The first step to any good story is to put it down in a repeatable form. If you are a writer, write it; if you are an artist, draw it; if you are a storyteller in the oral tradition, memorize it. Just do something with it so you can show other people. But before you show it to other people, you may want to self-critique it.
What does that mean, exactly? Well, let’s look at the flash fiction I wrote last week.
What I have on the page is a writing exercise with very strict boundaries: 500 word limit, and I had to use the words wind, bunny, cheetah, hospital and relieved. Those constraints did great things for my imagination (even though I wound up breaking the 500-word rule), but they didn’t allow the reader a satisfying wallow in a fantasy world. It’s not a final product; it’s an early draft. (The third or fourth draft, depending on how you want to count it.)
After I finish writing a piece, I can take another look at it on the macro level, the micro level, and the mini-micro level.
The macro level is the big picture – I re-read what I’ve written and make decisions in terms of what needs to be done with the story. Sometimes that means scrapping all the words I have written – but the story is still there, under the rubble. In the case of Bunny Blavatsky, there’s a lot I like about the story – I like Bunny, her job, her magical ability (she can take pictures of people’s spirits or souls). I am not completely sure about her antagonist, Chelsea the Cheetah-girl. I will have to write more scenes showing Chelsea in action to decide if she’s a keeper, or if I need a stronger antagonist. What needs work? Oh, gosh, where do I start? The story does not start there. It does not take place in a hospital. The story is too big for five hundred words and is begging to be expanded. I need to know more, more, more about everything.
For the sake of sanity, identify what you like about a story, then move on to iffy things that need improved, and things that need to be changed completely.
The micro level is worth looking at, even if you plan to scrap all the words. How do the sentences bring the reader into the story?
- Did I make the action clear?
- Can the reader orient herself quickly enough in the story?
- How was the characterization and setting?
I can blame some of my problems on the limitations of the exercise – flash fiction is too short, and I had to use those five words. I thought hard about having long, swishing skirts in the first paragraph, but couldn’t make them work with the verb “wind” that I had chosen. Instead, I tried to set the period by using iron hospital bedsteads . . . not entirely successful. Skirts would have been better.
The next problem was vast swathe of exposition in the second paragraph. Was there a better way to convey that information without exploding the word count? It’s a question worth consideration. Because of the macro changes, I probably won’t re-use any of these sentences. But as a new writer, I need to think about how to write clearly and concisely. A more experienced writer might want to save this kind of contemplation for later drafts.
The mini-micro level is stuff that is pure word mechanics. Are things spelled right? Have I chosen the right words? Are there any words in this passage that I’m not absolutely rock-solid about the definition? How’s my grammar and agreement? Am I abusing words by using them too often? Are there words that don’t add meaning? Do the words sing, or do they clunk along like tin cans tied to the back of a car? Basically, a lot of this is spelling and Strunk & White stuff.
Self-critique is part of the revision dance. The first eyes should be your eyes. After that, new eyes can point out your blind spots. Then the re-writing begins. You may find yourself two steps forward, one step back, a sashay across the room and back to the very start again. But it’s a new dance every time. It’s a process.