. My first few stories had been well received by my friends, but Chris’ comments were cool at best. I had been writing at a glacial pace for three years (finished a novel that was a real bust and just sort of whithered) so when I got my feet back under me I just assumed that all was good. It wasn’t. Friends are great, but I needed critics. Chris was able to make me feel less good about myself and more constructively critical. Writing is not therapy. It is not relaxation. Writing is work. You can exercise your demons with your writing, but if that is your only purpose then you are going to end up with nothing but a diary. My stories were only marginally compelling and I knew it. I knew it before I let my friends read it and I let myself be convinced that their praise was a substitution for quality. So ask yourself, ‘Is my story compelling?’
Have I rendered quality writing? Have I used cliches, tropes, or hackneyed dialog? Is the phrase, “His butt filled his jeans awesomely!” or “She was a the perfect mix of hotness and dynamite!” used more than once in your tale? Is it used at all? Understand, you may have a character that can pull off one of those lines, the fictional biography of Andrea Dice Clay has yet to be written, but really, ask yourself the hard question: is this quality writing? Read something of beauty, the first hundred pages of Moby Dick, the first story of Jesus’ Son; do you compare? Do you need to? You can have grungy, dirty writing, but you can’t get away with bad writing. Jeff Skinner, my college writing guru always said that a story about boredom need not be boring. I think the best way to improve prose, is to study poetry. Get a book, go to a reading at the coffee shop, find out how cadence and the matrix of meaning and density work for impact. Let poetry rub off on you, then ask yourself, “is my writing any good?”
Does my story have internal consistency? When writing a story you come under the influence of a literary version of the uncertainty principle: The act of writing the story changes the story. You can’t help it. Characters will evolve in their personalities and motivations, settings will expand and contract, time will dilate. You need to go through your story with an eye for inconsistencies and for new aspects that have crept in, giving the story different complexions and complexities. This is the first step of a good rewrite. Look for the best parts and build on them. Is a lately introduced foil impossible to forget? Perhaps the focus of the story in the beginning needs to be changed.
Have I provided myself enough distance from my work? When you write a story you become your story. Unless you are a machine (and I’m okay with that) then you’re going to spend your writing time getting into your characters heads and dwelling in the places they dwell. When you first come out of that head-space it is difficult to have the prospective needed for honest reflexion. Take your story and send it away, let it walk on its own, then invite it back. You can work on something else, or just take some time to dwell on other things (I like to read a few jarringly different stories), but after you have a bit of distance, pick it back up and see what’s different. Trust me, you will see the story in a different light. Parts that seemed sturdy will now feel forced and flimsy while lines that you thought of as throwaways are going to pop out with new gravity and power. The Buddhists say that you are a different person by the time you walk across a room, so by taking a little time away you are giving yourself the benefit of a slightly different being’s vision. Yes, you can take that as far as you want. I finished a story a couple of months ago that I had written four years ago. I never could get it right before, then I found it in a drawer and realized it was good and I knew exactly where it needed to go.
The trick is to give yourself time to rework your story. You might need to cut and paste the best parts and then write the intermediaries again. You might be able to insert a paragraph or page in key locations, and you may get away with just tightening up certain segments without altering the whole, but you must give yourself the time to make it right. You spent all that energy writing the story, why would you cheat yourself by not polishing it? Just look down to Maggie Jamison’s interview to see what an editor thinks about diamonds in the rough. Your skill reaches apogee in the process of polishing. With that tortuously elongated diamond metaphor I will end my rewrite polemic.
I’m Cecil Rhodes, and this is the science of fiction.
Next up Part 5-if you love something set if free, if it comes back it wasn’t good enough and you’re a bad person, or rejections I have loved.
On the horizon: An interview with John Klima, founder and editor of the Hugo Award winning magazine Electric Velocipede in which he shares his thoughts on story-craft, fiction trends, and one of the best “how I got into fantasy” stories I’ve read. Don’t miss it. Up January 1st!!!