How to Craft a Compelling Story

This post is my first attempt to capture my thoughts about the essentials of storytelling. The list I’ve created needs refinement. I welcome comments, but please note that, for the sake of clarity, I’m not trying to be comprehensive. For example, I write below that your story should be sequential. Obviously, it’s possible to create a compelling story and use flashbacks.

Essential Steps for Creating a Compelling Story

1. Come up with an idea. The importance of the nature and originality of the idea is debatable. On one hand, it can help you get the book marketed and published. On the other, if you’re creating a character-driven novel, it doesn’t have nearly the importance to the story as the character does.

2. Create a character. Though your story may have multiple people floating through it, one needs to be the protagonist, and that person needs to be both relatable and the primary focus of the story.

3. The core of your idea should be a Significant Situation. Throw your character into that Significant Situation, and you have the beginnings of your story.

4. Break your idea into a series of events. Each event should be presented inside a scene. Note that a discovery writer cannot skip this step. Whereas an outliner will come up with a scene list before writing the first draft, the discovery writer typically writes the first draft and then checks that the scenes properly present the idea.

5. The sequences of scenes should:

• Follow a logical plot structure
• Follow the character from just before introduction of the Significant Situation until just after the conclusion of the Significant Situation
• Be presented in chronological order for the most part

6. Each scene should:

• Build upon the last scene. Think of building a story like presenting a case to a jury. Each scene is a bit of evidence, and you build that evidence up to reach your conclusion. Get rid of any scene that doesn’t advance the plot.
• Be interesting to the reader. Ask yourself the question, “What is the reader getting out of this scene?” Does it have enough tension, emotion, and/or humor?
• Show the event to the reader. If someone tells you about an accident on the freeway, the account isn’t going to stay with you for long or interest you all that much. If you see the accident, you’re going to remember it a whole lot longer, and it’s going to impact you a whole lot more.
• Be filtered through the POV character to give it emotional context. Events have no relevance. They’re not compelling or impactful in a vacuum. If you read a story about a guy dying in an accident, you may think that it’s a sad event, but it’s not going to impact you much. If you hear about the accident from the guy’s wife and she tells you how much his death has affected her, you’ll find the story compelling.
• Develop character. Each action, thought, and spoken word reveals something to the reader about your character. Understand what you’re revealing and let these three methods do their job. Telling the reader that your character is tall is far worse than showing him ducking under a doorway.

7. The conclusion should show a transformation in the character. For the story to be compelling, it needs to be meaningful. The best way to show the impact of the events is to show its effect on the character by showing significant personal change.

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There Are No Magic Sentences

Did you do this? When I first decided to become a writer, I’d finish reading a book that had totally engrossed me, and I’d look at the individual sentences and wonder how the author had created such magical constructs of words to transport me to another time and place. My confusion grew as I realized that each sentence was simply a combination of ordinary words put together in an ordinary manner.

As an adult and someone who has studied writing for quite some time now, I know a couple of truths:

Truth 1 – There are no magic sentences.

Words are simply there to convey the story. There’s nothing special about them or the way they’re combined. Bully for you if you happen to come up with the “perfect” sentence or a nice turn of a phrase, but, really, it’s not necessary.

Truth 2 – If your story is compelling enough, your readers are going to love it regardless of breaking “rules” or your skill with craft or anything else.

I can use the best craft imaginable to convey my story, but, if the story isn’t compelling, it won’t matter. At the same time, if the story is good enough, the reader doesn’t care about my craft.

Some of the people reading the above sentences are thinking, “Exactly. There’s no reason for me to follow the ‘rules;’ I can write however I want.” Some long-time readers of this blog are thinking, “Then why in the crap do you spend so much time on this blog emphasizing writing tips if they’re basically worthless?”

Both those sets of readers missed the biggest two-letter word in the English language — if.

Over the last year, I’ve read a lot of self published novels. During the years before that, I read a lot of traditionally published novels. Through my experience, I’ve come to one inescapable conclusion:

You are not as good at crafting a compelling story as you think you are.

There are few novels that are truly compelling, especially in comparison to the number of novels produced. Statistically speaking, it’s unlikely that your novel is compelling, and, if it’s not, you need every advantage you can get in order to produce a quality product. That’s where the “rules” come in.

A lot of people have spent a lot of time examining ways to put words together. They’ve discovered what tends to engage the reader and what tends to draw the reader out of the story. They understand that writing isn’t math — there are no absolutes — but they assembled guidelines that, in general, help an author to convey their story better.

