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Help! I’ve written a short story but how do I know if it’s any good? 

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Imagine a writer. What do you see?

Most of us picture a solitary figure sat before a blank page waiting to transform beautiful ideas into stories that delight and transfix readers.

It’s a romantic ideal, of course, the writer as a heroic soul in possession of some creative magic bestowed on him through luck or divine intervention.

But what of the reality? Is writing magic or is it a craft that can be honed and perfected through hard graft and effort? And is solitary scribbling actually the best way to write good stories?

Understanding first drafts – they are what they say on the label.

Anyone who has ever written a story will know the feeling: the exhilaration that comes from committing words to paper; the strange trance-like feeling that overcomes you as the words begin to flow.

It is a magical thing and we are right to be in awe of it.

But here’s the thing. Those words you just wrote in a mad fit of inspiration? You need to put them away now.

Find a bottom drawer and gently lower those pages into it – just for a little while.

Because the first draft of anything is just that, a rough beginning and not the finished, polished item.

A story will invariably pass through several drafts before it reaches a stage the writer is comfortable with.

The great thing about setting a story aside is that when you come back to it you can look at it (hopefully) from two perspectives – that of a reader and a writer.

It is surprising how many basic errors you will find in a piece once you have given it time to settle and once you have allowed your subconscious to mull it over.

Get those editing pencils sharpened! You’re in for a bumpy ride.

While it is possible to write stories that materialize fully fledged, the vast majority of what we write requires revision and editing.

It’s worth bearing in mind that revision and editing are two separate processes.

When we revise a story we are looking at the story as a whole and thinking about how it is engineered. Revision can involve anything from minor tinkering with plotlines to complete re-workings.

When I revise a first (second, or third…) draft I use a basic checklist to guide me through the things I want to pay attention to:

  • Is the theme of the story clear? What is the story (at a general level) about?
  • Are the characters believable and consistent in the things they say and do?
  • Is the plot interesting and clear? This is a very fluid criterion and can refer equally to a character’s emotional development throughout a story as to a sequence of events.
  • Is the narrative dynamic enough to keep a reader interested? This can be tricky and can involve playing around with different versions of a story. Is the story best told using a straightforward timeframe – a beginning, middle and end? Or is it better to weave past and present throughout the story? Is one single narrator required? Or are multiple narrators better?

In the revision stage a story can be transformed beyond recognition – characters added, plotlines altered, scenes scrapped or extended.

And it can be a brutal process. That frenzied moment of madness when the words flowed freely onto the page can feel like it belonged to another person.

But don’t despair, because what you are doing is ordering that madness.

After this revision and re-drafting you should have a story that is getting pretty close to the way you want it to be.

So now you can edit it.

You may find this a relatively painless process – catching spelling and grammatical errors, perhaps re-phrasing the odd sentence or piece of dialogue, or enriching some descriptions. Once this edit is done you can then read the story out loud.

Reading a story out loud can be quite revealing. It’s surprising how often you catch some awkward phrasing, or an overly long passage that needs shortening, or a lot of repetitions you didn’t spot during the paper edit. It is definitely to be recommended. A story reveals its voice in a very different way when it is read aloud and it can help you imagine a reader’s voice and “see” the story from a different perspective.

By now you must be thinking, right surely this is enough? After all this effort, I can now hit the send button and take those literary magazines by storm, right?

Well, maybe… however, it may not be a bad thing to run things by a few readers first.

Beta readers

One of the most difficult things many writers need to overcome is the fear of sending their stories out to be read critically by other people.

It’s a daunting thing to do because what was once a personal thing, something that existed only inside your own head, now has to face the judgement of others.

However, it is a psychological hurdle that must be overcome.

One of the best ways to get over the fear is to enlist the help of a small and trusted group of “beta readers”.

But what is a beta reader, you ask? A beta reader is someone who provides feedback on your initial drafts. Ideally a beta reader is someone who also writes, definitely someone who reads (a lot) and, hopefully, someone who can provide you with useful comments and suggestions regarding ways in which you can improve your work. A beta reader should offer feedback that goes beyond “Hey, this is a great story, I really liked it!” or “Man, that sucked”.

