Sunday, 24 August 2014

How to Make Readers Care About Your Story

It’s an age-old question. How do you make your readers care about your story?
It’s the ultimate goal for writers, to make their readers care enough about the story and characters, because that is what makes them read your book and continue reading right until the end.
There isn’t a straight forward answer for this one simply because there is so much involved in the process and lots for a writer to consider.
It’s not really about the story, per se, because the story can be about anything, and so it becomes a secondary thing, but it’s how the writer uses the characters within the story that makes us care about what happens and therefore it makes us care about the overall story. We want the characters to reach their goal, we want them to win the day, we want them to succeed, and that’s because we care about what happens to them.
How do we care?
Firstly, you should write the story for the reader, not yourself. This is vitally important. It is not your story. So many writers still write with the attitude of ‘why should I care about what the readers think?’
They should care, because the story belongs to your main character, and ultimately, to your reader. If you write without the reader in mind, you will fail to engage them and your story will fail. You are writing for them.
So what else can writers do to make readers care?
Writers need to create something known as immediacy, right from the opening chapter, in order to persuade the reader to invest emotionally with the story, so jumping straight into a life changing moment for the main character, or creating a terrible dilemma to introduce the basis of the story always works well.
Immediacy is what connects the story and characters to the reader. In other words, readers want a main character they can sympathise with, feel emotion towards; ordinary people who are thrust into extraordinary situations. They are not special; they are just like you and me.
But the difference lies in the journey they take, the overall story, and what happens to them. And to achieve that we have conflict.  All writers should understand the fundamental principle of conflict and how it works.
Characters + conflict = tension and drama.
Without conflict, there is no tension or drama or action. That means there is no story to tell. And readers love drama.
Conflict creates all sorts of tensions and atmosphere, it creates dramatic situations and that means the reader will want to know what happens to the main character, so conflict in the form of an antagonist and plenty of dilemmas help to draw emotion from your reader, it makes them sympathise and empathise with the character’s struggles. They become emotionally attached to your characters. And that means they care.
The other thing to consider is: what is at stake for the main character?  What will they lose? How would it affect them and the story? Will the protagonist lose someone they love? Will they lose a fortune? Will they lose their house? Their job?
The higher the stakes, the more chance your reader will care about what happens and these issues will lure the reader into the story because they will read on to see what happens. They have to know what happens.
How will your characters overcome such high stakes? Will they compromise, will they sacrifice something, will they do something momentous? Will they change as a person?
Think about it – we all have something to lose. So should your characters. And that’s what makes us care – because the characters, too, care about what happens.
Another important thing that makes the reader care about the story is the characters you create. They have to be likeable, almost real, people. As already mentioned, they should be people we can connect with because they are ordinary; they have faults and flaws, and they make mistakes, just like us, but they have been forced into a situation and how they tackle it and overcome it becomes theirs and our story.
A hero doesn’t have to be heroic to make the reader like them. They are human, and that makes them vulnerable. Such vulnerabilities make us connect to the character. What those vulnerabilities are is down to you as a writer.
One thing to remember: characters should never be perfect, because people in real life are not. There is no such thing as perfect.
Lastly, relatable themes help make the reader care, too. And that’s because readers face the same things in real life. We can relate to love or hate. We can relate to forgiveness, or lack of it. We can relate to death and life. We can relate to pain and loss. We can relate to justice and retribution. All these themes have touched the lives of pretty much everyone in some way or another, so the themes in your novel will help the reader connect to the story.
With all these aspects in place, you should have no problem is making the reader will care about your character’s story.
To summarise:

  • The story is for the reader, not the writer.
  • Create immediacy – connect with the reader.
  • Create conflict = tension and drama.
  • Make sure there are high stakes for your main character.
  • Create believable, likeable characters, people we can relate to, people who are not perfect, but people who have their own vulnerabilities.
  • Relatable themes help your reader connect with the story.

In essence, why should the reader care about your story? Because they’re the ones who will read in and enjoy it and come back for more, time after time.

Next week: How many characters in a story is too many?

Saturday, 16 August 2014

What Makes a Bad Writer?

