How to Write Better Stories

How to Write Better Stories

better stories

A few insights to help you write better stories.

You know that feeling you get when you read a novel and become completely lost in it? You can’t put it down, so you lose track of time. When you finally finish, you wish it would just keep going.

Isn’t that the kind of story you want to write?

Over the past year, I’ve read only a few books that I couldn’t put down. Unfortunately, several of the books I started to read didn’t keep my interest past the first few chapters. There was a time when I forced myself to finish every book I started, no matter how boring it was. But I don’t have time for that anymore. My book pile is big and my reading list is long, so if I’m not compelled by the time the second act gets underway, I move on and find something more intriguing.

As a reader, I’m on a perpetual quest for better stories. What does that mean for writers? 

1. The Best Fiction Sticks

I’ve been thinking about what makes some books so easy to put down and what makes others impossible to let go of. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, for example, I had the strangest feeling that Holden Caulfield was a real person. I expected him to come walking around some corner and start mumbling about the lousy week he was having. This sensation lingered for a few days, both times I read the book.

But let’s go back further. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was about six years old. Then I read it again. And again, and again. I watched the animated film over and over. No matter how many times I read the book or watched the movie, I always cried at the end. To this day, quotes from the book and scenes from the film get me choked up. It’s a story that sticks.

A few years ago, I couldn’t put down The Hunger Games. I’m a science-fiction fan, so the dystopian world intrigued me, but what really kept me glued to the page was the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She wasn’t fearless, but she was brave, strong, and honorable.

Stories like these haunt readers, lingering in hearts and minds. These are the best kinds of stories.

2.  Writing Better Stories

If we want to write better stories, we need to read the best fiction and figure out what makes it so excellent. When I’m absorbed in a book, I always try to keep one corner of my mind focused on what the writer is doing so brilliantly to keep my full attention on the story. Some things are obvious: compelling characters, an interesting plot, realistic dialogue. Other elements of the best fiction are more elusive. Here are some observations I’ve made about how to write better stories:

3.  Give People a Reason to Read

If I get to the third chapter of a book and still don’t care about it, I’ll probably put it in the donation pile. The characters have to want something badly enough to go out there and try to get it. They must have purpose, an objective if you will. The characters’ purpose gives me a reason to read their stories. Intriguing mysteries and unanswered questions are also good reasons to keep turning pages.

4.  Don’t Bore Your Readers

Pages of description, minute details that are neither interesting nor relevant to the plot and dull scenes that have no essential function to the story will bore readers. Keep the conflicts coming and the action moving, and your readers will stay up to read your book rather than reading it to help them fall asleep.

5.  It’s the Little Things

Too much detail and description gets boring, but the right details can make an otherwise average scene extraordinary. One liners that make readers laugh, subtle (or overt) pop culture references, and symbolism that has deeper meaning keep readers stimulated.

6.  Stimulate Imagination, Provoke Thought, and Pull Heartstrings

Speaking of stimulation, it’s one of the main reasons people enjoy reading so much. Sure, lots of readers are just looking for escape and entertainment, but plenty of us want to engage our imaginations and have our intellects challenged. Get readers emotionally involved, and not only will they enjoy your book; they’ll also become loyal fans of your work.

7.  Do Something Different

Forget about trying to be completely original. I doubt that’s possible anymore. Every story is the result of stories that have come before. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put your unique stamp on the canon. Give old story premises new twists and your stories will feel fresh and invigorating.

7.  Write Smooth Sentences That Make Sense

This one is last on the list for a reason. One of the best novels I recently read did not have the best sentence structures. In fact, some paragraphs were fragmented and disjointed — not so much that I couldn’t understand what was going on, but it was jarring at times. The story was strong enough that I didn’t care that much, but this type of oversight can mean the difference between a four-star and a five-star review.

8.  How Do You Write Better Stories?

When you’re reading and writing fiction, do you think about the little things that make the difference between a mediocre story and a mesmerizing story? What was the last book you read that you couldn’t put down? What was it about that book that made it so potent? How do you apply what you’ve learned as a reader to your own fiction? How can authors learn to write better stories? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment, and keep writing!

My brief thoughts about this article.

I found that number 4 Suggestion really stood out regarding my own writing. I really write way too much description about scenery, weather, scent, and backstory.  I started out in my life drawing scenes of people, nature, landscapes of all kinds and then as a clinical researcher, detail was everything. So, know that I have found a pertinent excuse, I can excuse my excesses, however, it is a lesson now learned.  Karen

Ideas for Guest Blog Posts about your novel #MondayBlogs #AmWriting #Marketing

D. E., thank you so much for posting these wonderful suggestions for blogging posts! You are a life saving for many of us bloggers that are writing novels too and find time is a precious commodity.

