What Makes A Story Well-Written?

Over on Twitter someone mentioned that they were starting to “read” (audio version), Nora Robert’s Year One and that reminded me that I’ve been trying to decipher for myself what makes a book well-written.

I normally try not to call out specific books, but that one represents for me exactly the conundrum that this question brings up.

My mother is a huge Nora Roberts fan. She’s currently re-reading all thirty-plus JD Robb books and routinely rereads her Nora Roberts romances. So she loves this woman and her writing in whatever form it takes.

But she was disappointed in Year One.

And I think the reasons why highlight something that I’ve been trying to sort through for myself as a writer.

I think there are two types of good writing. There’s writing that pulls you from page to page through a story. It’s something in that particular writer’s word choice and sentence structure and description and dialogue that keeps you reading. For my mother, Year One had that. She finished the book in two days even though she didn’t really like it.

I did, too.

There’s something about how Nora Roberts writes a story that is easy and enjoyable. Whatever this combination is (and I think it’s unique for each writer that has this skill), it makes reading a pleasurable experience.

But that kind of good writing isn’t guaranteed to make a book an enjoyable read that you want to recommend to others or read again. It doesn’t mean that you’ll have that satisfied feeling that the best books give.

SPOILER ALERT:In this case, part of the issue was that this book isn’t a romance but it also doesn’t do well as what it is. There’s a couple at the beginning of the book and by the end of the book one of those two is dead and the other person is with someone new. And the story is not about moving from that first relationship to a better one. So not a romance. Also, it starts as multiple viewpoint so you’re led to care about numerous people, but then the book skips over a significant part of their personal journeys and ends with us not knowing what happened to all but one character. And not in a cliff-hanger way. In a “the last 100 pages are about one person only and who cares what happened to all those others when they were all attacked” way.

So I keep asking myself what it was this book was missing. Because I read it. Cover to cover in two days. I didn’t set it aside.

It was well-written, but I think perhaps not well-told.

And I think that a truly great story is both. It has writing that engages the reader but it also has believable characters and good conflict and it keeps all the story lines gathered together and resolves all of them in a satisfying manner. There aren’t incongruent scenes. (A problem I had with book 2 by a different author recently.) And you see the key parts on the page. (I happened to think the last Brad Thor book was one of the better ones he’d written recently until the last twenty pages or so when it skipped ahead a couple weeks and summarized how things ended. Like, what? That takes all the satisfaction away, thanks.)

I don’t think there’s one formula here. I can think of a dozen authors I think write well and can carry any story and they’re all different in how they do that. And I can think of another handful who don’t write so well but tell a story so riveting that you just have to keep going.

As a reader my personal dread is the person who writes well but tells horrible stories because I’ll keep reading even as I hate them for making me do so. It’s terrible to want to throw a book away but be drawn forward by the writing. I’d far rather read a good story with messy writing than an awful story with good writing.

Anyway. It’s something I think about and try to learn from although I clearly haven’t puzzled it all out just yet.

Defensive AMS Ads

Most of the AMS ads I’ve run over the past eighteen months or so have been for one purpose: to make money. I’ve run those ads as long as what I was earning on the books exceeded what I was spending for the ads, regardless of what the AMS dashboard might actually reflect at any given moment.

(I take the ad spend for a period and compare it to ebook and paperback sales as well as page reads for the time period to see if I’m net positive or net negative. And, yes, that’s a flawed approach because the page reads might be for a book that was borrowed six months before that, but you do what you can do and let go of the rest.)

Anyway.

That’s been my standard approach.

But I noticed a while back that Amazon was doing something very annoying and unpleasant. And that was placing one or more Sponsored Product ads above the actual search results on the Amazon page. Here’s a search I just did for CreateSpace:

Amazon CS search

See how the entry that’s showing is a Sponsored Product ad? You have to scroll down to see actual search results based on the term CreateSpace.

Note that that’s my ad and quite intentionally so. I had actually turned off AMS ads on that particular book because I was spending just a little bit more to run that ad than I was receiving back in sales and it’s not a big seller to start with.

But last week I told someone about this book and when they tried to find it on Amazon, they couldn’t. They used the title “CreateSpace for Beginners” and they used the author name “M.L. Humphrey.” Neither search brought up that book. I tested it, too, and same thing. I could not find a combination of book title and author name that brought the book up in a search result.

