17 Questions to Help You Write Better Stories, Faster (Part 1 of 3)

Genre therapy: the art and science of finding the sweet intersection between what you were born to write, and what’s most likely to reach the widest possible audience.

Genre therapy is a new way to think about creating your art.

If you’re a commercial author, committed to making money from your writing without sacrificing the quality of your work (if you want to sell big, without selling out), it’s a creative hack that can dramatically improve both how fast you write and how well you write. 

Genre therapy can be incredibly powerful, but it isn’t necessarily easy. It does require that you understand yourself well enough to know what your best genre or genres might be. 

That takes a lot of self reflection, and it isn’t necessarily easy to know where you should start. Figuring out which questions you must ask yourself in order to figure out if you’re working in the best possible environment is paramount to getting it right.

There are no right or wrong answers. As with traditional talk therapy, genre therapy is a matter of adaptation more than anything. There isn’t a master list of questions, or a form to fill out. Your creative brain is a big ball of yarn, and there are plenty of places to start pulling at that thread. 

At just under a year old, genre therapy is still a new idea for us. But after publishing around fifteen million words, we know how life-changing this insight has been for our studio. And even though it’s new, we’ve already developed some standard practices and strong starting points that I would like to share with you now.

Genre therapy is about listening more than anything else. Ideally, this is not a solitary exercise. You want someone else teasing this stuff out of you. Most of our success with genre therapy has come from conversations between us and our authors. But self-reflection can be powerful, and a great place to start. 

Here are 17 questions you can ask yourself, to start writing better for the rest of your life. 

  1. What are my strengths and weaknesses as a writer? 

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to their writing, and a bit of honest self-reflection as to what those are can give you deep insight into what you should actually be writing. That isn’t necessarily the same as what you want to write, and more often than not, there is a gap between the two, even if it’s narrow. 

My strengths include strong, colorful description, rich vocabulary, zippy dialogue, human psychology, and a lot of heart.

But I like writing fast, and don’t want to get bogged down in the research. I’m never going to be Tom Clancy, nor do I want to be. If you’ve been following the Sterling & Stone story for any length of time, then you probably already know the story of Unicorn Western. If not, a brief recap here.

Our partner, Dave, told me that I’d never do the research required to write a believable western. I argued that I could absolutely write a western if I wanted to, and that it was all about knowing who I am as a writer. I wouldn’t ever attempt to write something like Lonesome Dove, regardless of how much I love that book — I’ve read it three times, despite reading even books that I love only once. My western would be a lot closer to Django Unchained, The Magnificent Seven, or Unforgiven

Dave said, “Fine then. Go ahead and write your Western. I bet you’ll put a f*#@&^g unicorn in it.”

So we did. The first book I ever wrote with my other partner, Johnny, is the 250,000 word epic, Unicorn Western.

As much as I love that book, and as thrilled that I wrote it with Johnny as I am, it didn’t sell well, because it is neither a fantasy nor a western. It breaks both genres. And even though it does that well, it confuses the marketplace, thus making the book more difficult to sell than it should be.

Knowing my strengths and weaknesses as a writer would have kept me away from that project, knowing what I know now, and assuming profit was my priority. (In full disclosure, it rarely is.)

  1. What are my favorite books, TV shows, and movies? 

Make a list of your favorite books and movies. This list can be short or long, but it must be honest. This isn’t a rundown of stories you’ve enjoyed from the last few months, but rather, true favorites. The ones that have endured over time. Stories you enjoy now as much as you ever did. The ones that have helped to define your tastes. Those stories that you’re always excited to talk about, no matter what.

Any conversation I ever have about my favorite movies will include films like Memento, Magnolia, and The Matrix; Fight Club, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Requiem for a Dream. Anything from Pixar, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Spielberg. I saw Good Will Hunting in the theater four times, and if it were rereleased right now I’d totally go again.

What do all of these stories have in common?

There might not be one common denominator to bind them all, but there are recurring themes. 

I love complicated narratives, deep emotion, and characters I can relate to. Broken is always better. I love twist endings and fearless ambition. I’m deeply drawn to stories that have never been told before. One-of-a-kind narrative, or at least the first of a breed. Endings that feel inevitable yet surprising.