D.E. Haggerty

I try to blog three times a week, but sometimes I can’t come up with a blog idea for the life of me. And then there’s those blog tours that want guest blog posts. Of course, I’m a glutton for punishment and also offer to write blog posts for other blogs to promote my books. Help! Calgon take me away!

calgon take me away

I don’t have a bathtub so Calgon is never going to take me away. Instead, I’ve developed a list of ideas to use for blog posts about my book. And because I’m super supportive of my fellow writers (but mostly because I couldn’t come up with an idea for today’s blog post), I’m going to share my list with you. Here goes:

Character Interview. Tried and tested. Never fails.

Five Things You Didn’t Know About (Protagonist). I find this one more fun than doing a character interview.

10 Items…

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Critical Thinking: The 5 Factors that Earn 5 Star Reviews!

An excerpt from: Paul Goat Allen | March 12, 2018, Writer’s Digest. Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.

Novelists live and die by reviews yet uncovering what garners a gushing ovation or blistering takedown is often a mystery. A professional critic lays out what it takes to earn five-star book reviews. For two decades I’d been working as a freelance genre fiction book critic for outlets such as BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and the Chicago Tribune. After sharing my credentials with the group, some of the writers began telling stories about mediocre or bad reviews they’d received at different points in their careers from one or more of the companies I’d listed.

As a reviewer, not much has changed since then. I enjoy all genres and have reviewed thousands of titles in hundreds of sub-genres ranging from apocalyptic fiction to zombie erotica. (Yes, there’s such thing as zombie erotica.) In the end, genre categorization matters little to me—it’s all about the story. With that in mind, I decided to formalize a universal framework through which I process and analyze my various reading experiences. While there are undoubtedly specific narrative elements I look for in-particular-genres (pacing and tension level in thrillers, for example), there’s a pyramid of qualities—a Hierarchy of Needs, if you will—that I seek in every story. While highly simplified, it’s this structure that dictates whether I give a book a positive or negative review.

These five criteria will not only provide a glimpse into how a veteran book reviewer dissects and evaluates a novel but, hopefully, make you look at your writing in a different light. See for yourself: Does your work-in-progress have what it takes to earn a positive review?

The Book Reviewer’s Hierarchy of Needs: How to Earn Five-Star Book Reviews

  1. Readability

A book’s degree of readability is the base layer of my reviewer’s pyramid, and the foundation for any good story. The quality of a novel—narrative clarity, narrative fluidity, having a coherent storyline—is directly related to the number of times I put that book down. Some are so bad, so poorly written, that I struggle to get through a single paragraph without wanting to walk away. Others have such a fl uid plot that I find it virtually impossible to stop reading—Tad Williams’ The Witchwood Crown and Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass being two such examples of utterly readable, page-turning novels.

I’ve read a lot of “unputdownable” books over the last few decades, and the vast majority of these all have something in common beyond a clear and fluid narrative: The stories have noticeably strong chapter beginnings and endings. It’s a small thing, but a great way to compel readers to keep reading. How can you put a book down when every chapter begins and ends with a cliffhanger sequence, bombshell plot twist or powerful statement? When I consistently find these elements in a novel, I know the author fully understands the significance of readability.

Conversely, novels that aren’t as readable—that are poorly written with awkward sentence structure, a confusing storyline, weak chapter beginnings and endings—are almost asking to be tossed aside. This may sound obvious, but if you can’t compel a reader to read your story, then you need to focus more on your craft before penning another book.

  1. Immersion

I define immersion as the ability for me, the reader, to not only lose myself in a novel (I call these “stay-up-all-night-till-your-eyes-bleed” reads) but to experience the story intimately, living vicariously through the characters. This trick is accomplished through a continued focus on setting, rich description and atmospherics. I don’t want to experience the story as a detached viewer looking down at what’s happening—I want to feel like I’m in the story.

The litmus test for this is easy. If I become so engaged with a book that I lose track of time—if I glance at the clock and hours have passed by—you’ve succeeded in drawing me fully into your read. Writers who are absolute immersion masters (think Cherie Priest, Justin Cronin, Charlaine Harris) are so good at captivating description that weeks, months and oftentimes years after reading their novels I can still vividly recall specific scenes.

