The Story of a Story, Or How I Was Flensed

verb, flensed, flens·ing

1. to strip the blubber or the skin from (a whale, seal, etc.).

2. to strip off (blubber or skin).

Beware – Harsh truth approaching: We are not good enough.


None of us are good enough. Sure we can get good. Good enough to be published. We can continually get better, assuming we have that desire and constantly work at our craft. Which we all should, of course. But, on our own, in our little bubbles of imagination and twisted ideas, we’re not good enough. We need to be better than we’re capable of being on our own. For that, we need the unbiased, critical eyes of others.

As a writer, I work alone. It’s part of the job and it’s one of the things I love about it. I also love the community of writers I’ve gathered around myself over the years, online and in real life. And therein lies the key. I have a handful of talented writer friends who are happy to read and critique my work. I’m happy to return the favour. It’s how our world goes around. I’m actually very lucky in that the majority of writerly friends happy to critique my work are far better scribes than I.

As the writer of a story (or novel, screenplay, webserial, whatever) we’re far too close to the thing to be objective. We’ve invested our time, imagination and effort into creating it. We’ve extruded the guts of it from the labyrinthine depths of our subconscious and regurgitated it into being. Up to a point we can be critical of our own work. We can put the first draft away for a while to let it fester, then pull it out again and read it with fresh eyes. The longer you’ve been doing this, the better you get at spotting flaws and being honest with yourself. We can turn a first draft into a pretty decent final draft. But we’re still not objective enough and it’s not really a final draft at all.

I wrote a short story recently that I was really pleased with. I spent a while going over it, polishing it, getting it just right. I sent it out into the world. And it came back. And again. And again. The rejections stacked up. It’s cool, I’m used to that. Every writer is. We have hides that make rhino skin look like tissue paper and a solid fuck-you-attitude that keeps us working in the face of constant rejection. It’s the only way to work in this game. After all, it’s not necessarily the story – it could be the editor just doesn’t dig that vibe, or the publication ran something a bit similar recently, or the publisher’s cat swallowed a bee and she’s sore at the world and takes it out on a good story. That last one is unlikely, but anything’s possible.

But once something has been bounced a few times in a row, you can start to see the common denominator. It’s the story, schmuck. It ain’t good enough.

eviscerated book The story of a story, or how I was flensed

So I went to my friends seeking help. In this particular instance I was fortunate enough to get the Evil Drs Brain* on the case. Given that it was a dark and twisted fairy tale vibe, I asked Angela Slatter* to have a look at it for me. She read the story, liked it, but took her flensing knife to it with abandon. I got it back and sobbed quietly for a few minutes, then manned up and listened to her advice. It was good advice. She’d seen flaws I hadn’t, picked up things in the story that needed to work differently. She’d identified character inconsistencies I would never have seen.

The story was greatly improved, but it still needed something; we could both see that now. Angela sent it over to her other brain, Lisa L Hannett*. Lisa added her flensing knife to the mix and my story was further eviscerated, but she saw the things that needed fixing.

One of them was really harsh – the whole story had grown from a killer closing line. I came up with the final line, something I really wanted to use to finish, and the whole story grew out of that. Lisa pointed out that the final line didn’t work. The story had outgrown its seed of conception and that line had to go.

I wailed and raged, but I knew Lisa was right. The line was cut. I killed the fuck out that particular darling. There’s no room for pussies in this caper.

The story has just been sold to a very prestigious market and I couldn’t be happier.

The moral of the story? We need our friends. We need beta-readers, critiques, flensing knives flashing in the cold light of dawn. And we must listen to these people.

Hopefully it gets to the point where our writing is good enough that we can usually get something to a standard editors want to buy and then they do that last bit of flense and polish. A good editor will see the gem in the rough diamond and draw it out. But they don’t have time for much. It behoves us to make our work shine as brightly as it possibly can.

In essence: fresh eyes, beta readers, honest critique, listen to advice and kill your darlings. You know, the usual shit. It’s been said before, and it will be said again. But it needs to be repeated.

Say it after me:

We are not good enough.
We must try harder,
All the time.
And help our friends as they help us.
For this is the flensing,
And the power of the story,
For ever and ever.
RAmen. (Quick and easy, the snack of the starving, jobbing penmonkey.)

Now, go write.

* CAVEAT: Angela and Lisa were happy for me to mention them in this post and applaud their shining word razors, but they won’t critique your work. This particular flensing was done on the basis of friendship and collegiality, built up over time. You can, however, get your own friends on the case. Join writers’ groups and crit circles and help each other. You’ll all grow and improve together. Just get involved and know that you need help and that you can help others. Meet people, be nice, take advice. It all grows from there.



This is a reprint from Alan Baxter‘s The Word.

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