I once got into a fairly heated argument with my friend David (well, we’ve had many heated arguments, if I’m being honest). We were on the crowded porch of the dorm during one of our Residencies for grad school, so the topic was, of course, writing (as have been all the others). David had recently, if not that very day, had his story workshopped and, in discussing the experience, said that he was willing to change any- and everything about his story “to make it better.” I called him on that—surely there had to be something that he wouldn’t be willing to change, some element, maybe tiny, maybe teeny-tiny, but something.
He stuck to his guns, adding literally to his statement. He was willing to change literally any- and everything about his story.
I still, to this day, think he was lying. To me, certainly, but also to himself. Because, if you are truly willing to change any- and everything about your story, from POV to plot to character to any given minute detail, well, then why the eff are you writing the story in the first place? And how can you judge whether any given change will make the story “better” if you have no allegiance to anything the story contains?
The answer to the first question relies on the answer to the second. The only way to make something “better” when you have no internal consistency is to compare it to some outside benchmark. For our purposes, that means that you must believe that there is a quantifiable, objective standard for “good story” and that it is possible to measure any given story against that benchmark and receive usable results.
This, of course, is insane. But, for the sake of argument, if such a quantifiable, objective standard exists, then you would be totally justified in having “meet-or-exceed” as your goal for writing.
If it doesn’t exist (it doesn’t), then you need to define your “goal” in writing any given story. If it’s “to make money” or simply “to get published,” well, then, you can certainly manufacture your own “quantifiable standard” by comparing your story to stories which have achieved your specific goal. It won’t really be an objective standard, due to the subjective vagaries of editorial interpretation/enjoyment/aggravation with the world that affects the editor’s perception of your work, but you can build yourself some guidelines and try to build something within those guidelines that is entirely mutable.
If your “goal” boils down to something closer to “to tell this particular story,” well, now you’re capable of putting together a quantifiable, objective standard from inside the work. You are addressing, in other words, the bedrock of the story, the place where your feet are planted as you leverage every craft tool at your disposal in order to create your story. So, it stands to reason, that figuring out pretty quickly where, exactly, you are planting your feet would be real helpful in writing a “good” story.
Let’s, by way of a fer instance, take a look at the short story I’ve been working on recently. It started when a sentence popped into my head, unbidden: Shoshanna looks like a big old dipshit when she flies. Now, I’m definitely never going to change the fact that Shoshanna can fly—and trust me, someone will suggest it because, “Um, people can’t fly and what are you writing, fantasy? Cut it. Make it, like, driving or something.” But see, I have this recurring dream where I can fly EXCEPT I have to flail my arms and legs in order to do it. Once I get up high enough, I can glide smoothly for a bit, but eventually I have to start with the flailing again. So obviously, this idea is important to me and demands I write a story. So, there: flying is staying in.
Now, on to the less obvious things. First off, that phrase “big old dipshit” is important. It came to me as a part of the original sentence and when I first typed it out, those words felt like they were in neon lights. To me, the phrase implies a voice, a perspective. It brings with it an attitude, not just toward the characters or the events, but toward the whole enterprise of telling this story. It’s important here to note that what’s “important” to a story at this, the drafting stage, is very personal. You may not think that the phrase “big old dipshit” implies or brings with it any of the things that I associate with it. And that’s fine because, honestly, it doesn’t matter what anyone other than the writer thinks at this point. If something speaks to the author, it speaks to them, it inspires them, and it is useful to them. So that phrase, and all it brings with it, stays, no matter what.
Next is the name Shoshanna. It’s a loaded name. It’s a female name. It’s a Hebrew name. I am neither a woman nor Jewish. However, it feels important to me that the character be both those things. The name was just there in that first flash of inspiration. So, no matter what, I’m sticking with Shoshanna. I’m not going to change her into a straight, white, recovering-Christian male because that would be easier for me to “inhabit” or any of the crap. Shoshanna came with the inspiration, she stays.
Now, past those three little things: flying, “big old dipshit,” and Shoshanna, anything else I come up with will be flexible. But those three things, those are the things with which I will begin to build my quantifiable, objective standard. Right now, if my story serves those three elements, then it is working well. There have been elements added to this list as I’ve worked (Shoshanna discovered her ability to fly during a suicide attempt; Shoshanna’s father can fly, too, but has never told her and doesn’t come clean when she tells him what she can do—secrets are important and these specific ones won’t budge) and more may be added, so the standard will change accordingly.
However, knowing “where your feet are planted” can do WAY more than just let you judge the “quality” of your story. These elements are signposts, they are a map for the story. When you get stuck or lost, just make a big choice that relates to one or more of these elements and you will be assured that you are moving the story you want to tell along. These elements are touchstones to keep you on track and to give you a place form which to leap.
Doing the work of discovering where your feet are planted in any given story will also be of great use during revision. By the time you reach the end of your first draft, you’ll have a list of the elements that are most important—it may be only the list you started with or maybe you’ll have added things as you wrote. These elements can help you decide where to expand, where to cut, where to change, and where to double down on what you’ve already done. As long as you keep these elements in mind and aim to make the choices that most support, highlight, and explore them, you’ll be making the “right” choices. And, since the “importance” of those elements is so personal, what is “right” will also be personal, so you’ll be serving your initial impulses, that spark of original inspiration, the story you wanted to tell all along.