Monday, November 25, 2013

What Makes a Book Great

Given that this is Thanksgiving week...and the turkey and I are busy...I'm recycling a blog I did for Romance University this summer. Some of you may have seen it, but even if you did, it's a good one to reread.

Have a wonderful Thursday. May you be blessed with gratitude for the good things in your life -- because gratitude itself really is a blessing.

What Makes a Book Great...

We could ask that question to 800 readers and probably come away with 800 different answers. Some readers like great characters. Some love great plots. Others like certain kinds of books. Paranormals or Erotica or Western Historicals.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter what kind of book you like or what kind of plot you like. All the books that most of us describe as great have one common denominator…They hold us spellbound.

And how do you hold a reader spellbound?

You catch her attention and you keep it.

Donald Maass talks about having tension and micro tension on every page. To me that’s just a fancy way of saying always have your character dealing with something. What makes trouble in an erotica is going to be different than the trouble you’d find in a suspense. Which would be a tad different than the trouble you’d find in a thriller. Which would be different than the trouble in a contemporary romance.

So you need to know your genre, and you need to know your readers to understand what’s going to put them on the edges of their seats.

But notice the other common denominator here? It’s your character. It won’t matter if you always have your character dealing with something, if readers don’t care that he’s dealing with something. So the second rule of holding readers spellbound is to create a character they care about, someone they can root for.

In my Rita Finalist, THE TYCOON’S SECRET DAUGHTER, the hero is a recovering alcoholic. I had to get readers on his side immediately. So scene one, page one, he sees the heroine, his ex-wife, in the lobby of the local hospital. He’s just finished his annual checkup as CEO for his family’s conglomerate (for insurance purposes J) and she’s visiting her father (who’d had a stroke). His heart immediately stops. He adored her, but he lost her because he drank. He doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t pull his punches. HE LOST HER. He takes responsibility.

There’s nothing like having a potentially troublesome character take responsibility to make readers edge closer and want to hear a bit more about him. When we see how he still pines for her, notices her pretty hair, her little butt, her cute smile, well, our hearts melt a bit. And we’re sad for him. Because even though he lost her in the past, he isn’t that same guy now. We know that simply from how he took responsibility.

The late Black Snyder calls this saving the cat. Always give readers a glimpse of the character you want your readers to root for doing something noble, or kind, or honest, or generous. He can literally save a cat. LOL But it’s better if the action that he takes somehow relates to the story.

When Max takes responsibility for losing his wife, (ruining his marriage) even though the very fact that he ruined his marriage should make us distrust him, we become curious. So when he remembers that as part of his twelve-step pledge he has to make amends to people he hurt, and he walks over and tells her he’s sorry, we’re totally on this guy’s side. We see he isn’t weak. Fighting his alcoholism has made him strong. And strong, honest, responsible people are likeable.

So when we discover the heroine left him because she was pregnant and is keeping their eight-year-old daughter from him, we are righteously indignant for him. We believe this strong, honest, decent, struggling man has a right to see his child.

And we root for him…

As we watch the story unfold, we want the heroine to let him see his daughter. And as we grow to like her, understanding her reasons for keeping her daughter from him, we want them to get a second chance at love. We want him to win back the heroine.

Against impossible odds, he takes one step at a time, one day at a time, and doesn’t just recommit to the heroine, he wins the heroine’s heart again.

Until, in the black moment, he realizes he can’t promise her forever and forever is what she needs. Then we are as crushed as he is.

Edge of your seat? Yes. Because you like this guy.

So the first rule of writing a great book is to hold readers spellbound. The second rule is to give readers someone they can care about. The troubles you give to this character will only mean something to readers, will only hold them in breathless anticipation, if they care about the character.

And the third rule. Write well. Don’t be sloppy. Think through your plot. Chose and write great scenes. Use great words…or at the very least use the appropriate word. Learn and practice good grammar.

Readers are paying money for your books – sometimes lots of money. They deserve to be entertained. They also deserve to be surprised, pleased, even excited by your good writing.


So keep them spellbound with good characters who appear in well-written scenes with good grammar and perfect word choices that pull them so far into the story they start seeing pictures not reading words…and those readers will say YOUR book is GREAT.

