I find it odd that so often, the first thing new writers want to know is how do they get published. Not how to write better. Not how to get their work critiqued effectively before submitting. While it is important to know and understand the publishing business and how to correctly approach an editor or agent with your work, it is far more important to write the best work you are capable of.
Every time I hear an editor or agent talk about what kinds of books they are looking for, they will recite a list of their favorite genres: fantasy, mystery, romance, or something else. But they always end that recitation by saying they are open to any genre as long as it’s a really good story and really compelling.
This kind of ambiguous talk from the publishing industry leads writers to wonder, “What makes a good, compelling story?”
So here is a brief list of the most important things to include in your story, no matter what the genre:
First, characters that readers can empathize with. Beginning writers often think that they need to give every detail of a character’s physical appearance. But usually what editors and readers want in characters is a complexity of personality, a variety of issues with which to deal and cope.
Second, the main character must have an internal conflict to overcome in the story—something personal. Often something unseen by other characters.
Third, you need external conflict. This is juxtaposed with the main character’s internal conflict. These to conflicts will overlap and intertwine, but they are two separate things that both must be resolved by the end of the book. The conflict should involve stakes that are so high the reader cannot believe they can be overcome. The threat of death is good. But of course, it has to fit the story.
Fourth, you need tension. Tension is different than conflict. Tension ratchets up the danger and the stakes. Tension makes the conflict as bad as it can get.
Fifth, you need plot. Many people think plot is merely the events of the story. But plot is much more than a string of events. The events have to have meaning, substance, and relevance to the conflict—both internal and external.
Finally, your story needs a unique voice. Voice is a nebulous creature that even the most experienced editors have trouble defining. But I’ll give it a shot. Voice refers to the distinct characteristics of the narrative. If the story is in first person, the story’s voice will be that main character’s personal way of speaking and storytelling. If the story is in third person, the voice will be an unseen narrator, but it still needs to be distinct.
These elements are basic to good writing, and they are difficult to master. Practice and time will help any writer learn this craft. My advice to new writers is always to be patient, to work on their art form, and not to submit to editors too soon. The publishing business moves slowly, but it will move faster for you if you submit only the very best you can produce.