Due in no small fucking part to the timely, able, and seriously hypercompetent assistance of five beta-readers who shall remain unnamed to protect their privacy, but without whom I would not be handing in anything like as good a story as I just did.
I wrote this thing on a very short deadline, you see--a month from request to delivery, and it's a hard SF story, which usually requires a good deal of sitting on the ideas to get them to start cheeping and peck out of their shells (as in, sometimes upwards of years).
But the commission came along, and it was very tempting--and now that the ink is dry, I can tell you that the story is for the MIT Technology Review!--and given the prestige of the journal in question, and bearing in mind Jim Macdonald's Rules of Professionalism ("When they ask you if they can have it in a week, you say 'Yes, and here's my fee.'") I felt like I had to write something--and write something damned good.
Reader, I cheated.
I used a setting I've used twice before--in "The Salt Sea and the Sky" and "In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns" (both forthcoming) and I used a couple of topics that are near and dear to my heart--cognitive reprogramming and PTSD. Which cut out a bunch of the research, because I know this stuff, and a lot of the worldbuilding, because I know this world.
And because I was writing so far in advance of my cooking time, I still couldn't get the emotional beats right. I mean, yeah, I constructed a nice character-in-situation-with-problem, with conflicting wants and needs... but it didn't have an engine in it. It was a perfectly functional story--even a publishable story--but it was thrashing along at 7 rather than cranked up to the 11 I wanted it to be.
Normally at this point I stick it in a virtual drawer for a month or so and come back to it with fresh eyes and mad skillz. No time, no time.
So instead I sent it off to some of my smartest writer friends with a supplicatory note to see what they could tell me about how to fix it better.
And on a very short deadline, all of them with professional and personal obligations of their own--they delivered. One friend picked up on a structural issue. One noted a character development weakness. Another pointed out an emotional opportunity I was not exploiting. One friend cleaned up my worldbuilding, and another one took my expositional tactics out back of the woodshed.
And of course what I would have loved was if they had all told me "No no, it's fine, you're just being neurotic, send it in."
The thing is, they know better. And I know better. And "It's good enough" is never good enough.
Here's where writing becomes a craft rather than an art. Because at that point, I had to go in and make those repairs to the story not using my gut--as I normally would--but instead the trained instincts of these trusted and skilled friends. And my own intellect and knowledge. In other words, a learned and mechanistic process rather than an intuitive one.
And you know, I think it worked. In any case, even if I didn't get this sucker up to an 11, I think I at least made it to nine.
My point is, reflexes and intuition will only carry you so far. After a certain point, or in a crisis, a writer has to have the damned toolkit and know how to use it, and know how to use it with intent.
Is the story actually any good?
I dunno. When it comes out, I'll tell you where to find it, and you can let me know.