That’s the ugly truth of Amazon. They don’t provide a word-for-word search result. If you have a low selling title and you try to search for it by title and/or author, it won’t come up. Sometimes they’ll display no search results at all rather than display the book in question.

Which means that if you tell a friend about your book that isn’t selling well and they go to Amazon to find it, it’s quite possible they won’t. (This is not an issue with Barnes & Noble, by the way. Search there and this book comes right up.)

This is where running defensive AMS ads comes into play. You run an ad not to make a profit, but to at least have minimal visibility. Now, I don’t know that it will work all the time, but it did at least work this time. I now have ads running on all of my non-fiction titles even if those ads only have a handful of active keywords. And for each of those ads I have my book title as one of those keywords so that, hopefully, even if Amazon refuses to display my book as a search result they’ll still display it as an ad.

Sad, I know, that I have to do something like that just to get my book to show in a search result. But that’s the way it goes sometimes. (As I type this I’m thinking that I really need to make a more significant effort to direct traffic to any site other than Amazon, because, seriously, what a shit thing to do on their part.)

The other reason to run defensive AMS ads is because of that top spot on search results being an ad. One of my titles is selling very well right now and if you search for relevant keywords it’s number one or two in the search results. But there’s an ad that appears first. So even though people might see my listing and click on it, I want to have that top spot, too, so they don’t see someone else’s book in that first spot and buy it instead. Makes selling that book more expensive, but that’s the way it goes.

So, bottom line: If you have lower-selling books on Amazon it may be worth running an AMS ad to at least make sure that anyone who comes looking for your book will find it. And if you have a well-selling book on Amazon it may be worth running an AMS ad to own that top search result.

(And if you’re wide it may be worth putting in some serious effort to drive sales to other platforms that won’t screw you over this way.)

Playing 3D Chess While Juggling Chainsaws

I was trying to think of a good analogy for what self-publishing feels like to me and that’s what I came up with. It’s like trying to play three-dimensional chess while simultaneously juggling chainsaws.

I suspect that’s not the case for every author. If you write under one pen name and in one series, it’s probably much more straight forward. But I currently have seven active pen names and multiple lines under some of those. For example, M.L. Humphrey has the Excel books, but also books on Word, self-publishing, writing in general, and personal finances.

Thanks to AMS ads, I can keep most of those moving at least a bit every day once a title is published.

But where to focus efforts and energy is where it gets interesting. Write another fantasy series because I’m pretty sure I’ll need twelve novels before I can really judge how that pen name will do long-term? Write another romance novel because just two romance novels under that one name have done well for me and another might cause another leap upward in terms of sales? Find a way to expand on the non-fiction titles? Master Google AdWords so I can find a steady way to promote my books on non-Amazon platforms?

There’s just me and just so many hours in the day. I have to pick one and do it.

And I’m not operating in a vacuum here. Every other self-publisher is making their own choices right now. Choices that will impact me. So are traditional publishers. And other entertainment providers. And the government. And social media platforms. And consumers for that matter.

All of it has an impact. For some of it there’s nothing to be done. Not yet. I either can’t see it or can’t do anything to change it or react to it.

And for the rest of it, even if there is something that can be done, the better answer is probably “produce more content regardless of what that content is.” Because without product to sell it really doesn’t matter what the market is doing or what the competition is doing.

Which is why I should stop writing this post and starting working on the next thing. (Whatever that’s going to be, which is the problem after all…)

Giving Advice

This week I had a friend of a friend who’s a new author reach out for some writing advice. And of course there are always folks finding their way to the various forums who want advice as well.

And it’s tricky.

Because I’ve found my path and how I want to approach this. (Subject to change, of course.) But it isn’t how I started out and I don’t know that telling someone to do things the way I do them is necessarily appropriate.

Especially since this industry is changing so much and so fast.

For example, one of the folks who was looking for advice on self-publishing was looking for advice on how to get their first novel into print. Now, I could have a lengthy discussion with that person about whether print is the best choice. And point out to them that a large majority of their sales will (likely) be in ebook if they self-publish and talk about how once you put that book out in print that listing will be on Amazon probably longer than they’re alive and that maybe that’s something worth considering when you’re new and not yet good at figuring out your book’s title and cover, etc. and are probably going to publish it under your real name.