This layer is where many writers stumble, and here’s why: While they may excel at world-building and meticulous description at the beginning of a novel, once the action and adventure ramps up, they not only lose focus but completely ignore description altogether. I’ve seen this happen countless times in every genre: rich description for the first 100 pages or so, then almost nothing in the final 200. It’s called literary escapism for a reason. If I can’t lose myself in a read—from beginning to end—then I haven’t fully escaped. Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View

  1. Character Depth and/or Plot Intricacy

Three-dimensional, interesting and identifiable characters bring emotional connectivity and intensity to the read. If your readers aren’t emotionally invested in your characters, then the narrative impact of your story is inevitably going to be negatively impacted. Emotions wield power. If you can bring your readers to tears, make them laugh out loud or scare them to the point of checking under the bed, then you’ve succeeded on some level.

Creating authentic characters to whom readers can relate is a solid achievement—but an obvious word of warning: Stay clear of clichés and stereotypes. Overused conventions—like the Chosen One in fantasy who is consistently a white male, or the emotionally damaged billionaire entrepreneur in erotic fiction who needs to sexually dominate his love interest—even if brilliantly rendered, will underwhelm and disappoint more than a few readers (and reviewers).

Now, the reason I include an “and/or” between character development and plot intricacy is because, in some rare cases (particularly in mainstream thrillers), a novel with an impressively knotty storyline can still succeed with relatively cardboard characters.

Which is why plot intricacy is key: Why read a novel where you can accurately predict what’s going to happen after a few chapters? (I do that quite often. After reading the first chapter or two, I’ll jot down a prediction in my notes. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve guessed the ending correctly.) I just finished reviewing a brilliant historical mystery for Publishers Weekly that was filled with so many plot twists I was left guessing until the last few pages. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a fantasy or a thriller or a romance—the plot has to be intricate enough to keep your reader simultaneously engaged and a bit off balance.

  1. Originality and Innovation

This one ties in with embracing originality, be it atypical characters or unconventional story structure. So many books out there today are built upon unoriginal, rehashed, derivative storylines. I read a lot. And I get bored easily, especially when reading the same basic story arc again and again. My advice? Don’t play it safe. Write a story that you’ve never read before. In a 2016 Goodreads interview I conducted with fantasy novelist Michael J. Sullivan, author of Age of Myth, he said,

“It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before. It just matters if it’s being done well now.”

I love that quote. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be re-envisioned or reimagined but be innovative—put a new twist on an old mythos, turn a stereotype on its head. Have the courage to be creative!

  1. Thematic Profundity

In the introduction to the 2006 reissue of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1960 Hugo Award–winning classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Mary Doria Russell writes, “You’ll be different when you finish it.” That’s my hope for every novel I pick up—that within the story there will be a kind of spiritual and/or existential wisdom, a kind of revelation or insight that will change the way I look at myself and the world around me.

A novel that holds this kind of thematic power—as well as the other elements in the Hierarchy of Needs—will get a starred review from me every time. Stories, no matter the genre, have the power to change lives. Novels like Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We have irrevocably changed who I am. After all, that’s the ultimate goal, right? To write a commercially successful and critically acclaimed novel that is both entertaining and enlightening.

Evaluating a novel is a cumulative process. Those with masterful character development but zero immersion will still receive a poor review, for example, while a thematically profound read with excruciatingly bad readability will receive a terrible review.

May this Hierarchy of Needs not only make you more aware of how your writing is experienced by readers—and jaded book reviewers like myself—but also offer up a few invaluable insights that can be used to improve your craft. Who knows, maybe my next starred review will be yours.

Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.

 

 

Blog Tour for Charles F. French and His New Release, Gallows Hill, A Review

Gallows Hill, by author, Charles F. French, is the second book in his series, The Investigative Paranormal Society.  Within this taunt, terrifying, page-turner, we find Roosevelt, Jeremy, Helen, and Sam continuing to pursue ghostly evil and new revelations about a heart-breaking past event, that complicates an already murderous ghost assignment that the IPS needs to vanquish before more innocent lives are lost.

Adding to the taunt, terrifying ghost encounter, is a back-story vendetta out to destroy Sam, a retired police detective, and anyone else in proximity to Sam.  Beyond the uniquely horrific ghost mystery, is a heart-breaking love story, as well as a long-lost love rediscovered, that adds to the emotional complexity that drives this story forward.

The character development within this ghostly horror novel is superb and adds to a narrative that is taunt with tension and suspense. The dialogue is not shy and gives a realistic representation of language, idioms, and images within the back-story to the present day, that reflects the different characters’ prerogatives and state of mind. The physical environment presented in this horror novel, is tangible, adding to the realism, terror, and fear in Gallows Hill.

