Six Simple Reasons Our Story Sucks & How to Fix It

Why is it so many new novels are—to be blunt—crap? How can we find an author we love with one book, then all the love goes away with the next? What’s going wrong? What’s missing? Where did everything go wrong?

How can we learn and do better?

First and foremost, to be an author it’s imperative to embrace some healthy sadism. We’ll chat briefly on this so the “wrong turns” in story can become far easier to spot.

We MUST Go Against Our Nature

Humans have all kinds of intricate biological wiring that propels us to AVOID CONFLICT/PAIN. Now this is great namely because our desire to avoid pain is what keeps us alive and gainfully employed. It’s also how many of us are able to endure the holidays when forced to see family.

This said, it is human to avoid conflict and to smooth everything over and civilization would implode if we didn’t heed our biology. We feel the rising anxiety and our nature steps in to “fix” everything and return to a nice comfortable homeostasis.

Avoiding conflict and pain can be healthy in life, but it spells death for fiction.

So here are a couple reasons your story might suck. Btw, remember while I have one finger pointing at you? Three are pointing back at me. I use these guideposts in my own work when I sense it’s starting to seriously suck.

#1—We Have Decoration Devoid of Substance

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Novels are not pretty sentences or even pretty words. Sure, it’s nice to have them, but they’re not entirely necessary.

It’s like a cake. Some cakes are so intricate they’re literally works of art, but cake is meant for people to EAT. So I’d much prefer a plain cake that is so yummy angels sing than to bite into a work of “art” and get a revolting mouthful of sugar-laden lard.

Same with stories. Stories, too, are meant to be ingested, to FEED us emotionally.

Fiction is about one thing and one thing only—PROBLEMS.

PROBLEMS are the “cake” of story.

I don’t emotionally connect to a cerulean sky or a painstakingly accurate description of a forest or an 18th century tea setting. I have zip-nada invested in an outfit, a garden or the layout of a room (that’s “icing”). Most people prefer cake with icing and readers like stories with description, setting, superlative prose etc. (though to the degree varies with reader preference).

All that “stuff” can make a story better, but they are NOT story, just like icing is not cake.

#2—We Have No Plot

Plot is basically a fancy way of saying we have a core problem in need of resolution (cake) and a plan (recipe) to do just that.

I cannot connect emotionally with a detailed description of a designer outfit, but I can connect with the woman who’s wearing this outfit. I don’t care all that much about the outfit, I care about the woman and the why behind the outfit.

What is she hiding? What is she up against? What must she face to become whole?

Is she in this outfit because she desperately needs a job? Because it hides the bruises from her emotionally and physically abusive husband who controls her life? The one she must find the courage (and job) to escape?

This is why I’m a huge believer in writers being able to articulate what their story is about in ONE sentence. If we can’t do that? Odds are we have icing and no cake. Or maybe a cake that’s half-baked or missing key ingredients.

#3—We Have No Clear Plot Goal

All stories have ONE CLEAR FINAL goal. And I don’t want to hear the BS copout of:

“Well, my story is literary and character-driven. Her goal is she wants to find out who she is.”

Aside from the fact that literary and character-driven stories don’t automatically get a pass on a plot, why do we care? What happens if the protagonist doesn’t find out ‘who she is’? Why is it important? What are the stakes? Why should I (the reader) root for her?

Besides that is the wrong question entirely.

Regardless of genre, the protagonist is never finding out who she is, rather what she is made of.

For that to happen? We need a PLOT PROBLEM.

Clear plot problems offer context. If I (reader) have not been clearly shown the story problem, then I’ll be quickly bored because I lack context that makes any setback a setback.

It’s like showing me a guy driving off for a destination and not telling me where he’s going. Yet, if I know he’s driving to Canada from Texas, then accidentally turning down I-35 South because he’s arguing with his ex on the phone MEANS SOMETHING.

I can clearly SEE he’s headed for MEXICO, not Canada. The wrong turn means something and so does every setback which creates bigger and badder problems (which turns pages, btw).

By DEFINITION a setback can only happen when there is an actual goal.