I can hear your question, “Even given that skill at technique is needed, if story is more important, why so much focus on technique?” I’m glad you asked. There are several factors at play:

1. Writers learn basic storytelling from a lifetime of experience reading. If you’ve read and watched television and movies for a long time, you probably have a decent understanding of the fundamentals.
2. True skill and discernment at storytelling is difficult to master and doesn’t easily break down into a set of guidelines. It’s going to take you a lot of time and effort reading analytically and trying to reproduce results to master the craft. Even after you spend a lot of time at this pursuit, you’re not going to see much in the way of measureable improvement until you reach breakthroughs.
3. Technique is easy to learn. There are millions of books and posts telling you how to improve.
4. Getting better at technique leads to immediate improvement that’s easy to see.

Let me be completely honest with you. I think Power of the Mages will be a decent book. Most people who read it should come away with a positive experience. My storytelling doesn’t completely suck, and I’ve worked hard to bring my technique up to a level where it doesn’t detract from the story.

The novel, however good it will be now, is but a shadow of how good it would be if I waited another five years to publish it due to the anticipated development of my storytelling ability. Maybe I should wait. When it comes right down to it, though, I think it’s good enough to be published and good enough to start building me an audience.

If you believe the alternative is better, to build your storytelling skills first, here’s how you do it…

TO BE CONTINUED

Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of this post. Same Bat-Time. Same Bat-Channel.

Reviews at Any Cost?

Most authors who are either self published or are considering that route understand how important reviews are. The right mention in the right place can drive a lot of people to your book. Once a potential customer finds your book page, the quantity and quality of reviews influence the purchasing decision.

It’s also evident that obtaining reviews is not easy. Book blogs are inundated with requests. A low percentage of people who buy a book, or acquire it through giveaways, leave reviews.

Given the above, that reviews are both important and difficult to obtain, it’s no wonder that some authors pursue practices that other authors feel are morally and/or ethically unacceptable.

Let’s start with providing book bloggers, and other legitimate reviewers, with free copies of the book. I doubt that many of us would question this practice, but there is the point of view that you gave something of value to someone in return for a review. In reality, the “value” of the “gift” is in question. Would the reviewer have ever purchased your book anyway? And, what’s the alternative? Saying to the reviewer, “Hey, can you do me the enormous favor of trying to bring attention to my book and, oh, while you’re at it, pay for the privilege of doing so?”

At the other end of the spectrum lies the concept of fake reviews — creating fake accounts to post glowing reviews of your own book. I think most of us would consider this to be abhorrent behavior.

Where, then, is the line?

Let’s consider a generic review rather than one for Amazon or another particular site so as to avoid the issue of adherence to specific guidelines. At the core, which of the following do you agree or disagree with and why?

Review Trading – You ask an author to review your book, and, in return, you do the same for his. While both of you are planning “honest” reviews, there still exists some degree of social pressure not to trash your acquaintance.

Paying for Reviews –
• “Legitimate” sites like Kirkus that charge money for an honest review from someone who actually reads your book.
• Site where, for a small fee, you can get a great number of reviews from people who probably, at best, only skim your book. While there’s no requirement that the reviews be 5-stars, it’s understood the most of them will be.

Asking Family and Friends – Let’s be honest. Great Aunt Mable probably isn’t going to do anything other than say, “This book was great!!! 5 Stars!!!” Is that really an “honest” review? On the other hand, she bought the book. Why shouldn’t she voice her opinion?

I don’t have all the answers here, though I have opinions. I’d like to hear what you have to say on the matter, and I’ll revisit the subject with my thoughts in a future post.

Be Wary Of Those Who Tell You How to Create

I read a book about writing in which the author proceeded to detail a methodology to follow from start to finish. The author went on to contend vehemently that the method presented was the best way to create a novel.

A guy on a forum vigorously advocated that you can’t truly become a professional writer unless you learn to write scenes out of sequence.

Another guy contended that, at the very least, outlining the ending to your story is “always” helpful.

I thought it self evident that one’s creative process is a personal thing, that it’s intuitively obvious to everyone that what works best for one person does not necessarily work better for someone else.

Apparently not.

Outlining may well be advantageous to you. Writing scenes out of order might spur your craft to new levels.

It’s never a bad idea to experiment.

It is, however, the height of hubris to think that your understanding of your own process means that you have any comprehension of another’s.

I do a tiny bit of outlining, but, mostly, I’m a discovery writer. Inside me, there exists two people — Engineer Brian who is good at the details and Creative Brian who comes up with the ideas. Engineer Brian runs most of my life, and I think he does a great job. When I’m writing a story, however, and I get to that point where I have no idea what’s going to happen next, he’s worse than useless.