We’ve all been bad writers at some point.  Being a bad writer is all part of the ritual of becoming a good writer. Everyone starts out a bad writer and becomes a good writer over time. (Good writers will also know that good writing isn’t formed instantly – it takes years of practice).
But how can you tell a bad writer from a good one? How do you know if you are a bad writer?
The main difference with good writers and bad writers is that good writers are always learning, always developing and are always open to feedback. Good writers know their limitations and their skill levels, and they’re always striving to become better; the best they can be.
Bad writers, however, are a different beast altogether.
Bad writers have no real grasp of their limitations, they presume to know everything there is to know about writing, without the experience to back it up. But even if they have three self-published books on Amazon, it doesn’t make them an expert on fiction writing. It just means they have a long way to go, because being a good writer can take years, even decades to achieve.
Only bad writers assume they have a superior level of writing excellence. Good writers never assume it, they earn it.
Also, bad writers don’t understand the concept of constantly editing and rewriting and the need to polish to (almost) perfection, something that’s required before it enters the public domain.  Most simply don’t have the patience for such things.
Good writers, on the other hand, will read through and edit their work several times to eliminate errors and plot flaws and they will have the patience to do so until the work is truly ready, until they have a quality piece of work.
Bad writers don’t need to go through all this, they’re already excellent.
This is turn leads to the arrogance factor. There is nothing more unbecoming in fiction writing that a writer who is arrogant and has an attitude to go with it. More often than not, those who are haughty and overconfident are simply not as good as they think. And more often than not, this notion is proven with what they actually write, simply because their ego has overshadowed any existing raw talent.
Good writers know that perfection is not attainable, but the next best thing is, so they always try to achieve this. At the same time they will acknowledge that no one is perfect. That’s why they are always learning, because writing is a constantly evolving process. They know that to be better writers, they have to learn and evolve. That’s how we all become not just good writers, but great writers.
A bad writer, however, will dismiss the need to learn. They already know all there is to know. They don’t realise that to be a better writer they have to learn.
Have you ever received negative feedback that made you get angry and defensive? The answer is that we all have.
What we write and how we write it won’t be liked by everyone. Good writers accept and understand this concept.  But bad writers don’t understand this at all. Negative feedback is met with even more negativity and sometimes these writers will become involved in online arguments with other writers or engage in emails with those who may have offered the negative feedback. It’s extremely unprofessional.
This leads to that other big negative for writers – the dreaded rejection. Good writers accept that they are not perfect and that rejections are a part of the writing process. They will also take on board the feedback and comments in a constructive way and they will examine where they can improve their work and develop their writing skill accordingly.
Bad writers won’t. They won’t see rejection as an opportunity to improve. They won’t see the positive in it. They will think it’s a personal attack on them and a rejection of their genius. They will become angry and defensive, even petulant, and that arrogance will just grow.
If you cannot cope with rejection or criticism of your writing, then unfortunately that makes you a bad writer.
Another thing is that bad writers don’t understand the concept of professionalism.
And that brings me to the subject of submitting work to agents and publishers. The good writers amongst us will pay vital attention to the guidelines of the publishing house or the agent’s requirements, because guidelines are there for a reason.
A bad writer will ignore these guidelines. The “nobody can tell me what I should and shouldn’t do” attitude won’t wash with potential publishers. If you can’t be bothered to follow instructions, then don’t bother being a writer.
Lastly, the new phenomenon of shameless self-promotion has become a nuisance. The pester power of self-published writers isn’t endearing, it’s annoying. And the “look at me and my fantastic novel” constant promotion on every available medium won’t win readers.
Good writers promote, but they also engage with potential readers, they ask questions, they answer questions, they have open discussions about their writing, they use the likes of Twitter or Facebook, Goodreads or writing forums to network and socialise and generate interest in a productive way.
What they don’t do is selfishly spam the hell out of everyone. And that’s precisely what a bad writer will do. Bad writers are not bothered about networking or socialising or engaging in discussions about their writing or indeed any constructive feedback. They just want the sales.
Ultimately, a bad writer is one that doesn’t listen and therefore never learns. So, are you one of them?
Next week: How to make your readers care about your story.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Self-publish or Traditional?