We need a Death Star, a Mount Doom, and a Labyrinth or….meh.

Same in character-driven stories. We root for Evelyn Couch in Fried Green Tomatoesbecause we know the final goal is her growing a spine. We know she has “won” when she stands up to her bullies and to the husband who’s disrespecting her.

Bad situations are not a plot. It’s soap opera writing. Soap operas get forty years and go into infinity. Novels don’t have that luxury.


We’re being way too nice. I see way too many new manuscripts and the reason they’re boring the paint off the walls is nothing is happening and everything is too easy. Everyone gets along is super sweet and lots of colorful pretty descriptions and empty calories that make us sick.

Humans have fears and faults and failures that will collide, especially under pressure. I see far too many manuscripts where nothing is happening. People talking.

Description not friction. No friction? No traction.

#5—We’re Making it TOO Easy

Yes, your protagonist has ONE core story goal in need of resolution, but there should be a ton of hardship, suffering, setbacks and pain along the way. Our protagonist must work for everything and earn every reward, even the small ones with blood, sweat and sacrifice. NOTHING should be easy. Ever.

Authors deal in solid gold rewards, not plastic participation trophies.

If our protagonist is being spoon fed the answers (dreams, journals, letters, flashbacks, “super helpful” ancillary characters) that’s cheating. If the protagonist is rescued constantly by others and it never pushes any pain points? Where’s the glory in that?

When I was in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, most people don’t last a month. Most females never make it past white belt. It takes a YEAR to earn blue belt. I had to do this grappling men twice my size.

It took me a year and a half of busted lips, blood, bruises, and strains. It also cost me a broken nose and a dislocated knee…but guess what’s framed in my office?

I can tell you that had I been handed a blue belt for attendance, it would be in some junk drawer along with the piles of other worthless awards.

Same in fiction. We revel in the protagonist’s victory only when the title of “HERO” is earned.

#6—We Forgot to Turn on the Heat

The greater the stakes the better the story. No heat and we don’t have cake, we have batter. Same in fiction. Turn on the heat.

A friend of mine had a brilliant idea for a story, but her niceness kept killing it. She emailed me that her story is about an artist who has five years to make it in NYC or he has to return to his family’s house-painting business.


If our artist has five years in the beginning? We aren’t too worried. There’s time. But if we know he’s at the end of five years and has only one final narrow window? Everything changes.

If the stakes are he returns to an occupation close to what he loves (painting) and also limited seasonally (house painting in NY) it isn’t that big of a deal. He can dream away what he longs to create while on a ladder touching up eaves. He also will have seasons he can still create art.

But, what if he’s returning to a job that is not only the opposite of what he loves, but can potentially drain every creative molecule from his soul? A stressful occupation that might just kill him with seventy-hour work weeks (accounting firm)? Or physically endanger his hands/ability to paint (family auto repair business)?

And while we are at it? He’ll have to return to a family that never really was supportive and will be delighted he failed and relish rubbing it in.

NOW we have a story 😉 .

Crank up that heat. Shorten timelines and up the stakes, both physical and emotional.

If your protagonist fails, it isn’t simply a failure, it needs to be an extinction event.

In the end, I have a mantra: Make it worse until you make it weird.

What are your thoughts? Have you been too easy on your characters? Maybe indulging in flashbacks to “explain” why a character is a certain way instead of making the reader work to uncover it? Have you been too nice? Unclear? What ways can you wind that tension tighter? Shorten the timeline or up the stakes? We only will value what COSTS a lot. No one values free and easy 😉 .

I love hearing from you!

Why a bad protagonist is actually quite good

 #writing #amwriting

I am a big fan of protagonists with dubious character traits. There is something about a blurry line that adds flavour and depth. In fact, if the protagonist was to stop and consider themselves, they might think they were on the wrong side of that invisible virtuous line.

So in short, I like my protagonists…to be bad.

Why is a less than perfect protagonist good?

If you are the kind of person who goes to the gym 5 days a week, then going 5 days a week is no big thing. BUT, if you struggle to go once a week, then 5 days in a row is pretty impressive! And so with our protagonist. The more reluctant they are, and the more doing something good or heroic chafes, the more interesting it is when they are finally forced to comply.

