Tolstoy supposedly once wrote that there are only two kinds of plots: the hero goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town.
Obviously, it’s a bit reductive, but it’s also hard to say it isn’t true. It’s hard to think of a great book that can’t be slotted into one of those two, if you go with a loose definition of things like “stranger” and “town” and “journey.”
I mention this to authors all the time because it’s clarifying. I read a lot of terrible plot summaries from good writers, so I know the problem is in the plot, not the summary. You would be surprised how many authors think they have a plot, because a lot of stuff happens, but they don’t really have a bounded story with a beginning, middle and end. I don’t care if you have a romance novel or a narrative nonfiction book about science in the 1820s, if you are not building your book around a big, heavily researched argument, you still have to have a plot.
If you chose a hero going on a journey, read this paragraph. If you chose a stranger, skip down. Okay, so you have a hero, right? Here’s a common response: “There’s actually a whole bunch of characters.” My response: Yes, and there is in STAR WARS, too, but it’s still about Luke going on a journey. If you have two main characters, or you’re spending a lot of pages away from the main character, or viewing him (or her) from afar, you had better know what you’re doing. It’s a risky strategy.
If your book is a stranger coming to town, your main character is going to be one of the townspeople. It can’t be the stranger! If it’s about an unusual woman who arrives, creating chaos, your POV character shouldn’t be that woman, because she’s not the one changing. If she is changing, then you’re in the wrong paragraph. If it’s all the townspeople, I sure hope you know what you’re doing! It’s a risky strategy.
Okay, so main character’s out to they way. Let’s say for your inciting event, you chose leaving on a journey. IT CAN’T BE A METAPHORICAL JOURNEY. If Huckleberry Finn had been written by the writers in my slush pile, it would be about Huck floating down an inner river of anxiety while attending college classes. A character has to leave home, go somewhere else, experience a life altering event, and end up back at home. And yes, it’s allowed to be a new home. (Crime and Punishment is the rare example of a hero who’s journey is through the same place he’s always been, BUT HE KILLED SOMEBODY. So.)
Let’s say instead, it’s a stranger that has come to town. How the stranger feels about anything is immaterial; he just has to turn everyone’s lives upside down. That means that it’s fine if it’s a dog, or a car, or nuclear power plant. But it has to be a real physical thing, and it has to have everyone suddenly acting very differently. It can’t be your parent’s divorce, but it can be your mom moving in with you after the divorce. It can’t be psychological trauma haunting a family, but it can be a ghost haunting a family. That means you have to show everyone’s nice little life, and then bang it all changes, and then the stranger leaves, and there’s a new order. If the writers in my slush pile wrote A Bell for Adano, it could be called The Pain of Not Having a Bell in Adano Anymore.
So, check these boxes: hero? townsperson? journey? disruptive new factor in town? If you have less than two, you don’t have a plot. You just have stuff happening to people.
I wrote a blog post last week about how to write a book that will be popular. The blog at Ploughshares doesn’t attract a lot of comments, but this one drew an interesting one, which I’ll share in full:
"What about providing the reader with books that might make them think about the world around them a bit differently than before they encountered those books? What if books had good stories with three dimensional characters and really gave the reader worlds to explore? What if we stop all this relentless emphasis on marketing and focus on selling really good stories that make people think? There used to be room for such books in the mainstream, but those days may be gone. Better to sell books like they’re video games or candy bars."
This is a good question. Why am I so obsessed with treating something a writer poured his intellect, soul, and time into like it was a can of soup? Can’t a book just be good and get readers? Isn’t there room for that?
The problem is exactly the opposite of what he thinks it is. Amazon, blogs, social media—all these things have MORE room for quality books in the mainstream. It’s easier than ever before in history for quality material to rise to the top. So what’s the problem?
Here’s the straight truth: the number of pretty good books published every year is probably well into the thousands. And they can’t all sell well. Even at some place with a sterling reputation, like Simon & Schuster, probably only one in six of their books meets their sales expectations. What was wrong with the other books? It wasn’t that they lacked intelligence, research, passion, quality prose, compelling characters, or dramatic situations. Grab the next issue of the Times book review. Look at all the books with a good review. Yes, even for those, most will be sales disappointments.
If you’re a real reader of books, you know there’s no end of better than decent books to stack up next to your bedside table.
Without know anything about you, I will guess their you are a good writer with something interesting to say, and your book will sell less than half what even your editor and agent are hoping. That’s just the odds. So all my commentary assumes that you are that high quality writer trying to break loose from the pack.
