Selling a story by NOT telling a story

Here’s the thing with telling someone about your book – be it in person, or in an ad, or via the back cover copy you’ve spent arduous hours perfecting: almost every author is terrible at it. Because almost every author makes the horrible mistake of thinking that you sell someone on your story by telling them about your story. Nothing could be further from the truth.


You have to remember you have maybe two sentences before people get bored. So you don’t start off with your story, you start off with a BANG.


What I often tell new authors — or even old authors — is to imagine your sales pitch as pictures of your kids (if you don’t have kids, imagine you do — you’re a writer, it should be easy). Every single human above the age of 20 has had someone approach them with that person’s pictures of their kids. They start showing off the pictures and yammering on about things that matter incredibly to that person, but not at all to us.


Your story is your baby in some ways. Especially in that nobody else cares at all about it until you give them a REASON to care.


Now, if that person who can’t stop showing you their baby pictures walks up and says, “Timmy’s face caught fire yesterday,“ now you are in it for the long haul. They can actually take their time getting to the good part, because they have told you something in the first sentence that makes it clear the story is going to be worth your while.


Remember, also, that ad copy and back cover copy is NOT ABOUT TELLING THE STORY. It is about providing potential readers with an idea of the tone and genre of your book, and then the only other thing you are trying to do is pose a question in the reader’s mind that can ONLY be answered by reading the book.


The entire back cover copy of one of my books reads in its entirety:


What do you do when everyone you know — family, friends, everyone — is trying to kill you? Answer: you RUN.


It tells you almost nothing, but it gives you an idea of the tone and general genre – we’re obviously in some kind of tense thriller. More important, the strength of the question it creates is such that most readers at this point will at least click the “look inside“ option on Amazon.


The book, RUN (and yeah, even the title was designed to help set up the all important question in potential readers’ minds) sold well – it was a #1 Bestseller in Horror and Science Fiction (the top level, overall categories), got to #2 in Thrillers, and was a top 100 overall seller on Amazon – and this without any kind of promotion behind it — and a huge part of that was simply the creation of a question.


And book sales weren’t the only result of that question. Major production companies were contacting me, all of whom said the same things:


Them: Is your book available as a development property?

Me: Yep. You read it?

Them (I kid you not on this): No. But your description would make a great movie poster. Can we talk some more in person?


The lesson: jettison all thoughts of telling your story in your ads, in your back cover copy, or during the first moments of a sales pitch. Nobody cares about your story at that point. They are in it for themselves, so you have to give them something that matters to them and will improve their lives in some sense – even if that is just the promise of a rollicking rollercoaster ride of a story.


Don’t tell about Timmy being born, or his amazing childhood, or that he walked early, or how cute he is. Start off telling your reader, “So, Timmy’s face caught on fire yesterday.“ Tell them something that creates in their mind an undeniable need to know what happens next, and then REFUSE TO ANSWER ANY MORE QUESTIONS.


Now the readers will buy your work, not because you told the story, but because you DIDN’T, and they know the only way to satisfy their curiosity is to BUY THE BOOK. Doing anything more is window dressing at best, and offputting at worst.

A great irony: people looking for stories are not interested at all in your words.

Not at first. Not until you wow them with your ability to say something extraordinary — not in the course of 100,000 words, but in the course of your very first sentence.

