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

Future Projects

I was going to log this somewhere just for myself but decided to make a blog post out of it. I’m a terrible blogger and have no idea where I should draw the line between personal and public when it comes to stuff I really care about. But you know what? We only live one life and I figure I might as well just let myself live and talk about whatever the hell I want. Can’t really hurt my reach at this point, right? (Please don’t leave me.)

Anyway. As I get closer and closer to being published and (hopefully) closer to being able to dedicate much more time to writing, ideas for books swirl in my brain constantly. I don’t actually consider myself an “idea” guy. I don’t just come up with crazy shit out of nowhere. I’m not a Sanderson type, pulling magic systems out of my ass every Tuesday. But I do have ideas and future projects that I’m going to write because I feel that I have a story to tell that will help me explore or express part of myself, or will help me understand humanity, reality, etc.

So here they are, the things I’d like to write over the next decade or so. I’m sure there will be more as well, but these are the ones that have stuck with me for a long while. If I’ve published a blog post similar to this in the past but have since forgotten, deal with it. I have to put up with my awful memory, and now you do too.

  1. Ire Trilogy – This one’s pretty obvious, as I’ve already signed a contract with Tor (yay!). It’s well underway: book 1 is almost to final revision (ish), and book 2 is underway (7,000 or so words in). Tor will be releasing it (tentative schedule) beginning in 2020, and I’m pumped. Ire is many things, but above all, it’s the classic fantasy story I’ve always wanted to read, but never quite got from existing works, no matter how wonderful.
    A morally agnostic guy is trying to figure out his place in the world, fighting for his brother and the people he cares about. Inspection of religions and differences stemming from a complex reality/history is also a major theme, as it has been a major theme in my life for the past decade and longer.
    The best part of this series is that if you all like it as much as I do, the world is big enough (yes, my “fictitious” world) and history rich enough for many, many more stories here.
  2. WWII Historical Fiction/Fantasy – This is something near and dear to me. My maternal grandfather, David Elder Lofgren, was/is a very important part of my life, and was a large part of my childhood. I grew up incessantly asking him for stories from his experience in WW2, and he frequently obliged, though looking back now it’s obvious to me that he was not altogether comfortable doing so. Some of his life experiences have been captured, but I have dozens of stories engraved in my memory that may die with me (and various relatives) if not recorded. He did and saw many remarkable things, as did many brave service members, and I can’t wait to capture a somewhat fictionalized version of them.
  3. Near-Future American Apocalyptic – There are strong feelings and opinions on both sides of the Second Amendment/gun control issue, but I wonder how many on either side realize how strong the feelings are on the opposing side- and how far people will go to protect what they believe in. This is a classic case of needing to employ win-win negotiation to achieve what everyone in the debate probably wants (though there are stark differences in motivation in some cases), which is safety, peace, and prosperity. I have something pretty damn cool planned to hopefully give both sides of this potential conflict (it’s boiling pretty hot right now) perspective of common goals.
  4. Contemporary/Urban Fantasy – This will very likely be a Norse Mythology themed militaristic thriller series. I’ve actually already outlined and started the first book. I liked where it was headed (was derailed by signing a contract for IRE), and though I already think some of my outline needs to change, I think I can write this pretty quickly, and I think it will turn out really well. For as much epic fantasy as I’ve read (and written), contemporary just flows so much faster. Nuance, character details, settings are easier to nail.
  5. Thrillers – I’m not sure where this will lead me, but it’s very likely going to center around my strong belief that modern wars (and probably most/all wars) are immoral and unnecessary. Specifically, I think America’s foreign policy is criminal. And what are stories for if not to show the human truth of a distant evil?
  6. Historical Fiction – I have to believe that I’m not the only person who loves to learn about history but struggle to enjoy most “history” books, even modern popular ones written by fantastic historians. Call me whatever names you like, but there’s a reason that TV shows like Vikings and books like Gabaldon’s Outlander perform so well (besides the fact that they are very well crafted). There must be many more out there that, like me, enjoy history in the form of a compelling, emotional story, even if many parts are fictional or embellished. I know they’ve been done, but I’d love to see – and write – more quality fiction set in Revolutionary War America, America during the Civil War, Frontier/Gold Rush times, Ancient America (Mayan, Aztec, etc), and several other eras of interest.
  7. Science Fiction – I really have no concrete plans here, but I’ve accepted that my love of new worlds, exploration, and “real” technology will lead me to write (or otherwise participate in the creation of) stories in the vein of the Stargate Atlantis series, Pierce Brown, etc.

 

* About the image tied to the post: the older I get, the more I think good old Nick Miller might be wiser than people give him credit for. Consider this your PSA to watch New Girl if you haven’t already. And shame on you if you don’t share my tastes and absolutely love it.

**I realized the pic didn’t show well in the header so here it is in all it’s glory:

Nick Stories Gif