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: http://www.genreality.net/pretty-good-v-great-and-sellable are worth checking out just for stimulating thoughts.