Or…

I could just point them to CreateSpace instead of having them pay a few grand for something that should cost less than $500 and could actually be done for free if they want to put in the effort.

If that’s all that person wants–to see their book in print–who am I to try to turn them into a full-blown self-publishing business looking to make a profit? Will they later start to learn more about self-publishing? Maybe. Or maybe all they ever wanted was physical copies of their book to give to friends and family.

So be it.

Same with the newer writer who approached me. Right now that writer wants to go the trade publishing route. So I told them how to do it and that money should flow to the writer in that case. Could I have launched into a lengthy discussion about contract terms from the Big 5 and agent pitfalls, etc, etc.? And maybe even suggested that self-publishing was the better option for that novel given what they’d told me about it?

Sure.

But that’s not where that author is mentally. And I don’t think it’s my place to drag them down that path. Hopefully they’ll learn and either adapt to fit into the path they do want to take or choose a different path, one better suited to what they’ve already written. That’s up to them, not me. All I can do is give them that starter bit of knowledge that will let them decide.

Or so I think.

Hopefully I’m right.

 

Make The Voices Stop!

I’m 15,000 words into the first novel of a new series and I’ve hit that point in the writing process where the story is starting to take shape, which also means that point in the process where all of the outside voices start clamoring for attention.

Like the one that says that standard Medieval European fantasy settings are so knee-jerk easy to use and cliched and why would you use that when you have your entire imagination to work with.

Or the one that says you can’t possibly sell that series as a fantasy romance if both of the love interests are going to die in the end, even if the main character does in fact love both of them and struggle around finding happiness with them.

Or the one that says if you’re going to use that legend as the jumping off point for this series then you need to be true to x, y, and z portions of that legend or the readers will hate you forever.

There are other voices, too. Those three are just the loudest today. With each novel I find I have to go through this at some point. I usually take a few days, consider what those voices have to say, and maybe adjust course slightly (like having this series be inspired by that legend but not using those actual names or places). But at the end of the day I have to write the story that works for me. Because if I keep listening to all the voices I’ll never get the words down on the page and certainly never publish them once they’re there.

Poor Promo Choices

When you first start self-publishing, all you want is to see your books sell. At least that was the case for me. I mean, I’d put all this effort into writing something and I’d put it out into the world and now I wanted people to actually buy it and, hopefully, enjoy it or find value in it.

So any promo I could get, I took. (At least, successful ones. I wasn’t trying to throw money down the drain.) Pay $5 for a BKnights free promo and see four hundred people download my book? Yes, please. Get a Bookbub on my fantasy novel. Hells yeah.

But here’s the thing. Not every promo, even a successful one, is a good choice.

I applied for my first Bookbub when my fantasy trilogy was incomplete. I had two books out but not the third when I was accepted for that first one. And I was thrilled to get it. Yay, new fans.

But at the same time, I was kicking myself for my impatience. Because, and I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, I think I’m a good enough writer that a decent percentage of people will read and enjoy my books and go on to buy the next one if it’s available. But I’m not such an amazing writer that they’ll wait around breathlessly for my next one. I don’t have the issues GRRM or Patrick Rothfuss have. I don’t post or tweet and have someone reply, “Stop posting and write.”

So if I promo a book before a series is complete, chances are there’s a certain percentage of readers who will read the books that are available, like them, but then go on with their lives and never think about me or my books again. Which means that, for me, the longer I can wait to promo, the better. Don’t promo book one when it comes out, promo the series when it’s done.

That’s easier said than done, of course. Because I always want to hope I’m that “oh my god, I love you” author and you can’t tell if you are until you get sales. And money is nice. I tend to run profitable promos, so each promo, even the ill-advised ones, means income.

Another mistake I make with promo (which I made today which is what prompted this post) is that I promote books to an audience I’m not going to be able to satisfy long-term. I have a book in the top 50 in the free store today because of a promo. But it’s a title I have no intention of following up on and all of the other titles under that name aren’t going to appeal to those readers.

If they want more of that they’re not going to get it from me.

