Friday, June 08, 2012

Are You Trying to Write a Well-Written Book or Tell a Great Story?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Great stories typically sell. Well-written books get rejected every day. It's a weird contradiction, but the books that captivate readers and get them talking aren't always the one with the most polished prose. Love them or hate them, those mega-sellers all have something in common.

The resonate with the reader.

I think this is a tough and murky area for writers. We're told how critical it is to write well, have a fresh idea, create interesting plots, but it's that sense of story that will make or break us in the end.

And that's hard to quantify.

So stop worrying so much about the craft for a minute.

Now, I'm NOT saying you should ignore the technical aspects of writing and toss the rules of grammar out the window. You want your writing skills to be top-notch. But if you spend all of your time thinking about the technical side, and not enough on the story side, you might wind up with manuscripts that get "very well-written but it just didn't grab me" rejections.

Monday I talked about reading like a reader and pinpointing what you love about your favorite books. Today, I'd like to talk about taking those elements and putting them into your own stories.

I love books about struggle. All my favorite books and movies contain this. "Struggle to survive" can be literal (as is you will die) or thematic (as in a struggle to succeed). Aliens is a struggle to survive. Feds is a struggle to graduate FBI school. 13 Reasons Why is a struggle to understand. I love them all.

When I sit down to write a book, I think about how I can bring this favorite element into my own work. What is this story a struggle for? If I don't have characters struggling for something, I know the story won't be as compelling because what I love is missing. I'm just illustrating a plot idea and odds are good that the story won't grab readers. I'm writing a book, not telling a story I love.

Take a look at your own list of favorite stories and what resonates with you. (If you didn't make a list on Monday, go take a peek and make one now) What are the common elements in the stories you love?

This is where the adage "Write what you love" comes in. It doesn't just mean if you love romance write romance. It means write with the themes that grab you as a reader.

Let's go back to your current WIP and that list of favorite stories.
  • Do your favorite themes occur in your current story?
  • If not, then why not?
  • Identify the common themes currently in your WIP
  • Are those themes that resonate with you?
  • If not, how can you change them to themes that do resonate with you?
  • Look for places you can tweak to better show those favorite themes
If you put your passion for stories into your story, that passion will shine through. You'll write stories that you care about as a reader as well as a writer. You'll write stories with themes that resonate with other readers who love those same elements. Your books will become about more than just plot.

They'll be about the story.

And story is what matters.

What elements of your favorite stories are in your books? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Awesome! Yes. After your post on Monday, I was thinking about the books I love. In almost every single one, an "ordinary" person finds that s/he is extraordinary and strong as s/he faces challenges both physical and emotional.

    I think that we each have moments when we believe we are special, but then mundane life wears us down until we believe we are only drab cogs in the great machine of society. I love to have the unique gifts and strengths of individuals be revealed and polished until he/she shines.

  2. Terrific post- I have actually been rewriting my novel to make sure these struggles are there for my character. Thanks for posting.

  3. A good story is (usually) important, but it has to be well written too, to make it a good book. I prefer to read books written by people who are above the average when it comes to style and artistic expression >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  4. Does this relate to the e-mail I sent you, or am I just connecting the wrong 2+2?

  5. I relate to this in a big way. The idea is what gets you through the publishing gate, the great writing and strong story structure is what keeps you there. Great post.

  6. A couple of days ago I was thinking about the stories I've written....chapter books, MG and YA... and the fact that in some ways they're similar. But I didn't figure out exactly why. You nailed it. It's the struggle. That's what I like to write. So thank you for figuring it out for me.

  7. Just heard about this post via Twitter. Can you provide a link to your Monday post that you refer to? I checked your sidebar but couldn't find it. Thanks!
    Looking forward to doing this exercise.

  8. Great suggestions Janice. I've been thinking more about my characters struggles as I'm starting my new project and figuring out how to be sure my first chapter starts out with these type of struggles (after your awesome critique for me).

  9. Janice, as usual you know how to cut right to the point, and I wish I found what you're saying that simple, but I don't, which doesn't mean I think you're wrong, so please don't assume that either.

    But to answer your question, what's most important to me in a story aside from character is having an emotional connection with the characters, that's the only way I could read books like The Shifter, or The Thirteenth Tale, without wanting to stop without knowing how they end, and yes, I know I said they're not normally my kind of stories.

