So, real talk here. I’ve been in several book writing groups and some of the advice is good, most of it is bad. This is a distillation of the advice that’s good from the advice that’s bad. So, here’s some book writing advice from someone who hasn’t written a book, take it with a grain of salt.
Story is King
First, what matters most is the story. If your story sucks, all of the beautiful grammar, flowery prose, sentence structure and composition, marketing and ad spending, won’t matter. Conversely, you can write a grammatically horrible novel and still get great sales if the story works for people.
Hence if you read this blog, you won’t find most typical advice about story writing on here. It’s not about adverb and adjectives, prose, passive vs. active, etc. Other writers care about this, in the same way that graphic designers are the only ones who care about type kerning. Readers care about story. My blog focuses on story and characters.
Most advice is bad because people focus on what instead of why
Another caveat is one made by Brandon Sanderson. Most writing advice is given by people who are cooks. You want to be a chef. Passive vs. active is my favorite example.
An active voice transfers power into the verb. That’s the purpose. An active voice is when the subject is acting upon something, rather than being acted upon. For the most part, active protagonists are better than passive protagonists. Your hero should be doing something, not the passive recipient of events going on around him or her. As readers, we want action, even if it’s just emotional action.
An active voice with a transitive verb transfers importance into the recipient of the action. “He kicked the ball.” The important things to note about that sentence are the verb, “kicked”, and what was kicked, the ball.
The difference here is that the subject of the sentence is acting, rather than being acted upon. An intransitive verb doesn’t transfer the verb, so it is the most important thing in the sentence. “He arrived.”
A passive voice transfers the importance onto the subject. “The ball was kicked.” This makes it seem like the ball is the most important thing in the sentence. The advice of “end the sentence with ‘by zombies’ is another piece of advice that also doesn’t always work. In the case of “The ball was kicked”, it does, but if you said, “The ball was kicked by Mark”, it’s still passive voice.
Hence what’s important to know as a writer is whether you want to emphasize the subject of the sentence or if you want to emphasize the verb and the object. Thus the admonishment to use “active voice” is an example of being a cook rather than a chef. There’s times where the subject is what needs to be emphasized and there’s times where the action needs to be emphasized.
Is it generally true you should use active voice? In general, yes, it’s true most people use too much passive voice. This is the result of corporate writing and non-offensive writing. For example, try to use the active voice and be polite about describing sex.
- Intransitive: “We ****ed.”
- Transitive: “I ****ed her and she ****ed me.”
That’s very impolite. Instead, we choose words that don’t assign agency. “We made love.” The magic sex fairy came into being and sprinkled sex dust on us. “Mistakes were made” not “John screwed up.” It’s the polite way to talk, hence the reason why passive voice writing is the hallmark of corporate speak, but it’s boring writing.
The key takeaway here is that your goal isn’t to learn what to do, but why you should do it.
Most writing advice is actually editing advice or personal preferences
One reason for the problem is that most people give what I call “editing advice”. Editing advice is generally easier to give than writing advice. Editing advice is rarely wrong, but also rarely that useful. Editing advice won’t turn a bad story into a good one.
Editing advice is advice like “stop repeating the main character’s name.” I.e. Mark went to the store, Mark opened the door, then Mark walked inside. Yes, it’s decent advice to not repeat the main character’s name over and over, but that really doesn’t get to the core issue: the story.
The advice that isn’t editing advice is generally personal preferences. “Your character should be based on agility and endurance, not strength and dexterity.” That’s personal preference land. Ignore it, unless you hear the same thing repeatedly.
Learning from the best can be a problem
Another problem is that learning from the best can be a problem. As with learning why something works rather than what works, here’s Albert Camus The Stranger:
Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; if she
was keen on it, we’d get married.
Then she asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question
meant nothing or next to nothing — but I supposed I didn’t.
“If that’s how you feel,” she said, “why marry me?”
I explained that it had no importance really, but, if it would give her pleasure, we
could get married right away. I pointed out that, anyhow, the suggestion came from
her; as for me, I’d merely said, “Yes.”
Then she remarked that marriage was a serious matter.
To which I answered: “No.”
She kept silent after that, staring at me in a curious way. Then she asked:
“Suppose another girl had asked you to marry her — I mean, a girl you liked in the
same way as you like me — would you have said ‘Yes’ to her, too?”
Then she said she wondered if she really loved me or not. I, of course, couldn’t
enlighten her as to that. And, after another silence, she murmured something about
my being “a queer fellow.” “And I daresay that’s why I love you,” she added. “But
maybe that’s why one day I’ll come to hate you.”
To which I had nothing to say, so I said nothing.
This is brilliant writing. The protagonist only has three lines: “Yes”, “no”, and “naturally”. He gets away with it by letting the dialogue run on into the rest of the paragraph, and uses the laconic words the protagonist uses juxtaposed against the long sentence description.
This shows hesitation and reticence on the part of the protagonist. It also shows an inability to feel emotions or understand them, and a purely sexual relationship from the standpoint of the protagonist.
