How to Write a Publishable Book

It has been proven to me time and again that very smart, amazing people have very different tastes than I do. And that’s okay. They might disagree with many of the things below, but this is my take on how to approach writing a book that is worth publishing.

 

Appeal/Resonance: The story needs a strong foundation of something the reader will care about. This can mean many things, but in general, this means that you need to help the reader see themselves in the story. The breadth of appeal of your story will directly correlate to the foundational elements you include. You can control this. A few examples of variables:

  • Characters for whom you give a backstory and/or page time: People want to see themselves in your characters. Diverse + deep cast of well-executed characters = broader appeal.
    • Example: I believe that we love to read about believable villains because we like to explore our ‘dark side’. We see characters as believable when we could see ourselves taking the same actions they do, given the same context. That’s why it’s just as important to show why a villain does what he/she does as it is with your hero… assuming your story has some version of a hero and villain.
  • Character motivations: this is easy. What are some common things people want in life? Power, wealth, fame, revenge, sex, drugs, freedom, safety, food, etc…
  • Setting/Worldbuilding: This is tricky, but I believe that people want to experience a setting that is familiar, but new and interesting in some way. I’ll let you decide how to interpret that, but consider that the vast majority of earth’s current population lives in a major city/suburb setting. Familiar yet interesting could be a story set in the wilderness/countryside (something that is familiar, but yearned for), or it could be a unique twist on an urban setting.
    • That this is why so many successful stories are set in some sort of school (but with some fantastic twist – be that magic, grandeur, or just a conveniently attractive and generally perfect romantic interest way out of our MC’s league that just so happens to fall for him/her). It’s a setting everyone, even adults, can identify with. We spend a good portion of our lives in a school, and then send our kids off to school just a few years after we escape.

Structure/Purpose:

I’ve run into a few writers that are really good at writing, but they write really stupid stories that nobody will connect with in a meaningful way. Here are a few things (not meant to be an exhaustive list) that I think people want to see from a story, in loose but meaningful order:

  • Character Internal Progress: Characters changing, progressing in some fashion – achieving an internal goal or milestone, usually becoming more (or less) capable at a thing and demonstrating it
  • Relationships: Romance, friendships, alliances, rivals, enemies… humans are social animals, and we want to experience various relationships in our stories
  • Character External Goal: also known as “protagging”. Usually includes a main character achieving an objective after struggling to do so at least a few times so it feels “authentic” and difficult (try/fail cycles).
  • Conflict: between characters, leading to conflict resolution in some form
  • Exploration: of setting, other unique aspects of the story (especially in SFF)
  • Problem Solving: solving a mystery or puzzle, letting the reader solve it with the MC as it unfolds
  • The Final Countdown: Achieving a final victory, usually after a seemingly insurmountable setback or hurdle

Execution: 

This could all be boiled down to “write good”, but I’ll try to lay down some sub-categories that I pay attention to:

  • Voice/Style: This may be the one element in this entire article that is difficult – though not impossible – to control completely, as it is a subjective measure. I find that my written voice is primarily affected by:
    • The characters I’m writing, and how well I “know” them
    • My emotion associated with the characters and the plot of the story
    • The stories I’m consuming at the time, both written and visual media
    • My ability to make time not just to write, but to sink deep into my story as I write
  • Clarity: grammar, sentence construction, paragraph spacing, word choice, and description are all critically important
  • Pace: be efficient with your words. Hit multiple story objectives with every scene.
  • Flow: portray a constant, consistent narrative, as close to the subject as possible
  • Repetition: repetition of “tags”, or common descriptions, can aid in recall and familiarity with important aspects of your story
  • Consistency + Limitations: character actions should be consistent, settings/magic systems should be consistent, and all should be limited so as to force your characters to work for anything they achieve
  • Write the damn book: this one cannot go unmentioned. Incredible writing talent is squandered constantly by those who just never sit down and write until a thing is done.

