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What really makes a good story?

I've been working for seven years as a freelance editor. When I started my indie press Louise Walters Books I knew I would need a regular income... cue 7-day working weeks, far too many 18-hour days, and ultimately exhaustion and mental health struggles... in the end, I had to give something up, and it had to be my indie press, which was making me no money at all. In fact I ran at a loss for the entire six years that I was publishing.

Life is a bit calmer now! I'm writing and publishing just my own books, and I'm continuing to work as a freelance editor. Working from home has been enormously helpful where my kids are concerned... no real hassle when they are ill, that sort of thing. I'm now in my late 50s and the plan is to keep working as a freelance editor until retirement, and perhaps beyond.

Looking back, all that hard work has proved to be beneficial. I have edited upwards of 250 manuscripts. My work has ranged from manuscript assessments, developmental edits, structural edits, line edits, first three chapter assessments, proof reads, and beta reads. It's work I love doing, and every single manuscript I've worked on has helped me to become a better editor. So today I want to share some of the things I've learned and what really, really, makes for a great piece of writing. As I've worked mainly on fiction, that's what I'll talk about here - but much of this applies to non-fiction too.

The first thing I look for is control. The control a writer has over their material, their words, their plot, and everything else. Control is usually evident, or not, from page one. If a writer is not in control, the novel can't work. What does control really mean, then? To my mind it's about confidence... don't shilly-shally, don't be vague, don't give us two or three similes in one sentence. Don't give the reader that choice. Tell us that "his stomach roiled like a washing machine on a hot wash". Don't tell us it roiled like a hot wash, or a thunderstorm, or a spinning top. Liken this control to an actor in a stage play... you as the actor, waiting to go on stage... and stride on, confident, bold, assertive. Even if the character doesn't feel those things, the actor-writer needs to.

Another essential thing a writer needs is awareness. This means being objective, engaging with editing, and separating your aims from what is actually on the page. Often there is a huge gap between those two things. And of course the reader has no idea what your aims are. I've edited many manuscripts, and have often received pushback, ranging from extremely angry to mildly perturbed, along the lines of "Let me explain my aims, then it will make more sense". No. That's not how it works. Readers only have what is on the page, and it must make sense, in and of itself. So when I edit a manuscript it is from the readers' point of view, always. That's what editing is for. Readers have no access to your thought process, your creative process. In many ways, you as writer need to let go of that too, once you have that first draft down. After that you kind of need to switch to the readers' mindset. Step outside your work and look back in on it. And be critical.

Know the difference between confusion and mystery. The first is the one to avoid. Confusion arises often from a lack of control and awareness. Readers end up puzzling over the telling of the story, rather than feeling mystified by the story itself. If we can't understand what a given sentence is actually saying, we are stalled. We are thrown out of the story trying to figure out the meaning of the sentence. So always prioritise clarity over everything else. Often this can be where "Kill your darlings" comes into play... a beautiful sentence that can't be understood is not as effective as a plain sentence that is crystal-clear.

Know your nuts and bolts! It's incredible how many manuscripts I've been asked to work on where the basics are not in place. Punctuation is usually the victim. This of course is directly linked to the confusion issue. Poor punctuation can kill a story dead... so from the very earliest stage of your manuscript, get the punctuation right. It isn't difficult. There is no excuse. If you're unsure how to correctly punctuate dialogue (a very common error) then pick up a novel, and copy it. (But don't copy experimental fiction that eschews speech marks!) Honestly, do you really want to pay an editor perhaps hundreds of pounds for them to do school teacher stuff on your manuscript? NO. You don't. So do your homework and send to your chosen editor a manuscript that is correctly laid out, punctuated, spelled, and so on. Nuts and bolts can be entirely self-taught. Let your editor work on the things that aren't so easy: structure, plot, pace, tension, characterisation, conflict.

Finally (for this post!) accept that there will be many things about writing a novel that you don't know you don't know. And it can be a bit of a shock when an editor raises these things that you didn't know you didn't know. My best advice for anyone who feels they have a novel inside of them is to take some time before you start writing it to learn about craft and structure. I've read many a manuscript where the writer has come at it from the "wrong" angle... running before they can walk, often. It's clear they have no idea of what a story is, what a story does, how a story can be structured. Structure, plot, pace, tension, characterisation, and conflict, are sometimes so poorly understood that I wonder if the writer even has any awareness of these story-essentials. Hence my advice to read a good how-to before you put pen to paper. Really this point is all about ego. We all have one, but writers must learn to ignore it. It is the one thing that can prevent you from ever learning the craft, from becoming the writer you are capable of becoming. Over the years just three writers whose work I've assessed have had a purely egotistical reaction... deeply defensive, petulant, furious, arrogant, rude. That is ego talking and it will get you nowhere. It's natural to feel disappointed after getting our work assessed by an experienced editor. Most of us hope our work is better than it is. And most of us underestimate the skills involved in writing a novel.

I hope this helps. I'm hoping to build up a series of posts here on my blog with writing advice, observations, thoughts. To write is a wonderful thing, and in many ways it doesn't matter if we are any good at it or not. The objective quality of our work only really comes into play if we are hoping to be published... and who among us doesn't really, even if secretly, want to hold a book in our hands?

Back soon!

Louise x

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