There has been a lot of debate recently about whether an author should go down the traditional publishing route or whether to self-publish through the likes of Amazon or Create Space.
Whatever the author decides, these two prospects offer different pros and cons. There is a certain element of the quality of writing and prestige with traditionally published books that is not yet present with self-published books, so many authors still pursue traditional publishing, despite the lure of becoming self-published.
Traditional Publishing
Despite what the naysayers might think, traditional publishing is still very strong and it is still important to writers.
Finding an agent is usually the starting block for most writers wishing to look for the traditional published path. Others submit their work to publishers direct, whether large publishing houses or small indie publishers.
It can be a long, drawn out process to get on that publishing ladder, so any writer who wants to pursue traditional publishing must be patient, determined and should grow a very thick skin.
  • Traditional publishing offers prestige and a certain amount of quality.
  • There is a wider distribution of saleable books and therefore an expectation of more exposure or publicity
  • Many publishers offer an advance; the amount varies depending on how well they think your book will sell.
  • They edit the book, polish it and provide the cover artwork for it.
  • The author may be expected to participate in a few marketing drives, much of the marketing is provided by the publisher because they have the advertising power.
  • It could help you to become a well known author.
  • It’s extremely hard to break into
  • It takes anything between 12 months to 18 months for the work to be published.
  • They have a lot of power over the way your book should be presented, especially with cover design.
  • They may make some changes to your work, including changing the title.
  • If you have an agent, you have to pay Agents fees.
  • You may end up with fewer royalties than you expected.
  • Many first time authors make very little money.
  • Publishers rarely make money on first time authors, and so only produce short print runs because of the cost of making and printing the books.
Self-publishing can make an author of anyone. And that is not necessarily a good thing.

This platform allows anyone to write something and publish it, regardless of experience or knowledge. For many writers who have struggles for years, it is very alluring, because finally they have something tangible, they can publish their work and call themselves an author.
The drawback, of course, is that the emphasis is on the word ‘everyone’. And unfortunately, not every ‘author’ can actually write to a standard that would be considered acceptable in the traditional sense. The quality, at present, is extremely dire because authors just haven’t taken the time to learn about creative writing and all that it entails.
Writers must have a detailed knowledge of the craft – how to structure sentences, how to deliver dialogue properly, how to use the correct grammar and syntax, how to balance narrative and description with dialogue, how to weave subplots and themes, how to manage a plot from start to finish, how to characterise. And those are just the basics. Most self-published authors don’t understand more complex concepts such as foreshadowing, symbolism, metaphor, layering, flashback, correct exposition, tenses and POV.
Most importantly they haven’t learned how to even edit their own book to a publishable standard. Any self-respecting author who is supposed to be ‘good’ at writing should be capable of this.
This is why over 80% of self-published books are written so badly by people who don’t know how to write and don’t understand the basics.

  • Self-publishing means that anyone can do it.
  • Because it is digital, there are no costs involved in the actual publishing of an e-book.
  • Authors have complete control of the creative process.
  • Authors control what price to charge.
  • Authors can decide what cover art they would like.
  • Publication is almost instant.
  • It makes it easy for authors to go back and apply changes to their books.
  • It offers larger royalty rates (but only if the books sell in the first place).

  • Because anyone can self-publish, the potential to flood the market with poorly written rubbish increases and thereby damages the reputation of publishing in general.
  • The numbers of self-published ‘authors’ is increasing daily, meaning the self-publishing market is already saturated.
  • Any artwork or professional editing comes at a cost, provided by cover artists and editors.
  • Not all ‘editors’ are experienced in editing, and because they want your money, they will not necessarily tell you that your book is rubbish.
  • Few authors make a living from it. The returns are minimal.
  • Authors have to do all their own marketing and publicity. It requires a constant push and takes up a lot of an author’s time.
  • It’s extremely hard to get books into bookstores, and even if you did, don’t expect wonderful sales.
As with most things in life, there are pros and cons. Whether an author wants to go down the self-publishing route or the traditional route, each one should be judged on its own merits, but it is worth remembering that A) people do not turn into writers overnight and B) not everyone can write.
If you are determined to self-publish, then make sure that you have written something of substantial quality, that you understand the fundamental basics of creative writing, you’ve spent a few years at the craft and have a basic grasp of the complexities involved in creating a novel.
If you don’t, you’ll be one of the countless ‘authors’ churning out unreadable garbage.
If you want to go for traditional publishing, then make sure you’ve written the best, well edited, polished piece of fiction possible, otherwise you may find the going very long and arduous.