Happy Reading… (And Happy Thanksgiving!)

susan meier



Monday, November 18, 2013


Lots of people start writing believing that they will never want to stop. They will die with a pen in hand or their fingers on the keys of a laptop.

As the years go on, they see their friends fail and sort of fall to the wayside...Still, THEY persist. They are sure, in their guts, that they have what it takes to write forever.

Then suddenly they begin to realize that authors they loved are dropping off the grid. Worse, they notice that some of their favorite bestsellers falter. Or disappear.

And they wonder, as I once wondered, does anybody survive long term?

Well, yeah. But they aren't always the people that you think.

First off, if you're in this for money, two things will happen. Either #1, you will realize you're not going to be one of the ones who gets rich and you'll reevaluate -- Read: you'll realize you made more money clerking at Walmart and go get your old job back. [I borrowed from Peter to pay Paul to be able to keep writing. Some days it's like a drug to me. (LOL!) That kind of passion will keep you going.] Until your royalties and advances (and readership) grow and you can afford to quit your day job and still eat. :)

Unless, #2, you make a lot of money really quickly and, if money was your goal, you're done. LOL!!! You buy a beach house, realize you'd rather spend your time learning to cook and golf, and suddenly you're not writing anymore.

But some people fall for a different reason. A sadder reason. They fall the day they realize writing is hard. Getting published is even harder, unless you self-publish...then you learn that marketing sucks. Or is hard. Or is impossible. Or you feel like you're always saying, "Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book..." and that's not your passion...and disappointment sets in...and we all know what happens when disappointment sets in. You ease off. Until one day you realize you're not writing anymore.

Those are the faltering reasons you "sort of" have control over. What about the ones you don't? Like...

Some people are blessed with good, solid success early on. They couldn't sell to category but ye gawds they exploded in single title. Or no traditional publisher wanted them, but they self-published and sold 100,000 copies of their first book...or even 300,000. They write another book and another book and another book and suddenly readers drop off. Why? Because they're actually rewriting the same darned book over and over and over again. They think it's their formula, and it might be, but after ten books even the not-so-bright reader among their followers will see the pattern and move on to the next pretty, shiny author. And then they falter. They either have to reinvent themselves [which isn't easy] or they say, "I had a good run," and move on.

Or some authors get sloppy after their first book. After the success of selling to a publisher or having success with their first self-published book, they think they've "made it" and they write fast and furious and put out things that aren't as good as their first book. Readers forgive a bad book or two, but once you form a pattern of writing poorly [which can be construed as talking down to them] they eventually flee. And it's hard to come back after that kind of desertion...unless you take a new name. LOL

The only people who really succeed for the long haul are those who realize you're starting over with every book. That readers always want a good story. That readers always want a well written story. And that if your goals revolve around money, you might as well hang it up now because the money is inconsistent. LOL Now, you can use money for a motivator. But it can't be your only reason to write.

You must acknowledge and respect the fact that writing is hard. And want to do it anyway.

You must love telling a good story. (Which by default means you must know what a good story is! LOL)

You must be willing to put in long hours, not because you "have to" but because you love your stories so much (and your readers so much) that long hours are worth it...almost fun...because that's what it takes.

You must have an idea of what readers want from you (so you can please them) but never shortchange them by writing the same book over and over and over ... even though you change the characters' names or the town they live in or their profession...You must know there's a difference between writing within the conventions of a genre or subgenre and writing the same story over and over and over.

You really have to learn what a good story is, what brings readers to your work and how you can manipulate that so that readers always feel your story is fresh and new.

At some point, you have to realize this isn't a job; it's a calling. You have to love/hate being called, respect your readers and do your best. Always.

And you will survive for the long haul.

Happy Reading
susan meier

Monday, November 11, 2013

Process Again...This Time Editing

The past two weeks, we've talked about process. Not How-to-Do-Things, but figuring out the process YOU use to start a book, draft a book, and now edit a book.

Why? Because once you get a process, the real one that works for the type of brain you have and your habit style (which I think is a term I just made up LOL!) then you will either get more work done...or the work you get done will be of a better quality. Either way it's a win.

So today we close out this three-blog series with editing styles.

