Questions are rare treasures. Whenever you get a new one, you are that much richer.
Don’t believe me? Well, allow me to give you an example.
This Year’s Experiment
All the way back in May, I noticed the disturbing lack of quality in self-published books. To a certain degree, traditionally published books also suffer from this. If you randomly pick up an eBook from Amazon (without specifically looking at bestsellers lists), or randomly pick up a volume from a bookstore shelf (once again, not from the bestseller shelf), chances are good that the book is going to be forgettable, mediocre, or even just garbage.
And I know that nobody ever sets out intending to write a bad book. Despite what a lot of indie authors claim, everyone wants their book to be a success. They all hope to be widely read, and that is a good thing to hope for. There is no shame in wanting to be one of the greats.
Yet most of them can’t even be called “good”, much less great.
And this conundrum has plagued me for the better part of a year. How can so many independent authors not produce quality work? More importantly, can these authors improve themselves to the point where they start making great stuff?
It often seems like there is some fundamental issue that many amateur authors are failing to grasp. The core principles of great writing are not hard to learn. For so many people to not grasp them, there has to be some kind of information gap occurring.
Now any reader of this blog knows that I am a firm believer in catalysts. That moment when the switch is flipped, and the light turns on, is where true learning always occurs. So how can we flip that switch for the endless masses of independent authors?
What is the easiest way to change a bad writer to a good one?
Asking the Right Questions
The answer, I believe, must come in the form of a question.
Earlier this year, I recommended that all fresh and budding authors use a single question as their guiding principle: “What’s special about it?”
When planning his story, the author should continually prod himself with that question. Because unless his story has some unique selling point that separates it from the infinite crowd of books, it has almost no chance at success.
Today, I introduce another question. This one will be even more important in guiding rookie authors toward excellence.
The Missing Methods
There are many things that can make a book unreadable, and as I perused self-published books online, I encountered all of them.
But I kept asking myself, “Is there a single, unifying thread to the badness? One error that, if corrected, would resolve all the other problems?” I asked myself this again and again, until a pattern started to emerge.
There is an “upstream problem” that trickles down to create the other problems. It’s pernicious, but relatively easy to fix. Because the one issue that almost every indie book suffers from—the one common symptom among all the patients—is that their books are completely methodless.
These authors approach the task of writing a book without any kind of plan or discipline in mind beyond putting words on a page. The result is a kind of literary diarrhea. The end product exists, is clearly visible, and may even be potent, but its construction has no rhyme or reason. There is no recognizable craft in that end product. Its homogenized contours do not reveal how it was made.
Contrast this with well received books written by established authors. Not every one of these books is great, and they are all constructed using different methods, but they are all recognizably written with a method in mind.
Some authors reliably begin each scene by setting the atmosphere. Other authors end each chapter with a standoff. Yet other authors hold themselves to a quota of one game-changing revelation per chapter. Some build ladders of tension, and some filigree their prose until each sentence is a work of art. No bestselling author employs all methods, but all of them employ some.
So, in addition to “What’s special about it?”, every writer must be asked the question, “What’s your method?”
If he can give even a partial answer, then there is a good chance the author can improve and, through iteration, become great.
But if the answer is simply, “I don’t have a method”, or, “I don’t think I need one,” then the author is just spinning his wheels. That approach leads nowhere.
But knowing you need a method is not a good starting point. Budding authors need to understand where methods come from.
How to Obtain a Method
The easiest way to get an understanding of author methods is to read broadly.
Well, to read broadly and critically.
While reading someone else’s book, the author must dissect it. He must determine how the book was constructed the way it was. This involves two essential activities:
- Reading great books and determining why they work.
- Reading bad books and determining why they don’t.
Most people read books for entertainment alone, and while their entertainment benefits from the author’s methods, they never bother to ask what those methods are. They only know that if it made them feel good, then it was good.
The author in training must not do this. As he is enjoying the book, he must ask himself why he is enjoying it and how the other author made that happen.
Likewise, when reading a book that does not please him, he must examine why the book fails to engage his attention and make him want more of it.
With enough of this practice, it’s easy for him to reverse engineer his own rules for building a wonderful story. In the end, his new method may be quite similar to those of the authors he most enjoys reading (which is fine; there’s no law against copying another author’s method).
The important part is that the resulting method be formalized, with its own set of understandable rules. An ineffable method is no method at all.
Keep Asking Questions
I believe these two questions—“What’s special about it?” and “What’s your method?”—resolve more than 99% of the problems an author faces when trying to write a book. And using these questions as a personal guide for your writing will place you above 99% of all authors out there.
Imagine if every author, indie or trad, had a firm grasp on these questions. We’d be inundated with so many good books that we would never want for great stories. Perhaps such a future is impossible. Perhaps not everyone can rise above the crowd.
But the right people will. And you should consider the possibility that you are one of them.
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