Becoming a better writer is such an abstract process, even when under the guidance of higher education. Unlike with Humanities or Business majors, grades issued in Creative Writing courses have no merit as to the quality of the writing produced. Sure, a professor can grade you on your spelling and grammar. Maybe even originality of story; after all, we’ve all written those teenage angst tales about a character misunderstood by their peers or who is a victim of happenstance or abusive parents (if the parents are alive at all). But judging and grading a story based on its story, how it is developed, and its characters is a little more difficult.
I’m sure you’ve run across this issue before: you’re in an English class listening to your professor go on and on about how incredible a certain book is. They discuss the impact that book has had on its society; all the awards it got; and what it means to the literary community. You get amped to be reading something powerful. A gem in the midst of crappy romance novels and young teen dramas.
Then you read it. And it sucks.
Only when you say that in class everyone berates you on your lack of good taste.
That terrible feeling you get, that creeping doubt that you’re wrong doesn’t change when you start reading and critiquing people’s stories in-class. I’ve often been the only person in my class who isn’t moved by a cliche homage to the jaded, single, male writer who drinks away his loneliness in what is detailed as a very bland, very gray world. Or by a literary attempt at retelling that same dramatic tale about a woman’s abortion, or the abortion story with a twist: that she keeps the baby!
That doesn’t make me any more right or wrong than the guy sitting next to me salivating over the piece. But here’s the important part: I’m a fantasy and magical realist writer. I don’t get along with literary fiction. I never have. I think it’s long-winded and boring. So when the literary writer is sitting across the room hearing me talk about how cliche and boring the story was, should she take everything I say with a grain of salt? Absolutely. Should she ignore me entirely? Never. Because even though I’m outside her genre, outside her audience, I’m still qualified to tell her she’s made mistakes in her writing.
But this often isn’t the case with young writers who look for approval from peers who may have little to no background in writing. And that’s where they can run into problems, especially if they’re a genre writer. If a young fantasy writer goes to his literary grandmother and asks for her opinion, do you think grandma is going to let all the gun battles fly? Absolutely not.
Which brings me to my first point in my How To Be A Better Writer In 5 Steps guide.
1. Know Your Audience.
Do you want to be a literary writer? A sci-fi writer? Mystery? Maybe a young adult medieval fantasy writer? Whatever you choose, you need to research your genre and stick to it. I’m speaking specifically to genre writers when I say: do not be swayed into a genre you do not enjoy. Throughout my undergraduate career I struggled with my writing because my peers told me I should be literary–that magical realism and fantasy was “weird” and “confusing.”
You should always love writing and reading your own work. So, find the genre that speaks to you, read it, and try to understand why popular books in that genre are popular.
Pay attention to what stories are being told, too. The last thing you need is to be retelling Water for Elephants, which was an issue I ran into when writing my second novella, Circus Skin, a surrealistic story about a boy who literally falls into a circus world and falls in love with the Ringleader’s niece. Did I mention she’s the animal tamer? I can’t count the number of times someone asked me, “Hey, have you read Water for Elephants?”
So, find out what stories are being told, why people are attracted to them, and, if you want people to read your work, find those that typically read in your genre. Each genre has readers with different standards. Fantasy readers care just as much about world building as story, and literary readers prefer subtlety and metaphor as much as romance readers tend toward passion. If you find the right readers for your work, you’ll get better advice on how to improve your story.
Once you understand your audience, their needs, and what stories you are competing with, you can better identify problems in it.
2. Add Tension To Your Stories
My generation has an unbelievably short attention span thanks to technology. For that reason, you should have a lot of tension in your stories. Common readers don’t want to deal with a modern Charles Dickens. They need to be kept on their toes at all times, and they most certainly should not be able to predict what comes next.
How do you this? Put your characters in tight spots. Here are a few examples:
– A man really needs to land a job to make rent. Instead of squabbling around feeling sorry for himself, he barges into the hiring manager’s office. Turns out, the hiring manager is his ex-wife.
– A girl wants to escape an abusive relationship. When she and her boyfriend are stuck in traffic, she blurts out that she wants to break up.
– A boy is going cliff diving with a couple friends. One of them relays that someone once died jumping off the same cliff. Be sure to describe how slick the mud is on the edge of said cliff.
Make your characters sweat and your readers will, too.
Point being, if you’re in the middle of a work and “stuck,” it’s probably because you’re bored. You can either delete the scene, make something happen, or skip over it altogether. You do not need to write in chronological order. Write the exciting parts first then return to the boring parts. You may find yourself not needing them after all.
3. Be True To Your Voice And Experiment
If you’re early in your writing career, you may not have yet developed a voice. And that’s OKAY. I’ve been a serious writer for 9 years, and I’m barely coming upon my voice. One thing I’ve discovered: I love abrupt pauses and fragments. You don’t need perfect grammar to be a good writer, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to write a particular way. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your writing or with the stories you’re writing. Not everything you write will be publishable, so spend some time having fun and trying new things. There many text-based role-playing games out there that will help you hone your art while giving you some time to relax without slacking off.
In the end, writing is an intimate art. And as writers we have the rare opportunity to do what we love for the rest of our lives. But first, we have to stop listening to other writers and readers and figure out what we want to write.
So, maybe you enjoy writing long sentences or being exceptionally detailed. Maybe you hate dialogue. People may tell you you’re doing this or that wrong, and that’s OKAY. Take note of it and take it into consideration, but if in the end you think it will ruin the integrity of your story, then move on.
In short, write your stories in such a manner that you enjoy reading them and don’t worry about the editing. Which brings me to my next point.
4. Do Not Edit Your Work Before It Is Complete
I repeat: do not edit your work before it is complete! The most common problem I’ve experienced and that I’ve seen in my fellow MFA writers is that we don’t know how to make our brains shut up. You have to learn to turn off your internal critic. It will only hold you back from completing your stories.
I don’t care if you changed the color of Marilyn’s sweater on page 12 or that you decided halfway through your novel that, oops, Marilyn shouldn’t even exist in this story. In the grand scheme of things, these are superficial issues that will only distract you from what’s really important: getting the work done.
When you’ve finished that last sentence of your novel, you can start hyperventilating about that misused semicolon on page 84 or that your classmate really liked Marilyn and doesn’t want you to edit her out. Once you have a complete draft, you can start thinking about how to make your story publishable and what you need to do to accomplish that. Plus, you’ll have the most insight into what works and what doesn’t work in your story when you have the whole thing sitting in front of you.
5. Love Your Writing
Most importantly, your stories should resonate with you. After all, you’re spending the most time in these stories, so shouldn’t you enjoy the stay? Write what you love, not what you think you should write.
I mentioned before that I tried being a literary writer. Well, I succeeded, to some extent. I wrote a 20-page story that was literary in every respect. My classmates LOVED it. But I hated it. It didn’t represent who I was or what my interests were. So even though I was praised by my peers, I was dissatisfied with my work. And that’s what you need to remember most; that you are your most important reader.
On a similar note, if you’re bored with what you’re writing and aren’t excited to daydream about your story and your characters, then something is amiss. I didn’t discover how easy and exciting it was to be a writer until I started my fantasy series, The Manifest. At any point during the day I can sit down and write a paragraph or a few pages if I have the time. Though, yes, I am still a young writer, I have never in my career been so excited to tell friends about my writing.
The one message I really want to pound into you is that you should have fun reading and writing your stories. They should make you laugh and cry, and sweat at the right times. You should be excited to talk about them and the work should flow out of you (though, yes, we all have rough patches at times). Writing should not be a chore. It’s an art. So, write what you love, and the rest will follow.