So why did I do it? Why waste that time and energy? Why catch and release?

Money. Probably. It’s a KU title so a free run can often pay for itself with page reads. And I think I can use AMS to sustain the momentum the free run will give it. But there’s nowhere for those readers to go. Not with me. They’ll read it and move on and that’ll be it.

And if they do love it? If I do get, “oh my god, write more” emails? That’s gonna be a problem. Because I have no intention of writing more of that right now. Or ever.

Which means that promo, even if profitable, was a mistake. To pursue fans you can’t satisfy. To promo for short-term gain when it does nothing for long-term stability. Wasted effort.

(And, really, writing that title was all part of the same sort of mistake. It felt good to see those sales when I originally released it, but there was no long-term strategy involved. I was just throwing things at the wall to see what would stick.)

Ideally, everything you do as a writer works together. You write titles that feed into one another. Same world, same genre, same whatever it is so that readers who find you want everything you’ve written. (This is much more the case with fiction than non-fiction, by the way. At least the type of non-fiction I write.)

So you write works that lead to one another. And then you promo those titles to build your author brand so that the release-promo-release-promo cycle all moves together and with each promo and each release you see a bigger impact than the one before until it becomes like a rock rolling downhill and all you have to do is release, release, release with just enough promo to let people know something new is out.

That should be the goal. That’s how you do good promo.

(But you know me. I’ll keep up with this poor promo approach, because I’m strange that way. Don’t be me, kids.)

You Don’t See What I See

So I’m a woman. I don’t always point that out but part of why I started this blog was so that when I wanted to talk about issues relevant to that fact, I could. And today is one of those days.

Two things are prompting this post. First is a thread that’s been blowing up on one of the writing forums the last couple days that is probably soon to be locked. It wasn’t the main point of the thread, but it came up during that discussion that there is at least one top-100-ranking male romance author (and possibly far more) using a female pen name, representing themselves to their fans as a woman, and interacting with their fans as a woman. Sometimes it seems as a black woman (although it wasn’t clear to me whether that was also in romance or not).

This male author said that they had gone so far as to have conversations with their readers on Facebook about their book boyfriends, etc. So it wasn’t simply a matter of using a female pen name and a stock photo or photo of the author’s wife. This also involves back and forth conversations with fans creating a space where they can talk to their favorite author about the interests they share. All the while knowing that on their side it’s complete bullshit.

The second thing that prompted this post is a thread over on Twitter where a woman was talking about being approached while walking her dog by a man who was at first friendly but then started asking uncomfortable questions about where she lived and if she lived alone and actually followed her and hugged her against her will.

Part of that thread was full of the well-meaning but completely lacking in understanding men who had to provide their perspectives on what she should’ve done. You know. The usual. Maybe the guy was just socially clueless. Or she should report him to the police. Or carry mace or a taser or…

Or why can’t you just be nice to guys instead of assuming they’re all creepers. If you just smiled at men and said hi this wouldn’t happen

Enough.

(Oh, and this post is prompted by a third thing. On Seth Godin’s blog the other day he included a comment that “…you have a theory that smiling at a stranger increases the chances that you’ll have a good interaction” and I laughed out loud when I read that because that was so clearly written by a man.)

So here is my PSA to men. And I’m not saying that any of the men who read this blog even need it, but this is my little place on the internet to share my experiences, so this is where it’s going:

You don’t see what I see.

You do not experience the world the way I experience it.

A man like Seth Godin can smile at a stranger and have them smile back and it’s a good interaction. I smile at a strange man, he follows me for four blocks trying to chat me up because he thinks that smile must mean I want to have sex with him. Right now. In that alley.

And before anyone jumps in with not every man or that’s doesn’t happen often, let me tell you…If it was just once that I had made eye contact with a man I didn’t know or smiled at a man I didn’t know and had an awkward experience, I would still make eye contact with men I don’t know or smile at them. I don’t.

I reached a point between working in big cities (Washington, DC and New York) and traveling in countries where men are very forward (France, Greece, etc.) that I found my best strategy was to (1) not react to any sound in my immediate vicinity because it was more often than not a man trying to get my attention, (2) not look directly at anyone because if I made eye contact with a man about nine times out of ten that would result in him seeing it as an opening and trying to chat me up, (3) not smile in public because see #2 (also see number 1 for how the “you should smile more” thing misses with me–I just don’t hear it).

