What makes a great writer

Have you read a book you simply couldn’t put down? Have you ever thought about how the writer did that — kept you engrossed in the story? In contrast, have you ever read a book where you’ve found yourself skipping through passages to speed up the story? The difference between these two books is that elusive quality that makes the difference between a great writer and the rest. Can it be learnt? Most self-improvement books on writing will help you become a better writer. They can help eliminate some of the obvious mistakes that newbie authors make about such matters as structure, point of view, dialogue, and character development. But these books won’t necessarily make you a great writer. Perhaps that elusive quality is something natural that cannot be learnt or comes with years of experience, perhaps not.

Let’s take a look at those two books again. What made the first book a page turner and the second not? Some of the answers might include:

  • A compelling ‘new’, ‘interesting’ and ‘plausible’ story line.
  • A ‘resolute’ and ‘likeable’ hero/heroine that grows during the story so that you want to empathise with and root for.
  • A major source of conflict and tension to frustrate the hero/heroine’s goal, and create high stakes for failure.
  • A plot line that keeps the reader guessing about what’s going to happen next.
  • An underlying theme that resonates with the reader.

In contrast what causes us to skip over some passages of the slow book? Some answers might include:

  • Too similar to other stories of the same genre.
  • Flat, uninteresting characters that cope too easily with the problems thrown at them.
  • No tension. Nothing much happens, nothing much seems to matter.
  • Too predictable.
  • Dull and boring passages that don’t move the story forward.

Of course, this only tells us what the difference is between a great story and a poor story, it doesn’t tell us how a great writer achieves this. How is a lot harder to understand.

Perhaps one of the hardest element is finding a story that is genuinely new. The great writers seem to do this extremely well. Take JK Rowling’s invention Hogwarts — a school for wizards — in the Harry Potter series. Stories about wizards were not new; neither were stories about school adventures. But putting the two ideas together created something new and unusual. Take Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series that spawned a whole new genre of romantic stories about vampires. Prior to this vampires had a bad press as the embodiment of all evil. Meyer changed all that by recasting these blood suckers as heroes. Often creating something new is about combining unrelated ideas that don’t seem to fit together, or turning a story idea on it’s head.

Great writers tend to pick extraordinary characters as their heroes/heroines and then make us root for them. By extraordinary I mean larger than life, but believable, and not without their flaws. Part of any story is the internal journey the hero/heroine makes to find what is important to them — the character arc. It is just as important as the hero’s external journey. The hero needs to deserve success if he/her is to achieve it, and he/she will only deserve it if they overcome their own weaknesses. Great writers also tend to build empathy with the hero/heroine by writing deep in the hero’s/heroine’s point of view. Only by allowing the reader to experience and feel what the hero/heroine is experiencing first hand will this empathy be built.

A hero/heroine can only show their character by what they do. Without a big task or problem to overcome there is no story. Great writers motivate their heroes/heroines towards a goal and then frustrate them with all kinds of obstacles and dilemmas to throw them off course. The bigger the obstacles and the consequences of failure, the greater will be the tension in the story. Story writing is therefore all about creating and maintaining tension. Without tension there is no desire for the reader to read on, to see what happens in the end.

Great writers have the ability to surprise the reader. A story that is too predictable in its plot line is boring. Readers want excitement, a thrill; even if they know the story will end well, they want to be teased along the way.

Lastly, great writers have an ability to play with the reader’s emotions and ultimately to deliver a satisfying ending in accord with the theme of the story. The theme might be as simple as ‘good overcoming evil’ or ‘love conquers everything’ but it should fit into the range of the reader’s expectations.

These are some of the qualities that I think distinguish great authors from the rest. You might have different ideas; or perhaps I’ve missed something. Let me know what you think.

Indie Publishing on a shoestring

When I started writing my first novel, I knew exactly what I was letting myself in for. During my career as an accountant, I had published a number of books albeit of a technical nature. I knew it took perseverance to produce the first draft of any book. But it doesn’t stop there. It can take as long again to edit and re-write the manuscript until you know that the book’s structure works, and then there’s the checking of the formatting, consistency, and accuracy of the galley proofs until you have something worthy of publication. In those days, I had the benefit of professional editors and a host of technical people and resources I could turn to for help. On your own it’s a whole new ball-game.