Posted by in Writing Advice

Finding God Among the Damned

I am often asked how I come up with my ideas. The answers range. For my book RUN, I visited a working silver mine and decided that I had to write a book that had a chase scene set in a mine.
For my young adult novel Billy: Messenger of Powers, I got the idea when my wife told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t write something that did NOT involve people running away from serial killers, ghosts, or other malcontents (i.e., she wanted something she could read without having to put the police on speed-dial and turning on all the lights in the house first), she was going to divorce me. I took those words to heart, and wrote Billy. So apparently ideas can come from a variety of places, and be fruitful and effective.
There is another question I am occasionally asked, however, that fascinates me even more than “How do you get your ideas?” That question is: “How do you write about such (at times) horrific things… and still claim that you are a religious person?”
The answer: Very easily.
I am a deeply religious person. I go to church every single week, I have held numerous ecclesiastical positions, and I even served as an unpaid, full-time missionary for my church. So it is no surprise (to me at least) that my faith colors everything I do… even when I’m writing about a serial killer.
Often, in fact, both the villains AND the heroes of my works are people “of faith.” Again, using the book RUN as an example, one of the heroes is a man named Adam (yes, the biblical name is on purpose) whose sole purpose is nothing less than securing the safety of humanity as a species. In so doing, he is constantly faced by choices that he must answer within his moral framework.
On the flip side of the coin, the antagonist of the book is a man named Malachi (again, not a coincidence), who views it as a mission from God to destroy all life on the planet. Together, these men serve as a kind of spectrum of theological thought, and allow me to treat religious questions from within the framework of (hopefully) an exciting novel.
Not that RUN is preachy. At least, I hope it isn’t. But I have found that as a writer, it is not only a fruitless quest to “divorce” myself from my spirituality, it actually makes for a much more interesting, layered book when questions of faith and belief are discussed. Most people, in the U.S. at least, still count themselves as people with some religious or spiritual belief, and so adding that dimension to my characters not only makes them more accessible, but more interesting and real.
Not only that, but using faith as a foundation for my writing allows me to draw on deep spiritual archetypes that would otherwise be unavailable to me. In Billy: Messenger of Powers, the main character is a young boy who discovers that he is the key player in a war between two sets of magical camps: the Dawnwalkers, who fight to perserve humanity’s freedom of choice; and the Darksiders, whose goal is to enslave all “normal” people. This consciously mirrors a key tenet of my own belief system: that God exists to give people freedom and allow them to discover their potential as His children, while the devil’s key aims are and always have been to bind human beings in chains of sin and misery. This belief is mirrored by many people globally, and having it in my story allows me to tap into subconscious beliefs that my reader’s have. This not only props up the plot of Billy: Messenger of Powers, but make it a better, deeper, and ultimately more thought-provoking and enjoyable read.
There are those who argue that the arts should be more secular – one only has to take a look at the average television network lineup to see how much religion has been stripped out of our daily lives when it comes to entertainment. But I think that art serves its best purposes when it reflects the purposes and values of the ultimate Creator. That is not to say that I believe everything has to be shiny and happy, or that every story can only have “good” people in it (I’m pretty sure that even the Bible has a bad guy or two in it).
But I DO think that it is our responsibility as artists and our privilege as children of God to create things that empower, edify, and enlighten. And the best way to do that is not to deny faith, but to embrace it and make it a living, breathing part of all that we do.

Posted by in Writing Advice

Defining Greatness

Some people ask me, “What do you think makes a great book great?”
Some people also ask me if I think polar bears should be allowed to marry penguins. Which tells you what kind of people I hang with.
But back to the other question. The first one. About the writing thing. I guess it’s not too surprising that people ask me things about books. I mean, I AM a writer. My books RUN and Billy: Messenger of Powers have both been bestsellers on, I’ve written two movies that are coming out next year, and I’ve been told my birthday cards are to die for. So I do get my opinion asked for fairly often. And, to be frank, even when people AREN’T asking for my opinion… I still give it.
So what DOES make a great book great?
There are a lot of things. But first and foremost, I think, is simply this: a great book is one that people want to spend time with. And I’m not just talking about the time they put in reading it. A great book is one that we think about even when the covers are closed, one whose characters we wish we could meet well after the last chapter has been finished. It’s one that lives within us, and becomes not merely a part of what we have done, but a facet of who we have become.
So how to accomplish that?
Well, according to many high school English teachers, people should read books that they have shoved down their throats with pointy sticks. Sad but true. Sometimes I think that a great many “academics” believe that a book isn’t great unless it’s something that you can only “enjoy” after you’ve spent several years researching the author’s life. Incomprehensibility doubles as ability.
I don’t buy into that.
A great book IS one that lives on, year after year, generation after generation. Fine and dandy. But I also think that a TRULY great book is one that has, not only deep life lessons that transcend time, but also a pure enjoyment factor (and obviously, I’m talking about fiction here). I mean, if you look at Hamlet, it’s not only a classic examination of character, it’s a darn fine STORY, with ghosts, intrigue, thrilling fights, and other attributes that make it, not just “valuable,” but FUN.
Granted, if you’re looking at a “classic” book that’s been around for hundreds of years, there’s some work to be done. But that’s not because the stories are boring, it’s simply because language changes over time, so you have to be schooled in the way people of that era spoke in order to enjoy what they’re doing and saying. Just like some people don’t enjoy British humor, not because the English aren’t funny (because they are), but because they don’t understand that culture enough to GET the jokes. So there are legitimate examples of “great” literature that you have to prep for. But at their root, truly great books are an entertaining read.
I can remember, when writing RUN (a suspense/horror/thriller novel), I devoured a lot of Dean Koontz and Stephen King books. Similarly, when I was working on Billy: Messenger of Powers (a young adult fantasy), I read J.K. Rowling, Brandon Mull, and James Dashner. Some people actually asked me why I would “waste my time” on such “popular” fare. And the way they said “popular” it was clear they really meant to say “worthless.”
But I disagree. I think that “popular” is a valuable indicator of greatness in art. After all, what is Great Expectations but a book that has remained “popular” for centuries? What is The Three Musketeers but a book that has a story so fun that it has found an audience year after year after year?
Now, that’s not to say that I think everything that is popular is great. There are some books that are incredibly popular that are shallow, trite drivel. But those kinds of things don’t tend to STAY popular. They’re flashes in the pan. A moment where lighting is caught (perhaps accidentally), but cannot be contained.
The “greats” on the other hand, truly captivate us. They reach across time and space to do something that we as humans have sought after since man first began to communicate: to tell a story.
And the better the story, the “greater” the book.

Posted by in Writing Advice