Tag Archives: #WritingAdvice

How to Write Stories that Sell

Have you written a slew of stories you’ve been unable to place? I did—for two decades. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong that prevented editors from accepting my work.

Way back in the 1990s, I came across a little how-to book by science fiction writer Algis Budrys titled Writing to the Point: A Complete Guide to Selling Fiction (Unifont Company, 1994). It taught me how to plot a story, a story that would sell. The book is unfortunately out of print but, because it was so helpful to me, I want to share the best from it with you.

Budrys says, “A story subjects its characters to a process; to a growing up, or an enlightenment, or, in the case where a villain is the central character, to an enlightenment and a disaster” (p. 10). For another take on this process, see How to Plan a Great Story.

Seven Elements of Stories that Sell

Most good commercial fiction—meaning stories that sell—have these seven elements:

A main character (MC)…
Show her traits (visible actions) that demonstrate her strengths and weaknesses pertinent to the story.
In context…
Time period, location, setting, circumstances—include whatever readers need to understand the MC’s place and station in her world.
With a problem.
The problem may seem small at first, but it’s important enough for the MC to do something about—to take action toward a goal. Details will emerge as the story proceeds until it becomes “The most important problem this particular person could have” (p. 62). The antagonist is also motivated to win what the protagonist wants, interfering with actions that worsen the problem.
a. MC attempts to solve the problem using logic and intelligence, making an adequate response based on her best guess at the nature of the issue. But… ↓c. MC tries another tack to solve the problem with her newfound knowledge. But… ↓e. MC applies what she’s learned and tries a third time to correct the issue. But… ↓
b. MC encounters unexpected failure. As a result of this failure, the MC learns more about the problem—and about herself. These trials and failures stress your character and reveal hidden facets not shown before. →d. MC fails again, learning even more about the problem. →f. MC fails once more, miserably. ↓
MC experiences victory or death.
“At the last possible moment, wagering everything in a do-or-die situation, the hero wins” (p. 12). If a villain, the MC experiences defeat because of a fatal character flaw.
The outcome is validated.
An independent authority—another character or the narrator—confirms that the story is indeed over: “The monster is finally dead!”

The Seven Elements in Three-act Structure

A story must have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. In each of these three customary acts, you must include certain elements:

The Beginning

1, 2, and 3 can be presented in any order. But all three must be included. Budrys states that “The purpose of the beginning is to lay the ground rules; establish the (1) character (2) in context (3) with a problem, and then go on” (p. 11).

After you have presented 1, 2, and 3 to readers, the beginning is over. Every incident and action in the middle and ending must adhere to the rules you set up in the beginning. In the rest of the story, you cannot violate these rules or the world you’ve established. “If you do,” Budrys warns, “you ‘invalidate’ the story” (p. 62).

The Middle

The middle is where the story develops. 4a is the MC’s attempt to solve the problem using what she believes she understands about the situation and her own resources. At this juncture, the character doesn’t think the problem is overwhelming. This is because she doesn’t fully understand its nature.

The MC encounters unexpected failure in 5b. She also may experience partial success toward her goal but with another complication cropping up. “[I]f the character could solve the problem immediately,” Budrys admits, “it wasn’t much of a problem” (p. 11). Therefore, despite how sensible the character’s effort to resolve the issue, through failure she learns more about the issue and herself.

During these attempts, the problem progressively worsens, and you must put your character under pressure to reveal more facets that fit her. She reaches deeper inside herself, tries to fix the problem again (4c), and fails again (5d). And again (4e and 5f). Three times.

Why three times? Budrys explains:

Because anything less is unsatisfying, because anything more is redundant, because Aristotle and Lewis Carroll said that what I tell you three times is true. Three times, on a rising scale of effort, commitment, and depth of knowledge of the problem and one’s self, is the correct number. Human beings believe that three times has an effect which two does not. Conversely, four creates overkill. (p. 12)

When the bleakest moment ravages the character (see How to Plan a Great Story), something snaps, and she gets a revelation.

In order to win, the character must turn away from some old traits, no matter how precious, and emphasize new ones, no matter how undesirably they would have seemed in the beginning. Some last straw happens: something breaks, or something precipitates. (p. 63)

Based on this new understanding, she decides to make one last monumental effort. “Simultaneously with the climactic physical action,” Budrys says, “the character displays a new view of the world, grown out of the old one” (p. 63).

After this fourth do-or-die attempt, it’s victory or death—6. A positive character achieves victory. A villain dies or fails in such a way that it means ruin (pp. 12, 62). Here, Budrys insists, “You must make sure that the reader understands it is victory or death” (p. 12). Here’s why.

Over the course of your story, solving the problem and winning the goal must become for your protagonist the most important achievement at this point in her life. So that she doesn’t simply walk away at any time, the stakes must intensify through the middle: “the character cannot help but stake everything on the solution, for to fail is to be obliterated, either literally or spiritually” (p. 63).

Budrys recaps: The middle “consists of (4) effort to solve, (5) repeated failure or increasingly near-attainment of the goal, and (6) victory or death” (p. 12).

What’s left to complete your selling story?

The Ending

7 is validation. Some independent authority, a “trustworthy figure,” must, Budrys recommends, “step forward and say, ‘He’s dead, Jim’” (p. 12) to confirm for readers that the story is truly over. This also could be a brief statement by the narrator.