    However, just because I can't or don't want to write those kinds of books doesn't mean I can't read them.

    You don't write picture books, but you still respect what they do different from the books you write, and that's why you profile them on your blog sometimes, right?

    Is that not a fair point to make as well?

    As I told you private, I don't regret reading The Shifter, it's a solid book you have every right to be proud of, while I may not have found it a particularly "fun" reading experience, you still did what every engaging book is supposed to do, you touched me.

    I know I'm not always clear in my delivery, but please see that as the compliment it is.

    I will finish the trilogy, so don't try to talk me out of it, but I'm not ready to do so now, that's all.

    This is not some one-sided obligation on my part; it's something I chose to eventually do.

    I'm only trying to be open-minded here, something that you know is hard for me.

    Even if I'm not emotionally up to finishing the trilogy now, doesn't mean I never will. That's all I was getting at before.

    I'm reading a difficult memoir right now (Difficult in an emotional way), and just because I don't want to write my own memoir (Despite some writer friends of mine insisting I should) doesn't mean there was nothing to gain by reading one.

    My whole point overall is simply that while "reading like a Writer" works for some people, it just makes me never want to read or write again, and how fun or productive is that?

    None at all! On both points.

    For me, all that matters right now is remembering how fun and worthwhile reading is, and to keep writing, and coming to terms with the fact that there's more to writing than plotting, but since it is a weakness of mine, it's hard for me to just ignore it all together, even when "enjoying the writing" is the main goal.

    As a writer, I just prefer to approach my stories from other angles no less valid than yours, or others, but as you know, that often means finding others who get my way of storytelling is hard, even if or when the subject matter isn't a barrier all by itself.

    As much as you and others say it's all about the story, It's still hard to remember that when all people seem to tell me however indirectly, they don't see a plot, and even if I'm angst too much over plotting, I just can't ignore it, because this continues to be a problem not matter what I write.

    But I keep trying.

  10. When I first started reading this post, I thought I was going to lose my breath. It has been time and time again that I shake my head seeing what sells vs what has a hard time getting seen beyond the slush pile. You're right. Great stories sell, and sometimes the relatable way it is executed - vs. the well-written award winner style - gets the audience.

  11. Amelia, that's a great theme to work with to. You can tell all kinds of stories with that idea.

    Summer, most welcome ;)

    Cold As Heaven, so do I, my point was that sometimes we focus on the writing and forget the story is what most readers are looking for. The most beautifully written novel won't sell if the story stinks. But a badly written awesome story can be a mega-bestseller. (sad as that is)

    C0, lol actually no. I had already written this when you sent that email. I do all my blog posts on Saturdays. But it does fit.

    Amy, thanks!

    Heather, glad I could help!

    Darshana, done. I meant to do that on Monday and totally forgot. Thanks for the reminder!

    Natalie, good luck :) You've got a fun story brewing.

    Taurean, why aren't they your kinds of stories? If that emotional connection matters to you, what's stopping you from creating characters that connect to your readers? There's nothing that says a reader can't connect with a book unless it's gritty and dark. You can be light and fun and inspirational and still have that emotional connection. It's about crafting characters that the reader will love and sympathize with.

    The "story" is at the core of any novel. A story of redemption, of love, of sacrifice. Whatever it is. The plot is how you show that story. If you're showing how a character learns to stand on their own two feet and solve a problem their way, then all the plot elements will illustrate how they learn to do that. Or what they overcome by being true to themselves.

    Angela, it's such a hard balance sometimes, but I think this is why you have those "badly written mega-sellers" and wonderfully written books that fail. Most readers don't care about the writing the same way a writer does. If we put our focus on the wrong thing, our books suffer. That doesn't mean we can ignore our craft, but that shouldn't be ALL we focus on.

  12. Janice, I just meant that the way you and similar writers come at a story in a way I don't easily come to.

    With what you say, why not try a picture book, it requires the same core things your novels do, just in fewer words, why do you feel less confident in writing a picture book?

    I'm still concerned that you put a writer's craft on too low on a reasonable scale.

    Maybe this is just colored by how my life has been, but I don't think we should submit to "Majority Rules" because it doesn't mean it's right for every reader or writer.

    It's frankly hard for me to embrace the "Story trumps all" logic simply because I know for a fact I'll never achieve many of my goals with that mindset.