He tends to go into panic mode in that situation. The problem to solve doesn’t break easily into a set of knowns and unknowns. There’s no equation to plug the variables into.

That’s why I leave the first draft to Creative Brian.

Let’s say you told me, “Come up with a story.”

I’d nod my head for a second before placing my hands at the keyboard.

Joe eased off the gas as he felt the car hydroplane. The truck in the lane next to him passed him.

Screw that, he thought. He floored it.

I know nothing about Joe or the story. The first thing that came to my mind is a nameless, faceless guy. I don’t know his hair color, his eye color, or anything about his history. All I know is that he’s driving a car in wet weather. It occurs to me that the car is a 1976 Camaro painted with gray primer and has rust spots showing through. I doubt his name is actually “Joe,” but that’ll work until I get to know him well enough to saddle him with an appropriate moniker.

As a discovery writer, I learn about the character the same way the reader does — through his actions, speech, and thoughts. From what I’ve written, I immediately notice that he’s both competitive and reckless. These qualities will need to play a big role in the story.

So, what happens next?

I’m not sure; I’d have to keep writing to find out. My guess is that he’ll get into a wreck and that circumstance will put him into contact with a love interest. I could be completely wrong, though. It could be he’s running drugs or is a spy or one of a million other things. Whatever happens, though, will be a natural culmination of who he is as a person and of the choices that he makes.

For an outliner to tell me that I have to change my process, that it’s “better” for me to know the outcome before I write any more, is ridiculous. I don’t know who the character is yet. The ending will be a consequence of the character and his actions.

Why is it somehow beneficial for me to choose arbitrarily a plotline and conclusion before I know the character?

The answer is that it’s not. There are inherent advantages and disadvantages for all your creative choices, including your choice of how to create.

Experiment. Figure out what works for you. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you what you “must” do.

Why I Plan to Ignore My Marketing Advice

At the moment, I think that my marketing activities are proportional. I spend a bit of time here and there doing research, and I blog for about 3 hours a week. Were I to keep up that rate, I’d say it would be a good balance of producing new work to selling activities.

Instead, I plan to spend an entire month doing nothing but marketing — almost no writing at all.

• April – Work on Daniel Darcy 1: The Exardo Invasion
• Early May – Collect 3rd draft beta reader comments for Power of the Mages and send it to the editor
• June – Finalize Power of the Mages and create review copy (including, ugh, maps)
• July – Besides last minute touches, do marketing
• August – Release Power of the Mages, finish up rough draft of Daniel Darcy 1, and work on compiling blog posts into a nonfiction book

Obviously, this approach does not embrace the balance that I called for in previous posts. Here’s why I made that decision:

1. I fear losing motivation – The vast majority of self published authors sell a few copies to their friends and family, and that’s about it. If I don’t do better than that, I think I’ll get seriously discouraged.

2. The need to swing for the fences is a personal trait – While it’s not likely that a first novel by a self published author is going to be a runaway hit, the possibility exists. I need to give the book that chance of success.

3. It fits my long term plan – Between August 1 of this year and August 1 of 2014, I want to have 5 works on Amazon:

a. Power of the Mages (August 1, 2013)
b. 12 Simple Techniques for Improving Your Fiction Writing: Avoiding the Most Common Mistakes of New Authors (late 2013)
c. Daniel Darcy 1: The Exardo Invasion (Spring 2014)
d. The Slender Man Massacre (Summer 2014)
e. Novelette/novella that comprises the 2nd part of my Dark Power series (Fall 2014)

4. The most effective marketing efforts take time to build –

a. Followers
b. Email list
c. Spreadsheet of bloggers

I don’t know if my first novel is going to sell one copy or a hundred or a thousand in its first year. From the numbers I’ve seen, if it hits 300, I should be happy. My efforts probably aren’t going to take it past that quantity, but I have to try.

Review of Timekeeper

In Timekeeper, the sequel to Timepiece, Ms. Albano continues the story of Elizabeth, William, and Maxwell as they travel through time trying to create a better future.

Why to buy this book: This book focuses more on relationships and less on action than its predecessor, and I think the book is better off for it. This author seems more skilled at the romantic elements and character development, and she plays to her strengths. Truthfully, though, even the action sequences are better.

Why not to buy the book: Whereas I had a litany of complaints about the first book, I felt this one was much better. There was one interlude chapter I skip-read because it annoyed me so badly. The only other major issue I had was that some of the character conflicts got a little repetitious.