As a reader, the more confused you are about the protagonists virtue, the more the tension grows. Will they do the right thing? Are they capable of doing the right thing even? Or are they just too damn lazy?

And what about our antagonist? Are they wholly bad? Or do they have redeeming qualities? Do you empathise with them at any point in the book? Perhaps their behaviour has been abhorrent, and then you discover a terrible secret about their past that casts new questions onto everything they have so far done.

There is a certain fascination with a good guy who is not completely good.

And likewise with a bad guy who is not completely bad.



Reblogged from

by Dr. Kent Gustavson

When it comes to writing, publishing, and marketing a book, there are many mistakes to be made (many more than 99). The #1 most important mistake NOT to make is over-investment. I’ll give a quick anecdote about that, and then give the whole list of my 99 favorite book mistakes.

One of my favorite stories about over-investment is of two (real) people. Let’s call them Dolores and Ben.

Dolores spent $57 writing, producing, and publishing her book. Sure, it was self-published, but it looked great, and was well edited by friends and family members. She currently gets tons of gigs because of the book, and is an bestseller.

Ben spent more than $1/4 million dollars (yes, $250,000 …to buy your way into the New York Times bestsellers list. Ben put a second mortgage on his house, and he got #1 bestseller status from one of the major newspapers in the US. Was it worth it? He got a few more gigs, and he earned about $50,000 of his investment back. Which author is more successful?


Every Mistake in the #Book: 99 Writing, Publishing & Marketing #Fails

  1. Spend too much.
  2. Don’t invest enough.
  3. Hire the wrong people.
  4. Don’t ask for help.
  5. Don’t use friends for writing and editing.
  6. Don’t use family members for writing and editing.
  7. Don’t thank friends and family after they have helped you.
  8. Don’t edit your manuscript.
  9. If you’ve edited once, don’t edit a second time.
  10. If you are just plain sick of editing, just stop after three edits.
  11. Try to be perfect.
  12. Take ten years to finish.
  13. Write everything in a weekend.
  14. Give away the rights to your book for a song.
  15. Hire the wrong agent.
  16. Agree to a contract without talking with a lawyer.
  17. Sign with a publisher without shopping around first.
  18. Don’t create a business plan for your book.
  19. Spend your entire savings on the book.
  20. Mortgage your house a second time to pay for the book.
  21. Decide to self-publish, and get a logo designed for “My Name Publisher.”
  22. Trust people financially.
  23. Hire a publicist at $3,500 per month.
  24. Pay for publicity without worrying about building a social media presence first.
  25. Don’t use social media.
  26. Decide not to give away any copies for free.
  27. Don’t ask for reviews.
  28. Don’t say thank you to anyone.
  29. Don’t work too hard on writing — it’s okay if it’s not your best material.
  30. Don’t think about ROI (Return on Investment).
  31. Fixate on ROI, as if it’s the most important thing in your universe.
  32. Don’t worry about having a great title.
  33. Don’t think about the target demographic of your book.
  34. Don’t worry about Facebook.
  35. Don’t work on your Twitter presence.
  36. Don’t answer messages through your website or social media.
  37. Be reclusive.
  38. Don’t answer your emails from readers.
  39. Don’t do interviews.
  40. Don’t have a website.
  41. Have content from 1985 on your website.
  42. Build your website in Flash.
  43. Don’t have an Author Central account on
  44. Don’t have your book available on
  45. Don’t have your book available as an eBook.
  46. Don’t offer your book free on the Kindle KDP platform.
  47. Buy lots of followers on social media (so you don’t have to develop them naturally).
  48. Buy Amazon reviews (if Amazon doesn’t catch you and remove your account).
  49. Don’t have a good author bio on your website.
  50. Don’t have paperbacks available alongside the eBook edition.
  51. Don’t give any copies away to friends and family.
  52. Don’t contact the local press.
  53. Don’t do events.
  54. Don’t run any contests.
  55. Don’t worry about creating a great subtitle that works well on search engines.
  56. Design a cover that doesn’t have bling.
  57. Refuse to write on a Blog.
  58. Refuse to make a Book Trailer online.
  59. Go with a major press.
  60. Pay for a press release.
  61. Write a press release.
  62. Advertise in the back of your book for a vitamin company.
  63. Start a publishing pyramid scheme.
  64. Invest a ton of money into books before you have a distributor.
  65. Don’t spend any money on anything, even though you have a budget.
  66. Don’t have a contract with collaborators, illustrators, or other freelancers.
  67. Sign away your rights.
  68. Sign away rights to future products, like ebooks and audio books.
  69. Sign away film rights.
  70. Dream of fame because of this book.
  71. Dream of swimming through pools of gold coins because of this book’s success.
  72. Write about what you don’t know.
  73. Plagiarize! Don’t worry about sources.
  74. Cite Wikipedia on every page.
  75. Use pictures in the book without attribution.
  76. Don’t use any quotes or references in your entire book.
  77. Print too many books, and keep them in your moldy basement.
  78. Move forward without thinking about all options.
  79. Go into business with your family.
  80. Take out loans to pay for the book.
  81. Don’t ask for any emotional or financial support.
  82. Don’t run a Kickstarter or other crowdfunding campaign.
  83. Don’t worry about building a great team.
  84. Don’t hire an editor — who needs them?!
  85. Quit your day job!
  86. Put all eggs into this book basket!
  87. Mortgage your house and sell your cars to pay for a marketing campaign.
  88. Quit. Give up.
  89. Stop trying to finish — it’s hopeless.
  90. Worry about audience for the book.
  91. Worry about what the critics will say.
  92. Write too much.
  93. Write frenetically.
  94. Alienate people around you.
  95. Write about non-celebrities without their permission.
  96. Write and publish total crap.
  97. Wait for magic to happen.
  98. Hold out for a better deal.
  99. Wait to dive in.