However, if you’re not as capable a writer as Albert Camus, you can’t get away with that. Frank Conroy had a pyramid of meaning that I like to use as a reference.
The most important thing is at the base, it’s the building block. If we can’t understand what’s going on in a scene, then all the fancy shit doesn’t matter. Trying to learn from the best is admirable, but you can’t get to that level if you can’t tell a basic point A to point B story.
An expert is someone who has mastered the fundamentals. Make sure you’ve mastered the fundamentals before you try becoming an expert. This is another reason why writing groups have bad advice, because you have a bunch of wannabes pretending their Albert Camus when they’re really Nelson Hayes. An excerpt from Nelson Hayes’ Dildo Cay.
‘Father, I want to talk with you!’
Adrian had been watching his father walk the dike unsteadily, and suddenly he had seen himself at the age of sixty walking the dike unsteadily, and on top of his restlessness it was too much for him.
‘How strong do you think that pickle is?’ his father asked, ignoring the tone of Adrian’s voice.
It’s powerfully bad writing. Whatever he intended in the subtext here is completely lost. This is attempting the fancy shit before you can write a basic paragraph.
I’m not counting intentionally bad writing like Kitty Glitter. Dildo Cay clearly had lofty literary ambitions, Wesley Crusher: Teenage F*ck Machine does not. Microwave for One at least gave us great Amazon reviews.
Write what you care about
Next, the concept of what “Works for people” is vague, but let’s define it. The best way to make no one happy is to try to make everyone happy. Your story should hopefully appeal to you, as if you attempt to write something you’re not personally interested in, it won’t work.
I T.A.’d in English for writing screenplays. I could always tell when someone was writing a screenplay that they didn’t care about. My common question to students was, “Why do you want to tell this story?” I’d be considered a dick sometimes, (guilty) because if I felt a student wasn’t telling the story they wanted, I’d tell them to start over. From scratch.
The second result was always better than the first. Not because they followed any writing precepts, but because they told the story that they wanted to tell, making it more engaging.
Hence the writing advice about “Write about what you know.” That advice is bad to me, even though I get its purpose. “What about what you want to write” would be how I’d rephrase it. Many of the students who wrote poor first stories were writing stories that they thought would be popular rather than what they wanted to write.
The same applies for going for literary awards. If that’s what you care about, go for it. Just be aware that winning awards does not equal sales.
Character driven vs. Plot driven
Michael Crichton is an example of a plot driven writer. His work focuses on fear of the unknown. The fear of our ancient past (Jurassic Park, Eaters of the Dead, Timeline), medicine and technology (The Terminal Man, A Case of Need, Coma, Andromeda Strain, Westworld, Prey), and foreign cultures Westerners can’t understand (The Rising Sun, Eaters of the Dead).
As far as grabbing the Zeitgeist of the moment, Crighton was peerless. Each of the novels talks about a subject at the height of public interest in it. This also means some of his novels don’t age as well as others.
The characters in his novel are flat though, merely serving as vehicles to propel the story along. The subplots typically focus on a man who is having difficulties with his wife. You can get Freudian and read into that his 2003 divorce from his wife. Regardless, I can’t imagine anyone saying that any of Crichton’s characters are their favorite literary characters. I can’t even imagine anyone remembering the name of any of his characters.
Other famous plot driven writers are Steven King and John Grisham. Third Rock from the Sun did a skit about it.
First Character: Oh, I’m reading a great john grisham novel. It’s about a young southern lawyer who fights an evil corporate giant. Second Character: Hey, my grisham’s about that, too. Third Character: So is my grisham!
On the opposite end of the spectrum are writers like George R.R. Martin, who spends an enormous amount of time building up his characters, sometimes to the detriment of the novel overall, A Feast For Crows being my prime example.
Regardless, the weaker your characters are, the better the plot needs to be. The weaker the plot, the stronger the characters. If your plot and characters are weak, your book will fail.
Marketing can help sales, but it’s not a guarantee. Several writers I know have done book tour circuits, promoted their work on major cable news stations, etc. They didn’t see any sales increase from it.
That’s because book sales are largely word of mouth. If you write GameLit, there’s going to be threads where people ask “What should I read?” If your book isn’t on that list, you’re not going to get sales. Readers trust other readers, they don’t trust pundits, promotional tours, or anything else.
Your best marketing is to keep an email list. Keep track of who reads your emails, who has bought your previous work, and who is likely to keep coming back. There’s a marketing term called “Sell it by the zealot.” You want people who are enthusiastic about your work and will recommend it whenever the chance comes up.
Marketing can even backfire in certain circumstances. Marketing something incorrectly can hurt sales. Examples of this are Sweeney Todd, which is a musical that was marketed as a comedy. Observe and Report is a dark comedy that showcases how even a minor amount of power can corrupt, but it was marketed like it was Paul Blart: Mall Cop. V for Vendetta suffered a similar fate, it’s a tale of a cynical future ruled by despots, but was marketed as a new version of The Matrix.
And of course, lying in advertising can get you shunned very quickly, as Sony’s fake viral blog advertising campaign found out.
