How do you make something good?

November 28, 2019

Well, you could start with butter and fresh farm eggs, it’s hard to go wrong from there, unless you’re a vegan. All right, I’ll try to be serious — it’s a serious question. But an awfully big one. I hope to get some smaller ones, such as, “Do I have to outline my plot first?” or “How often can I split an infinitive?”

I guess the way to make something good is to make it well.

If the ingredients are extra good (truffles, vivid prose, fascinating characters) that’s a help. But it’s what you do with them that counts. With the most ordinary ingredients (potatoes, everyday language, commonplace characters) — and care and skill in using them — you can make something extremely good. A lot of memorable novels have been made that way. Even with undistinguished language and predictable characters, if a story has interesting, convincing ideas or events, good pacing, a narrative that carries the reader to a conclusion that in one way or another satisfies — it’s a good story. A lot of memorable sf has been made that way.

Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

The poet Theodore Roethke said it: “I learn by going where I have to go.”

There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.

At this stage, having the opinion of readers qualified to judge, or a trusted peer-group, can be tremendously useful. Other eyes can see what you’re too close to your work to see, give perspective, open up possibilities.

On the other hand, the pressure of opinion — from readers, classmates, teachers, in a MFA program or a workshop, from an agent, from an editor — may end up as worse than useless. If your manuscript doesn’t follow the rules of what’s currently trendy, the rules of what’s supposed to be salable, the rule some great authority laid down, you’re supposed to make it do so. Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflé if you’re making blintzes?

The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there. The hell with soufflé, stick to your blintzes.

We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.

With a blintz, the process is fairly routine. With stories, the process is never twice the same. Even a story written to the most prescriptive formula, like some westerns or romances, can be made poorly, or made well.

Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.

And then, once in a while, none of that sweat and trial and error and risk-taking is necessary. Something just comes to you as you write. You write it down, it’s there, it’s really good. You look at it unbelieving. Did I do that?

I think that kind of gift mostly comes as the pay-off for trying, patiently, repeatedly, to make something well.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Interview in Book View Café 27th July 2015

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