Years ago, I had a chance to talk to a bunch of high school English teachers about writing, and one of the first things they asked was what my high school teachers had done to inspire me to write. I had to honestly tell them “Nothing,” because I was well into writing long before I got to high school, and the stuff I cared about writing was stuff my teachers never saw and therefore had no influence on.
Then one of them asked a very perceptive question: What had my teachers done right, and what had they done wrong? I had to think about that for a bit. The “right” part was fairly easy; I got a terrific grounding in grammar and syntax and sentence structure from my grammar school and high school teachers. No, it didn’t have a lot to do with creativity and inspiration; it wasn’t part of the glamorous fun stuff, but boy, was that important.
The “wrong” piece was a lot harder. I had really good English teachers. But after a minute or two, what I came up with was “They didn’t tell me what I was doing right.” When I got an essay back, all the mistakes were marked in big red letters, but there weren’t any red letters that said “Great metaphor!” or “This flows well.” When I got an A, there’d be almost no red marks on the page; when I got a C, there’d be lots.
I’m thinking about this because I was at a panel yesterday (I’m currently at Conquest 44 in Kansas City) listening to editors talk about what makes the difference between the top ten percent of the slush pile – the stuff that’s competently written but that just doesn’t grab folks – and the top two percent that actually gets published. And one of them commented to the effect that most would-be writers are busy avoiding mistakes, on the theory that a mistake-free manuscript will be saleable. Many critique groups and beta readers also spend a lot of time trying to root out errors (which is where all those “Do Not Ever Do This” lists come from). We’ve been conditioned to do this by years of school in which we were rewarded for turning in a mistake-free essay.
But it is almost trivially easy to write a perfect, mistake-free story – correct grammar and syntax, no spelling errors, technically correct dialog, good balance between narrative and action, etc. – that is, unfortunately, also BORING. And the one thing that a successful piece of fiction must not be is boring.
That is, perhaps, an extreme example. My point is that somewhere along the line, would-be writers have to stop focusing on eliminating mistakes and start focusing on whatever it is they do right.
This doesn’t mean that if you know you are very good at witty banter, you fill you entire novel with more and more witty banter; what it means is that if you do good banter (or complex political plots, or appealing characters, or slam-bang action), you look at ways to make those bits even better. You don’t make a diamond by taking a lump of coal and eliminating all the black bits, or by adding more carbon to it, or by cutting and polishing the coal. You make a diamond by taking a lot of coal and subjecting it to enormous heat and pressure until it crystalizes…and then what you have is raw diamond, which still needs to be cut and polished in order to sparkle.
What editors want is something that sparkles, or at least that has the potential to sparkle. Most of the slush pile is unrefined ore – mostly useless dirt. Coal is at least useful, and has the potential to become something more, but it’s the diamonds, raw or cut and polished, that the editors are hunting for.
Figuring out what you do well, and then figuring out how to do it even better, is a lot harder than it sounds. The first step is to look at your writing and notice what things you most enjoy writing, where you have the most fun, which things get you excited about your story and make you want to sit down and work, which scenes you always look forward to doing, and which scenes always seem to creep into the work even though you hadn’t intended them to. People usually enjoy doing things they do well, so the stuff that you most enjoy writing is the first place to look for your particular strengths.
Beta readers are another place to look for your strong points, though one has to take a little care to be sure that when Gina says “I love your action scenes!” it’s because you really are doing very nice action, and not because Gina adores action of any kind whether it’s done well or not. Mostly, though, a second set of eyes can sometimes see things that you, as a writer, don’t see (or don’t see as strengths).
Once you have some idea where your strengths lie, you can start condensing the coal into diamond, or cutting and polishing the raw gem into a jewel. You do this the same way you go about working on the areas where you know you’re weak, except that it is often more difficult to figure out how to improve something that you’re already doing well. I’d recommend that the first thing you look at is whether it needs to be more or less – that is, whether tightening up the prose will make each individual instance work even better (which is frequently the case), or whether you need more instances, or whether you’re one of those writers who under-writes and who needs to spread out a bit or flesh out existing scenes to bring out the virtues that are already there.
A lot of it is intuition and developing a feel for what makes the cool stuff cool and the fun stuff fun.