Better Writing Through Science

Open the Brain, Let the Blood Flow

Over the last year, Chronicle has published close to 300 high-quality works of short fiction and a handful of excellent poems. As the director of content, I’ve read each of those stories at least twice (in some cases many more), not to mention a few hundred more that we couldn’t accept.

One of the things I’m most proud of about our content selection process is just how many writers we’ve been the first to publish. While we’ve had our fair share of established authors, most of the content that goes out to the masses via Chronicle is from people who had never considered sharing their work with a large audience.

Writing fiction is hard. So as Chronicle approaches its first birthday, I wanted to publish a brief guide to publishing as an amateur writer. My emphasis will be on how to publish on Chronicle, but of course this advice extends well beyond our sphere and into the general world-at-large. So in this guide, I’m going to offer three big pieces of advice to first-time writers.

 

Write What You Want, Fixate on What You Know

The old adage, ‘write what you know’ is a good one, but its scope is perhaps too broad. We’re writing fiction, not memoir, so it’s important to extend your writing beyond the scope of your own experience. That said, it’s a good idea to start with what you’re interested in, then populate your story with the components of that idea in which you have experience.

Let’s say that I’m interested in writing about a murder. Fortunately, this is something that I’ve never experienced first-hand in any way, but I feel myself drawn to the kind of story that might come out of it. I’ve got to start by asking: which components of a murder might I be familiar with?

Well, I’ve been pulled over by the police many times, so I know the feeling of being questioned by the cops and the sense of being assumed guilty. I’ve been in traffic-court, so I know the hot stench of sweat that permeates a real-life courtroom. And I’ve been to a handful of funerals, so I have some personal experience with how people deal with the grieving process.

With these three details, I can write a compelling piece of flash fiction that focuses on the details of human experience. In this way I can write beyond my own experience while maintaining the authority necessary to sell the story. It’s populated with details that seem authentic, because they come from my own experience, but the actual story is beyond my realm of experience.

 

Keep It Simple by Getting Specific

I can’t stress this point enough. When you’re writing fiction, and this is even more crucial with stories under 1000 words, you need to find the focal point of the story. Often times we begin writing without really thinking in advance about what we’re trying to say. This process of freewriting is crucially important and is often referred to as ‘telling yourself what the story is about.’ But after you’ve finished that first draft, it’s time to define your story.

If you’re writing a story about a murder, you might be tempted to sum it up by saying, “My story is about a murder.” Not specific enough – that premise is broad enough to write a sprawling, multi-book series. Drill down your premises.

My story is about a man, pulled over for a routine traffic stop, being questioned by the police on the side of the freeway because they see a bloodied hatchet in his back seat.

Now we’re getting somewhere. We’ve taken the details we’re populating the story with and made them the focal point of the reading experience. Put what you know at the center and then dig your heels into the specifics of what you’re writing about. In doing this, you’ll cut all the extraneous fat from your writing.

So many stories that I read are trying to do too much with too little. You just can’t sum up the human experience in 1000 words (nor can you with any number of words,) but you can tap into a specific kind of experience. Good writing, no matter the length or format, deals with a specific component of what it means to be a person living in a particular time and place. If you aren’t methodical and specific in defining which slice of the pie your story deals with, then you’ll probably end up just confusing your reader.

 

Burn It Down

So you’ve written your story. You started with what you know, defined your premise, and now you’ve got your 1000-ish word fiction piece. It’s time to gut it. I know. This is one of the hardest pieces of advice to get people to take seriously, but seriously, you need to start over from the very beginning and write it one more time.

Your subconscious has been, this whole time that you’ve been working, writing the story for you. And the great secret is that your subconscious is a better writer than you are. It knows which details to focus on, which to leave out, and what each character should sound like.

This is where a lot of people give up. They post their story online and simply say, ‘good enough.’ And sometimes it is, but by calling it quits so early, we run the risk of not writing the best story we can. I know it sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but writing the story from the ground-up one last time changes everything. Your prose comes to life. The central idea of the story becomes the focal point, and the difficulties in the first few drafts seem to melt away.

These three rules are by no means hard and fast. But they’re a great guide, especially to someone who has just started writing or is curious about producing fiction. It’s a sure-fire way to improve the quality of your stories very quickly.

And when you’re done? Submit it to us! Don’t just let it sit on the internet where nobody will see it, don’t let it collect proverbial dust on your hard drive, put it out there. Help people do better with their free time, because stories matter.