Someone may have asked you what some good writing strategies for authors are. Perhaps you’ve asked this yourself. Writing has been around for thousands of years and unlike new technology industries, we know what works for writers and what doesn’t. You could call these good strategies for authors the basics or fundamentals for strong writing. Try not to see yourself as too good not to be reminded of the basics. Everyone needs these basic strategies. It’s those with experience that stray from these strategies and test out new, unproven methods. Revisiting the basics will help get you back on course with your writing progress.
1. Start Off Strong
This is the poison pill. Nothing damages your credibility or future success as an author as a weak opening. While every sentence (and perhaps word) should drive your story forward, the opening is by far the most important, as Karri Stover elaborates on in her list of 18 Must-Use Writing Strategies. The vast majority of book purchasers look at the first page and read the first few lines to determine if they or their children would enjoy the book. And this is only after judging the book by the cover!
Unless your author platform and reputation alone sells books, it’s imperative you begin your book with a hook. It must be captivating. It must be engaging. It must be exciting. It must tug at the heart and mind of a reader right off the bat. The reader must know what they are getting themselves into if they buy your book.
Immediate application: Take a look at only your first 1-2 sentences. For picture books, this may be only a handful of words. Do these first couple sentences pull you into the story? Try re-writing these sentences at least three times and in a variety of perspectives. Ask yourself or someone else if a specific opening is most intriguing.
2. Progress the Plot
An author rarely finds success through a single book. Look at all the successful writers out there and you’ll see, by and large, many, many titles on the shelves or in the back list. After a reader places confidence in your opening or introduction, the next important aspect is to progress the plot. You plot must push forward and pull the reader along with it.
Many writers use a three-act structure when developing their children’s book stories. Emma Johnson penned an excellent article on three-act structure in her analysis of The Hunger Games. The first act introduces the main character and primary conflict. The second act builds the tension and keeps the main character from their desired goal. And the third act ties up loose ends, shows the character arc development, and satisfies the reader in some fashion.
Other writers of longer books can leverage four or five act structures that help organize the wide array of characters and sub-plots that reinforce the primary purpose of the book. Regardless, the plot must progress. When the editing process begins, the first step is to see what entire sections or characters can be completely eliminated from the story. Why? Because often there are sections or characters that DO NOT progress the plot forward. If your plot isn’t progression, if tension isn’t building, the reader will be bored and might just take that book back to the store.
Immediate application: Review your manuscript and ask if there is any section or character that does not propel the plot.
3. Captivating Characters
Have you ever read a book and didn’t connect with the characters? I have. Some times this is a personal prerogative. Other times, and usually most of the time, lack of connection with characters is the author’s fault. Characters must be captivating. A sure fire way to turn off a reader is to give them a dull, boring character.
Readers are investing a tremendous amount of their precious time reading your material. You are spending time reading my material. Boring and dull is UNACCEPTABLE! In your most recent story, who is your favorite character? Why are they your favorite? I am willing to bet your best character is dynamic. Their personality goes deep. They have flaws. They have triumphs. They overcome the odds. They are believable. If they are evil, we can relate to them. If they are good, they are not perfect.
Melissa Tydell’s succinct article on How to Completely Captivate Readers is wonderful. In it, she explains the use of desires, fears, and expressing emotions within character action.
Immediate application: Grab one of your stories and make map out a few of your characters. Who are they? What do they do? What do they look like? What challenges do they have? What do they want? What’s stopping them? Do they act consistently throughout the story? Try to give these characters more depth. More challenge. More realistic attributes. We want to feel what they feel. We want to see what they see.
4. Passionate Pursuit
If you’re not writing about a topic or story you love, just stop it. Do yourself a favor. Do all of us a favor. Unless it’s homework, of course!
It’s easy to tell when an author is passionate about their work. Their passion bleeds through the pages. They gush when talking about it. They invest themselves in a tremendous way. A good book is like a store front for a passionate author in the sense that there is an entire warehouse behind the scenes. What a reader sees is ONLY the best of the best of the best words, sentences, and plot points. There is a great deal more in the author’s warehouse that didn’t get included.
When an author is not passionate about their work, what you see is often all there is. It’s superficial. It’s plain. It’s terrible. In fact, if a successful author writes anything they are not passionate about, their continued success is in serious question. Likewise, if an as-yet-unpublished author channels their passion and pours themselves out in their work, their future success is highly likely.
Barrie Davenport wrote an excellent article about 6 Key Steps to Finding Your Passion as a Writer and how to focus on that passion to improve your writing.
Immediate application: It’s time for soul searching. Do you really love what you’ve written or written about? Did you do it for the story or did you have an ulterior motive? Did you chase a quick buck and simply try your haphazard hand at it? Or do you LOVE it? Do you think it NEEDS to be published, read, shared, and talked about? Always pursue passion in your efforts and cast aside anything that doesn’t pump you up.
5. Entertain and/or Educate
This shouldn’t surprise you but books primarily fall into two major categories that can and should overlap; entertainment and education. The best educational books ARE at the same time entertaining. Some books are strictly entertaining and, although some may try hard to make them educational, simply aren’t.
It’s a balance that most authors need to seek. In Write Picture Books Without Being Preachy, I discuss why this is such an important topic. The short version is readers want to have a good time, whether they are being educated or not. Being preachy in writing is typically a sign of laziness or apathy. Truly great writing with superb educational value is highly entertaining. It grips you. It excites you. It engages you.
Immediate application: Take a look at one of your manuscripts. In a single sentence, what is your author purpose? Are you trying to educate the reader on a topic? Are you trying to make the reader laugh? Cry? Appreciate family? What is the point of your story? Now, ask yourself this question. Have I written my story in such a way as to make the reader infer my purpose or have I told them my purpose on a silver platter? Meaning, how obvious is my point? If it’s plain as day, your story is probably not entertaining enough. If you think the reader may miss your purpose because of the fun or the tension or the plot, you probably have a great story that WILL get your author purpose across just fine.
Have you been keeping these author strategies in mind? If not, what pulled you off course? If so, how do you remain focused on the basics? I would love to know your thoughts in the comments below. Don’t keep all that crazy good insight to yourself!