My creative output reflects my tastes. David Fincher made me fall in love with the unreliable narrator, Pixar taught me to put character above all else, and Charlie Kaufman proved that there is no idea too strange, so long as it’s tightly threaded with compassion for the craft.

While you should never try to duplicate your favorite stories or styles, your preferences are part of your creative DNA, and should play a major role in influencing your art. 

  1. What do I have the most fun writing? 

A lot of writers do this weird thing where they think that the work must be difficult. If something is fun and we’d do it for free, then perhaps it isn’t worthy of our serious attention. If the story was a joy to write from start to finish, then its inherent value becomes easy to dismiss.

But this isn’t true at all. It isn’t even counterintuitive, if we ignore many of the idiotic lessons society and culture have taught us, and pay attention to the ones life is constantly offering instead. 

Think about the days before you asked yourself how you can make the greatest amount of money as an author. What were you writing in your free time? What were you writing just because

Have you ever written fan fiction, where you know the characters and scenarios so well that the stories practically write themselves?

Fifty Shades of Gray is the most profitable book in decades, and it started its life as Twilight fan fiction. Say whatever you want about the quality of that story, but there’s zero doubt that E.L. James had a ton of fun both writing those books and cashing her checks.

We got away from this core principal for a while, and it was the biggest mistake our story studio ever made. 

Johnny and I want to have fun with everything we write. This was true in the beginning, and it’s true again now. But there was a time when it wasn’t. A time when we were putting commercial considerations first, picking our genre and sub-genres based on what we thought would sell best, rather than what would give us the best experience. 

We created a trilogy that ticked every box, except the most important one. The result is a series that was the most difficult thing we’ve ever written. Not in terms of complicated storylines, plot points, or character depth. We have books and series that make this trilogy pale in the light of those other elements. 

But the series wasn’t a lot of fun to write. Instead it felt like a lot of work in the word mines with deadlines to hit. The writing was slow and our sales ultimately middling.

By contrast, the trilogy we just finished was written “fun first.” It was a pleasure to write, happened fast, and produced some of our best work, with the greatest commercial potential. 

Never underestimate the power of fun in your writing, or the positive impact it can have on the quality of your work. 

  1. What do my reviews say about my writing? 

This doesn’t help if you’re a brand-new author. But if you’ve been at it for a while, yet can’t seem to make your stories resonate with readers enough to build a big list of regulars who are eager to buy all your new releases during their launch window, this is an excellent place to study your work through a buyer’s eyes.

But you must be honest with yourself.

In general, people don’t like negative reviews. And worse, they don’t appreciate their value. As long as my awful reviews are honest, I happen to love them.

There are a couple of caveats, of course. Reviews can’t come from haters with an ax to grind. If your reviewers are saying things like, this book sux!, then there’s little there to help you. 

But if those reviews are detailing problems with your characters or their motivations, your ability to draw a realistic setting or show an understanding of the time period, you might very well be writing in the wrong genre.

We see this all the time in historical fiction. If an author isn’t willing to do a copious amount of research, they should stay far away from this genre. Find any historical fiction book with marginal reviews, and you’ll see that common complaint. The story isn’t believable.

Those reviewers don’t actually mean that the story itself is unbelievable, so much that because the environmental details were off, they were yanked out of the story.

But all is not lost. If you’re a fan of historical fiction as a reader and have always wanted to write it, you may be close to finding your genre. Change your story from an accurate historical era to a fantastical one of your own design, mimicking many of the things you like about that time, without claiming veracity.

If you don’t have any reviews to go on, get the raw truth from your writing or critique partners. Don’t ask your mom, or anyone willing to flatter you. Hearing how awesome you are will not improve the quality of your work.

Assume that your bad reviews aren’t personal, and take what you can to improve all you do.

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Come back next week for part 2 of 3, and if you want more on Genre Therapy right now, check out some previous posts:

The Story Solution: Genre Therapy Part One

The Story Solution: Genre Therapy Part Two

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December 23, 2019