Bottom Line: This wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read or anything, but it was a good experience, well worth the $3 I paid for it. 4 Stars.

The Two Conflicting Principles of Book Marketing for Self Published Authors

The most important thing you can do to market your book is come up with a comprehensive plan, and doing so requires consideration of two principles. Before we get to those, however, it’s important to understand two concepts:

Concept 1: The key to social media is that it’s social, not selling.

If your idea of using social media for book marketing is to tweet, “Buy My Book #mybookisawesome,” you’re not going to get many sales. In fact, you’re probably going to gain a bad reputation and, perhaps, see a backlash.

Social media is about building relationships with your potential customer base.

If your sole motivation for blogging is to sell your book, nobody is going to read your blog. If your purpose of being on a forum is to sell your book, no one is going to pay attention to your posts. If your main focus of Facebook updates is telling people about your book, you’re not going to get many likes or reach many people.

If, however, you interact with people, all these places can be great sources of both help and potential customers. Find a purpose for your blog. Contribute meaningful content to the forum. Use Facebook to connect with people.

The problem is that using social media correctly takes time. Not only do you have to learn the technical ins and outs, you have to understand the etiquette for each medium.

Concept 2: Cost means more than just literal dollars spent.

When I spend an hour creating a blog post, that’s an hour I didn’t spend writing or editing or even learning more about my craft. This concept is called opportunity cost, and, when I mention dollar figures in this post, that’s what I’m referring to in lieu of actually opening up a wallet.

So, with those ideas out of the way, let’s consider the creation of your marketing plan. The good news is that, in terms of deciding what resources to spend on marketing, there are only two principles you need to consider. The bad news is that those fundamentals are in direct conflict with each other.

Principle 1: The more products you have available as an author, the more cost effective your marketing efforts become.

Let’s consider the opportunity cost of marketing. I spend an hour creating a blog post or going on a forum or researching effective use of Facebook. At least a portion of that hour, I could have been writing or editing or learning more about storytelling or technique. That time I would have spent doing authorly things would have directly resulted in some portion of a product being created.

Envision me surrounded by charts and graphs. Assume I have projections and hard data. Picture a differential equation that I use a numerical method to solve. (Note that I don’t say I actually did any of this stuff, just that I want you to think of me doing it instead of just choosing random numbers.)

If I have a single book out, it costs $10 to generate one sale. Each sale generates $4 of revenue. Therefore, I’m losing $6 per sale.

I add a second book, and the fundamental math changes. I still only sell one copy of the book I’m advertising, but, now, half my customers go and buy my first novel as well. I’m still spending $10, but, instead of generating only $4 of revenue, I’m getting $6. I’m only losing $4 per sale! Whoohoo!

When I add my third book, some of my customers now buy one previous work and some both. My revenue on the same outlay increases to $7.50.

As you can see, eventually I’ll actually start making a profit. Based on anecdotal evidence, this tipping point comes around the 5th or 6th book.

The implication is clear: It makes no sense to market your book when you only have one out. You’re losing money on each hour you spend. Once you have five or six books, start marketing.

Principle 2: Each additional hour you spend on social media marketing increases your efficiency for future efforts.

There are two factors at work behind this principle.

1. There’s an initial outlay of learning the medium, setting up accounts, becoming proficient with the software, understanding the etiquette, etc. Once that learning is out of the way, creating content takes less time.
2. Your influence grows with time. One follower becomes a hundred becomes a thousand. Given a set conversion rate of followers to sales, sending notices to more people generates more sales for the same amount of effort.

In this manner, the longer you’ve been a user of a particular social medium, the more efficient you are at reaching customers. My first experiences tweeting will cost me $10 to make a sale. By the time I’ve been doing it a year, maybe I’m down to only $7 worth of effort for the same result.

The implication of this principle is also quite clear: You need to market as early as possible. Basically, as soon as you think you might become an author, you should start building a platform.

See the problem?

An author needs to:

1. Wait to market until he has 5 to 6 books out.
2. Begin marketing as soon as possible.

What’s the solution?

As with everything in life, the answer is balance. Either extreme is likely to result in failure.

If you do no marketing at all from the start, your book is not going to sell at all. You run the risk of becoming discouraged and giving up. Also, self publishing involves real cost. Editing and cover art adds up quickly. If you’re not selling anything, where does that money come from?

On the other hand, if you spend all your time blogging and on forums and connecting on Facebook, how are you going to ever produce even that first novel, much less five or six?

I think the balance point is different for each person. The important point is to consider each principle carefully and make wise decisions.