What Makes a Good Story Great?

While in the midst of creating a new novel, I recently found myself struggling with the purpose of my story. Was I writing it to educate readers, to entertain them, or to transport them to another place during a difficult time in our lives? Perhaps, in a strange way, I was attempting to do all three without even being aware of it–without concentrating on the basic steps required for good storytelling. And what, say you, was the final result? A longer writing and editing process that no author wants to endure.

So, what’s the fastest way to create a memorable, page-turning story? Here is my simple answer. Years ago, while researching the secret to successful writing, I came to the conclusion that the key ingredient to creating great stories is constant practice. While I maintain this habit on a regular basis, I’ve come to the conclusion that the nature and unanticipated behavior of my characters often dictates the eventual outcome of their stories in any given situation. To further clarify, I have absolutely no control over my endings while I’m writing them. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be entertaining or well written.

As readers, we seem to be satisfied when stories achieve certain effects, such as moving us emotionally, inspiring us, and encouraging us to think outside the box. With the advent and explosion of self-published books, there are now virtually millions of books of all genres on the market. So, as a writer, how is it possible to make your book stand out or be different? How do you keep readers coming back time and again, searching for your latest novel or upcoming release. Well, after reviewing stacks of notes from RWA workshops and various writing conferences, I believe I’ve discovered some great suggestions for turning a good story into an unforgettable, compelling one.

Are you ready??

#1) Make the dramatic content of your story strong. Example: ‘The neighbor’s bacon and eggs breakfast’ is not a story idea that is going to have readers clawing for a copy of your book. It is also highly unlikely that this subject matter would sustain an entire novel. But if the bacon is made from human flesh, the story scenario has greater dramatic potential as demonstrated by Thomas Harris’ popular Hannibal novels. Once you’ve discovered the resulting actions and the eventual outcome that develops out of your primary story scenario, you have a real, compelling story idea.

What are the key elements of a great, dramatic story?
Conflict, Tension, Surprise, Extraordinary Characters, Flawed Behavior, Controversy, Mystery and, of course, Suspense. The list is commonly known, however, building a story with these components can be challenging when your goal is to create an intriguing, page-turning bestseller. 

#2. How do I keep a reader’s attention? Try varying your prose’s rhythm and structure. Writing instructors often advise creative writing classes to write smart, punchier sentences. Short sentences are great for increasing pace and for helping to make scenes more exciting. Yet this could become monotonous for both the writer and reader, if a whole book is written this way. Changing the length of a sentence adds interest and can intensify drama, especially in a narrative story. 

Something as simple as this can be intriguing. ‘He waited all day. It was cold and growing dark by the minute. Would anyone come?’

Exploring the rhythm of your writing consciously can help you write better sentences. Carefully crafted, creative prose makes a book better in any genre.

#3. What about characters? It’s important to create believable, memorable characters that readers either love or hate. Why do we find some characters more memorable than others? Because they have something that makes them stand out. It might be a unique voice, a persona or expression, a goal or motivation, their distinctive appearance or behavior, a flaw or weakness or perhaps a hidden strength.

Authors such as Charles Dickens is famous for creating larger-than-life, memorable characters. So what does each character in your book crave or long to accomplish? Why do they desire this and what do they have to do in order to gain it?

#4. Each part of a story needs to be effective in order to make it great. The best openings create fascinating introductions to the authors’ setting, characters and plot scenarios. Often times, the middle of a story sags or lacks plot movement. But a brilliant middle, might introduce new characters who help or hinder your primary character. This is good place to add subplots that supplement your main story arc, to reveal why your characters have certain goals, to indicate what’s at stake or to reveal the effect outside pressures are causing that hinders your main character’s success.

#5. Most important of all, make every line of dialogue count. When characters speak, we gain a sense of their personalities, viewpoints, vulnerabilities, quirks, and attitude about any given subject. Having two or more characters sit at a table talking rarely moves the story forward unless the conversation has a purpose such as deepening or developing connections between them. In a great story, characters get to the point as quickly and realistically as possible. There are very few pleasantries and even fewer filler words because dialogue serves the plot, while holding onto the reader’s attention.