    I also wouldn't convince many people of how hard I work if I just focused on story. It's hard to put your heart into a story and yet no one "gets it" but you.

    For the record, I did put story first with Gabriel, and what I wrote after it, but what I wrote after didn't seem to resonate with people, and with query letters demanding plot, how does "Story trump all" prevail when bare bones can make any story sound bland, and derivative?

    When people who read the actual book tell you it's just not and why, what can you do then?

    Write another book, I can almost hear you say, but no matter how good the succeeding books may be, if I can't make the case in a more pragmatic way, the cycle will continue, and this is where I feel overwhelmed and lost.

    If trusting my gut was all it took, I'd frankly be at a different level than I'm at now.

    I know you say readers at large don't care about the quality of writing the way other writers do, but I know too many people from all walks of life who would not agree with you word for word, as much as they want a solid story for less picky taste in quality writing.

    Maybe I'm just too sensitive still, but I'm only being honest, that's all I can tell you.

  13. Taurean, first, let me be clear that's I'm NOT putting craft low on the list of what a writer needs to do. You have to have the skills to succeed, and you need to hone those skills as sharp as you can. This entire blog is dedicated to that. What I AM saying, it that sometimes, in the pursuit of making sure everything is technically perfect and following some "ideal" of what "great writing" is, it can be easy to forget that at the heart of every successful novel is a great story.

    It also doesn't mean ignore all the things that go into a good book. Great ideas make bad books too. It's a balance of the two that make things work. But if all you ever focus on is the writing, then you risk ending up with a well written book that doesn't grab a reader. You still have to be able to hook a reader with your story and put it into a plot that holds interest and create characters that the reader can relate to and care about.

    If "story trumps all" doesn't work for you, don't follow it. Just because I feel that storytelling is all about the story doesn't mean you have to. If you feel characters are what makes a book, or a great plot, then focus on that. Ignore the story aspect. Or put it less on the priority list.

    This blog is not the end all be all of writing. These are just my opinions and things that have worked for me. If you disagree with me, don't take my advice. If it doesn't ring true to you, ignore it. You have to do what you think is best for your writing.

    The reason I don't think I'd write a good picture book is because I don't read them. I couldn't tell you the first thing about what makes a good picture book. The core elements might be similar, but the specifics aren't, and you need the specifics to get it right.

    You want to do everything you can to serve the story the best way you can, and that takes a multitude of skills. If plot was all that mattered, you could string together a lot of exciting things and be done. But it doesn't work that way, because unless you care, those events don't matter to a reader. You can have a great character, but unless she's doing something interesting readers get bored. You can have a great idea (story), but unless you dramatize it well readers won't get hooked.

    You can't keep saying "that didn't work" and say all the reasons why you can't do something. It takes a lot of different things. It's not all one thing. Even when one piece it right, if the others are off it still might not work.

    If you think the story is worth telling you find a way. If it was all about plot, then you'd move on to a new book that was easier to write. But you don't, you stay with that STORY because you love it. That's what I mean by story matters most.

  14. Wow, beautifully said, and so, so true. I gravitate to stories about family struggles, and misplaced loyalties, and now that you mention it, these common themes show up in my work.

  15. Well, thank you for being more specific. I appreciate that.

    Now I get where you're coming from.

    Sorry if I sounded mad. I wasn't.

    It's just that as much you and others tell to ignore what I don't agree with, when it's the first thing people bring to my attention in the vein of "You should take a look at how your doing X writing thing and try to make it better", even the people who believe in my work almost as much as I do, I can't ignore it, to put it as civilly as I can.

    That's why this is hard for me.

    I'm sorry if it sounds like all I give are excuses sometimes, but when I say I tried something more than once or even fifty times to work through a writing issue, I did, and just because nothing's worked doesn't mean ignoring it will solve the problem.

    This isn't like avoiding a bully or walking away from senseless conflict, this is something I HAVE to get through or I won't improve.

    What you're saying is not all that different than other people at your level and higher have told me, and as hard as I try, I still seem to be stuck at a plateau that may not be bad, but it's not enough to go farther, and I don't get why anymore than you, but if I don't want to quit, I can't ignore the problem.

    I'm just saying that not every writer can charm people on voice alone, and that doesn't mean they don't have a voice at all, and please understand I know you didn't say that, nor am I implying that, okay?

    I'm just making the point that while some people can bank on voice when they polished prose and/or plotting, it doesn't mean we all can.