Because of how I now am (no reaction to sounds, no eye contact, no smile), I sometimes get called a standoffish bitch. Or cold. Or frigid. (Thanks for that one, Jimmy.)

Men don’t understand. They don’t experience what I experience. They don’t get in taxi cabs and have the driver ask them if they’re single and then have to suffer through a twenty minute conversation about how they should find a man or (when they lie and say they’re in a relationship) questions about where their man is because clearly he shouldn’t let his woman out in public alone.

Men don’t get followed down the street by a guy who’s “just being persistent.” They don’t get stuck on a register at work with a guy who won’t leave and have to be polite to him because he’s a customer. They don’t walk out to their car after a late shift and see that same guy lingering around outside waiting for a chance to ask them out.

Men don’t get it because they don’t experience the world the way women do. So when these situations come up, they don’t put themselves in a woman’s shoes and try to see the world from her perspective. They look at it from theirs. They don’t see how a woman couldn’t look up from her book while riding the bus for fear of being stuck in an unwanted conversation with a guy who might follow her to her car. They think instead of that attractive girl who was sitting across from them on the bus last week who would’ve been perfect for them if only she’d looked up. (Not realizing they stared at her for five minutes straight like a true creeper.)

Men don’t get it. They’ve never tried to politely tell a man they aren’t interested and have the man go from “Hey, sexy, what’s up?” to “Fuck you, bitch. You’re not that hot anyway” in less than a minute.

So all that helpful advice about how being nice works? Bullshit.

Of course, I haven’t talked yet about the other advice women get. The advice that says call the cops. Or take the guy’s photo. Or carry mace. Or a taser. Or…

Look.

The girl who started that Twitter thread said what I was thinking: If I called the cops on every guy who was a creeper towards me I’d never leave the courtroom.

And if I took photos of every guy who was a creeper, my phone would be full of dudes. (Not to mention that would escalate the situation.)

Now, I’m fortunate. I’m not petite. So I don’t get physically grabbed by men. They hover, they follow, they lean in, they linger, but they don’t grab. They just annoy. And cuss when I ignore them. So I don’t have it as bad as some women.

As for carrying a weapon…This shit goes down fast. With a true predator–a man who is going to try to harm you rather than cajole you–I’m not convinced that I could adequately use a weapon against him in the timeframe I’d need to use it.

It’s like using bear spray. By the time the bear is standing there in front of you, do you really think you can dig it out of your pack, get the safety off, and spray it before the bear attacks?

It’s not like a woman can walk home with mace in her hand and wave it at every man who gets within five feet. (Even if some days it feels like that’s the only safe option.)

Plus, most women learn that the average guy can be ignored or awkwardly avoided until he gives up. Pulling a taser or mace is likely to escalate a situation that could’ve been kept to awkward and uncomfortable.

So when this shit happens and a woman shares her experience, if you’re a guy maybe stop yourself before you reply.

You don’t need to tell a woman how to navigate this world. We get trained in it every fucking day. If a woman is in her thirties and not horribly scarred by terrible events, chances are she’s figured out how to handle all but the psycho predators. You don’t see it, because you don’t have to do it, but every woman around you has ways of handling her interactions with men (including you) to keep herself as safe as she can. She doesn’t need your suggestions.

If you do need to respond, a “That sucks. I’m sorry that happened to you,” will work just fine.

And as for that male author who is pretending to be a woman with his fans? I don’t care if a male author uses a female pen name. Or a fake bio. Or a fake photo. (I don’t like it, because I don’t think it’s honest, but I get that it happens.)

But when you engage in conversation with women, pretending to be a woman, talking to them about their lives? In order to make a little extra money off of them? (Because, really, if you write the right book you don’t need social media to sell it.) That’s just fucking predatory.

That’s using someone’s openness and desire to connect with others against them. It makes the world a worse place. And it’s an all too familiar violation for women who have had men lie about who they are to get close.

Remember, you don’t see the world women see. You don’t understand how doing that is right up there with the worst kind of crap that men pull. Don’t do it. Find a better way.