#6. Who is the unseen and most influential character in a story? Believe it or not, it’s the immersive setting. It’s not just a house with shape and color. It’s about details–about a place with personality. Is it old and dank, shutting out the light of the world, or is it light, charming and elegant? Besides giving a setting personality, it’s important to make it fascinating, inviting, challenging or just plain frightening.

Also, keep in mind that old neighborhoods change with passing years. Characters might feel different about a place from their childhood. You know…lack a personal connection they thought they would have after revisiting it. If you write about a real, historical or contemporary place in particular, you need to know the landmarks, the demographics, the underprivileged areas and the rich ones. Do the required research to understand what it is celebrated or nefarious for, as readers will recognize inaccuracies and will often point them out.

#7. What is the conflict in your story? When we read the word conflict, we often think of harsh words, violence or physical fights between adversaries. But there are many kinds of conflict that can be used to improve a story. Internal conflicts create tension, leaving readers wondering if the characters they’re rooting for are capable of overcoming emotional roadblocks or the hurdles in their lives. The same characters might also grapple with their environments or struggle with a natural phenomena. 

#8. How do I leave my reader wanting more? The best tip of all is to deliver a knockout ending, as it leaves a lingering impression. The final lines will either entice a reader to seek out other novels you’ve written or result in recommendations of your work to other readers. 

So what exactly goes into a great ending? The best answer is the resolution of the primary conflict. But it’s also important not to make the story’s closure so tidy that it’s predictable or a cop-out by ending the story as quickly as possible or with for a happily ever after resolution when it’s not needed. Sometimes, leaving a reader guessing is the best ending of all. Just make sure that any dramatic tension is held off until the end. This can be done by keeping your readers guessing or not revealing the identity of a villain until the very end. However, if you use a surprise plot twist, remember to keep the surprise believable and the last line as powerful and remarkable as the first line in your story.

– Kaylin McFarren, Stories that touch the soul – http://www.kaylinmcfarren.com

So…you want to find success as a self-published author?

From an obsessed writer who’s been at it for years and continues to struggle even today, I wave a hand and say good luck. Becoming a successful author, whether you’re self-published or have gone the “normal” route, is not a cost-free endeavor…and in MOST cases, it’s not a miracle that happens overnight. Even after your books are accepted and printed, advertising and basically Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 9.38.54 AMgetting the word out is a high-end, unforeseen expense. As in any success story ,  whether it’s producing a product, acting in a play, or creating a modern miracle, it’s all about being “discovered” by the right people at the right time. The biggest mistake people make when it comes to self-publishing is that they expect to just put out a book and have it magically sell. They might even hire a publicist and expect something amazing to happen. But to be perfectly honest, it just isn’t so. You have to be a dedicated, relentless self-promoter and, unfortunately, a lot people just don’t have the stomach or time for it.

What’s the secret to marketing your book successfully? Well, the first thing I advise — and I’m not alone here — is to come up with a marketing plan well before you publish your book. The plan should have at least five avenues for you to pursue because chances are you’re going to strike out on a couple of lines of attack. It’s easy to get discouraged, so you have to be ready to move on to plan c, d, and e (and the rest of the alphabet) pretty quickly.

These days there’s a lot of talk about a “blog strategy,” and many well-known authors do virtual book tours where they offer up interviews to various blogs. You probably won’t have that luxury, but you can certainly research what blogs might be interested in your book and prepare pitches for them. There are social media campaigns to wage, local media angles to pursue, organizations to approach, and all kinds of out-of-the-box gambits you can dream up. None of this will cost you a whole lot — except time and perhaps a little pride.

Then there’s the stuff you pay for. And it’s tricky to judge what’s a good investment and what’s not because the results vary so much from book to book. A friend of mine who has a “real” book from a traditional publisher experimented with placing $1,000 in Facebook ads. She’s still trying to figure out what impact the ads had, but Facebook does have some interesting marketing opportunities.

Google AdWords/Keywords is another popular option. And a number of self-serve ad networks are popping up, including Blogards Book Hive, which allows you to target a number of smaller book blogs for relatively affordable rates.

