Pretty Good vs. Great and Hopefully More Sellable Writing

I have been frustrated with my fiction writing for quite some time and recently wrote about the Fearless Act of Writing in another blog post. A few weeks ago I was reading an article in The Writer titled “Create Your Own MFA in 5 Steps” by Rachel Eddey. I have repeatedly thought about applying for a masters of fine arts program in creative writing because I enjoy academic settings, would like the time to focus exclusively on my writing, might enjoy teaching writing which an MFA in writing would qualify me to do, etc. However, the cost of taking an MFA program causes me to pause. Also I have concern over the idea of MFA programs because while it gives the student a chance to focus on the writing and make contacts and has many other benefits, it is no guarantee of being published and there is no promise that a teaching job will be available at the end of the course.

I liked the way that Eddey in her article presented the idea of creating a program of self study so I began working on my own writing self study program. It includes the following components:

1. I write daily. Sometimes it is only a post on this blog. Sometimes it is only poetry. Sometimes it is a character study. It does not matter. The point of this is to just get comfortable and in the habit of writing something daily.

2. I read. I have been reading and studying a novel by Graham Greene titled “The Heart of the Matter.” Greene was a master and as I am reading I am both enjoying the book and analyzing his methods of characterization, subtext, and scene setting. I have also been reading short stories and last month one of my writing groups discussed two short stories to identify what made them work. One was by Nancy Kress titled “Act One.” I learned a great deal from reading and thinking about “Act One.”

3. I specifically read books on writing, consider elements of fiction, and study various aspects of how to construct a good piece of writing beyond mere mechanics.

Today a friend of mine posted on a forum that I belong to a link to a post titled “Pretty Good v. Great–and Sellable” written by Carrie Vaughn. In this post she discusses that she believes that three areas that a writer must engage with to make the fiction better are: structure, voice, and having something to say. I agree with her that these things are important elements and Vaughn’s blog post made me stop and consider what I think of these elements.

In regards to structure, I have been struggling with ideas of plot. I have been studying the hero’s journey and considering the 3 act structure. I have been thinking about questions to ask myself to make all the plot elements in a story fit together in the best possible way to concisely relay the story and have the structure add to the meaning of a story. For instance, a story can be unfurled in a chronological order or it can be done in a series of flashbacks. A story can be told from the first person point of view or from the deep third person. Either of these decisions make a difference in how the plot elements will fit together. I also think that stories where the plot unfolds very naturally from the decisions that the characters within the story make makes the story feel more effortless and anytime that a story is a struggle the reader is pulled out of the story and this diminishes the story.

What Vaughn in her blog post calls “voice”, I call word choice. I think some writers do have their own distinctive voice and this can be cool. Roald Dahl always sounds like Roald Dahl. I see word choice as making every word count and be the right word– true to conjuring the feel of the story, adding to the subtext, relaying a character’s voice, etc. I drive myself nuts with this. Words are relative to one another and this fascinates me.

I have debated with other writers about whether or not it is a good idea to have a theme in mind when writing a story so that the theme will come out. I don’t think it is a good idea to preach on a soap box. I do think that ambiguity and having many possible views on a theme is a good thing. I try to include a relevant idea/commentary in the stories that I write that does come through. I think stories that make an impact and are remembered are those that risk stating a position and also let the reader think through the aspects of it for themselves. That may seem contradictory, but I think that it is possible to entertain people by challenging them with ideas and letting them think things through for themselves. The very act of putting the relevant sides of an issue with some depth in a story is presenting a theme.

I will continue to think on writing and will probably post some of my ideas from time to time. Both Eddey’s article in the February issue of The Writer and Vaughn’s blog post at: are worth checking out just for stimulating thoughts.

Fearless Act of Writing

Several years ago I took quite a few creative writing classes. I would write stories, take them to class, and my classmates and I would workshop the stories. I studied English language and literature. I wrote poetry and in general I felt I was learning as a writer. I even had a poem published in an academic literary journal.

A few years ago I declared that I wanted to write a novel. Friends scoffed at this which kind of angered me. I sat down and wrote a 150,000 word psychic vampire serial killer novel. Yup. You read correctly. And it was slammed out in about six weeks and it was dreadful.

I also was writing short stories at the time and started submitting to Critters is an online writing workshop for writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I met several really wonderful people online via critters and many of them have become very good friends. Because of these contacts and continuing to write and experiment and read and think and play with and about the writing, I feel I have learned a great deal. I have a very good sense of what goes into good fiction. Elements of plot and characterization. How to use pacing and subtext. All sorts of things.

The problem that I have now is that I know almost too much. I get great ideas for stories and novels and poems. I can imagine the elements and how I want to design the stories, but I have a very hard time just doing the writing. Sometimes I start these stories and they go no where or I get boggled trying to decide who should be the point of view character or I am not certain where to start the story, etc. Sometimes I freeze.

I have decided that writing as an art takes a certain amount of fearlessness. It’s like watercolour painting. In watercolour painting a great deal of planning goes into the painting and then one builds the colours in steps, but the whole project can be over in minutes either due to completion or because the fluidity of the paint has pulled the pigments across the painting in undesirable ways. Usually when I do watercolour painting I do more than one painting at a time and if I lose a few it is no big deal. The writing takes a great deal of planning and forethought and then the writing itself takes time. I am nervous about making mistakes, wasting a good idea, and losing the time invested in the story. This is causing me to freeze up. I am nervous about even starting stories.

Recently I have been trying to do my own kind of independent MFA. I read a couple of short stories per week and I am working on reading a novel by Graham Greene. I analyze what I am reading and make notes on what the authors are doing in the composition of the stories. I am also reading books about writing. This blog has become part of the way that I write and immerse myself in words daily. I am hoping that if I keep working at this that I can get unstuck.

Who would have thought that sitting at the desk and writing would require such fearlessness?