They should be able to point out any grammatical errors and give you pointers as to what works or does not work on the four basic aspects of a story:

  • Plot
  • Character
  • Dialogue
  • Setting

If you are to get the most out of a beta reader it is important to know what it is you want from them, so make your request for feedback specific.

For example, perhaps you already know that something about the plot isn’t working. If so, ask your beta readers to focus on this aspect.

Paradoxically, being clear as to the kind of feedback you need means you need to be capable of taking an objective look at your own work and asking pertinent questions about it.

No easy task.

This is where writing workshops and writers groups can prove invaluable.

The art of thinking critically

Not all of us are fortunate enough to have attended an MFA programme or followed a creative writing course.

However, other avenues are open if you want to learn how to read critically.

Most towns and cities have thriving writers’ groups and writing workshops. Any good local bookshop or local library should be able to point you towards local groups in your area.

If you can, join one, even if it’s just for a short while.

Writers’ groups offer you the opportunity to meet other writers and develop a network of trusted beta readers.

A good writing workshop can help you develop some of the skills you will need when you come to cast a critical eye over your own work. Try to attend workshops that focus on one specific aspect of storytelling.

I recently attended a workshop that focused solely on character development and it was extremely useful to spend two hours thinking deeply about what makes a character interesting and believable and takes them beyond a stereotype.

A good workshop tutor will also provide you with tips and exercises that you can use later when you set out to write.

Read good stories

It’s a cliché but to write well you need to read well. What really helps hone those critical faculties, however, is critical reading.

Everyone has a story they love. One they come back to time and again.

It can be very illuminating to read a story you love with a critical hat on.

Think about why it is a particular story has captured your imagination in such a way. What is it about this story that makes it so good? Is it the richness of the language? The emotional connection with the character? The intricacies of the plot? Is the setting especially captivating?

Digging deep into what makes a story great can help you understand how a story works and why it works, and this is something you can apply to your own writing.

Reading bad stories is a really good thing

This may sound strange, but it is actually a very good exercise.

Seek out bad stories to read and think about them just as critically as you would a great story. What it is about it that makes it so awful? If you could talk to the writer what advice would you give them to help improve their story?

Writers’ groups can provide you with opportunities to discuss stories that are still in a draft form and looking critically at someone else’s work can help you develop the confidence to take on board criticism about your own work.

If you find the prospect of writers’ groups too daunting, however, then why not try an online forum such as YouWriteOn? This particular forum is particularly useful because you join as a writer and a reader. Writers at YouWriteOn submit a story for critique and are asked to critique or comment on other forum members’ stories.

The interesting thing is that some of these stories will be great, some will be mediocre and some will be awful. You will also receive stories from a whole host of genres – romance, crime, literary, action: you name it – and you will have to think about all of them and provide feedback.

Most times the level of feedback required on the site is very brief; however, it can be really helpful to take a few of the mediocre and bad stories aside – especially ones from a genre you normally don’t enjoy – and read them carefully. Really think about why it isn’t working.

As a free opportunity to learn it’s pretty awesome.

What do you think?

These are just some of the things I have learned that have helped me develop my writing skills. But this is by no means an exhaustive list and neither is it a set of rules.

What works for one writer may not work for another.

The tips above are aimed at helping you write the best story you possibly can. Alas, it has to be said that even a carefully crafted story is not guaranteed publication.

Your story may not be to the personal taste of a particular editor or it may not suit the particular theme or feel a journal is looking for at that moment. It may also fall short due to timing – your beautiful family saga may not make the cut because the journal already has such a story for their next edition or just published such a story very recently.

There are no guarantees and all you can do is write because you love to write, and write to the best of your ability.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for revising and editing a story? What is the most valuable thing you have learned so far as a writer? Are you a member of a writers’ group? Have you participated in a great workshop?

Drop us a comment below and join in the discussion. We’d love to hear your tips and advice!

 

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Jennifer is one of our judges at MASH. Her fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine and Stories For Homes anthology. Her radio drama won the 2001 European Regional Prize in the BBC World Service International Playwriting competition and a commendation in 2009. Her poetry has appeared in The Guardian as part of their poetry workshops series. Contact Jen via Twitter.

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