Thursday, March 06, 2008

Write A Good Story

It drives me a little crazy whenever I hear authors state that their job is to write the best book possible, and that's all they have to do.

The "that's all they have to do" part is what drives me crazy. In this competitive marketplace, the more the author can do to promote the book, the more books they will sell. Period. You can argue with that, but you'd be an idiot to try.

But the "write the best book possible" is something I agree with 100%.

Of course, the concept of "good" is a subjective one. One person might like something, the other may hate it. The author has little control over that. But the author does have the power to understand the genre they're writing in, and the ability to deliver on reader expectations according to some standardized storytelling mechanics.

If you write recognizable, conventional prose in a popular genre, your chances of getting published increase dramatically. I'd go so far as to say that the reason there are so many writers getting rejected isn't because they suck. It's because their work isn't focused enough to appeal to key demographics that publishers actively sell to.

Know your market, and you have a much better shot at selling your book.

This just happened yesterday to a close friend of mine. I'll name him if he allows it, but we'll call him HP.

HP labored in obscurity for years, writing a lot of unpublished stuff.

Then he wrote a damn good thriller, and landed an agent and now a great publisher. He called his shots, and hit what he called.

Congrats HP, we always knew you had it in you.

But HP's success story isn't one based on fairy tales and lottery wins. Was luck involved? Hell yeah. But craft, study, and deliberation paid a huge part.

HP immersed himself in the thriller genre. He attended the conventions. He met and befriended authors. He read extensively. He wrote hundreds of thousands of words of mediocre prose to hone his craft. He learned about the industry, and how it worked.

Then he wrote a thriller using everything he learned. He wrote. And rewrote. And edited. And rewrote. And rewrote. And edited. And rewrote. Until he had something that his peers generally agreed was publishable ("good" being subjective, but I certainly thought it was good.)

In short, he demystified the publishing process, and found his place within it.

But it doesn't end there for HP. Getting a publisher is just the beginning. His "good story" will hopefully be embraced by the unwashed masses, and they'll like it so much that they talk about it and buy copies for each other.

Agents, editors, and publishers believe they know what will sell. But they still fail all the time. Ultimately, the public determines what will sell, by buying it.

Writing a good story plays a part in that.

Sure, there's coop money, and ad campaigns, and discounting, and lots of ways for a publisher to push a book. But the book still has to be worthy of the push.

Make sure your book is worthy.

All too often, writers dwell on telling the story they want to tell.

Maybe writers should take a step back and ask themselves:

What is this story trying to do?
Who is this story for?
Will this story satisfy the intended reader?

Because a "good" book is ultimately the one that fulfills reader requirements. That reader could be an agent, an editor, or a single mother in Scranton, PA. They all have criteria.

Learn what those criteria are.

Promotion is about getting people to try you.

But once they try you, telling a good story is what makes that person a fan.

16 comments:

Sandra Ruttan said...

And what drives me crazy is people who think shoving their work down your throat is the way to win you over. Authors who just assume that because I'm a reviewer I want to be spammed, I want to get their newsletter without asking for it, I want a postcard in the mail telling me they have a new book out.

And that I want them to e-mail me dozens of times (I could name names here) asking for free advertising space and for me to blog about their book and to review it in the usual places plus amazon and on barnes & noble...

I could go on and on and on... I'll be the idiot who tries arguing with you on your comment: In this competitive marketplace, the more the author can do to promote the book, the more books they will sell. You need a qualifier, about effective promotion because there are a lot of authors killing their chances of review and interest by being completely pushy, self-absorbed idiots who seem to think everyone owes them.

Nobody owes you. You aren't entitled to have your book reviewed. You aren't entitled to an interview, or to be blurbed. You certainly aren't entitled to a positive review.

People who are nothing more than walking adverts for their book? I would rather cross six lanes of traffic on foot in the middle of the road than deal with them, and over time there are some authors who've been so pushy with their tactics I will not review them, end of discussion. They've been so harassing with their e-mails I've finally set them on the junk filter, so I don't even read what they have to say.

And I don't care if people don't like me saying that. Dozens of people have books out every day. Courtesy and professionalism instead of badgering and harassment still count for a lot in this business.

It isn't about how much you do, it's about how you do it.

(Said with all due affection to you Joe, 'cos you know I love ya, so the 'you' that follows is generic and not literally you. But I am about to throttle one author who just doesn't get it, and considering it's been a pretty crappy week on the personal side, having to tell someone that sending me a dozen e-mails with various demands is not a good idea is just plain irritating. Oh, and if you are given a promotional opportunity and you take months to answer the questions and then send them in and want them up on your schedule, well... I don't work for you. I'm not your publicist. And it isn't my job to compensate for how long it took you to do the questionnaires. When you're paying me to work as your publicist, it'll be a different conversation. Until then, no, I darn well don't have any obligation to host you on my blog or interview you or anything else.)

