Being Good and Being Great

I tend to become a night-owl in the run up to exciting events. We are x-minus 4 days to the Writing Industries Conference. A few i’s need dotting but (touchwood) everything is going to plan, and we are very close to sold out. But none the less it’s 1:26am and I am very far from sleepy. So I’m going to write a blog post to settle my mind.

Perhaps because of the writers conference, my mind has been filled with meta-debates about writing in recent weeks. Are we facing the end of the Print Age? Does publishing still need its gatekeepers? Is serial fiction due a serious revival? Has podcast fiction died on the vine? These are useful debates to have, but ultimately I always arrive back at the same answer.

One of the issues that came up again and again at Clarion was the difference between being good, and being great. Kelly Link, in her week one introduction, told us the challenge we all (the 18 of us attending Clarion) faced was taking the step up from writing a good story to writing a great story. In week three Mary Anne Mohanraj broke down the Strange Horizons slush pile into 70% bad or average, 29% good and 1% great. And in truth I think 1% is being generous. I’d guess that about 0.01% of all the stories written are great.

Thats 1 in 10,000. Seems about right.

I’m not going to try and define great. Or even give examples. You all know what I mean. These are the stories (of any length and in any medium) that make us love stories, and that make us want to tell stories.

The one and only goal of any writer is to tell one of those 1 in 10,000 stories. (Preferably more than one, but one is a good starting point) Nobody knows what makes a great story or what makes a writer of great stories, and anybody who says they do is lying. Some writers struggle through an entire career and never tell a great story. A rare and gifted few tell only great stories. The rest of us sit on the spectrum between, searching for the great story we dream of telling. Just one great story can make a writer beloved for generations, whereas a thousand good ones are forgotten every day.

So every meta-debate about writing always comes down to the same answer. Write something great. Great is the rarest commodity in fiction. People fight for the right to publish great stories. Readers go crazy for them and literally beg the authors for more. As long as there are great stories to be read, people will find a way to read them whether it’s from a printed page or an iPad screen. The world needs more great stories, the reason why the bookshops are filled with so many good, average or even bad stories is because there are so few great ones. Write a great story, and the rest will fall in to place around it.


StarShipSofa needs to win a Hugo this year, because it is great.

Paul M. Berger bring some Clarion greatness to the digital pages of Strange Horizons. Go forth and read.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

One thought on “Being Good and Being Great

  1. Well that’s food for thought. I think my initial, hazy tired early morning, reaction is to suggest that it is a numbers game. A brute force problem where the great story can be found simply by exhausting all possible imaginative, and technical, combinations. Of course this is far from the case, and even if it was it would be a very inefficient way of searching through story space.



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