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Beyond the Basics—Push the Story and Push Yourself

October 9, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified October 9, 2011

The bookshelves and the Internet are awash with tools for the beginning writer.

But what if you’re not a beginner? What if you know how to format and plot and write dialogue? What if point of view doesn’t give you fits and you know how to work setting and details so they add to the tone of your novels?

What if you don’t need basic advice but do want to delve deeper into the blood and guts of writing? Where do experienced and already competent writers go for advice? What do they do when the doubts about their abilities rise to shake them and the fears of never publishing again disturb their nights?

For starters, if you’re a published and/or successful writer (and no, they’re not always the same thing), don’t think that success means you should know everything about writing and that others expect perfection from your every project and word.

You’re human, with all the frailties that come with the condition. Your next book may not equal the sales of the last one. Your new genre may give you fits. The great idea you pursue through 100,000 words may prove to be less than marketable.

Forever give up the idea that once you’re published, you’ll automatically be published again and again and that your sales will only increase and that you’ll move predictably from tier to tier until you’re ranked with the NY Times best-selling authors who’ve earned both fame and fortune.

To continue to be a successful writer, you have to continue writing successfully.

And that means writing an appealing story, a well-written story that your publisher can sell (or that you can sell if you self-publish). It means having the right story in the right genre about the right topic at the right time.

Successful and experienced authors have to position themselves, just as new authors must. That positioning may require a different emphasis, that’s true. But positioning oneself is necessary just the same.

Yes, if you’re a published author you may have a much easier time selling a manuscript, but there is no guarantee that you will sell. Or if you do sell, that you’ll be promoted. And if you’re published and even promoted, that doesn’t mean that readers will either like or buy your newest novel.

It’s sad but true—past success doesn’t guarantee future success in many fields, and this is all too true for writers.

Your genre may go out of style. Your style might go out of style. Your last success may have been a fluke and the reading world may not want what you’ve got to offer.

Your story or style or genre mix may be behind the times or ahead of its time.

You might err by simply relying on what worked in the past rather than writing with the present and future in mind.

I’m not saying you need to dump everything that’s worked in the past. But do at least examine those factors. See if there’s something you can do to improve, see if there’s something to improve, even if you’ve been writing for years.

Don’t settle for second best.

Experienced writers can look at what’s worked for them and at the condition of the market and the story world to see what might work for future projects. But what else could they consider?

Other Writers
Even experienced writers can seek advice from a critique partner or writing group or from their editors.

Ask about your work. Don’t let your fame or the cachet of being published make you wary of seeking advice. No one person knows everything about any topic—someone somewhere has useful advice for you.

Don’t let embarrassment hold you back. And please, please, please don’t let a sense of superiority keep you from asking questions. Each one of us, no matter how many writing credits to our name, can write better, can pick up tips on our weakest skills. Ask someone you trust how you can improve your writing or how you can better market it. 

Favorite Novels
Successful writers can read and reread their favorite novels, both for inspiration and for practical answers to their questions.

How did someone else do it, someone who’s successfully published? How did a writer develop theme in a favorite novel, develop and weave it so intricately that the story stands as a beacon of inspiration?

How did that one writer create such a complex and memorable character? How was that character introduced? How was her personality revealed? What made her a character that readers talk about 10 or 20 years after they’ve read her book? How is her story resolved? How did the author tweak even the resolution so that it added an exclamation point to the lead character’s story?

Study stories and characters and plots that you admire. Determine what it is about them that attracts you. And then work at crafting your own outstanding characters and plots.

Trade Statistics
Successful writers can keep abreast of the market. Why not know what’s selling?

Knowing what’s popular doesn’t mean that a writer must create according to some formula. It does mean that the writer has some knowledge that he can put to work.

Sales figures only show what’s happening now, not what the future holds. Yet what’s happening now may point to what readers will want—or not want—tomorrow.

Their own Books
Published writers can search their own books for both strengths and weaknesses.

Discover what’s outstanding in your own stories, then use what you learn to write even better books. And don’t forget to honestly examine the weaknesses in your books so you can eliminate them in subsequent novels.

Don’t fool yourself—every writer has weaknesses. You can hide from yours and allow them to crop up in every story or you can strengthen your skills until what was once a weakness becomes an asset.