The character’s revelation, adjusted worldview, and the result of her decisive final action must be validated. Budrys likens this to “pinning a hero’s medal on the character” (p. 63). (Remember the final awards ceremony in Star Wars? That’s validation.)

Budrys’ plotting method will help you write a great story. One that hopefully sells. To help you implement the process in your writing, use this PDF worksheet to plan your next story. Here’s to your success!

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Lee Allen Howard’s Eight-step Writing Improvement Process

Do you want to improve your writing? If so, you must identify and fix specific problems with your prose.

You must learn new editorial techniques and incorporate them into your writing toolbox, deliberately applying them through practice until you internalize their use. Then you’ll be able to write better first drafts.

How I Learned the Process

Lee Allen Howard's Eight-Step Writing Improvement ProcessWhen I discovered what a dangling participle was, I noticed I was dangling them in much of my writing. Finally recognizing the issue was like switching on a spotlight. I saw them everywhere. I was shocked.

It took me a few years to consistently catch and fix this problem in my writing during the self-editing process. It took a while longer to catch myself making the mistake when I was writing—and correct it on the spot.

I still goof up at times, but I’ve trained myself to recognize the issue and eradicate it from my prose. Better yet, I taught myself to stop making the mistake when writing first drafts.

Over the years, I’ve crystalized the process we go through as writers learning the craft—or anyone learning a new skill. Here’s how to use it purposefully to make your writing better.

Lee Allen Howard’s Eight-step Writing Improvement Process

1. Write without restriction.

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, this initial phase is when you tell your inner critic to take a time out and sit in the corner for a while.

Write with abandon and don’t worry about whether it’s any good. Simply get the words down as fast as you can.

You will, of course, be using techniques you’ve already internalized: the proper way to spell “accommodate,” making your subjects and verbs agree, and attributing your dialogue with “said” and not “opined.”

2. Revise your work.

Now it’s time to read your work with a discerning eye. Have you said what you meant? Have you said it the best way?

Revise to include everything that should be there and exclude anything that shouldn’t.

To learn more about revising and editing, I recommend these books:

  • Self-editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King
  • Revision, David Michael Kaplan

3. Learn about problems you need to identify.

Read about dangling participles, cutting unnecessary details, using commas properly, eliminating little words, ferreting out filtering phrases.

Some excellent texts about editing on my library shelves include:

  • Getting the Words Right, Theodore A. Rees Cheney
  • Editing Fact and Fiction, Sharpe and Gunther
  • The 10% Solution, Ken Rand

4. Examine your writing critically, like an editor.

The links and books in the previous points should help you do this. But what if, even after studying, you’re blind to what your issues are—mistakes that keep you from getting published? What you don’t know can hurt you.

Although I learned by reading dozens of writing texts as well as trial and error, it took me thirty years to discover what I know now and am sharing with you. Do you have that time? Most writers don’t.

What you need is an editor who will teach you how to self-edit your work. I can help you identify your issues and provide advice that will enable you to find those problems in your work so you can fix them yourself. To learn more, see Professional Editing Service.

5. Identify issues in your writing.

Once you realize what your issues are, you must go through your writing carefully to identify those problems you’ve learned about. Cast a critical gaze at what you’ve drafted.

This could be a struggle when you’re learning to implement a new technique. But you’ll get better with practice. There’s no way around this (see side note below).

When you’re learning an editing technique, it’s too hard to fix every mistake in one pass. I recommend going through your work a story or chapter at a time, looking for only one issue—whether it’s dangling your participles, creating unnecessary distance with filter words, or overusing adverbs. Flag each with a comment that pinpoints the matter.

This approach lets you concentrate on that issue alone. It’s the best way to learn how to identify a newly discovered problem in your writing.

(Side note: For each new technique I discovered, I went through every unpublished short story on my hard drive and corrected each of them for that issue. I did this time and again, editing some stories over 500 times. That’s how I learned. In other words, practice makes perfect.)

6. Edit to correct those issues.

After identifying issues, go back and correct each one. Apply what you’ve learned in your reading. Or contact me to edit some of your work to identify issues you’ve been missing—and teach you how to fix them.

Use everything in your editor’s toolbox to improve and polish your work. Make several passes.

7. Internalize the process of identifying and correcting those problems so that every time you edit your work, you catch and fix them.

If you’ve followed the process so far, you’ve learned to identify, find, and fix your recurring issues. It’s hard work at first, but you’ll get better as you continue to practice.

You’ll eventually reach the point where you’re able to find and fix multiple issues on the first or second pass of self-editing. You have internalized the new technique; it’s now committed to your editorial toolbox.

8. Train yourself to write better so that you don’t make those mistakes in the first place.

Although you should write without restraint and not let self-criticism hamper your efforts to get the story down (step 1), you’ll experience moments when you stop to think about what you’re going to say.

These are the moments to insert the new techniques you’ve learned, applying what you’ve internalized during the editing phase to the writing process. Why forever make the mistake of dangling your participles only to fix them during editing?

Move mastered techniques into the drafting process and train yourself to write it right the first time.

Use the Process

Now that you’re aware of this process, consciously employ it to master editing skills more quickly. All it takes is dedicated practice.

Over time, you’ll continue to adopt new methods that you’ll incorporate into the writing phase, and this will make your first drafts better. Good luck!

Copyright 2021 Lee Allen Howard.

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