In fact, you can click on the commenter’s name and visit his website and see he appears to be one of those novelist that wrote a good book but failed to get readers.
Sure, there are some things that are so fantastic, so interesting, so well done and timely, that they spread from reader to reader without a well-executed plan from the author and publishers. But those books are rare.
In fact, next time you wonder why everyone talks about marketing so much, remember this: when Game of Thrones was published, it wasn’t a bestseller. It wasn’t until the series was established that later books made the list.
But yes, dear commenter, it’s worth reminding everyone what George R. R. Martin’s secret to success is. Your goal shouldn’t be pleasing readers; your goal should be to get them reading and keep reading, which is a different thing entirely.
My Ploughshares piece this week was about whether or not you should self-publish. Whenever I discuss this with anyone in real life or online, they’re usually not weighed on really important question. (You’ll have to click over to find out what it is! See, I can get all Huffington Post when I want to! This isn’t a slideshow, though.)
I did get one comment on it that was really insightful. Sending off your book to agents results, sometimes, in getting useful advice on what’s wrong with the manuscript. I agree that can be useful, but I think you should be soliciting feedback before then, and not from your spouse. In fact, every self-publishing star I’ve spoken with has a stable of early readers who know the shelf well and are happy to say what they liked or didn’t.
So let’s say you’ve written a fantasy book about an elf kingdom. Have you had at least five people read it who read lots of elf kingdom novels? I really, really don’t mean just having a friend read it. Unless that friend is someone who regularly reads this kind of book and knows the trends and the tropes. What if you don’t know anyone who likes the kinds of stuff you life? Spend more time on the internet until you find these people! In fact, you may want to write some fan letters to your favorite elf kingdom novelists telling them how much you love them and asking them if they’d be interested in reading it. What if you know some of those people, and none of them got around to finishing it? I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but your book is not good. If someone who reads lots of books like yours can’t finish yours, you’re a long way from done with it.
Trust me, I know how hard it is to put things out there to be judged. But trust me on this, too: if your main character is supposed to by funny, but he’s just annoying, you’re better off hearing that from your Tumblr buddy than an agent or Amazon reviewer.
This week I started blogging for Ploughshares, which I’m really excited about. I read my first issue of the magazine about twenty years ago, and it opened my eyes to what contemporary short stories could be. My blog posts, though, will be more in line with what I actually know about: book publishing. I’ll be writing twice a month recommending a specific article form some other site, and delving deeper into.
This week’s post is about what book editors most want, and I’ll tell you the answer here: ambition. But I wanted to expend a few more words here on something Peter Joseph, a thriller editor, said: “I’m especially interested in novels with a speculative, fantastical, or unusual, hooky premise. ‘High concept,’ you might say.”
Editors really hope every book that arrives in their inbox will give them something they haven’t seen before. Usually that starts with the elevator pitch. They want something ambitious, but “high concept” is one important kind of ambition. If you’re writing nonfiction, have you chosen most fresh and interesting way to build your case? If you’re writing something narrative, especially fiction, does the basic set-up of the book sound original? Is it clear how this would immediately throw a group of characters into life-changing turmoil?
I see a lot of pitches that sound competent. But I rarely see pitches that sound like nothing I’ve ever seen. For instance, I’ve seen so many pitches for books by someone on an emotional journey after a loved one dies. Some are even good, but you can see how that pitch is really generic. On the other hand, I got a pitch for a thriller about a terrorist plot to destroy Facebook, or at least the server center in remote Oregon. I’ve taken that writer on as a client.
One way to weigh if your book is hooky enough is to rewrite your one sentence description of it as a question. Does it still make sense? Is it still interesting?
1. However big you idea is, try making it bigger. Every argument could be wider ranging. Every story could have more characters and conflicts. Every climax could have more fireworks. A history of a decade could stand in for a century. A lesson for improving your business could be a maxim for changing your life. Don’t pull people in. Blow them away.
2. Join Twitter and tweet at least three times a day. If this takes more than ten minutes, you’re doing it all wrong. Find people worth following and interact with them. Twitter is the water cooler for the writers of the world. Strike up a conversation and get to know some people.
3. Write at least one thing that employs my “Secret to Great Writing.” I didn’t think this up. I’m just revealing it. A journalist who tried this recently told me his wife said the result was the best thing he’d ever written.
4. Ask yourself, for which 1000 readers will my book become their new favorite? Don’t write for everyone everywhere. Write for the people who love the thing that you love, and can’t find it anywhere else.
