I have the first step to all writing, all marketing, and all book-selling problems! And I'm going to give it to you right here....
Write a story worth reading!
Sounds facetious, doesn’t it? With the advent of self-publishing, standards are slipping. It’s too easy to publish without editing so that’s what a lot of writers are doing. Somewhere along the line a fantasy developed around self-publishing and it’s now deemed a fact. According to the fantasy, all you need to do to make it as a self-published author is to put out more content.
But I’d challenge you to find self-published authors who are making any kind of real sales who have simply slapped up a quick drafty-draft and written another. The exception is erotica. Erotica audiences don’t appear to be too discerning.
While it is important to feed the reader pipeline as quick as possible, what will really make a writer successful is a readership who will not only buy your books but who will become rabid fans. And the key to that is to write a book worth reading. My definition of that is a novel that is both well-written and contains a good, juicy story.
To be really honest, even the writing doesn’t have to be all that great. It’s the story that has to work.
Case(s) in point, among many others: “Fifty Shades of Gray,” “Bridges of Madison County,” Dan Brown’s novels, etc. Just looking at these three, you can note that while the writing isn’t great, the story touches some primal element in a large number of readers. The stories are compelling and that’s what sold these books and built up rabid fans.
I’m a story developer, not without some skill. I’ve been working, studying, teaching, and writing stories for a long time so I know a thing or three.
Recently I was asked what advice I’d give to a new-er writer. Learning story development has to be my first and best advice to any writer.
What is story development?
Story development is a practice based on understanding the dramatic elements of plot and how they work together to create a satisfying and well-paced story. Taking story development one level deeper means understanding the relationship between the structure of a particular story to its content, then letting the content dictate the form.
The three types of fiction: Commercial, literary, and upmarket.
Commercial fiction contains all genre fiction. Its focus is entertainment. Literary fiction strives to make sense of the human condition. It’s focus is generally language. Commercial fiction reads faster than most literary fiction. Commercial fiction generally has a stronger plot element. Literary fiction tends to focus on the quality of the writing over plot elements. Commercial fiction is an easier sell and appeals to a wider audience. Literary fiction is a harder sell and appeals to a narrower audience.
Upmarket fiction holds court somewhere in between. Upmarket fiction contains both excellent writing and a story that appeals to a wide audience. It often genre bends or combines genres. It's new, fresh and sells well.
I teach all my clients, whether commercial or literary, to shoot for the upmarket section on the fiction continuum. If they’re writing in a commercial genre, and they focus on language and the human condition a bit within their genre, is it possible they’ll float to the top of their category? I think so.
Recently a first-time romance author (formerly a literary author) published her book and shot to the top spots on Amazon. She wasn’t even sure when she was writing it if it could be classified as romance. It’s a good story and it’s well written. Now she’s being rewarded for that.
One of my clients last year happened to be someone in my MFA program. She’d written a literary novel but was told by an agent that it would be too hard to sell, unless my friend could rewrite with a tighter plot and some of commercial fiction elements. Basically she would need to bring it closer to Upmarket Fiction. So my friend sent it to me. It was beautifully written but the plot didn’t hold and the character development wasn’t what it could be.
I did a story edit for her. She rewrote it and contacted the agent again. The agent signed her and sold her right out of the gate. It’s difficult to place literary fiction, but my friend had a leg up with that book when she began to understand the plotting elements she needed to change. That will stay with her the next time she writes a novel. And I bet she’ll aim for Upmarket.
But don’t listen to me.
I’m writing this today because I just got off the phone with a new-to-me-client. I don’t do much book doctoring these days. It’s a bit frustrating when someone is already finished with their manuscript before they send it to me and then they find out they have to rewrite. So nowadays, I like to work with people when they’re in the thick of it, as they’re creating the draft or working on their first revision. It saves so much time!
But this person had a draft already done. She knew there was something not quite right with it and she contracted to have me read it and provide advice.
She's multi-published; she’s a literary women's fiction author who was writing a sequel to a novel that was already out there. She had traditionally published that novel and had some success with it.
Before I got the manuscript I read the first book so I could familiarize myself with the story and be ready when it was time to dive into the second. I read the manuscript, made my recommendations and sent it off to her. I always include a section to be sure and call with questions, or to talk about solutions I posed or to brainstorm new ones. I love to do that!
Unfortunately, the manuscript she sent does not work. In my reply to her I used her first story to illustrate why book one works and book two doesn't. She did call that analysis brilliant. And understood a bit of what she had to revise.
After all my work with story these past three years her problems were clear as clear to me. What she needed to consider in order to fix it was also clear to me. She emailed me and thanked me for my comments. Two days later, she emailed again and asked if we could set up a phone appointment.
I thought she wanted to talk about solutions I had posed or to do some brainstorming. But what she really wanted to do was to defend her work to me. I tried hard to stay in observer mode and watch the writerly machinations to prove that the story works (when it doesn't). It so reminded me of being in a critique group. I know I have done this myself so I don't really fault her. It's hard to hear that a piece of work you think is done, really isn’t done. And not only not done, but if there are story problems, that means that down at the bones it doesn't work. This is the exact reason I developed the writing program I have so I’m not trying to convince someone “after the fact” that the story doesn’t work. Because by then, they’re invested in the way they told it.
So, while she talked, I tried hard to bite my tongue and listen, to not get into an attitude of "I'm right" even though I am, but to stay in compassion-mode when what I really wanted to do was to tell her to stop being so obtuse and wasting all that time, effort, and hope on something that could be fixed if she was merely open enough to hear solutions.
Let me digress for a second and remind you she’s a literary writer and her criticisms of my suggestions had to do with the fact that they were “commercial fiction” suggestions about plot.
If you knew me from the old days of writing (the 90s), you would know how frustrating I find the literary vs commercial issue. Each camp could learn a boatload from the other. I know I have. I have a formal literary creative writing education and an informal commercial self-study education.
When I write, I try to be right in the middle between the two. I want to focus on character and language and be respected for my literary prowess. But I want a story that works and one that sells, too. I think I'm smart. I want to be Andre Dubois III when I grow up. He writes in the middle with a nudge toward literary. But his stories are good stories. His novels have plot. I write with nudge toward commercial. When I'm rich and famous I'll lean in his direction. But for now, I've got a plan.
So back to my client. She kept dropping names of people she's studied with and giving their blanket statements about writing. NEVER plot was one of the maxims. How do you fight that ridiculousness?
I let her wind down, tried to tune out and let her defend a turn of her plot that took her heroine out of the story, breaking all forward momentum and basically caused the story to fall apart. As she defended her decision, I typed up her bill.
When we were finished, I began to think about why that conversation had to come into my world. And why it wouldn’t leave me alone. I kept thinking about what she said. So, as with all things in my world, I had to reframe it so I could let it go. And as I thought about it, I began to be grateful for the conversation. I believe in the way I write and what I teach.
I can’t connect with everyone and I’m not right all the time, but I was pretty sure I was right in this case. So after thinking about it, I’m grateful for the conversation, because I came up with a new tagline:
"Work with me and write a book worth reading."
About the Author: Deb McLeod, MFA, practices novel research immersion. For her novel, The Train to Pescara, Deb journeyed to Sardinia to study ancient goddess worship and spent time in the Abruzzi village her great-grandparents left in 1905. Her metaphysical knowledge for the Angel Thriller, The Julia Set, culminates from four years of studying and teaching meditation, clairvoyance and chakra healing. For over fourteen years, Deb McLeod has been a creative writing coach helping other writers to embrace their passion and get their words on the page. For more, see www.debmcleod.com.