I once read a fantasy about writers in heaven. The charm of the story came mainly from the breeds chosen for each author. The big dog everyone respected and could never match was William Shakespeare. (I think he was a St. Bernard.)
As editors, agents, and (eventually) readers check out your manuscript, they'll have many of these dogs in mind. And though you'll never compete against Shakespeare in the slush pile, there will be other writers whose work is distinctive. These will be chosen for publication and will find their audiences eventually. Their writers will find a place in the community of writers. Because whether they're boxers or pekinese or mutts like no other, their stories stand out.
You already are one of a kind. Your writing needs to be, too. This means you need to share more of yourself than is comfortable. You need to write things that make you squirm. You need to accept that some people will hate what you write and even be offended by it. Take heart and go about the business of startling yourself. Courage is the most important attribute of heroes. And of writers.
Voice always jumps out at readers. It's what gets the pulses of editors and agents going. This means not sounding like you "should." Don't ape other authors (except as exercises). Put the rules aside if they get in the way of you sounding like you. Beware of rewriting the voice away. Imagine telling the story to an individual instead of an audience. Be consistent in tone and idiom. Read your work aloud. If a friend tells you it felt like you were there telling the story, you've got it.
Engagement and pacing catch readers and keep them. Make your hooks as sharp as possible. Construct cliffhangers that force readers to turn pages. The pace does not need to be breathless, but the story needs to move forward on every page. And every paragraph needs to have a payoff.
Humor charms people. If you have it, use it. Most people can't make stories funny. It's tricky, but worth the try. I took a course with Danny Simon and two pieces of advice stuck with me. First, control the range of humor. Getting too broad late into a piece will kill it. Second, the best humor comes from a consistently skewed perspective, not jokes. The worst sin here is having a character do or say something that doesn't fit who they are just because it's funny.
Keep your promises.
Go back to premise for your story, which by now should have been pushed and prodded to the point of outrageousness, then distilled into pure nitroglycerin. Make a list of things that premise implies. Make it a long list of twenty or so items. Did you leave any out?
Look at the choices you've made for all the major beats of your story. Are they bold? Can you imagine more daring choices?
Articulate your theme. Can you use it to cut away scenes? Does it imply developments that you haven't explored yet?
List the questions your character has had to answer. Are they interesting. Do they fully illustrate the theme? Do they escalate in importance?
Identify surprises in your story. (Look especially for cases where you surprised yourself.) Are there enough of them? (I try for one major surprise every fifty pages and about three turns in each scene.) Are they all justified and fair with proper setups, or do they come from out of nowhere? Do all your surprises make it tougher for your protagonist and easier for your antagonist?
All of these are aimed at finding the hidden gold in your story. You want to get full value, and you never want readers to come up with better payoffs than you provided.
Good stories need to become great stories. The more it becomes your story, something no one else could have written, the less it will be weighed down by the familiar and the mundane. The more fully you engage your imagination and take the story as far as it can go, the more powerful it will be. Avoid what's comfortable. Never settle for good.
Also in this series:
Story Clinic 0 - Are your ready to tell the tale? set up this series and provided suggestions on how to prepare to get the most out of it.
Story Clinic 1 - Where does it hurt? examined
problems with knowing your story, starting (and ending) in the right
place, or maintaining story logic.
Story Clinic 2 - Adjustments and tuneups was all about making your story more immediate and focused.
My first How To Write Fast book will be out later this year. As part of that, I'm looking for opportunities to present seminars, speak, and guest blog. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Want more? This course begins next month.
A workshop on reader immersion.
We all know what it’s like when we enter a story so thoroughly we
forget the world around us. Getting readers totally engaged is a huge
part of success for fiction writers. In this class, you’ll work with the
instructor to master the four essential elements of story immersion:
creating a good foundation (meaning avoiding mistakes that can
distract), sensory details (in the right measure), emotion (especially
concern for the protagonist), and verisimilitude. As you continue,
you’ll learn to architect your story with hooks, surprises, turns,
pacing, and a satisfying ending. The class will conclude with voice,
style, and ways to charm the reader.