Next week: What makes a bad writer?

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Subplots

I’ve touched on the subject of plots in the past, but lots of people have emailed asking to know more about them, so here’s everything you need to know about them:
What are they?
The first thing to know is that they’re not the enemy. The subplot is a secondary plot (think of it as a mini-plot) to the main story, an additional story strand that also runs parallel to the main story, or is interwoven with the narrative.
Subplots must always connect and relate to the main story. They play a supporting role to the main story. It’s no use having a subplot about characters that only briefly appear in your novel, because they won’t have been in the novel long enough for the reader to care about them. The same is true if you have a subplot about something that has absolutely nothing whatever to do with the story. It won’t make sense to the reader, and it won’t make sense to the story as a whole.
Why do they happen?
Subplots happen because of the main story, not because it might be a good idea to add in something that is totally unrelated, or you need to fill the story with extra unwanted padding. They should arise logically and organically from the main story, so try not to force them; otherwise you’ll end up with something that is contrived.
Sometimes they emerge naturally during writing, which could be anything from the situations the characters get into, the backstory, the characters, a flashback or even the theme(s).
Sometimes we know before we start the novel that there may be one or two subplots, we may have some ideas what they are.
What’s their purpose?
Subplots have many functions. Primarily they are there to maintain the reader’s interest and to also move the story forward by revealing either new characters or new information which is pertinent to the story. 
They may be used to add additional obstacles and problems for the main character – the subplots generally involves extra stuff the protagonist has to see to and yet still be able to reach his or her goal by the end of the novel.
They also help with characterisation, allowing the reader to see the main character in a different way, with relationships and situations etc.
Another thing to consider with subplots is that they layer and help bring numerous elements together, collectively woven into the fabric of the main story. They enrich a novel with context and complexity.
Doing this will mean that the reader will then became part of the deepening story through because they are privy to new parallel storylines, whereas your main character may not. This can add suspense and tension.
Another reason writers use subplots is to allow the reader a break from the main thrust of the story, so they can breathe and reflect on what’s happened so far before returning back to the main thread.
Do I have to have one?
No, you don’t have to. There are no rules that say you need one, but it just helps the story overall if you do have one or two. They do enrich the story.
How many can I have?
Some stories have just one subplot others have two or three. Clever and complex novels may have up to five subplots. Again, there are no rules, just common sense.
Writers must realise that the more subplots they incorporate, however, the more complex the whole story gets and the more headaches it will cause trying to keep them from wildly unravelling into a big mess.
One to three subplots is more than adequate.
What Subplots should never do

  • They should never be forced, never throw something into the story because you think the story “needs” it.
  • They should never overwhelm or take over from the main story
  • They should never lead away from the main plot and become lost in a sea of complexity
  • They should never include stuff that has nothing to do with the main story
  • They should never be about peripheral or ‘walk on’ characters that make no impact on the story arc.
  • They should never be stand-alone stories – they have to have a connection to the main story.
  • They should never be used as padding to fill your story out. If they don’t have purpose, don’t use them.

Remember to resolve all subplots
The most important thing you need to do with any subplot is to resolve it by the end of the novel, otherwise you will leave your reader wondering what happened to the questions that the subplot posed by being there in the first place.
There is nothing worse than following a subplot and not knowing what happens at the end!
Make sure that you tie up those loose ends.
To summarise:

  • Subplots must connect to the main story.
  • Subplots must happen for a reason and make sense together with the main story.
  • Subplots should move the story forward. They should enrich, support and deepen the overall story.
  • Subplots should reveal information about the main story, the situation or characters, which readers should become privy.
  • Subplots should keep your reader interested.
  • Subplots must always be resolved.
  • There should ideally be no more than 2 - 3 subplots

Some people view subplots as difficult, others see them as a chore, when they're neither of these things. A subplot adds to the enjoyment of the story, the reader can become immersed in all the different threads you create, they will appreciate there is more to the story that first meets the eye.

They're not the enemy. Instead, use subplots to your advantage.

 Next week: Self-publish or traditional?