Anyone who loves, not only a terrific horror story, but also one that is expertly written with a strong human story, heartbreak, and a love story, wrapped up in terror and courage to face what could be a death sentence, this story is for you. Don’t miss out on reading Gallows Hill, you won’t be disappointed. I highly recommend this intriguing horror novel. I give it 5 stars!

*****5 stars*****

Interview with Writer and Author, Charles F. French, Part 2

 

 

 

 

Good day to you Professor Charles F. French!  Thank you  for taking time, in your busy schedule, between teaching literature at two universities in eastern Pennsylvania and writing great horror novels! I just read your latest horror novel,  Gallows Hill, and it is a blockbuster of a horror novel!  I am very interested in discovering more about why reading, writing, and teaching is the love of your life.  Thank you for answering the following questions.  I know your readers are as anxious to know all about you as I am.

1.  How do you get your ideas for writing books, such as Maledicus, your first published book, but not the only novel you have written?

This may sound odd, and I do not know what it says about either me or the creative process, but I see characters and wonder what their stories are. I begin to think about them, and I jot down my ideas. And I never seem to run out of ideas.

2.  Do you feel that novels should have a moral dilemma that must be addressed?

I do not think that all novels should have a moral dilemma in them—that must be up to the author to decide, but I can say that in my novels, I always have at least one, if not more, moral dilemmas that the characters face in the course of the action.

3.  Do you research your story before you begin to write a novel?

I do not have a set pattern when it comes to research for my novels. I usually do the research as I come across something I do not know for the books. Then I attack the research to learn as much as I can about it. Because I never outline a book, I cannot be sure what it is I will need to learn until I reach that point. I am not suggesting that anyone else should follow my way of research, only that it is what I do. Each writer must find his/her own paths.

4.  In your latest novel, Gallows Hill what single idea inspired you to write this story?

Its origin is found in the first book in this series: Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society, book 1. The three men who create the ghost-investigation group all have lost someone very close to them to death. The first book focused on Roosevelt, and this one focuses on Sam, who lost his teenaged son, Josh to suicide. Sam carries deep grief with him, and the book is about his search to find answers about his son’s death. So, the theme of the past intruding on the present also informs the creation of the supernatural villain of the book, a former executioner/fundamentalist preacher who just cannot seem to let go of his need to punish those he considers to be sinners.

5.  Are you presently writing another novel and can you give us an idea of what it is about and why did you chose this subject matter?

Yes, I have written the first of a Young Adult series that I am currently pitching to agents, and I hope that I can break through into traditional publishing with it. It is an environmental post-apocalyptic novel, informed by the middle ages. I am also working on the first draft of the first book in a fantasy series that I thought would be midgrade but now I realize is adult fantasy. The themes of the evils of the world and how they intrude through fantastic events into the lives of several youngsters is too powerful, vivid, and horrific to be anything but adult fantasy.

6.  I have been told you that have also written another novel that has not yet been published. What is the name of this novel and when will it be published?

The name of the next book in the paranormal investigation series is Evil Lives After: The Investigative Paranormal Society, Book 3, and it will come out around Halloween in 2019.

7. Is there anything else that you would like to add to this discussion?

First, thank you to K. D. Dowdall for conducting this interview with me. Second, I want to say to all writers out there: continue to do what you do, and never lose hope or dedication to your craft and your art.

 

 

An Interview with Charles F. French, Writer and Author, Part 1

 

 

 

 

Good day to you Professor Charles F. French!  Thank you for taking time in your busy schedule, between teaching literature at two universities in eastern Pennsylvania and writing great horror novels! I just read your latest horror novel,  Gallows Hill, and it is a blockbuster of a horror novel!  I am very interested in discovering more about why reading, writing, and teaching is the love of your life.  Thank you for answering the following questions.  I know your readers are as anxious  to know all about you as I am.

  1. How old were you when you started reading books?

I was three years old I believe. I know I cannot remember not being able to read, and I know that my mom always read to me from a very young age.

  1. What kind of books, when you were a child, interested you the most?

I loved reading any kind of adventure, fantasy, or science-fiction the most. By the time I was in elementary school, I remember reading the Tarzan series and several of the Jules Verne novels such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

  1. What is the name of your favorite book when you were a teenager?

This is a more difficult question to narrow down to one at that time, but if I had to choose one, it was Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse, a novel about two friends of different backgrounds and interests and how their lives intertwined. When I was a teenager, exploration of mysticism and spirituality, both issues in this novel, were a part of many people’s lives.

  1. What was it that made you interested in writing books about horror stories?

I have enjoyed horror novels and movies since I was young. I read both Frankenstein and Dracula as a young teenager, and I always enjoyed the Universal Studios horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s. As I grew, I came to understand that horror in novels is often a metaphor for the true horror of the world. I do not see it as a way to escape reality, although reading is very useful to do that and it is fun, but as a prism or lens through which light can be focused on very real problems in life. Does that make sense?  So, I have tried both to tell interesting stories in my writing but also to explore important problems in the world in them.