Mentoring Others
Writers who mentor or teach others, who press deep into story issues to help other writers, can’t help but become better writers.

If you’re willing to move beyond the basics with other writers, willing to address issues other than cosmetics and the simplest fixes, you will improve your own craft.

I’ll dare you on this point. Take on a mentoring role; go deep for another writer. And see if your own understanding of writing issues isn’t deepened. I don’t think you can fail to learn something new and significant for yourself.

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Know that you’ll never reach perfection. That is, you might write the perfect story once, but that doesn’t mean the next story will also be perfect. No matter what formula you follow, you can’t account for the reader. Your typical reader may enjoy hard-boiled detectives for years and then experience a life change and only want to read political suspense.

You have to keep writing in ways that will capture readers. You have to write a high-quality story that entertains. Even as the audience changes, as their needs change, so you must change and grow.

Audiences of today seek a different style of entertainment than did audiences of 50 years ago. Readers who grow up with one type of story seek more mature stories as they age.

Don’t assume that what was once the rage will always be sought and admired and read. Tastes change and people change. And our social lives change quite rapidly, so much so that what was once popular may now produce only feelings of nostalgia.

Push yourself to write better.

Push yourself to write fresh.

Push yourself to write differently.

I said earlier to not settle for second best. But now I advise that you not settle at all. If you settle, you won’t be satisfied. You might have readers, of course. But if you know you could write better, the writing experience won’t be as pleasurable for you.

If you settle for less than what you’re capable of, you’ll never produce your best work.

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While you’re pushing yourself, remember to push your stories as well.

A new writer might think he has to play it safe to be published (and this could quite well be true). But don’t let writing in safe mode last your entire career.

Give your characters quirks and flaws that make readers wince or applaud or hide their eyes. Write events that keep readers up into the night or arguing for hours at their book clubs.

Go beyond the tried and true and the common and plain and the accepted and acceptable.

Go deep and ugly when the story calls for it. Make the story call for it. Move beyond safe and bland and into edgy or bold.

Or, push for something higher and uplifting. Write a character who overcomes his flaws and proves to be the savior his people have yearned for.

Push emotion and conflict so much that you’re uncomfortable with both. And then read your work with fresh eyes. Might that deep emotion and uncomfortable conflict take your story from so-so to spectacular?

Push a character beyond what he thought he could do, beyond what you thought he could do. Purposely write a scene that you can’t imagine including in any book of yours—and then include it.

Don’t back down. Not from innovation. Not from emotion and tension and the extremes that stellar fiction demands.

Move beyond the basics of a safe story. Step up and go over. Give readers something other stories don’t have. Make your plot and characters unforgettable, remarkable by some measure. Don’t write to fit in but to stand out.

Be deliberate with word choices so your stories get noticed. Dare to be uncommon.

Push yourself. Push your plot and characters. Push your readers.

When you do, you’ll move beyond basic and into extraordinary, a place your readers will surely want to join you.

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8 Responses to “Beyond the Basics—Push the Story and Push Yourself”

  1. Emily says:

    WOW! Best post of inspiration I’ve ever read, anywhere. Just WOW. Thanks for it. Truly inspired!

    Makes me want to stand up and cheer!

  2. Emily, it’s nice to see you. I’m glad to know this struck a chord with you.

  3. I am a self-taught writer, so, when someone (like you in your post) can explain how to make the story soar in terms that are easy to assimilate, it’s like little light bulbs of understanding and gratitude going off all over the place.

    When we’re told to add tension or a sub plot or other such things in such textbook terms, it’s harder to assimilate exactly HOW to raise the story to the next level.

    (It’s good to see you, too! I’ve been writing, editing, switched agents, am about to go back on sub with a new ms while revising the prior for more subbing. Yay! : )

    Hope you’re enjoying the Autumn weather!

  4. I love those flashes of understanding and insight. When we get it, we really get it. And then that revelation becomes our own and we can use it in our writing.

    I’m glad to hear you’re writing and editing and submitting—keeping up with all the writer’s chores. That means you’re doing it.

    A perfect fall so far. Loving every beautiful day of it. I hope it’s the same for you.

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