    I didn't just superficially polish my prose.

    I refined my story doing so, and the more clear and concise my writing got, the more people starting seeing MY story, not the story they thought it should be, or how X person wanted it to be, but how I SAW IT, but I have a harder time showing that in a query, and I have to improve there or this will stand in the way whatever I write, and even though every story is different, I know this a weakness that gets in my way.

    I've written query letters for other books, and this still gets in my way, it's not just this one book that give me trouble in the query/plot synopsis department.

    I didn't mean to imply that I don't care about story. Of course I do.

    I just find it trumps all as you say, and I say that as a reader, not just a writer.

    It's why I worked on my last novel so long, and continue to do so, because I believed in that story, and yet my attempts to show that
    in a query letter/synopsis/log-line is NOT easy, and it feels like plot matter more in that context, which is why I can't just "Ignore it" as you say.

    I guess I am still sensitive about this. But it's hard not to be. Because I am trying, if I didn't care about getting better this wouldn't effect me like it does, don't you think?

    As much as I don't like how I feel when I get so intense about my writing, especially where I know I'm weak and need/want to improve, it also shows I care.
    Janice, does that make any sense to you?

    Anyway, I probably am getting too intense again, so maybe this a sign I need to downshift to avoid burnout or something.

    Again, sorry if I sounded mad, I wasn't. I'm just trying to get better.

    That's what I'm supposed to be able to control right? It's up to me to improve or not by putting in the time.

    Yet sometimes it feels like even that's not in my control at all.

  16. I've been thinking recently about this very matter: the ages old "literary" versus "commercial" fiction debate that has been raging for years.

    I used-to moan about the brick-sized bestselling novel, with such poor prose and cardboard cut out characters that reading them made me want to stab myself in the eye.

    Before you brand me as a literary snob, I'll confess .... As a kid, Conran's "Lace" and Andrew's "Flowers in the attic" series hooked me, and even though I could see the tricks used to manipulate the readers' emotions, I allowed myself to get sucked in. (in fairness, though, I could hardly finish the third in the "flowers" series and when I tried another by the same author in a different series, was not hooked - and certainly not impressed - by her rehashing the same themes and characters again).

    But now I see that such writers excel at making the good charcters relatable, the evil characters loathesome, and ludicrous plots not just believable.... but compelling. It's an art-form. It's actually good story telling.

    I take my hat off to such writers, because I write with a critic's hat on and say "I dont buy this twist... this black-and-white characterisation is cheap... I think this character is a cliche " when I come up with a novel turn of events.

    Maybe I need to work harder at making an unbelievable situation credible, and spelling -out the stakes so clearly that even if a reader's BS-meter is activated, they still want to go along for the ride.

    And maybe to do so, (I'm making this up as I go along) the trick is to engage the part of the readers' brains that doesn't bother to be critical - and the way to achieve this may be to write with 8 year-old reading level prose. This in itself is actually quite complex. So "bad" writing may not be easy, after all. The commercially successful novels do pay close attention to their craft. They just follow different rules to literary novels, that's all.

    Just a thought.

  17. I like stories where characters are seeking forgiveness,redemption, and ultimately peace.

    The 1998 movie American History X was a brutal example of this.

  18. This is such a timely post. I've been so caught up in writing the perfect sentence that I've forgotten about the story. Thanks.

  19. Love this!! Sometimes I, too, concentrate so much on the prose, I forget what's really important: the story.

  20. Julie, write what you love in the pure form :)

    Taurean, you might try taking a step back and looking more generally at the feedback you're getting. "Fix the plot" type comments aren't very helpful feedback. If folks are saying there's a plot issue, it might be a goal issue or a narrative drive issue. Try to get them to be more specific about what they mean, and look to see if there's a common thread to the feedback that shows a pattern.

    It could be something as simple as making the goals and stakes of every scene more clear. You know what they are, but maybe it's not coming across on the page. Just having your protag state what they want and why in their voice might fix it.

    You've gotten enough feedback to know this is a plot issue. So maybe focus on the plot points. List them. Identify what your protag does in every scene and why it's important. List the stakes. List where things go wrong and get worse. If you can't list something, that's an indication there's a weak goal/motivation/stake there. Look at what you can do to strengthen it. You might not need to add, just bring out what's already there.

    Carol, thanks!