I edit every morning. Yep. Every day I go over what I wrote the day before because with my "fresh" brain, I see things I had missed when I was drafting. Especially descriptions. When we draft we're so focused on story that we sometimes skimp on descriptions. I get them in the next day. And that usually accounts for my first two pages of the day. LOL

I also edit every Monday morning. Every Monday morning I start on page one and read everything I have, changing sentences, beefing up descriptions, fixing typos. But I also see the flow of the entire story so far. That helps me to make sure everything is going in the direction that I want, that my tone is consistent, that my character arcs are working...and not going wonky on me.

Others like to do an entire draft before they edit. I love that system (and admire anyone using it) for one very good reason. Everything about your story is set. You will not find yourself spending two days editing a scene, page or paragraph that ultimately gets cut because your story changes drastically. Nope. If you've drafted correctly, you now know your story. So there'll be no days or weeks of perfecting things that get cut.

Making that a time-saver system. LOL

Others edit in chunks. They write the first 100 pages and edit them. Then write the second hundred pages and edit.

That system is kind of like mine. In a way, I can't go too far ahead unless I know what I've already done is pretty good...or at least working. I'm sure the chunk editors among us feel the same way. LOL

At one time, I would draft a book, edit the story (make sure the arcs and raised stakes worked), then edit the scenes (making each scene properly dramatize the journey step it illustrated) and then edit the words...sentences, words, grammar...  Because we write on three levels. Story. Scene. Word. It takes a different kind of talent and a different skill set for each one of those phases. So if you work on one phase at a time, it's easier to focus. Time management experts call this task batching.

The three-phase approach (story, scene and word editing) is another system that works very well.

But notice the organization in all of these systems. My friends and I don't just wake up one day and say, "It's editing day!" We have systems. Habits that clue our brains in on what we're doing so that they wake up and go in the direction in which we need them to go.

So editing is another process. Another thing you should be making notes on as you try to figure out your entire "how I write a book" that you can use it again and again and again so that you form habits that serve you.

Because that's really the bottom line to high quality/high productivity. Either being incredibly talented...or finding the systems that work for you.

Happy Reading

susan meier

Monday, November 4, 2013

Your Process

Last Monday, I talked a bit about keeping track of how you start a book. Do you start with an idea? Do you have character sheets, or, like me, do you "find" your characters in several different versions of the first three chapters? Do you storyboard...SHOULD you storyboard. LOL

This week, we're going to take that a step further. What happens after all your prep time?

You're going to groan when I tell you this (and I'm knocking on wood so I don't jinx myself) but I'm a very systematic writer. I literally write my book 10-12 pages at a time. Tuesday through Saturday, I write ten or 12 pages a day, just by reading my notes for the next scenes/chapter and fleshing it out.

Other people aren't that organized. Some people mood write. Which is, of course, writing happy scenes if your happy and the darker scenes when you're angry or frustrated. Personally, I love that system. I've skipped ahead to bad scenes in my books on days when I was ... not quite happy. LOL And I wrote my entire second book that way. It was actually kind of fun, though I ended up with a little more edits than I I kept groping for a better (for me) system.

Some people write in chunks. I have friends who piddle with a page or two every day until one day something comes over them and they write 30 to 50 pages. I gape in awe. (My fingers would be numb.) But that's their process. Their stories percolate a little longer. But if they get 50 pages every Friday and 50 on Saturday, they beat my nice consistent, steady flow for the week!

Some people write out of fear. Deadline is ten days from now...must write fast. LOL

Some people CAN'T write out of fear. They freeze. So they need to start early and keep pushing themselves to get done before their deadline is close...or they'll freeze. Which, if you think about it, is a kind of fear itself but I never question anyone's process. :)

Some people speed write (a la Candace Haven's Fast Draft process) and get their draft done quickly so they have lots of time to edit.

My point...

There are lots of systems. Just because you don't write like your friends, or systematically like me, or fast like some of my friends, that doesn't mean your system is wrong. It makes you you.:) And apparently the world needs a you...otherwise, you wouldn't be here

So begin to figure out your system. Don't make it the iron hand of the law that you can't break, but try to see how you write, what days you write best, how much thinking/percolating time you need, how you react to deadlines and then use what you learn.

Remember what I said last week...Don't reinvent the wheel every time you write a book. Your brain responds to systems and habit. So start keeping track of when and how you write best...and use that information, and you'll probably notice an increase in productivity.

And happiness. Because aren't we all happier when we're writing?

Happy Reading

susan meier