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The Sterile Story—Don’t Write Another One

July 8, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 8, 2011

Are your stories pure and pristine, textbook examples of great grammar and punctuation perfection? Do they look good but feel empty? Are they pretty, pretty shells with no substance?

Beware the sterile story, the novel of cold beauty that has no color, no rough edges, no messy, beating heart.

A story should be as close to flawless, in terms of the mechanics, as you can make it. But at the same time, life—life in all its messy glory—should pulse from that story. Your words and scenes and chapters should reek with the emotion and mood of the unfolding drama and with the characters’ uncertainties and fears and unspoken dreams.

Writers can’t worry so, so much over perfection that stories become lifeless and cold, bloodless, devoid of the eccentricities and dilemmas that make fiction so fascinating.

I’m not saying you should purposely make mistakes.

I am saying you should not so worry about mistakes that you restrict the writing, that you shy from uncertainty and bold risks.

Can I offer some advice? Don’t wear a straitjacket when you write and don’t lock your story into one. Take chances. Try the unexpected. Explore outside your personal box; color outside the lines that other writers, writing experts, critics, and you yourself have established around your writing; turn your fiction upside down and inside out. Turn around and look at your story from a different direction.

Don’t let the unknown, those writing challenges you’ve never attempted, force your writing into a narrow, familiar path.

You might not know how to approach something new; ignorance shouldn’t keep you from trying it anyway. You can always learn how to do it and how to present it once you get a solid grasp on what it is you’re trying to do.

Don’t worry about how this new approach fits in with characterization or plotting or the rules of dialogue. At least don’t worry when you’re experimenting. Instead, just try it. Take a chance. If your attempt doesn’t work, no one needs to know.

And why should failure matter anyway? Many, many failures come before great successes. Failure can mean you’re not settling for the common and the known.

And definitely don’t let ignorance about the grammar or punctuation or the layout of an idea keep you from trying that new approach. A little bit messy, a little off-kilter in the mechanics is a whole lot better than bland and dull and flat in the plot and characters. That is, don’t let the fear of a few cosmetic errors in your manuscript keep you from writing an explosive work of fiction.

Push and experiment and push some more. Realize that one punctuation mistake will not kill your chances at publication but that a lifeless, bloodless story, one without creativity, heart, and drama, is already dead when it leaves your computer.

Fiction is not real anyway. Why not push against the common and expected and try something novel? You can’t hurt anything or anyone with your boldness.

You could instead create a masterpiece.

Explore. Expand. Look backward. Reverse the expected with the unexpected and then add a twist.

Challenge your readers. Challenge your characters. Challenge yourself.

Try extravagance where you’ve been tight. Think broad rather than in small measures.

Take your readers for a ride, on an adventure, into the unknown.

Make readers think and feel and experience the breathlessness of the unexpected.

Shock the reader. Spill some blood (and not only from your characters). Keep some of the story edges rough and uneven. Jagged. Think jarring and explosive and out of whack.

Give readers an engaging story. Give yourself a new direction or focus.

Should you write clearly and cleanly to communicate with the reader? Yes, yes, yes do that. Yet don’t turn him off with a sterile story. Don’t sacrifice story elements and the heart of fiction for writing mechanics and a pure appearance.

Get your hands and your words dirty. Let the blood and guts of fiction, your fiction, show through those elements necessary to frame and support your tale.

Shun the sterile for the captivating. Choose substance over image. Aim for engaging, engrossing, and entertaining.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style

6 Responses to “The Sterile Story—Don’t Write Another One”

  1. A big wow, and a big Amen! : )

    I kept thinking of the ingenuity of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, as I was reading this post.

    Hope you’re enjoying your summer. : )

  2. Emily, I’ve not read The Book Thief. I’m guessing it’s one you recommend?

    Summer is going well. But it’s too hot. Hope you’re writing well and enjoying life at the same time.

  3. : ) — I’m not sure if it’s a recommendation. Not knocking the book, but it takes liberties that 99% of readers loved, but which left me slightly confused.

    It’s written about a little girl during WWII, from “Death’s” (Death is the narrator) perspective.

    Many have loved it, though, and it’s a solid example of a writer taking creative license, and in that, a large risk to write the book he envisioned.

    As for summer, it’s too hot here, too! Up to 116 degrees in the AZ desert before the monsoon clouds rolled in. Every day is a rain dance. : )


  4. The payoff can be exceptional when a risk pays off. But we will never please everyone. I’m glad we’ve all got different tastes. Can you imagine life if we all liked the same things?

  5. I so agree. I’m glad there are all different books out there for all different readers.

    And I’m glad there are writers who take the chance of bucking “the usual” and write the story of their heart.

    That’s when art and business merge, and a writer can, in a sense, have the best of both worlds.

  6. Emily, I like when writers take chances and yet still give readers something familiar that they’ll enjoy. As you said, the best of both worlds.