I am lucky to coach some very talented new writers. They all come to me with an idea for a story and their main question is always the same: “Is this story any good?”
The fact is that any story can use improvement. What I offer is structure: both in the form of the story and in getting it done. I use lessons from mythology, screenwriting, psychology, and a little project management to help beginning writers create a novel in 6 months.
The Novel That Convinced Me It Was Possible
In 2005 I joined a mystery book club. We were to read a book a month and share what was great – or not so great – about the book. The first book was Lisa Jackson’s Fatal Burn. It’s not what you think. You might think that I was so bowled over that I was inspired to reach the same literary heights as Ms. Jackson. After all, this was a New York Times Best Selling title – so it must be good, right?
My epiphany came when I read the climactic scene where the heroine realizes that it was her father – the local fire chief – who was responsible for the rash of fires in her town. It was his dark secret revealed when she listed her and her siblings in birth order: Aaron, Robert, Shea, Oliver, Neville, and Shannon. If you take the first letter of each name it spells “ARSONS.”
Clearly this is the most ridiculous plot point in the history of fiction. What if the mother had died in childbirth after three children? That would spell “ARS.” What if the mother wanted more children and named the last two Isaac and Charles? That would be the height of irony: an arsonist with children’s names (mis)spelling “ARSONIC.”
That was the moment I realized that I, or in fact anyone, could write a novel and sell it on the open market. If you have even a basic competency to write prose, you can write a best selling novel – because the bar is set so incredibly low.
Even Pulitzer Prize Winners Write Crap
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. It weighs in at over 750 pages and tells the story of a young man’s life from age 12 (when his mother is killed) to nearly 30. When Theo loses his mother to a terrorist bomb in a museum, he steals a precious painting of a goldfinch and keeps it hidden for nearly 20 years.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but of course these are my opinions. One man’s crap is another man’s fine dining. But I have objective reasons for claiming The Goldfinch is crap. First of all it’s unnecessarily long. If ever a work could be accused of purple prose, The Goldfinch is a leading contender. The story lingers far too long on scenes that ultimately have no purpose in the story.
But the final straw for me was the climactic ending. Our hero is despondent over the loss of his painting and is holed up in a hotel room. He becomes so miserable that he contemplates suicide – which is a difficult thing to write in a FIRST PERSON NARRATIVE. How in the world do you write anything after the gun goes off if the main character is dead? Worse than that, if the story is told in the first person, past tense, then how in the world is he relating the story to you after having killed himself? As a ghost? So you KNOW he is not going to kill himself.
Finally, though, just as the hero is about to pull the trigger, his friend barges in and EXPLAINS the climax of the story. That is: “while I was gone, I returned the painting to the authorities, all the bad guys who are out to kill us are in jail, and we got a big reward.” In other words, all the action happens OFF PAGE to a SECONDARY CHARACTER while the hero was WALLOWING IN SELF-PITY. If I thought Fatal Burn had the worst plot point in history, then this is the single worst ending ever – and it won the highest literary praise on the planet.
In any story with a main character: the hero provides the climactic action. You must SHOW not TELL the action. These are two of the primary rules of storytelling.
Who Needs a Hero?
I am coaching a young man writing a dystopian zombie young adult novel. My advice is to create a main character the reader can follow from beginning to the end and give him an inner problem to solve. Think about Divergent, The Hunger Games, or The Maze Runner. But he balked. He read Charlie Higson’s The Enemy in which the main character is killed off at the midpoint and a new character takes up the role of the hero.
This is heresy of the highest order. You don’t kill your main character in the middle of the action. Of course there are well-known stories where important characters are killed off (I’m looking at you Game of Thrones). But even in ensembles there are lead characters you want to follow through to the end. Yet The Enemy breaks this rule and still is #90 in its category on Amazon.com.
Know Your Audience
How can these books make such obvious mistakes and still attract a readership? What is it these authors know that the rest of us don’t?
It’s simpler than it seems: these authors reached their audience. Such books as E.L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight are, by most measures, terrible pieces of literature. And yet they are blockbusters. All of these writers have found what readers are looking for. Jackson knows her readers don’t need logical plot lines as long as she provides enough suspense and action. Tartt focused on style rather than plot and appealed to readers who like deep characters and deep descriptions. Higson knows his readers relate to first-person shoot-em-up zombie video games – so he gave them that in print.
What is Success?
There are rules to good storytelling. Some people bristle when I use the word “rules.” (Others prefer “guidelines.”) But I think we should all learn the rules of good storytelling, practice them, master them, then learn to break them.
At Agile Writers, the very first thing we do before writing our books is write a Story Abstract. In it, we choose our genre, reader’s age, gender, and educational level. Simply put, we define our audience. We begin our writing journey by thinking about who is going to read our book. We put our reader first.
Success, then, is not necessarily measured in book sales, high praise, or adherence to the rules. But in reaching your audience. If your audience is 100,000 people and you sell 100,000 books you’ll be successful. But if your audience is only 100 readers and you reach them – then you’ve succeeded. And the best way to reach your audience is to first know who they are.
So remember, the bar for so-called quality is set very low. You don’t need the best story idea, plot points, or even literary prowess. What you need is a passion for your story, a well-defined audience, and a plan to complete. You bring the passion, we’ll bring the plan.