April 17th, 2006

Stories: Separating the Good From the Great

Piggybacking on the last post, I'd like to share a recent thought I've had about writing, be it in long forms or short forms. To help advance your career, I think it's very important that we learn to separate our good ideas from our great ideas. I use "idea" in the broadest sense of the word, so I mean that your idea could be whatever sparks a story possibility: theme, character, imagery, a "Wouldn't it be cool if?" premise, etc. "What if?" is the most common way that I come up with my own story ideas. Second place would be titles out of nowhere. Anyway, regardless of how one reaches a story idea, I think it's very important to recognize the potential, or lack thereof, in your own ideas. I can't count the times I've spoken to people about a short story or novel idea they've had, something they were really excited about . . .and it was absolutely terrible!

Of course, some of these are people that don't know any better. They're starting their fantasy stories with orcs in bars, and they're in love with their originality (cue smirk). But then we have the not yet full-time pros, but definitely people with talent and an understanding of the genre. We come up with bad ideas too, but hopefully you've reached the point where you can recognize something as such and discard it. But to advance your career faster, it occurs to me that it may be beneficial to focus on writing your great ideas. When your skills reach a certain point, you can always go back and write the good ideas INTO great ideas.

I came to this conclusion through two means:

1) Realms of Fantasy: The good stuff normally get a YFOP. If it does get passed along to Shawna, normally she'll give it a YFOP too. The great ideas, however, are the ones that get published. A professional magazine will never publish a good story over a great one. That's common sense . . .and yet SO many people fail to realize it.

2) My sale to Interzone: I look at the idea for this story, and when compared to the ideas for my other tales currently circulating the magazine markets, there is no comparion. The idea is miles ahead. This isn't bragging. I'm belitting my other work, and offering a damn good reason why this piece sold to a very respectable market while my other pieces are still in search of homes.

Now obviously you need to build a solid tale around your idea, but that goes without saying. The point is that if you have that nugget of proverbial gold, that cool something in your tale, if you can identify it and build a story around that, you're not only putting the best foot forward for this story, but also your career.

Ah, but how does one identify the good stuff vs. the great stuff? For me, it kind of comes with the job description. If I was just passing along good stuff, I wouldn't be much of an assistant editor. Constant practice helps me recognize whether my own stories have a certain level of potential beyond the norm. But not everyone is afforded this luxury. So here are some other possiblities that may help you:

1) List your unwritten stories. In no more than one sentence, identify that super-cool thingie about your tale, what makes it shine and makes it worthy of publication. Another way to ask this is simply "What is my story about?" Not what happens, but rather what you're delving into. The more specific you can be, the better. Answering this way will often provide a themetic response, but it still could (and should) prove helpful Either way, do your best to identify why your story should stand out in a slush pile.

2) Grab a few issues of your favorite magazine. Do the same thing for the stories you like. Hell, do it for the ones you don't like too. They're getting published for a reason, after all.

3) Compare all the ideas about your own stories. Which strike you as the best ones, the most profound?

4) Compare the top picks of your own stories against the stories from 2. Do they measure up? Be honest. If not, the various aspect of your writing are going to have make up for the difference that much more. And remember, short story markets tend to place more emphasis on originality than novels do. There are certainly original novels out there, but there's a lot more generica too.

What I'm talking about here isn't a hard and fast rule. Far from it. Tastes of editors will vary, and sometimes just your style will be enough to get the sale. But, if you're not prolific, pounding out a story a week, it makes sense to focus on your great ideas first. Over time, your unwritten good ideas may even develop into great ones as they roll around in your subconscious.

Don't worry too much about not being ready to tackle a story idea. You can always write another draft, a better one. And waiting doesn't advance your career. It stagnates it.

The overall logic of this post could also be applied to novels, but it is also a somewhat different animal, I think, because there are more business considerations. Novels are what can earn you a living at this stuff (potentially), but each one demands a much larger investment of time, in research, writing, and rewriting, not to mention working with agents, editors, and publishers (hopefully for these last three). Then, should you reach publication, you must also be ready to deal with suggestions and questions from the agent and editor about what to write next and when it can be delivered by, etc. So sometimes you'll have to be ready to roll with the punches when dealing with novels.

I'm writing this post because too often I see talented people wasting time on a story that is going to get them nowhere. It's important to learn from your mistakes, write the crap out of your system, etc. And if you don't have any great ideas, then by all means write the good ones, or even the bads ones if you don't have any good ideas. But too many people waste creative energy on stories that don't deserve the attention they're getting, not with some of the other ideas bouncing around in their brains. Focus on what really matters, I say. Challenge yourself. Push. Grow. Never, ever settle, which is what too many people do. Learn to recognize the greatness in your own ideas, so that you will have to settle as little as possible.

Slushmaster, signing off.