Both my parents and their families grew up skiing in New York before the prevalence of parabolic skis. Because my parents loved skiing, I grew up sharing that love. Each year my extended family would ski over Christmas or a long holiday weekend. When I grew up and moved out west, my parents came to visit me and, of course, we went skiing. But my parents, having learned on straight skis on eastern ice, needed some pointers once in a while on technique with wider parabolic skis and on different types of snow. This is not because they're bad skiers – they’re quite good in fact – but because there are small nuances to the new gear that they were not yet accustomed to.
Writing is no different. The difference between good writing and Good! writing is not in the major issues. Just like my parents skiing ability, good writing is made by small nuances. Since I can't talk about your writing, my dear reader, I’ll resort to my own for examples.
I recently worked on a story in which the main character Jack, an adolescent boy, directly and purposefully disobeys his mother. Through all of it, his mother never actually punishes him. While I was writing, I put together some really good images, and I was really proud of the Jack I created. I felt that he was true to life. I sent off the first draft to two of my beta-readers. They came back with lots of good advice, but they both said something similar to “the story just didn’t come together” or “something wasn’t right.”
I went back through, literally sentence by sentence, to figure out what was missing. There were a few lines (just a few words even) in which I mentioned or intimated how Jack felt guilty. If Jack directly disobeyed and wasn’t punished, he would not feel guilty. Moreover, he wouldn’t be thinking about any consequence at all.
Just those few phrases and clauses about Jack’s guilt gave my readers an unconscious notion that something in the story didn’t fit. He was not overwhelmed with guilt and I never actually used the word “guilt”. But he gave small gestures of fear when he disobeyed – showing that he somehow felt bad about what he was doing. How could a character be guilty and proud of his actions at the same time? Even if there’s a way to create that feeling, it was not what I wanted from Jack. The small nuance to this story was in the few phrases that contradicted the character. I didn’t have to re-write whole pages and I didn’t have to re-work characters. It was just a few words that didn’t fit. Once I eliminated those, that “not coming together” feeling started to diminish.
I also wrote another story about a nerdy scientist (Thomas) who’s jealous when a colleague (Yuri) receives an honor. The nerdy Thomas felt he deserved it more than his colleague. Again my beta-readers said there was something missing from this story, something that just didn’t quite add up. Not surprisingly, I found that the answer was with those pesky small nuances and small turns of phrase.
I wanted to emphasize my Thomas’s nerdiness – he did not like large social gatherings (the story took place at an awards banquet), he did not like the limelight (he was singled out for applause) and he did not know how to small talk (which was most of his conversation). But as I went though a few more drafts, I wanted his jealousy to be more prevalent, to hint at his feelings of superiority. But an egotistical person won’t shy away from the limelight. An egotistical person would small-talk about himself. My character was a walking contradiction. All the major actions made sense, but I hadn’t supported them with the small nuances.
Like the first story, this second story’s small nuances were easy enough to correct. I had only to change a few sentences here and there. Example: when Thomas was singled out for applause, my first draft had him sitting and smiling, his wife having to tell him he needed to stand and acknowledge the compliment. In the second draft, he knew to stand and the applause died before he took his seat again. The first image does not fit with someone who is egotistical, but the second clearly does. Both images still give a hint that, because he’s nerdy, he doesn’t know exactly how to be socially graceful. Still, the second-draft action hints at the superiority.
Writing cannot be quantified. A story with seventeen adjectives on a page isn’t better than a story with only ten adjectives per page. A Dickens-style tome isn’t necessarily better than flash fiction. The difference between a story that works and a story that doesn’t is found in the small, unconsciously perceived aspects that are difficult to define. A story that succeeds must have all those elements you learn in Creative Writing 101, but it must also have the nuances and small ineffable elements you can only learn though many, many revisions, critiques and careful re-writes.