Today’s question comes from one writer who says that his critique group often says, “You’re almost there, but you need to take it up a notch.” In other words, you’re good but not great. The question that he then asks is, “Kick what up a notch?”
Each of us is always struggling to reach new plateaus. I am, you are. So when you get that nagging comment, here are some areas that you might look at:
1) Treatment. I think of “treatment” as the way that you tell your story—your innate style, along with the voice and tone that you affect. Most often, when I look at new writers, I see authors who are trying simply to "tell a story." Their writing style may be "workmanlike," and might well indeed move the story along, but it just doesn’t make the writing sing. Can I suggest that there are a couple of ways to take it up a notch? First, look at your story and try to figure out how to engross your reader, create your world so vividly—in images, sounds, smells, action—so that you drag the reader kicking and screaming into your tale.
Once you feel that you’ve reached that level, there is another level to style, one where you use the language in interesting and unique ways (often by creating powerful metaphor and similes, or through the use of unusual word choice, or simply by listening to the poetic effects of your work). In other words, instead of just reporting to your readers, look for ways to turn your words into art. Just be careful: there is such a thing as being too strange, too different, for your readers. I study up on this topic primarily by studying some of my favorite poets, but I have seen some nice books on writing with style that might help you.
2) Settings. Once again, in many stories the setting seems unimportant or poorly drawn. Look for ways to transport your reader into your world, and if you are creating a new world for a story, make it one that your readers haven’t seen before. Many writing conferences provide classes that teach basic world-building skills, and you can find some pretty good books on the topic of creating settings at your bookstore. It’s not enough to just create settings, though. You need to learn to create the right kind of setting. I often recommend Alfred Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel for that.
3) Characterization. I’m not a huge fan of the idea of creating “unique characters” just for the sake of uniqueness. I’ve read stories where the characters were so different from me that I just couldn’t relate. For example, a well-known novelist had a book out a few years back where a young man is walking toward his apartment building and a bomb explodes on the fourteenth floor—on the corner where he lived. A thought briefly flashes through his mind, “Someone just tried to kill me. My mother’s dead.” He then runs to hide, looking for safety by changing his routine. Pardon me, but because he didn’t spare any other thought for his own mother, that character just seemed dead inside, and I completely lost interest in the novel. Similarly, another popular fantasist is brilliant in many ways, but once again I find that every character is so twisted and grotesque, I just don’t relate. Yet there are things that you can do to make sure that your characters really do come alive and that you don’t just grab stock characters from the shelf of your imagination. I can’t cover all of this in such a short article, but there are a couple of books on the topic that I’d recommend: Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint, and Mark McCutcheon’s Building Believable Characters.
4) Plot. Very often when I look at works by new authors, the story itself is beautifully written, but the plot is just dull. It may be that the ideas that the author uses are timeworn, or the twists are unoriginal, or that the conflicts aren’t layered in properly. So look for ways to complicate your plot, to take it in new and original directions. I haven’t seen a great book on plot. I hate to say this, but if you’re interested in this kind of thing, the most helpful thing I've found out there for writers is my book Million Dollar Outlines.
Guess what, those are the basic areas that you can work on in order to “kick your work up a notch.” You only have setting, plot, characterization, and treatment. But some of these areas have subsets of skills, and you can find whole books on—things like description, narration, and dialog, which I tend to think of as smaller parts of your “treatment.”
The interesting thing is that when you’re writing at a level where everyone thinks that you’re “almost there,” you typically need to take your storytelling skills up a notch in only a couple of ways, and you’ll begin to publish.
Of course, in order to have a highly successful career, you need to keep growing as a writer, looking for better stories to tell and better ways to tell them. It’s a lifelong challenge, and for me it’s what makes writing fun.