[simple_series title=”Specific Generic Advice”]
This is part of the writing series Specific Generic Advice, and you see the full list of posts above. It’s sort of like a “Selling Books” 101, but really awesome.
Possibly the most obvious words I’ve ever uttered (or “typed”), write a good book probably isn’t too helpful for you.
However, we can both agree that these words are true. If you want to succeed in a world where literally anyone can publish, anyone can be a writer, and anyone can sell books if they want, you need to have a good product.
It’s no longer the exception — it’s the rule. A “great book,” while certainly subjective, is most likely the one not full of typos and errors, plot holes and cardboard characters. Likewise, it’s probably one that’s been through a few edits (to say the least!), alpha and beta readers (and possible more Greek-letter readers…), and numerous rewrites.
It has many elements that most would agree add to the overall “good”-ness of the book, even if they don’t particularly like it.
But how do you write a “good” book?
I most definitely don’t have the “magical” formula, because:
- I’m a “baby” writer myself
- There is no magical formula, and
- This series couldn’t be called “Specific Generic Advice.”
That doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s good or bad when it comes to writing, and since this series is about advice that’s specifically generic for a reason, I’ll give you my thoughts. Here is what makes a book “good:”
A good book has a great story.
I didn’t say “good story.” I said “great story.” I’m serious — please stop writing books that have “okay” stories and “phenomenal dialogue,” or “well-researched” settings, or “true-to-life” characters.
It doesn’t matter to me. It might to your English teacher or a professional critic, but when I pick up a book I’m not in it for the squishy character development — I want a great ride. A good time. We’re talking what, at least ten or fifteen hours of my life you’re going to consume? This had better be as good as Inception or I’m out.
An idea is not a story — it’s just an idea. Even if it’s written down and fleshed out, it can only be a concept until you’ve taken some time and thrown rocks at it. Figure out why your idea wouldn’t work, and use that as a starting point for antagonistic elements. Work on the character — is it a dude who’s strapping, tall, dark, and wildly handsome? Kill him, kill him now. Don’t even write that drivel into the outline (unless, of course, you’re writing a romance — in which case yes, yes please, give us Ryan Reynolds and not Danny Devito).
A great character is — you guessed it — well-balanced (meaning he’s not a superhero who has no failings whatsoever), interested in achieving something (your main plot thread), and questionably capable at doing so (we don’t know if they’ll be able to accomplish the task at hand).
A good book is planned.
Gasp. I can hear you “pantsers” screaming your heads off, but let me finish: a good book, whether or not the writer did it before, during, or after the first or second drafts were written, planned out how their book was going to begin, move forward, and end.
If you’ve written a novel using the “pantser” method (writing “from the seat of your pants”), you’ve probably gotten to this point:
“I have no idea what to do next. Character A needs to kill/meet/fall in love with Character B, but there’s just no way to make it happen naturally…”
This point is called the “haha, you need to take a step back and plan” part. Or, at least, I like to call it that.
You need to figure out the basic story blocks and how they’ll fit together, as well as have a basic understanding of the essential Acts (hint: there are four.) in your story. From there, let creativity run its course — you don’t have to have an outline, but I’ve found that it helps immensely.
A good book is rewritten (at least once).
I wrote The Golden Crystal in about nine months. Then I rewrote it in about three. Then I rewrote that in about two. Then I moved some things around, got serious and started really studying craft, and rewrote it again.
Rewriting is sometimes painful, but it’s absolutely necessary, and well worth the effort. Spend a little time and go through my fiction writing course (it’s totally free!) and see if you can’t figure out the story blocks, how they fit together, and whether or not you’ll benefit from a rewrite.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how many times you need to rewrite, but at least do it once, even if you think your novel doesn’t need it.
A good book is edited.
Editing is another area in which many self-pubbed authors are lacking. We love to write, but editing is like saying to your little brother, “hey man — wanna mark all over this and tell me about my shortcomings and failings?”
It’s another potentially painful experience for us, especially for our pocketbooks. That’s right — it can be expensive. When I was shopping around for some editors, I was appalled at the steep price some pro editors were charging.
Until I had my novel edited. Almost immediately after receiving back the first few edited chapters, I understood clearly how and why seasoned editors charge the prices they do. As a matter of fact, I did some math and determined that most editors who are charging upwards of $5k for a full three-part edit are probably making next to $5-6 an hour. Yeah.
Anyway, the point of editing isn’t just to get another set of eyes on your work — that’s a great thing, but you can get that taken care by asking for the help of a spouse, friend, or family member. Editing is about looking at the big picture in a way only practiced editors can — seeing your story for its constituent parts and Acts, and being able to spot crappy characters and how to fix them.
They don’t just catch typos — they show you how rewording a section gets the most “bang for your buck,” and how if you move Scene A behind Sequel B you can benefit from proper rising action.
At least shop around for editing — it’s going to set you back, but the difference between a properly- and well-edited book and a poorly- or non-edited one is huge, and your reviewers and readers can tell.
A good book is stuck in a drawer for awhile.
That’s right — lock your baby in a drawer, closet, box, or hard drive somewhere and forget about it. Unless you’re in it only to chase the Great American Novel, you’re going to probably have a few more ideas in that head of yours — flesh those out now.
Start something else. Go take a walk (for like a month or two), and don’t come back to your recently “finished” book until you’ve almost forgotten the storyline.
Well, because you’re going to probably want to rewrite, edit, and fix a bunch of things — that’s normal. It turns out your book still has minor things in it that you’d rather change, or it’s just complete crap either way. No matter the case, working on something else will help you return to your previous work with a fresher set of eyes.
Don’t give us a reason to put your book down.
I recently started adhering to a rule: I don’t read anything if I’m not absolutely hooked by about the 10% mark (fiction or nonfiction). There’s just not enough time in the world, and I certainly don’t want to waste it on words that I could have written better myself.
Putting something down is tough, as reading is a really enjoyable thing for me, but this new process is working. I’m finally getting through my “To Read” pile, and I’m much more involved in the reviews and commentary I do choose to engage.
Please follow these “rules” — they’ve gotten me through a novel and a half, and everyone who’s read my work likes it. It’s far from perfect, and not everyone will enjoy it, but hey — that’s life.
What are your thoughts? Do you agree with this Specific Generic Advice, or do you hate it? Leave a comment below and tell me!