Navigation Q1: How do you make something good?

Ursula K. Le Guin“How do you make something good?” —Nancy Jane Moore

Well, you could start with butter and fresh farm eggs, it’s hard to go wrong from there, unless you’re a vegan. All right, I’ll try to be serious — it’s a serious question. But an awfully big one. I hope to get some smaller ones, such as, “Do I have to outline my plot first?” or “How often can I split an infinitive?”

I guess the way to make something good is to make it well.

If the ingredients are extra good (truffles, vivid prose, fascinating characters) that’s a help. But it’s what you do with them that counts. With the most ordinary ingredients (potatoes, everyday language, commonplace characters) — and care and skill in using them — you can make something extremely good. A lot of memorable novels have been made that way. Even with undistinguished language and predictable characters, if a story has interesting, convincing ideas or events, good pacing, a narrative that carries the reader to a conclusion that in one way or another satisfies — it’s a good story. A lot of memorable sf has been made that way.

Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

The poet Theodore Roethke said it: “I learn by going where I have to go.”

There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.

At this stage, having the opinion of readers qualified to judge, or a trusted peer-group, can be tremendously useful. Other eyes can see what you’re too close to your work to see, give perspective, open up possibilities.

On the other hand, the pressure of opinion — from readers, classmates, teachers, in a MFA program or a workshop, from an agent, from an editor — may end up as worse than useless. If your manuscript doesn’t follow the rules of what’s currently trendy, the rules of what’s supposed to be salable, the rule some great authority laid down, you’re supposed to make it do so. Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflé if you’re making blintzes?

The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there. The hell with soufflé, stick to your blintzes.

We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.

With a blintz, the process is fairly routine. With stories, the process is never twice the same. Even a story written to the most prescriptive formula, like some westerns or romances, can be made poorly, or made well.

Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.

And then, once in a while, none of that sweat and trial and error and risk-taking is necessary. Something just comes to you as you write. You write it down, it’s there, it’s really good. You look at it unbelieving. Did I do that?

I think that kind of gift mostly comes as the pay-off for trying, patiently, repeatedly, to make something well.

Note: Due to enthusiastic response, the question submission form has been disabled for now. Once the current round of questions has been dealt with, it may be reactivated.



Navigation Q1: How do you make something good? — 17 Comments

  1. After reading too many frustrating blogs, articles and interviews about the publishing side of writing, I’m so glad I found this! When it comes to writing fantasy and science fiction, you’re my #1 role-model, so thank you very much for this opportunity.

  2. So very glad to read this. Just published the story I had to tell and it feels pretty good. It doesn’t fit into just one category and so much I have read says that it won’t sell if it is not in one of the boxes. It is a souffle’ blintz. Sounds tasty to me!

    Thanks so very much for everything. I don’t want to gush but…yeah…like everyone else says. Ditto.

  3. Some of the most succinct advice I’ve seen about creativity and popular opinion: “The hell with soufflé, stick to your blintzes”.

  4. Pingback: Reblog: Ursula K LeGuin on storytelling by soufflé | Cockburn's Eclectics

  5. Thanks. It was helpful to hear that committing to “writing well” is the goal, versus all the other advice Ive read….such as writing 2000 words a day, publishing multiple books quickly, read this book or that, etc. It just comes down to reworking your ideas and re-editing your writing constantly to try and improve whats there. So Ursula, I like your statement, “That’s as good as I can make it”! I feel that is something we need to all live by…..the act of “improving” whats been written, rather than just grinding out gigantic volumes of poorly written and edited books that have been hacked out to try and make sales. I think we live in that type of age.

    Ironically, the Digital Age might just force us all to focus more on shorter, higher quality books and stories. With shorter attention spans and smaller text strings available to us online, it might be we all have to go back to reworking our stories and text a bit more than we have.

    But it bothers me that there should ever be a goal to make anything “good”. The goal should be to write what has value and meaning to you, and yet write well enough to convey your ideas to the reader. It seems like the rest doesn’t really matter…

    Thanks again!


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  7. I’ve read a few how-to-write books, followed online creative writing courses, read blogs of established authors. All of which I have come through, the amount of contradictory advice is only limited by the number of pages I have read. Does this mean that all writing advices should be disregarded? Not at all – if so I’d give up writing even this comment.

    Many things in this world can be standardized, but standardized creativity is an oxymoron.
    The secret is to find what works best for you, and throw away any guilt or inferiority that you are disregarding the advice of Best Selling Author X. Remember, Jeffrey Archer once told would-be writers that the only way they can be successful is to quit their jobs and write full time. Tell that to a single mom trying to finish her first book. The alternative is — of course — getting fired, but that’s another story.

    Am I saying the advices of Best Selling Author X, Y, and Z are baseless? Absolutely not. Try their methods, but twist their ideas, adapt them to your needs. You are what you are, if a ‘rule’ existed to describe how to write successful novels, everybody would be a Best Selling Author. Testing allows us to develop new skills, too.

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