Friday, October 23, 2009

What is a good QUALITY story?

We started this publishing company with an altruistic idea (that was perhaps not very well thought out in terms of profit-making business models - but oh well, that is an entirely different post begging to be written)...

We wanted to help new writers get their QUALITY work published, and to assist veteran writers who'd been overlooked by the big 'traditional' publishers get their QUALITY work published.

And why would we want to do this? Because we are authors who want our own writing to be published - and READ - with the ultimate goal of doing it for a living because it is what we love doing. Plus we wanted to have CONTROL over our books, to dictate how they will be produced and how they will look, and where they will be sold, and how much we will earn for the sale of our books.

We read quite a bit, and we believe we can recognize a QUALITY story when we see it. But when someone asks for a description of that elusive QUALITY, sometimes it is difficult to qualify and nail down definitively in cold hard words. But I'm going to give it a shot. For the purposes of this discussion, a QUALITY story means...

(drum roll please)...


Well ... now that I've written it down, it doesn't seem as if it should have been that difficult to say out loud and put in tangible form. But the truth is, what may seem 'well-rounded' to one person may mean something totally different to the next person. And 'well-written'? That leaves the field wide open, as do the phrases 'engaging, original, and unique premise' and 'interesting characters with depth and believability'. Wow, OK, so there is much more to be said on the subject, apparently.

Let's examine each part more closely with the intention of clarifying what WE mean by the sum total of this description of QUALITY writing. Because truthfully, no one can dictate what it shall mean to everyone - even though many try. What it boils down to from a publisher's standpoint (and probably a reader's standpoint too) is whether the story WORKS WELL for the person who's reading it, no matter whether that person is a friend of the author, a critique partner, a prospective agent or publisher, or any reader chosen at random. The more people from different arenas who can agree that the work is QUALITY, the more likely that it will be perceived by the general public as QUALITY, because we are then working from a concensus of opinion from a small sampling taken from a cross-section of readers that is much wider than the writer's best friends or family members. And this broad cross-section sampling is important, because it includes the opinions of people from different walks of life and different business backgrounds, and especially people who read a lot and know what works for them and what doesn't. That, my bookish friends, is called EXPERIENCE. Experience knows from trial and error what works and what doesn't. And when a book looks, feels, smells, sounds, and tastes like something that is QUALITY, then it is close enough to be judged as QUALITY.

One of the worst-case scenarios that any publisher faces is receiving a query from a newbie writer who has very little reading experience and very little writing experience, and very little experience, period. Because these are the writers who have not taken the time to find out what QUALITY writing is, so how can they possibly think they are magically going to produce it? I freely admit that flukes do happen, and sometimes a new writer will produce something good on the first try. But that is surely the exception, not the norm. Most newbie writers simply assume that whatever they have put down in tangible written form is unique and original, because THEY have never done it before. Just because they read some books or watched some movies or played some video games and then came up with a book plot that's similar, that doesn't mean it's going to be GOOD. It does mean the work is probably going to be a flippant and shallow rehash of everything that's already been done to death. I mean, if the author's book reads like a popular book or movie or game that's already come out, then where is the ORIGINALITY, the UNIQUENESS in it? That's not to say some premise can't be redone with a different twist, but if the author hasn't bothered to check what's already been written or produced in his chosen genre, how can he be sure that it hasn't already been written by someone else - perhaps much better?

And there's where the dreaded M-word comes into play ... MARKETING. A writer who is serious about producing QUALITY work will do the necessary research to know what his competition has already produced, what is already out there, and make sure his is different - UNIQUE.

Now in regard to WELL-ROUNDED, WELL-BALANCED, and DEPTH. 'Well-rounded' is defined in the dictionary as 'comprehensively developed and well-balanced in a range or variety of aspects.' The term 'depth' plays in there too, as in 'comprehensively developed.' The story plot and premise should have depth and meaning so that these features carry it through the entire length of the work. For instance, a 200-page novel about a woman in love with her boss better be about more than her going to work every day and fantasizing about how she can spirit him away for a romantic trist - unless her elaborate fantasies are so involved and detailed and improbably funny that they are actually the focus and the point of the story. Otherwise there needs to be some personal conflict, or some other things going on in the background for comic relief or dramatic emphasis. Without the necessary depth and development, that 200-page novel might as well be a 20-page short story.

But just filling the story up with an ensemble of characters won't do the trick. In fact, putting too much focus on too many characters can just make the whole story seem shallow and confusing. So that's where the term WELL-BALANCED comes in. There has to be some medium range of focus for the story. And to take the idea of 'well-balanced' even further, pacing of the story should be such that the first half (first 100 pages for instance) don't focus on one hour in the life of a character, while the second half speeds along and tells the next 30 years of the character's life. This kind of unbalanced tale could work if the focus was specifically on the character's life and a pivotal moment that shaped the rest of his life, but this is the exception rather than the norm. Balance also applies to point-of-view characters and verb tense, and other aspects of writing style. A sudden shift in handling of any of these aspects should be for a very good, justifiable reason, or the story will seem off-kilter, unbalanced.

And now to BELIEVABILITY. This means the story and its plot and its characters have to be more than cardboard cutouts, more than mere ghosts of the real thing. The characters should look, sound, and act like real people, people that behave logically within the constraints of the premise and the setting of the story. For instance, the writer should not have a damsel in distress in the 15th Century shouting modern explatives - unless it is a time-travel where the damsel is a modern woman somehow thrust into the 15th Century. And 'believability' is key, because while all the things that are going on in the book may be a fantastical conglomeration of action, if the transitions from point A to point B to point C and so forth don't smoothly move the characters around, with every detail accounted for, then believability flies out the window. One example of lack of believability is where the main character is cornered in an abandoned house by his nemesis and has no weapon to defend himself. But just as the villain is about to do him in, he grabs a gun off the dusty fireplace mantel and shoots his attacker. Gun? What gun? Where did it come from and why was it there? Oops! Believability just ran screaming from the story. Use a fireplace poker instead. With the character huddled by the fireplace trying to figure out what to do to save himself, the poker would be a logical and expected surprise solution - BELIEVABLE.

And last we have ENGAGING and INTERESTING. These two are the most difficult to pin down, because what may be interesting to me may be totally boring to the next reader. Why? Because we all have our own preconceptions of what is interesting to US as individuals. And that is not something that can be examined without first pigeonholing readers demographically.

Oh no ... the dreaded M-word again - MARKETING!!!

That's what GENRES are all about - trying to categorize books into common groups based on common themes that are perceived to be engaging and interesting to specific groups of readers. So the bottom line is, most genre books will not, by definition, be engaging and interesting to a broad cross-section of readers who may tend to focus on different genres to the exclusion of other genres. A writer cannot write one book to please everyone - or can he? If he manages to, he's got the infamous BLOCKBUSTER on his hands - a bestseller that appeals to a broad range of readers who might otherwise stick to their chosen genres to the exclusion of other genre books. That's the kind of book most writers want to produce ... a book that is loved and respected by almost everyone. But the making of a bestseller is best left for another post, so this should be enough for now to explain a QUALITY book.

Happy writing and reading!
-Penumbra Publishing

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