words and images by mk swanson
Pretty Good Story in Three Acts

Pretty Good Story in Three Acts

Act One: Writer Hits Bottom

NaNo passed this year without me winning by writing 50,000 words in 30 days. I had (enough) time, I had a fun novel to write, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to fill out the outlines of my plot.
I’ve never been an all or nothing girl. 12030 words in 30 days is respectable output for a  person otherwise employed, and I feel good to have written them. But still, I am disappointed, and I find myself doubting my motivation, ability, and even my right to write novels. Maybe I’m just not good enough, maybe I just don’t have what it takes, maybe I should just be happy with my life as it is, and not try to be something more than just a hack.
Since the end of November, I haven’t even wanted to write. I feel rudderless, even downright boatless, and I don’t know what I’m good for.

Act Two: Writer Explores the Bottom

I read an article today on Salon (the website where NaNo was slammed in an elitist rant) about the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction, and while I thought that much of what it said was true, I decided that what the fellow was really talking about was the difference between “good enough” and “good.”

Action – Event – Image

He referred to books by a dead Scandinavian writer who details the pointless activities of his characters with diar
rheal obsessiveness. Reading a few excerpts from the writer’s work, I thought, “Action ain’t plot, fella. Description isn’t story.”
Later, I heard someone on NPR talking about a movie that apparently entailed watching the protagonists fall out of love over small things without seeing underneath to understand WHY they no longer loved one another. It made me think, “Event doesn’t make a scene. Image doesn’t make art.”

Act Three: Writer Finds Fertile Ground

Now this is what I think:
A good enough story is one that pulls a reader all the way through and entertains her, makes her laugh or cry or scream in pleasure or fear, even makes her think about something she’s never thought of before. A good enough story uses the language with competency if not with grace, and breaks the rules in relatively small quantities. Lots of good journalism falls into this category, which is fine–it’s not trying to be art.

A good story, on the other hand, does everything a good enough story does, and more. But you notice, I say it does everything the good enough story does. It needs a plot, it needs to move the reader, it needs to be a story (art) and not just a slice of life (image). It should use language gracefully, interestingly, but not self-consciously. The characters should be three-dimensional, the plot should be fresh or a least freshly woven, and the description should be both evocative and relevant.

Finally, I thought about where my writing falls: good, or just good enough? I say, somewhere in the middle. Which is good enough for me, and better than most of the fiction I see published, literary or otherwise.

Maybe I need to get back to writing.


  1. Dear Wench–

    Comment from the cheap seats:

    Here's the deal. I've been waiting to hear the "rest" of three of your books.

    I get to hear bits of them, in an in-workshop sort of serial tease, but you've got me on the brink. I'm ready to go over the edge. I NEED to finish–if you get my double-entendre-d meaning.

    Please, please, PLEASE, whether they're "good" or "just good enough," they've got me so hooked I feel like I'm waiting for that gorgeous guy from French class to call.

    When is the PHONE GOING TO RING????

    A hungry, horny, edge-of-her-seat reader.

  2. I've been reminded that I have to respond to comments on my blog if I expect to see more of them–thanks, Jamie!

    So, here goes:
    I haven't wanted to write at all for a month or so. Not at all. I don't expect that the situation will last, but it's just been weird–I haven't stopped writing like this in four years.
    Instead of writing, I've been reading–in the past two weeks, 3 Harry Potters, 1 Night Huntress, and a self-publish called Out of the Black. This is good, because I am recognizing how much I've learned about what makes a book well-written and well-edited. I don't think I'd really brought it together before, because I haven't had time to read.
    Maybe writers NEED to set aside a month every year to just be readers again. Personally, I have the rest of the Harry Potters and two sf novels to go before I put my writing cap on again.

    After that, I promise: (do you hear me, Susan?)

    I will complete Blue Loco and Naked in Public by the end of 2011and get them out the door.

  3. I hear ya ! And, yeah, I've been reading more and it has a whole new meaning when you are trying to write. I've taken a recent break and worked on a short story, funny, it makes me want to get back to the draft.

    It's just plain ol'work sometimes!

    But, I'll still be the one holding the door open for you and kicking your ass ( final drafts in hand) right out that door !

    See you in January !

  4. Dear Susan and MK!

    (Thanks for the response, MK. I love having a little chit-chat on the side, here).

    I've been a non-writer, too! What's UP??? In case you haven't been noticing, the last three out of four Slippers posts have been WRITTEN BY OTHER PEOPLE!

    And the one of those four that I actually tip-tapped out myself was about how I didn't feel like writing.

    But, like MK, I've been DEVOURING books–including the Harry Potters. Lovin' them right up. Yum, yum.

    Not sure if/when I'll feel those literary juices flowing again, but I'm going to just give myself some time to rejuvenate, get juicy again, and not beat on myself.

    Love to you both,

  5. Jeez, I thought it was just me! I've been reading books that I bought and packed away before my exile in 2006.

    Some of them I don't even remember buying, but discovered this was the perfect time to read them.

    Just the titles of your unfinished books have me hooked. I'll be monitoring your blog to see when they finally make it to the finish line. Here's to a prolific and prosperous New Year.

  6. Mary K,
    Hope by now you have forgiven yourself for the NANO thing and have curled up with a good book. One can't be constantly in the output mode and a bit of rest and reflection goes a long way…as your post demonstrates. Take a guiltless break until Jan 11th. I'll see you then!

  7. Finished reading all the Harry Potters last week. I loved numbers 1-3 and really can't say that about 4-7. Do all good stories these days have to be so dreary? I'm thinking about reading the first one again (or better yet, watching the movie) just to get back to the wonder of it all.

    I haven't felt a desire to write again, yet. I guess I'd better get on the stick, though, as I seem to have made a promise.

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