    Jo-Ann, no matter how "bad" I her or think a book is, I always try to figure out why it resonated with readers. Some as easy, others are harder. Once is a while I see a book I just shake my head at. You're right, it's tough to step back and see the good in the bad.

    There's certainly room for both if we can swing it :) Worth striving for at the very least.

  21. Janice: Good ideas. I'm actually doing that now.

    Most of the feedback I got was specific, and I agreed with it because they showed me why they felt that way, and I saw it myself, but nothing I try seems to fix the problem.

    This seems to get harder, not better, with anything I write, but especially in things like query letters where brevity just matters in ways that's different in the actual book, because people who've read the actual book, lay reader or writer, published or not, they at least get my story's going somewhere and never doubt it.

    But showing that outside the actual story is hard, and just because I hate writing query letters doesn't mean I'll allow them to beat me, at this point in the game, I'm fighting just to be read, getting beyond form letters once in a while, I'd like to think that's different than saying "After one sale, this'll all be easy."

    Janice, I'm begging you to believe me when I say this-

    I'm not one of those writers who thinks "I just have to sell this one thing and I'll never be rejected."

    I get that better than I get credit for. This isn't about that.

    If that's how I'm coming off in spite of my intenions, than I'm sincerely sorry, but seriously, Janice, nothing is further from the truth.

    While some problems may indeed be specific to one story and not another, the things I'm grappling with effects all the writing I do that's not informal.

    Maybe the problem is that as much as I don't want to admit, my envy of others still gets in my way, if only indirectly, particularly writers who as you described in the above post may not have stellar prose or clever plotting, but make up for some of it with voice.

    It's hard to read books like that, not necessarily just because they write with less emphasis on "Pretty writing", but because not all of us can reach agents or editors solely on voice alone, and it doesn't mean our voice as writers is any less weaker than those who have, and that's where some of the frustration comes from.

    This isn't always a "Writer not willing to work hard problem."

    I know you didn't say that. I'm just speaking generally about what I see is a often misread problem by any writer.

    Think for a moment.

    Many writers in my position are just fighting to get read, and while I know at least some of those writers still had to work hard to get where they are, people sometimes forget that a lot of the "classic" examples often cited to writers in my position were in an entirely different place and time when they got their break into publishing.

    The paranormal genre's a prime example, barely a decade ago, few newcomers could break in, no matter how good the writing was, or how real the voice felt, etc.

    Now the market's overly saturated with paranormal books, quality of writing aside, what once was a "Dead" market is now overrun.

    Aside from my niche (Animal Fantasy) not having a similar Renascence right now, it's hard to embrace your originality, when it feels like what's keeping you stuck is not getting what you have in common with what's come before you.

    But even if that wasn't the problem for me, I know what my writing style is, I may not have found my process to up my productivity yet, but I know how I write and how its unique, but communicating it still seems to be hard for me.

    I just wish I could find people beyond my peers who see what they do, even if that doesn't lead to getting an agent or a book deal, I just want to know what it feels like to hear that confidence from someone who's not from my old writer's group, as great critique partners as they are, I want to start hearing it from people who might aid in pushing my career forward.

    I don't think that's selfish of me to say.

    I hope you get that I'm saying this from a fair and sane place. Do you?

  22. Really loved this post. I've been thinking about this a lot as I plot out a series (and finish a stand alone). How do we figure out what readers want? How do we keep them coming back to our books? I've been focusing so much on craft it's easy to forget the answer, and your post really reminded me. Thanks!

    Stacy (

  23. Taurean, I get it. Making a sale does make it easier on some level, because a ton of self doubt vanishes. The technical parts can still be hard, but you don't worry so much that you're not good enough. You want to feel like you're making progress at least.

    This might be a crazy idea, but have you tried writing short stores for kids? There are a lot of kids' magazines out there and animal fantasy might have a broader appeal in the market. You can try to find markets. Not sure if this has any interest to you, but shorts might fit your style better.

    Stacy, most welcome! There's so much that goes into a book and it's so easy to forget some of them.

  24. Good for you! As a published novelist for 30 years, I've concluded, over and over again, that STORY is royalty. You have to know what your doing with the craft, but more than that: write about conflicts. Pull the rug out from under your characters, throw them out the window, run 'em over by a train, make awful, awful things happen to them.

  25. Carrtalks, indeed. What doesn't kill them makes them more interesting.