Next, learning how to write is like learning any craft. What works for you doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. Hence, taking any writer’s advice should always be done with a pound of salt. The way you learn any craft is by doing. It’s easy to get bogged down reading ten thousand blogs and videos on the craft of writing, and getting it all mixed up in your head because you’ve now absorbed ten different methods that completely contradict each other. You’re a mess.
I saw a writing symposium with two authors. One of them was a very methodical writer. He nailed his first draft, outlined meticulously, and then published. The other was a free form writer. His first drafts were terrible, he took several tries to make it work, and he didn’t outline. Who was right?
They both were. They were both doing what was right for them. You will have to experiment to find out what works for you, there’s no way around this. If something isn’t working for you, switch it up. Try to figure out why it isn’t working. If you find yourself struggling at the midpoint, you might need to outline better. If you find your plot too formulaic, you might need to freestyle write and see where that takes you.
In my case, I tend to write down my first thoughts fast and clean it up later. Since some portions of the story won’t work, I don’t want to spend time polishing them. If I get invested in the scene, I won’t want to scrap it, even if the story would be better off without it. That’s me.
Getting good beta readers is a fundamental skill. Beta readers fall into distinct categories. Ho-hummers, fetish readers, proofreaders, and story readers. Of these, the last one is invaluable. Remember, story is everything. They will point out inconsistencies, problems within the story, weird dialogue choices, etc.
Proofreaders can be helpful, but if you hire an editor, they will do most of the work for you. We’ll talk about editors in a bit.
Fetish readers are a tricky bunch, because if you’re writing what I call a fetish novel, (which I mean is a novel geared towards a very specific audience who want a very specific thing, i.e. you’re writing werebear porn), they can be helpful. Generally though, these writers are pointing out their pet peeves and personal gripes, rather than anything that will help you with the story. Get rid of them.
Finally, ho-hummers are readers who say, “That was good” or “It could be better.” They lack any specific recommendations and are only useful if you want to get some advanced reviews prior to a publishing launch. Mostly, they want free stuff. You should get rid of them except if you want to do a push on launch day.
If you want to start building your beta list of readers, try Book Brawl, Royal Road, or Wattpad. If the viewers there aren’t connecting with your story, chances are it won’t do well.
Working with editors is a bit more difficult, because there are several different types of editors. Make sure you know which one you’re dealing with.
First, any editor should be willing to do a no obligation five to ten page sample edit. Don’t send them your best stuff. Send your worst. See what their suggestions are and read the before and after out loud. It should be a miraculous transformation. If it isn’t, you’re wasting your money. If it sounds worse out loud after they’ve worked with it, run away. If they won’t do a sample edit, they’re frauds.
Even if an editor is skilled, they may not know the genre or its conventions. Try to work with an editor who has some experience in the area you’re attempting to break into.
Working with artists means you’ll have to pay real money if you want a decent cover. You might be able to find someone who is decent on Fiverr, but most likely, you’re setting yourself up for pain.
A decent artist will want lots of information from you about the character or setting he or she is drawing. What does the character look like, what’s the overall tone of the story, what’s the settings like, any photos that resemble the characters, etc.
If they don’t ask you a ton of questions like that, you won’t get good artwork. An artist needs to distill the essence of your book into a single cover, so don’t be surprised if it looks like other covers in the genre. If you want to avoid that, find books in your genre with covers you love that’s unconventional and curate a list of unconventional covers that have grabbed your eye.
You’re mostly looking for things to avoid. Avoid artists who work in the wrong art style. Someone who does cartoon style artwork is not the best person for gritty realism. Avoid artists who work in a different genre. They might be able to do your work just fine, but it’s a risky bet.
You also want to pay attention to their overall design. Some artists are good at art, but bad at font choices. Some make designs that are good, but too cluttered. If you can’t figure out what a good cover looks like, get someone whose advice you trust to pick for you.
Even ignoring the people who are wrong, or at least not giving advice that will work for you, you should also be aware that there are many scam artists in the indie writing World. There are artists that will scam you, editors that will scam you, and other harmful people all the way down the chain. Use caution.
Wrapping it up
- Story is king.
- Stories revolve around character and plot. The weaker the characters, the stronger the plot needs to be and vice versa.
- The best advice will focus on making a better plot or stronger characters.
- Most people cannot articulate why they like or do not like something. If you find someone who can do this well, cultivate a relationship with that person.
- Marketing helps, but marketing won’t make a bad story sell.
- Editing helps, but editing won’t make a bad story into a good one, unless we’re talking about serious editing like my Art of the Edit.
- A good cover helps, but a good cover won’t make a bad story sell.
- Stories revolve around character and plot. The weaker the characters, the stronger the plot needs to be and vice versa.
- Execution is king.
- You can get away with anything if the execution works.
- Knowing why a rule exists is more important than knowing what a rule is.
- Most advice is given by people who learn the rule and not the reason why the rule exists. Hence, most advice is either misguided or harmful.
- Don’t be afraid to delegate. Get the opinion of someone you trust about covers or editors if you can’t decide.