I’m generally not interested in giving writing advice on this blog. But every once in a while a fellow writer will drop in on this site; some of these fellows are creative writing students of mine. If you’re interested in free advice from a barely-published writer, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?
If I had to condense what I’ve learned about writing fiction into a single piece of advice, it would be that I got much better as a writer when I learned to lager my work. That is, like a patient brewer, I’ve learned to put just about any story that I’m working on into cold storage for a while before I decide whether it’s finished (the cold storage is what makes a lager a lager; beers that aren’t made that way are called ales).
So here’s my process: I get a story idea. I work on it for weeks or months, drafting and redrafting. Usually after about three drafts (sometimes two), I put the story away for a while. Three to six months seems like a goodly length. When I pull the story out again after that, I will nearly always see some changes, often pretty deep changes, that I want to make to the story before sending it out. That 3-6 month waiting process–the lagering–is what tightens up the story for me. For whatever reason, I have to let my work sit that long before I can tell what work needs to be done on it.
How did I learn this process? Well, I could have learned it from any number of creative writing workshops or texts–lagering is not some exotic technique. But, as with most things I’ve learned about writing, I had to learn this practice Robinson Crusoe-wise, through trial and error and my own experience. The technique came to me after a couple of different incidents: once when I had a story published, then looked at the story again on the website a couple of years later and realized that there were some things I would really have done differently with that story if it weren’t already in print now. Another experience that gave me the lagering insight was when I put away a much-rejected story, having concluded that (since no one seemed to want to print it) it must not be a very good story. It was only after pulling it out years later that I concluded that, actually, it is a very good story–or at least the best kind of story I’m capable of–and that 12 rejections or 15 or whatever are not necessarily evidence that the story sucks. Some stories are just harder to place in a magazine. I decided to keep at it, and I did find a good home for it (that story is “Better than Google,” by the way, in Eclectica).
You don’t need to take my word for it. Find out for yourself, Robinson Crusoe-like. But when you discover lagering your work, one of the footprints you’ll see down there in the cellar is mine.