  1. What made you want to be a professor of literature?

I originally wanted to be an actor. Theater was my first love in terms of profession, but I soon found out that I was not good enough to stand out from the others and unlikely to make a living from it. I also did not want to spend at least 20 years trying to make it as an actor. My whole life story is one of following unusual paths, but without going into great detail, I will say that I had dropped out of college, then after working as a steel-worker for several years, wanted to go back to school. I did return to college while working full-time as a janitor. I earned my degree as an adult student, and I realized then that I had both a talent and a passion for teaching, so my course was set.

  1. Why do you think it is important to spend a great deal of your time mentoring?

I have had the good fortune in my life to have had several professors go out of their ways to help me when I needed it the most. As I have become older, I realized that not only do I have much to pass along as a teacher of literature, but also I can offer whatever knowledge I have to younger people, including adult students, about life, books, and writing. I hope I do not sound full of myself in this answer.

Tuesday, February 27 – Part 2 of my Interview with Charles F. French, Writer and Author!

*****NEW RELEASE LIVE ON AMAZON NOW!****** 

DANGER WALKS HERE!

It happened in a small farming community in the northwestern part of Connecticut that also included a large forest preserve, a once glacial river, now a bubbling brook, a lake, and a spring-fed pond. The community’s roots began in 1680, as The Salmon Brook Settlement that was also home to Native Americans like the Tunix, the Massaco, and the Mohegan.

It was a perfect summer day. The morning was cool and the sky was a brilliant Periwinkle blue. The deep, dense forest was a monolith of wonder for elementary school age kids.  The ancient woods that the Salmon Brook flowed through provided the Native Americans with all kinds of fish, fowl, and river animals, like beavers.

Evidence of their inhabitation lingers still in the form of arrowheads, pathways, in meadows that were once crop producing fields, where they once grew tobacco, beans, squash, and corn, as well as middens of shells like clams, mussels and turtles were eagerly searched for in the forest.  There were plenty of bones to find too, mostly animal, but sometimes, human bones that would be exposed as they washed up on the rocky river banks.

On this beautiful summer morning, a small band of kids, having traversed deeply into the forest, smelled smoke and considered it to be a fisherman on the river or the nearby lake.  At first, nothing much was thought about it. The smoke seemed to be coming from some distance away.

Taken aback by what she was seeing, one of the older members of the group of five children, yelled out, “FIRE!”  All heads turned to the leader of the group, who stood mesmerized by the yellow-orange fingers of flame surrounding a giant oak tree, that appeared to touch the sky it was so tall. The forest fire was closing in around them, silently sneaking up on them, until it roared like a lion.  The fire then leapt among the tree tops, high into the sky, turning the blue sky into a purple twilight, billowing with fire.

Like deer, caught in the headlights of an on-coming car, they froze in fear.  Suddenly, they ran, following their leader to an old wagon wheel road where giant, thick oaks lined the road, that was little more, now, than a pathway.  They ran and out of the corner of their eyes the watched the fire explode into the giant oaks behind them. As they ran, animals of all kinds joined in their fierce desire to escape the flames that were now, 40, 50, 60, 100 feet high in the air, and animals ran alongside the five children. The leader was shocked to find a black bear keeping pace at her side and deer leaping everywhere. Wild Turkeys, Foxes, Porcupines, Skunks, Woodchucks, all, ran with the humans, side by side on the narrow path, until the path widened as they reached an open field. Ahead of them was Canton road and fire trucks with long hoses and a helicopter overhead. The parents of the children were kept back by officers and firemen.

The children emerged, blackened with smoke, wild-eyed with fear, and the animals took off in different directions, some crossing the road to the other side where safety could be found, unmindful of the crowd gathered on Canton Road. The children, now at the point of exhaustion, collapsed into their parent’s arms as the firefighters dosed them with cool, clear water.

This was a day the five children would never forget. I will always remember the black bear running by my side. I remember how we looked at each other, the black bear and I—with a look that was “will we get out of this alive?”  It was as if we saved each other and we were a team. It was amazing. I will always remember the look he gave me as he turned to run into the safety of the tall bushes and another part of the forest, he turned and stopped for a moment, like he was saying, thank you and nodded his head.

By K. D. Dowdall

***I wrote this sometime ago and I had not proofread it before publishing. I have now made grammatical changes. A mistake, hopefully, I will not make again.