I also knew that to publish a novel through a traditional publisher, I would need an agent and a publishing contract, which could perhaps take another two or three years if I was successful at all. And that the likelihood of being published first time was about as likely as winning the lottery. Even great writers, like Stephen King, spent years of receiving rejection notices before being accepted. I wasn’t prepared to wait that long.

The alternative was to self-publish. I did my research. There were lots of companies offering to help authors publish novels, but at the cost of thousands of dollars. Fortunately for me, I ignored them all; I wasn’t prepared to make that kind of investment for the kind of support they were offering, most of which related to activities I could do myself, or outsource for a fraction of that cost. I decided I would initially self-publish an e-book on Amazon, and would perhaps think of a print edition at a later point.

I realised I would need to outsource the preparation of the e-book cover to a graphics designer; but most of everything else I could do myself with a little bit of help from my wife on the editing front. The cost of preparing a reasonable e-book cover can range from $30-$3000. I was lucky I found an excellent designer through Fiverr on the internet for $55 and was very happy with her design.

The next issue was formatting the file for Amazon submission. This was something I thought would be technically difficult, but proved to be just the opposite. You don’t need to be a technical wiz kid to publish an e-book on Amazon. There are different ways of doing it, but I chose to use a software tool that I used to produce by manuscript, called Scrivener. It’s an amazing piece of software designed for authors. And it has the ability to ‘compile’ your manuscript into a variety of different formats, including mobi, e-pub, pdf , as well as Word and rtf files.

To ensure you are using the latest Amazon software you have to download a free file from Kindlepublishing called Kindlegen and tell Scrivener where the file is on your computer system. Then all you have to do is pull the graphics file for your cover into Scrivener and select compile function. The result is a mobi file that you can test out on your own Kindle, or on the PC or Mac using the free Kindle software for your Mac or PC.

The first time I tested the file on my Kindle I was elated. Once you’re happy with the file then it’s time to upload it onto Amazon. The whole process of setting up your account and uploading the file will probably only take 30 minutes, most of which is simple account administration.

Amazon has about 85% of the E-book market. To reach the other 15% I decided to use an aggregator: a company that deals with the retailers such as Barnes & Noble. My choice was BookBaby. Again I used Scrivener to compile this time an Epub file. I then used Calibre, a free open source e-book library management application, to check the Epub file worked as expected. Then it was a simple process to open an account with BookBaby and upload the file. Simple.

The last step on my the road to becoming an Indie author was to produce a print book of my first novel. Initially, I never expected to delve into print books at all. But this month I released the print version of my novel, “Collision – A Sci-Fi Romance” on Amazon and other retail outlets using CreateSpace, Amazon’s own print on demand company. The only additional cost in this process was to commission my graphics designer to produce a front/spine/back cover and the cost of a proof book.

The process is a little more complex than producing an e-book. Broadly, I used Scrivener to produce a PDF file with the right paperback size and margins as required by CreateSpace. And then uploaded the PDF of the content and a PDF of the cover onto CreateSpace system. The whole process took about two days to get the formatting absolutely right in Scrivener. Chapters have to start on an odd page numbers, and this means including blank pages where necessary in the Scrivener file. Page numbering and headers have to be turned off on pages containing front-matter, chapter starts and blank pages; and getting the gutter and outer margins right can be fiddly. I found a number of clips on YouTube dealing with Scrivener and CreateSpace that will walk you through the process, and CreateSpace’s own guidance on their website is also very helpful, particularly on margins and cover specifications for different numbers of pages.

Once the PDFs are uploaded they can be reviewed on CreateSpace’s online galley proof, which shows how the book will be printed. A number of iterations may be necessary before you get the formatting just right. Then you can order a proof copy of the book from CreateSpace to see what the final product looks like.

To sum up, the hardest part of becoming an Indie author is actually writing and editing a good novel to a professionally high standard. Good editing is important and it’s difficult to edit your own material entirely on your own. Fortunately, I have a very patient wife with a good eye for finding mistakes. A good cover design is also a must. The technical aspects of E-book and print book production by comparison are not daunting. It is simply a matter of working through the process. After you’ve done it once you’ll realise that actually it’s quite easy. The hard bit is writing your opus.