Guest post by Ian McHugh

The first drafts of stories tend to be turds. That can be a difficult thing to admit about your newly completed masterpiece, but it’s okay: Mythbusters have proved that you really can polish a turd.

The easiest way to figure out how to polish up your first-draft turd is to get someone else to read it and give you critical feedback. Not your mum, or your spouse, or anyone else who might be more concerned with protecting your feelings than telling you what you need to know. If you want your story to be the best it can be, then you need to be prepared to receive and act on criticism of your work.

Ideally, you want your story critiqued by several someones, so you can get an idea of the spread of views and which opinions are shared and which aren’t. If you get six critiques and four people say that the ending of your story doesn’t work, you should fix up the ending. If you get six critiques and only one person says there’s a problem with the ending, then you can take or leave their comment depending on whether it makes lightning strike your brain, or not.

Critiquing other people’s stories, incidentally, is also one of the best tools available for improving your own writing. If you’ve just written a story and listened to readers’ feedback, then you’re going to learn how to fix that one story. If you’ve just read a story and analysed its strengths and weaknesses, you’ve probably learned something about writing stories in general.

So one of the best things you can do for your writing is to join a writers’ group – like CSFG – who are active about reading and critiquing each other’s work.

But what if you don’t have easy access to a writers’ group or other critical readers? And, even if you do, you’ll often want to give your readers something more polished than a first draft to look at – when you want to seek critique of novel-length work, for example.

Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Chuck Wendig said, “Art harder, motherf*****.”

Writing is an art, and editing your work is the part of writing that’s dressed in overalls.

One of the biggest challenges is mentally separating yourself from your work (that you love, you’re very pleased with, will be a #1 Best Seller, win the Hugo etc.) so that you can look at it critically.

Time can be one way to achieve this. Shove your story in a drawer (or a folder on your hard drive) and don’t look at it for three months, or six, or however long it takes for it to lose its familiarity. This works for some people. I find it doesn’t work for me. My stories never really leave my head until I’ve either sold them or euthanased them.

The other day I unpacked my bag after cycling to work and discovered that I’d forgotten to pack socks. I then inadvertently paraded around the office for half the day with my fly open. There is a reason for these things.

When I was at art school, I used to hold up my paintings to a mirror. Looking at them backwards, I could see where they were unbalanced – like looking at a familiar face, other than your own, in a mirror and suddenly seeing how wonky it is.

In my experience, that doesn’t work fantastically well with fiction unless you’re aspiring to the narrative voice of a dwarf from a David Lynch film. So I needed to come up with a device to let me see my stories’ wonky bits. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be a bit more involved than holding a picture up to a mirror.

I found I’d been doing most of the things I needed already, in a haphazard kind of way. I’ve spent the past year pulling it together into a coherent process that seems to be producing some more consistent results.

This is what I’ve come up with:

My stories generally have plots, so my first step is to map the draft onto a standard three-act / four-part Hollywood plot structure. I tend to plan onto this kind of structure as well, but my plans tend to only partly survive actual writing, particularly in terms of how many words it takes me to deliver a given plot point. Mapping the finished draft onto an act structure gives me an indication of whether it might be front-heavy, or saggy in the middle, or taking too long to escalate towards the climax.

Once I’ve done that, I repeat the mapping process for story problems (ie, the problems that the characters confront within the story), conflict, tension and cause and effect. One thing I’m looking for is sections of the story where nothing much is happening – no plot points, conflict or escalating tension. These sections need to be truncated or made to work harder. Another thing I’m looking for is story problems that resolve too quickly, or scenes aren’t essential to the main plot.

Then I look at my characters, how their wants and needs interact with the plot (or don’t), how their relationships are working (or not). Then I start looking at the details of the text – rhythm and pace, habitual phrases and sentence structure, blocks of static exposition, world-building or physical description, and so on.

All this, for me, is a very mechanical process, but it’s not about slavishly adhering to preconceived ideas of how a story’s parts must fit together. The bottom line when I find any possible problems is always, “Does it matter?” If my story doesn’t conform well to the normal proportions of a three act structure that may or may not matter for that particular story. If there’s a big dump of exposition in the middle of the story, my questions are, “Does the reader need to know? Is this the best way to tell them? Is this the right place for this information?”

Remember, this is art.

There’s always a judgment call to make, and at some point you have to trust your own judgment. I don’t think you can get away from that. But I think having a structured process for testing my stories, and for forcing myself to switch from “creative brain” to “analytical brain”, takes me a lot of the way to making good judgments.

So, get your overalls on and art harder.

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Ian will be sharing his 14-Step Turd Polishing Method in a 2-hour workshop at the Conflux 9 convention in Canberra on 26 April 2013.