5. Have a writer to publicly compare yourself to that isn’t a bestselling author. When anyone asks you about your potential readers—an agent, an editor, your Great Aunt Mary—have an author you can name that isn’t Hemingway or Gladwell or J. K. Rowling. Even if you make it there some day, for now it makes you sound like you don’t know your shelf well enough. Pick someone only people in-the-know like.
6. When your book comes out: leave nothing to chance. Work your contacts, get coverage in your usual outlets, spam everyone you know by email or social media, and pull in favors from friends.
7. Open your book with a bang. If it’s not narrative, you can still open with a big story, and throw the the reader into a big debate. If it’s narrative, don’t start with the main character waking up, or worse, being born. Start them out in the middle of a dramatic event, or life-changing situation.
8. READ MORE BOOKS.
Yesterday, one of my favorite business writers, Umair Haque, tweeted this: “Books are a perfect technology. They need no improvement; and they never will. ‘Ebooks’ aren’t books. They’re just text files.” I suspect even most of his followers scoffed. Enjoy your horseless carriage, they may as well have replied. But as usual, beneath the bluster, Umair is onto something.
If I had a nickel for every person who has asked me “haven’t ebooks changed everything?” I would have enough to buy a Kindle HD. I usually ask them, “what, exactly, do you think this would have changed?”
Let’s say you’re an agent; you’ve probably said to me, “They cost almost nothing to make.” It’s true. They’re about $2 less a unit to make than a physical book. When the profit on a book (when it’s profitable) is about a $1 a book, that’s pretty good. However, could also call that $4 a unit if you include the savings from storing and shipping them and destroying unsold copies. The problem with that second number is that it has no basis in reality. There may be a day when publishers will have to stop printing books, but that day is not now or the next few years. So until then, publishers are still storing books and destroying unsold copies. And in the short term, with print runs shrinking (and unpredictable!) the cost of printing those physical copies per unit is rising. It’s doesn’t quite wipe out that $2 per unit savings per ebook, but it comes pretty close.
If you’re a tech guy, you’ve probably said to me, “You can put so much more into a book when it’s on a device: videos, links, audio, and more pictures.” I respnd, “Oh, you buy a lot of enhanced ebooks?” No, no they don’t. No one does. If you wanted a multimedia version of big story, you can already have it. It’s called the internet. I constantly say to people: readers read books so they can read less, not more. When you choose to read a book instead of articles or stories, you’re hoping to trade quantity for quality. A good clean, forward propelled story will trump bells and whistles every time. That’s not some fancy pants opinion I’ve developed; it’s what the numbers say.
If you’re a consumer, you may have said to me, “It’s killing my local bookstores.” I don’t even ask when their local independent store closed, because they never went to it. But it was probably before 2009. Amazon started killing off physical bookstores long before the Kindle was introduced, with price clubs and Target quietly having a greater impact than you’d think. If you wanted to save a bookstore in your town, you’d be better off outlawing buying physical books online than outlawing ebooks.
If you’re a writer, you may have said to me, “What about self-publishing?” Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s now common for romance writers to start out self-publishing, quickly building up an audience via ebooks. But what do those writers do when they get successful enough? That’s right, they sign contracts with publishers of physical books. More importantly, though, the romance market is sui generis. These writers have long been ignored and underserved by publishing and the wider media. They already had built a microcosm these books were launched into. They already had a very large readership who knew exactly what they wanted and found $2.99 a bargain and not a red-flag of low quality. This is slowly spreading to other kinds of books, with a small amount of traction for horror, thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, and even a little self-help. However, if everyone who has read the whole TWILIGHT series took a vow tomorrow to never buy another ebook, the ebook self-publishing market would turn from oasis to desert in a heartbeat. So again, maybe someday that change will come, but it’s not today.
This isn’t to say technology hasn’t changed publishing. It has, tremendously, and the industry isn’t dealing as well with it as it could. The same forces affecting the Gap and Wholefoods also affect book publishing, but none of that has to do with ebooks.
I like having another way to buy books, but that’s all it is: Another way to buy books.
When I meet with nonfiction writers, the most common thing I hear is that they’d like to write a book, but don’t have any ideas. That’s usually fixable, in that they have ideas, they just don’t know how to turn any of them into book ideas. (The solution: look at books on Amazon by writers you hope to have as peers, and see what, generally, is working for them. It’s eye-opening.)
