Yesterday, I read an interesting interview with Nancy Kress (in Locus) in which she talks about the three things she’s learned about writing over the years. It got me thinking about what I’ve learned from my own writing. I typically describe myself as a “brute force” writer, by which I mean that I learned to write stories by brute force. I just kept trying and trying without any particular guide or direction until I slowly began to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Through this method, it took me fourteen years before I sold my first story.
I looked back on that story recently and I was pleased for two reasons: first, it’s not a terribly bad story; second, in the three and a half years since it was first published, I can see that I have improved quite a bit since then. In the past, it was always difficult for me to recognize just how I’ve improved but in the last few months, I’m beginning to see patterns in what make stories work. This has made me more confident in my own writing, and I think it has also made my writing much better.
So what are some of these patterns that I have identified? Interestingly, they are similar to some of the things that Nancy Kress mentioned in her own interview. (This made me very happy because if other people have discovered them, it means that I am just late to the game, but that I’m on the right track.) When I write my stories, I always know my ending. I learned this lesson from Isaac Asimov. Before I’d learned this lesson, I’d rarely complete a story, let alone write a good one. But in knowing my ending, I know what I am working toward. Not everyone can work this way. Some people say that when they know too much about their story ahead of time, it spoils the writing of the story for them. For me, at least, knowing my ending is an absolute must. This does not mean the ending can’t change, but it sets up a target at which I can aim.
I also think of my stories in scenes–something that Nancy Kress mentions in her interview. The concept of scenes made all of the difference for me in the first story that I sold. A scene is a microcosm of the story as a whole, each scene possessing its own beginning, middle, and end. When I think in scenes, it also makes it easier to identify the transitions between the scenes and better pace the story.
I learned how to bring the scenes to life when I took James Gunn’s online writing workshop back in 2008. Until then, my scenes read more two-dimensionally then they do afterwards (this includes the first story that I sold). In Gunn’s workshop, I learned how to bring a reader into the scene how to add to the common sense of basic description. Smells and sounds, touch and taste all play a part and this has gone a long way to making the scenes I write today come alive. Again, there are probably a lot of writers who pick up on this much more quickly than I did. But like I say, I’m a brute force writer.
One of the key things that I think I have divined about writing a short story is that there needs to be multiple elements working toward the same conclusion. Nancy Kress touches on this in her interview as well and once again, I’m glad I’m figuring it out at all, even if I am late to the party. There needs to be connections that take place so that the conclusion of the story is not just a resolution to a puzzle, but that there is a deeper underlying impact to the characters in the story. In the story that I recently sold to Analog, I have this working in a conscious way for the first time.
I look at the stories that I write today and I see big improvements from my stories from just a few years ago. But that’s not to say that there is not room for still more improvement. The only way I see to improve is to write more stories and to continue to tweak the techniques that I use, to fine-tune some and overhaul others until the story that comes out on the page really sings. The best story that I have written to-date (in my opinion) combines all of these elements in a way that makes for a powerful conclusion (I got chills writing the scene and I still shiver reading it). That story is still out, but I have high hopes for it. And I have high hopes that the stories that follow it will be even better.