In judging some stories for a contest recently, I had to ask myself some tough questions. I found one story where I loved the concept but the author was obviously new. He had minor typos, improper verbs, and so on. The question was, “Do I send this story on or not?”
Normally, I would have looked at the story and said, “No, this author doesn’t write with enough authority. Let’s give him a year or two to become more seasoned.”
Very often, I realize, over the years I’ve begun to look for stories by authors who write with “great authority.” What do I mean by that?
The answer is simple. Sometimes you pick up a story and feel that “This is a real writer.” The author’s intelligence, command of the language, and intent are quite clear.
When I look for a story that carries authority, I look for a number of things.
1) The story concept will be unique and engaging. There isn’t a sense that the story concept is timeworn, muddled, that the author hasn’t really decided what effect he or she is trying to create.
2) The world is well defined—so that you can see it, hear it, smell, taste and feel it. The author will often relate surprising details that make the world feel substantial.
3) The characters seem like genuine people. They have honest voices, and they are differentiated so that they convince us that the author really knows them. They have thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and believable pasts that combine to make them feel alive.
4) The conflicts are powerful.
5) The plot begins to build from page one, and it surprises us with its deft twists and turns.
6) The story has strong themes—it’s about more than what it appears to be. In other words, you can read the text and enjoy it, but it invites the reader to carefully consider its deeper implications.
7) The story is written beautifully. There is no lag in pacing, no bloated descriptions. The author knows how to use metaphors that transcend the norm, and understands poetic diction well enough so that the language itself is artful.
I suppose that I could go on for pages describing what I mean when I say that a story carries authority, but the point that I want to make here is this: It’s true that some authors immediately write more convincingly than others. They may have certain gifts that give them greater credibility. But most of us as new writers tend to make a lot of minor mistakes.
You gain credibility as you improve your writing skills. As you practice over months or years, the tiny errors will disappear, so long as you keep getting feedback on your manuscripts and honestly struggle to improve your craft.
So keep working at it. But remember, as you prepare to submit a story, ask yourself, “Does this story carry a powerful sense of authority? If your gut tells you that it doesn’t, then it may mean that the story isn’t ready. At that point, get some test readers and find out what they think. If they love it, send it out. If not, go back to work on it.
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