Rob said...

That's great news about HP. I'm pretty sure I know who you're talking about and he's a Class-A Cool Dude. Meeting him at LIM was a pleasure.

Now I'm hoping you can tell the same story about RF some day. :)

JA Konrath said...

Nobody owes you.

Well said. And I agree---there are many authors who do more to hurt their cause than help it.

Of course, no one thinks they're that author, just like everyone thinks that they're a good driver and good in bed (I'm good at both at the same time BTW.)

It's not what you're selling, it's about what you're offering. And it's not about what you deserve, No one deserves anything.

Kristi Holl said...

I appreciate the book reviewer's comments as well as the post. Finding a professional balance is the key (for many reasons.)

booklady said...

Great post! So many people sit back and think, "Well, if my book's any good, people will read it." And when people don't discover it and read it, then they become depressed and stop writing. I've seen the same thing in blogging. The most successful bloggers tend to be those who have been around a while and/or network by visiting others' blogs, joining blog networks, and otherwise publicizing their blogs. I can see how this would apply to publishing books, too, although I'm sure the publicity is a little different.

Therese said...

Couldn't have said it any better myself (and now I can just link your post and save myself the time of writing one of my own)!

This part especially: Of course, the concept of "good" is a subjective one. One person might like something, the other may hate it. The author has little control over that. But the author does have the power to understand the genre they're writing in, and the ability to deliver on reader expectations according to some standardized storytelling mechanics.

It's what I did, and what I recommend. Good writing alone is never enough.

Jude Hardin said...

I'd go so far as to say that the reason there are so many writers getting rejected isn't because they suck. It's because their work isn't focused enough to appeal to key demographics that publishers actively sell to.

I'm not sure I understand this, Joe. Doesn't everyone read mysteries and thrillers?

:)

Mary Duncan said...

I, too, believe the promoting of your work effectively is the key, especially when you write from the heart and not what is hot selling at the moment.

Cross-genre works are often very interesting, and hell, paranormal romance had to start somewhere, right? But agents and publishers tend to shy away big time when you state in your query letters that you have a paranormal historical fiction adventure. I'd actually like to see the look on an agent's face when she reads my query letter. Only for the brave, I say!

And Joe, you're good in bed while driving? A pretty picture it makes indeed!

therese said...

Thanks JA for your post on Tess Gerritson's blog about publishers creating a marketing niche - because that’s what I’m facing.

Jim said...

Good advice, as always.

Billy said...

Yes, yes, yes. It's the basics that people mess up on. Is the story well written? Is it good? Does it have a market? People can't be reminded of these basics enough. Thanks!

PJ Parrish said...

I'd go so far as to say that the reason there are so many writers getting rejected isn't because they suck. It's because their work isn't focused enough to appeal to key demographics that publishers actively sell to.

Can't say I disagree with this. But I think it goes deeper than the fact a book might not appeal to key demographics. I think it has more to do with what "Billy" suggests: that, in genre fiction at least, if you don't tell a compelling STORY no amount of great writing is going to save you.

rayannecarr said...

Thank you so much for this post - it echoes and expands on a lot of my own thoughts and aspirations on how to hone my work so that it truly does meet the expectations of the 'reader'- who at first pass will be the gatekeepers.
I come from a business background. I wonder if that makes a difference in how I view the publishing industry - as a business?
Half a million words in, and I am still learning, with a long way still to go.
Thanks and regards.

Anonymous said...

I read this entry a couple weeks ago and have felt unsettled ever since. Then the other day it hit me that there's no way in hell that I can do all the things HP did. I don't have the time or the guts or the drive. That's when I realized that I'm never going to publish anything. And you know, I don't mind. I spend way too much time on it and it's such a solitary pursuit that I'm becoming anti-social. Instead of typing my weekends away, now I can actually do stuff.

I started writing a few years ago because I had read so many crappy books that I figured a) it couldn't be that hard and b) I'd finally have a good story to keep me entertained. I took a couple of online workshops and got generally good feedback. Encouragement is a dangerous thing.

But the thing is, if you have to write what the market wants in order to get published, and the market wants something I don't like, then it kinda defeats my purpose.

But how do I break the habit of observing, and noting conversations and obscure facts, and testing dialog in the shower?

Thanks - Janet

Anonymous said...

By the way, JA, I just read Whiskey Sour and really liked it.

Janet

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