Write What You Love: 

My final bit of advice: write the stories you want to read. You can easily do research on and arrive at logical conclusions about what kinds of characters and stories are likely to appeal to large groups of readers, but unless you are also writing what you love, it will likely fall flat. I’ve seen many a respected author claim that there’s no difference between works written with passion vs. those written through sheer force of will. I’m here to tell you that this is not true for my work, and I can absolutely tell the difference between someone who is writing for money or appeal instead of out of genuine interest in their work .

Patrick Rothfuss is one who (I like to believe) writes from a place of passion for his work. He’s obviously a talented writer and has many widely appealing elements in his story, but the level of depth and authenticity present in the Kingkiller Chronicles would be very difficult to replicate without caring about your work on a personal level.

It’s important to note that often, mass appeal and personal appeal are a spectrum (or perhaps a 3D space with many axes), and the way to win this game is to find a point on the spectrum where your genuine interests align with those of a sizable target audience.

 

Good luck.

 

-Scott

Editing Is Writing

I am willing to bet that editing is what stands between most writers and their dreams.

The act of writing is romanticized at length in writerly circles, while talk of editing is typically met with derision, or at best, patience.

Editing is where the magic happens, people. Not all great writers follow this rule, but most of the writers that I hold in high regard are known to take significant time editing and perfecting everything they produce. Rothfuss, GRRM, Robert Jordan all fall into this category (at least I assume that’s what they are doing with all that time in between books). Even a writing-production freak like Sanderson has admitted that mastering the art of editing and revising is what propelled him from anonymity to the enormous success he is today.

Editing is where plot is perfected. It is the process by which characters of convenience become paper people with lives of their own. Pace can be fixed, molded to fit your narrative.

Here are a few things I include in my editing process that you may want to consider in yours:

  1. Cut >= 10% of your word count: many authors have vouched for this trick. I tried to cut on several of my previous edits, only to add more words in the name of clarity. Clarity in writing is of utmost importance and deserves an edit all its own, but when I did an edit pass with the sole purpose of cutting word count to improve pace, unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs started to jump out at me. I recently finished an edit pass and cut 17,500 words (12%) from my book! It took a great deal of work, but was a great experience. Precision is beautiful.
  2. Fill your plot holes: This is likely more of a problem for those who wing their books like I did with Ire. I ended up having to put A LOT of work into the book to correct plot issues and holes, and will likely never do that again. I recommend having at least some idea ahead of time of what your major plot points will be, where and how you’d like to build up to them and foreshadow, etc. But, even the best plot plan often changes, and making it bullet-proof is an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up. This is also where smart Beta readers come in handy. Anything that any significant amount of beta readers come back with (or a particularly trusted reader) as a point of confusion, fix it.
  3. World Building and Character Elements: Writing characters is something I really enjoy and strive to do well. The danger of “knowing” your characters is that you (hopefully) write them well, but many of the endearing traits that make your characters interesting and lovable live only in your head or in your notes. Take the time to build character elements into the scenes that already exist, and to make sure that your character actions, dialogue, etc are all consistent. Similarly, this should be an opportunity to introduce any world building elements that are pertinent to your story.
  4. Read-throughs to improve flow, clarity, and continuity: The most time consuming edits for me are read-throughs, but they are also some of the most important. If your prose isn’t clear and doesn’t flow well, it’s frankly not worth reading. Everything is fair game here: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, paragraph breaks, making your statements “active”, etc.

 

-SD

Writing Journal – One Big Thing

A discussion with my writing group led to a conscious solidification of a writing principle I’ve believed in for a long time but only now fully wrapped my mind around. It’s not new to the writing world, but it is new to me, so here is my take on it:

One KMAlexander suggested “One Big Thing” as a principle to follow relative to how much we can/should ask readers to suspend belief in works of fiction. This might apply to other genres, but it’s particularly applicable to Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror.

The idea is that all “unbelievable” elements of a story (or world in which the story occurs) stem from, and are logically consistent with “One Big Thing”.

For example, the catalyst for all of the fantastical elements in my book IRE was the idea for the spiritual metabolization (not a word, but I am trying to make it one) of energy as a magic system, which I call Infusion in my book. The theology (creation mythos) was constructed with this in mind, and the “bad guys” are all products of misuse of the direct and indirect (technology) use of this magic.