Alternately titled “Every Mistake in the Book: 99 Writing, Publishing, & Marketing Fails.”

Guest post contributed by Dr. Kent Gustavson at the Blooming Twig. The Blooming Twig is an independent, boutique publishing house that supports the adventurous tastes of its readership.



By Maja Todorovic  

Mistake. Not very popular word in our vocabulary and it is something you usually don’t want to hear about. But guess what, we are all just humans. And it means we all do make mistakes. It’s a natural part of learning curve and there is nothing to be ashamed of.

I’ve been in research and writing for about twenty years and after 50+ published papers, numerous research projects, two dissertations, 3 books and year and a half of blogging, I still do make mistakes. And I don’t mean like grammar and typos. Sometimes I don’t manage to express myself as clearly as I wanted or at times I’m not assertive  enough to share my work… but that all doesn’t matter.

I’m not talking about these kind of mistakes. I’m referring to behavioral attitudes that many young or new writers somehow acquire that can slow down or even hinder their success in writing as a profession.


First mistake: They don’t embrace their talent and passion (enough)

So you like to write. And you write daily. You have a favorite pen and notebook that you carry around with you all the time so you can write whenever you feel like. But your words never see the sunlight beyond the pages of your notebook. Or you have a novel captured in your computer file that you’ve been working on for ages, but you simply can’t finish it. I know. I’ve been there too.

Most of writers have. You are afraid to share your writing. We all fear judgment, rejection, negative opinions. But these are all just opinions. Rejection letter is more a sign that you need to get deeper into your writing than it shows that you are a bad writer. It shows that you are trying and that’s what counts. In one of my recent posts I wrote:

Instead of thinking about fear, think of legacy you’ll leave behind.

Every writing will find it’s right reader. If it’s honest and authentic, it will. You must share your work. It’s the only way for your message to be heard and it is a perfect way for you to find motivation to improve your writing even more. You are building a bridge between you and that outer world you want to communicate with. The world that want to hear your story. The world that want to be part of your experience.

Embrace your love for writing: start blogging [read more about blogging here] (if you aren’t already), submit that story or poem to your favorite journal and finish that first draft. Finish it and be proud of yourself.


Second mistake: They don’t test the water before diving in….(read the rest of the article here