The author MJ Rose has a marketing service called AuthorBuzz that caters to both self-publishers and traditional publishers. She says the best thing for self-publishers is a blog ad campaign–it starts at about $1,500 for a week of ads (the design work is included) and heads up in increments of $500. She says: “We place the ads in subject-related blogs, not book blogs. For instance, if it’s a mystery about an antiques dealer, we don’t just buy blogs for self-identified readers — who are not the bulk of book buyers — but rather I’ll find a half dozen blogs about antiques, culture, art and investments and buy the ads there and track them.” Rose claims she can get your book in front of at least a half a million people with that initial investment. She also says that you can’t really spend too much, you can just spend poorly.

I agree. However, I can’t tell you what impact a week or month of ads on blogs will have on your specific book’s sales. There are simply too many variables.

And something else to consider when it comes to self-promotion is the fact that there’s a fine line between being assertive and being overly aggressive in an obnoxious way. It also doesn’t impress people when all you tweet about is your book (the same goes for your Facebook and Google+ posts). As one friend told me, the state you want to achieve is what she likes to call “comfortably tenacious.”

Next, you may have always wanted to see your book in a bookstore but bookstores aren’t keen on carrying self-published books and it’s extremely difficult to get good placement in the store for your book so chances are no one will see the three copies the store has on hand anyway. Furthermore, your royalty drops on in-store sales. Some of the self-publishing outfits offer distribution through Ingram. CreateSpace offers its Expanded Distribution program for a $25 a year fee. It uses Baker & Taylor, as well as Ingram, as well as CreateSpace Direct to make your book available “to certified resellers through our wholesale website.” You also get distribution to Amazon Europe (Amazon.co.ukAmazon.esAmazon.frAmazon.itAmazon.de).which is definitely a plus…if your book is seen.

Thirdly, it’s very hard to get your self-published book reviewed — and the mantra in the traditional publishing world is that reviews sell books. But that’s changing a bit. People didn’t take bloggers seriously at first and now they do. And what’s interesting is that reputable book reviewers such as Kirkus and more recently Publishers Weekly are offering special reviews services geared toward self-published authors. In the case of Kirkus Indie, the author pays a fee to have the book reviewed (around $400 – $550, depending on the speed) and a freelancer writes an objective opinion in the same format as a standard Kirkus review. However, be prepared! There’s no guarantee that the reviewer will like your book and you might have just spent a small fortune on one of the cruelest critiques of your life.

As for Publishers Weekly, it offers something called PW Select. While you can submit your book for review for a fee of $149, only about 25 percent of the book submissions end up being reviewed. But for a lot of folks risking that $149 is worth the opportunity of getting into the PW door. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the review isn’t favorable as well.

Another option is BlueInk Review, a fee-based review service targeted at indie authors. Most of the time, the results are honest and kind, and the positive aspects of your book are duly noted, making it possible to share your accomplishments on all your social sites.

Finally, in my opinion, the biggest problem with going the POD route is that it costs more to produce one-offs of your book than it does to produce thousands. To get a rough idea of how much money you can make selling your book, you can check out CreateSpace’s royalty calculator. Today, setting the price at $14.99 means that it costs about $3.70 to produce each book. If you have a longer book, you’ll have to set the price even higher to make any money at all.

Overall, compared with what traditional publishers pay out, royalty rates for self-published books are actually quite decent. But the fact is, to compete against top-selling titles from traditional publishers, your book should be priced between $8.99 or $9.99, and that’s simply not possible if it’s longer than 250 pages.

Many of the self-publishing operations have their own online marketplaces where you can offer up your book and get a significantly better royalty rate. Lulu.com, for instance, touts its own online store, which is well designed and has a big audience. But you obviously have access to a much larger audience on Amazon, which is the first place people generally go to look for a book when they hear about it.

The trick, of course, is making people aware your book even exists. This is where hustling takes over. You become a virtual marketing machine by joining book clubs and exchange groups, producing book trailers, offering giveaways and contest goodies…whatever it takes to get your book into a reader’s hands and that all powerful review on Amazon.

Yes…self-publishing is a rapidly evolving industry with lots of competitors and each of them are constantly throwing out new information. Publishers are continually upgrading their facilities, infrastructure, and pricing, and what I — or other authors say today — could be wrong in just a few months from now. A few years ago, Amazon was only offering 35 percent royalties on e-books. Now it’s at 70 percent for books priced at $2.99 and higher. So there’s no telling what next year will bring.