The alternative is world-building gone wild, where either the various aspects of the world feel artificially fabricated to fit the narrative, or the narrative feels fake – stretched to hit all of the world building that the author wants to introduce in the story.

Two more (somewhat related) principles that I’ve learned recently, in large part thanks to my agent’s awesome new assistant, Christine:

  1. Introduce ideas early in a book. Introduction of new characters, new civilizations, new arcs should be early enough to build to a meaningful resolution, or at least have a meaningful reason for inclusion within that book. Arcs spanning books, particularly from Book 1 to Book 2, may not be a good idea. I’m cutting a character from my book with this round of edits for this reason. A character I really like.
  2. Cut anything that doesn’t contribute to the story you are trying to tell. I’m cutting another scene with characters that I really like because their scene serves to give more depth to the world as it exists in my mind, but doesn’t contribute to the plot of this book. This is a hard lesson to learn, but a very valuable one.

 

-Scott

Plotting for Suspense

I have fallen at times into the trap of justifying plotting and suspense issues in my writing because some of my favorite bestsellers have the same issues. The problems with that line of thinking are many, but in general it’s never a good idea to ignore issues with your work just because someone else got away with it. Those bestsellers I referred to above have their faults, but they also each have great qualities that make them incredible books. Besides, a first book really needs to be as good as it can be to get attention above all of the great books being submitted to editors (or self published).

I’ve done soul-searching regarding suspense in my own writing, and here are some rules on plotting for suspense I’ve come up with for myself:

Set your stakes high and keep them high.

An interesting concept that I’ve come to understand embarrassingly late in the game is that plot isn’t all about action, or rather that action and suspense aren’t equivalent.

And lest my fellow writers think less of me as they assume I’m ignoring “suspense-fatigue” or whatever term you might want to use for unending suspense in a story, that’s not necessarily what I mean here. The point is that whatever suspense you create in the heart of the reader around your primary conflict should be kept in focus throughout the story, though fluctuations in suspense and action levels are necessary to create an engaging and enjoyable story.

Some of the most pointed (and correct) feedback I have received was about the main plot line fizzling out in the middle of the book. I figured that since my beginning and end were very related and resolve the primary conflict, the middle could wander a bit in the name of character development and world-building. But I was wrong. Which brings me to the next point:

Character development and world-building can and should happen during scenes that matter to the primary conflict.

I like to think that this is something I understood when writing this book, but again I think at times I confused suspense and continuity of primary conflicts with action. This forced me to rework or completely eliminate some scenes while editing. Therefore my mistake wasn’t (I hope) in the writing of the scenes themselves, but in the architecture of those scenes. Which is pretty embarrassing considering my whole professional life is centered on comprehensive processes (and I think a story and a process are very similar). So this was a fantastic lesson for me to learn for various facets of my life.

*I also want to call out that delayed suspense works, or is at least generally accepted in books with multiple POV’s like Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time because suspense is preserved (if done well) for each character in the story, while the reader skips to other characters and usually different stories, or at least different views of those stories. It does not work as well in books like mine where the vast majority of the book follows one primary character.

Secondary-level conflicts and story lines should be woven around (or intersect with, depending on how you want to visualize it) the primary conflict.

Because I am a nerd, I visualize this as oscillating signals, where sub-plots interact with the primary plot to form a cohesive and fluid combined oscillatory signal. If the plot lines are not aligned properly and on the same scale, it will result in a disjointed story. See visual example below.

The point is that the red line is the sum of the other two lines

Foreshadowing is your friend.

The only thing I have to add to the discussion on foreshadowing is that it doesn’t need to be complex and difficult to implement. It is generally just a matter of being conscious of your plot points and ensuring that you have a “beginning” to every conflict in which you resolve something important to your characters. For example, I’m writing an “interlude” scene to build reader connection with a character who is important to the protagonist but doesn’t appear until the very end of book 1 (and spoiler alert, he dies).