I've written a story. It's exciting! It's moving! It tells a universal truth from a unique perspective! My brilliance astounds me! Now what? I click save and put my laptop to sleep. I vacuum a room, fold laundry, go for a walk, read a book.
A few hours, or a few days, later I come back to my laptop. I read what I wrote. This is crap! Well, barely adequate...okay, I can fix it.
The elements of a short story are there. It has a beginning, a middle, an end, a conflict, a climax, a resolution. It even has a well developed main character and distinctive dialog. So what's wrong with it?
To begin, it needs a hook. An opening sentence that's going to make the reader want to continue reading. No exclamations or curses from the main character - that's cliché. But the story has to draw the reader along from the very first word to the very last.
Now I look at the words. Do the verbs convey distinctive action? Do the sentences vary in length in a way that reflects the mood and controls the pacing? Are the descriptions imaginative and vivid? Have I used many words where one or two will do? Can the reader see and hear and smell the setting and, for that matter, the characters? I make my additions, subtractions, substitutions.
I correct some spellings that spell check didn't pick up and fix a few misplaced commas. I'm finished, right? Right? Nope. I click save again and let it rest.
Time passes. Now I'm going to pull my story up and read it again. If I’ve let it sit long enough, it sounds like someone else’s work. It feels like someone else’s work. Until I can achieve this kind of emotional distance, it’s a waste of time to continue.
In this case, it’s rested long enough for me to evaluate it honestly. I fiddle with words to get perfect descriptions, I cut, merge, and reorder sentences to control pacing and create mood.
Is it soup yet? I'm about to find out by doing the bravest thing a writer - any writer - can do. I'm going to give it to someone else to read. But not just to read. To change words, to rewrite and reorder sentences, to suggest sharper or more original imagery...to edit my work. And more. I want this person to critique this story. To tell me if the plot flows, if the characters are vivid, if I'm making a point - and what that point is. To tell me if it's worth reading at all.
Guess what I do next. I thank that person profusely. Even if I feel like my feelings have been worked over by Freddy Kruger and my pride is pooling in sticky puddles all over the floor. I thank that person who points out every error, every shortcoming, questions every "fact" I forgot to look up (and the few that I did), the person who tells me to trash the very best line in the whole story.
And, unless something they suggest changes the meaning of what I'm trying to say, I do as I'm told. Know why? Because they're right. That person sees what I can't see. The things I left out or thought "everyone" knew. The errors that, because I've read and reread so many times I don't see what's on the page anymore, I've missed. And so I rewrite. Again.
I find a room with a locking door, and I take my story inside for a private reading. That’s right. I read it aloud. I listen to the music of the writing. The rhythms, the phrasing, the pacing. I look for those word combinations that I can’t wrap my tongue around without stumbling. I mark every problem spot, and I …well … you know.
Now the test. I find a critique group. There are many on-line. There may be some in your own town. Check with your library. Once I've found them, I submit my work for them to critique yet again. If I'm lucky, the only thing they'll find wrong is a misplaced comma or two. But whatever they find, the thank you rule still applies.
Now my story is ready to be read by the general public. I may submit it for publication. I may circulate it among friends or post it on the internet. By now, the baby I gave birth to isn't a baby anymore. In many ways, it's no longer mine. It's the product of my vision, but it's been through other hands, and each hand has left its mark. When a reader tells me how good my story is, they're not complimenting me. They're complimenting everyone who has had input into that project. And when I say thank you, this time I'm saying it on behalf of my entire writing team.
Oh. And in case you're wondering, the compliment I like best - the one that really blows me away - is when a reader asks, "What happens next?"
ABOUT N. K. WAGNER
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