Last week I read two awesome books, The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen and The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni, (Both in Kindle Unlimited) and it made me realise that though not everyone can write books that are that good, we can all write a book that is good for us, and we can all be helped to make our books the best they can possibly be. Some of us, with the right kind of help, may even find that we can write a book that is every bit as good as these two and the many others like them. I’m publishing a couple I’d put in this category later this year – look out for A Thread so Fine and The Awakening of Russell Henderson.
What’s great about awesome books isn’t just their story – which is every bit as interesting and exciting as the best genre fiction – but the way they’re written. Not only do they have beautiful prose and tight editing, they also have a depth of insight into the human spirit. They move you. The characters are bared to the reader such that we share their hopes and fears and loves and loses. The books draw you into the story in such a way that we live the character’s lives, and their lives enrich us. They may even illuminate something about ourselves. This is the sort of quality that makes a book literary fiction.
Not all books fit this category, of course, and neither should they. Some books are designed to be action rather than character-driven, and in such books little time is spent on the character’s emotional reactions to events. The best books, however – the ones you remember, tell your friends about, and for which you leave rave reviews – have a strong plot which includes some action, depth of character, and some insight into the human condition, and, of course, they’re well-written. Even if you’re writing genre fiction, your book is improved by the qualities that make us label something as literary fiction; but how do we give our books the best chance of moving readers in this way?
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Plot and characterisation
I’ve talked about plot elements and characterisation before, and they are easy topics to research so I won’t go into these areas here, but I will remind you of the importance of having an aim for your central character (protagonist) and something or someone (an antagonist) to get in the way of your protagonist achieving their aim. Without this, you don’t have any dramatic tension, and without tension, a book is dull. Readers will simply put it down. In order to hold readers, books need conflict or mystery or suspense or tasks to complete or relationship issues to resolve, so make sure your story has one or more of those.
They also need characters who are real, who are complex, who have hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses we can relate to, and who react to the events they experience and grow from them. The deeper you can dive into a character’s mind, heart and motivations, the more likely you are to write a great book.
Insight into the human condition
I wrote a whole post on identifying and deepening themes in our writing, and the advice in that post will go a long way towards drawing out the kind of insight that, if it infuses the writing, can make a book truly special. The thing about insight is that it shouldn’t be laboured, or preachy; it shouldn’t be something you aim to do, rather it’s something that you allow to come through from your deepest being into your writing. It should come naturally from you as a person, from your life experience and your values (particularly if you’re writing a memoir) and it will show up in your author voice, in the words you choose, the comments you and your characters make, and the story itself.
Insight comes into writing when we dig deep into ourselves and when we enter into our characters and story fully as we write, and then have the courage to bare our soul to the world. When we write a character walking into a tomb (for example), we should be living that moment ourselves so we can write exactly how it feels to step into that cool and morbid interior – or perhaps we don’t find it morbid; perhaps our character finds tombs inspiring. Our heart should be pounding as our character battles their foe and softening when they pick up a baby or puppy.
It also comes from trusting that we do have some depth of insight and that we only need to allow it to come out naturally. No need to force anything. And it comes from not separating ourself from our stories. That’s how we develop our voice as an author, our special take on the world that is completely unique.
All great authors acknowledge the assistance of their editors and publishers, and the less experience as an author you have, the more you need professional assistance. Just make sure that you don’t fall into the self-publishing trap of missing out the line edit. If you’re trying to minimise costs, then it’s tempting to miss that step because it costs more to have a line edit as well as a copy edit and proofread, and authors simply don’t realise how their prose falls short until someone shows them how much better it can be and should be. Miss the line edit and your book will never be a fully professional product – unless you’re someone with top-notch writing skills honed through study and practice.
Line editing checks whether or not the author has expressed themselves well. It improves the quality of the prose, removes unnecessary repetition, restructures sentences and paragraphs so that they flow more smoothly together, and checks the subtleties of word usage, and so on. A good line editor knows the difference between active and passive prose and can turn dull prose into something more engaging. Copy editors and proofreaders do not do this. They merely check the grammar on what is there, and writing that is grammatically sound can still be dull.
My book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine has tips for self-editing that if you can follow them will make your line-editing costs minimal.
The value of your book no matter how it turns out
Your book, no matter how it turns out, no matter how many you sell or whether anyone likes it or not, is still a good book for you, because you needed to write that book, work on it, and have it published. You had a story you needed to tell, and if you worked on it with a professional to make it the best it can be, then you have a product that is worthy of publication, even if it doesn’t make anyone’s top 10 reads for the year. You would have learned a lot during the process of writing that book, maybe so you can write a better one, or maybe so you can look at your story and see what it means for you, why it was important that you write it. Maybe you needed to write it to sort out something, or to assimilate or move on from an event in your life, and these are excellent reasons to write a book and feel satisfaction at its completion.
In a time when publication is open to more people than ever before, book writing and publication has a wider purpose than it did when only a select few could publish, and writing for personal growth or simply to leave the story of your life for your family are as good a reason to write a book as any. Whether or not that story ever gets to a publishable standard or not depends on your willingness to work on it and to pay professionals to help you, but if, after you have done that, your book is still only mediocre, that is no reason to feel you have failed. It’s still a good book for you, because you wrote it, and you wouldn’t have done it unless you needed to.
The process of developing your author voice can be most illuminating from a self-knowledge perspective, and that alone is a valuable journey to take.
I see my mission for this part of my life as helping people to write their stories well and sculpt them into something of a publishable standard. Some author’s books will make the ‘truly awesome’ label, but most, despite my best efforts, will not reach the pinnacle of literary quality, and that’s perfectly okay. The important thing for you if you’re an author is that you’ve written your story and done it to the best of your ability, and that has to be enough. All stories have value. It’s my job to help my authors to make their stories as readable as possible, and if you come to me for help, I’ll push you to go as deep as you can into yourself and your experiences to encourage you to reveal your greatness. Not only that, but as a line editor, I will turn poor or pedestrian prose into something of quality. In other words, I and my team of editors will give you your best shot at making your novel or memoir truly great.
This is part of a series of blog posts on how to write a novel. It doesn’t just cover the technical details, but also the emotional journey we take and the personal challenges we meet on the road from potential author to author. Join the journey now, and don’t miss a post, click here to sign up to get my Novel Revision Checklist and links to the articles sent to your inbox.
If you’re an author check out my editing services.
You’ll also find my book on writing, The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine, very helpful.
If you like stories with action, romance and a contemplative element, you’ll enjoy my fiction, so take a look in my bookshop before you go.
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