However, I talk to many writers who say they’re trying to choose among several book ideas they’re currently mulling. Often, they’ll come into my office and pitch them one at a time, hoping I can figure out what slice is the most commercial. Here’s a hypothetical series: a book on the history of the minimum wage, a book about the successes of Great Society, or a book about the causes of the ever growing trade deficit. Which of those is the most sexy?
If you chose any of them, surprise: you’re probably wrong. This writer needs to find an idea big enough that it pulls in all of these. She’s going to be happier writing it, and she’s likely to pull in a larger audience if she can think of a frame that encompasses all of these.
This is so common, I often stop people now at “I have three ideas.” I tell them that they can go ahead, but I’m going to tell them it’s all one big idea. (Okay, one time, a guy wanted to write a book about colonial American village OR Obamacare, and yeah, that’s too different. But the rest of the time, this turned out well.)
The follow-up question I ask them, that gets to the bottom of it is: if you could devote nine months to researching a question that drives you, but maybe isn’t answerable in nine months—it might not be answerable at all—what would that question be? Often that question is at the root of all three book ideas.
It’s important to think big, because you want be to the most essential book on a topic people care about. You don’t want to be the book people read after they read that other, bigger book, because they may never get around to reading yours.
Okay, so that’s the bigger part. What’s the smaller part? Every reader likes stories. Sometimes it’s an anecdote, and sometimes it’s an entire life, carefully told. Readers also remember stories better than they remember ideas. So how small a story can you tell, close up, that will also get this all across? Is there one man at the center of these two shifting tectonic plates? Is there a single event, or a year, or institution whose story parallels the bigger story? Try to shrink the biggest part of your argument down to a single person or relationship or conflict. If you can make a sweeping argument about the American economy or the Middle East or cancer or string theory and do it through a central, compelling story, oh boy have you got hold of something good.
So whatever your idea is, it’s probably both not big enough yet, and not small enough.
Editors hate to see this sentence in a book proposal: “Before the book comes out, I will start a Twitter account.” It means about as much as saying, “I will also get a library card.” What they want to see is, “I already know many of my 30,000 Twitter followers will be interested in reading it.”
(If you’re wondering if I’m about to coerce you into joining Twitter: yes. Yes, I am. )
But what do you do if, like most writers, you’re somewhere in between? You recognize social media matters, but you don’t think you’ll ever build up a sizable audience.
You should join Twitter, and you should not care at all about how many people follow you.
You should care about the quality of people who follow you.
Twitter is how many media people organize their world. Imagine a reporter at the Post. Who does she think of as her peers? Her list would start with people she follows on Twitter. How about her best sources , or helpful academics? Probably people she follows on Twitter.
Many fiction writers get an important boost from a fan who is a writer one rung higher than them on the audience ladder, and you should know who those writers are.
You want to be on the radar of everyone who owns a slice of the audience you’re trying to reach, and the way to do that is by getting them to follow you on Twitter.
Okay, so how do you get started? Come up with a passable handle, and add a photo immediately. Have your twitter bio reflect how you want readers to see you. (90% of people apparently want to be seen as “not as funny as I think I am.”)
Start by following everyone you know, read, or admire.
What to tweet? If you have to work to think of tweets, you’re trying too hard. You need at least four Tweets every day, and they should be:
*A reply to at least one person who has less than 10,000 Twitter followers.
*Retweet someone else’s tweet.
*Tweet a link to something great you read online.
*Tweet one fact or insight from your dayjob, whether it comes with a link or not.
Don’t stress about getting retweets or your Klout score or your followers or the design of your page. Eventually, you’ll get friendly with some people, and see the unwritten rules of your corner of Twitter.
But really, it’s a cocktail party. Mingle.
It’s possible that you’ve come to this Tumblr page from my bio on my agency’s page. It’s possible that you were doing just the tiniest bit of due diligence before sending me the same letter and cozy mystery manuscript you’re sending to the entire publishing industry. You didn’t read enough to notice that I’ve never represented a cozy mystery like yours, but who has time for that? After all, you’re hitting every single person you can find from Google.
If you’re beginning to think this is not as great an idea as it sounded at first, yeah, you’re onto something.
Part of the problem is that most of the Google hits for “how do I get a literary agent” just tell you how to not get scammed. But that’s like having the headline “How to get free candy” and not mentioning Halloween, just creepy white vans, in the actual content.
About a month ago I did a guest post for Ploughshares (you should be a subscriber to the magazine!) on how people who have agents all found their agents. Probably the tiniest slice of those people were out of the slush people, so if you’re here considering something, check out how to get out of the slush pile and into my heart.
Then go ahead and send me that cozy mystery anyway. You never know.