It was a dark and stormy night when the detective found the body of Mrs. Smith. As he searched her apartment, he found a trace of blood near the bathroom sink where the killer had apparently tried to clean himself. CSI collected the blood sample, and it turned out to be the woman’s estranged husband, who was jealous of her relationship with a new man. The end.
What’s wrong with this story? Yeah, it’s rather boring. We’ve heard it a million times. National best seller? Hollywood Blockbuster? I think not.
And yet the reason we’ve heard that story so many times is that it’s one of the more likely scenarios in a murder case. Typically they happen at night. Typically the murderer will leave evidence. Typically it will involve a past or current lover. Watch Investigation Discovery a few times a day and I’m certain you’ll come across a real-life story just like this.
In attempts to spice up their work, some writers will take a simple story like this, interject fancy language or controversial subject matter or something of the sort. Others, like me, will add in plot twists to try to keep the story fresh and the reader guessing. Some may include drama, suspense, humor, or some other kind of literary tool.
It was a dark and stormy night when the detective, an alien from the planet Bortros, found the body of the Queen of England. As he searched the royal grounds with his extrasensory perception, he discovered a trace of the killer’s blood in the royal chambers. Scotland Yard criminalists matched the blood to a royal guardsman, but as it turns out, the man was actually an alien from the planet Ecliptos. Bortrosians and Ecliptosians had long been at war, and knowing the Bortrosian detective was the best lawman and fighter Bortros had, the entire investigation of the murder of the Queen on Earth had simply been an Ecliptosian distraction developed to gain a better advantage in their war on Bortros.
Ummm, yeah, OK. Same relative story—a murder mystery—but what in the heck is going on here? Warring alien planets, a prominent figure, and a very strange twist make this story unbelievable and just weird. Sure, some sci fi geek out there might like it in an unabbreviated form, but it’s not going to draw in a huge reading audience.
Creativity isn’t bestowed upon everyone. Some people couldn’t fabricate an entertaining and believable story if their lives depended on it. Sure they could write out sixty-thousand words, but it would probably be dull, drab, uneventful or else have the entire thing be so unbelievably odd or complex or full of plot holes that the novel becomes intellectually offsetting.
My case in point, I was reading an Indie author’s work the other day, and it started out well with a cowboy in a saloon in the Old West. The man was being harassed by other patrons, and the writer foreshadowed his character's bad-assery very well by making the cowboy restrain himself--similar to the character of Phillip Jennings in the pilot of that new show The Americans on FX. Regarding The Americans, Mr. Jennings has a run in with a huge bald-headed man while shopping at the mall with his daughter. The bald man blatantly hits on Mr. Jennings' tween daughter, mocks him about it, and Mr. Jennings just walks away--only to show up at the guy's house at the very end, in disguise, and give him a whooping. Yes, you should watch that show--it's a good one! Anyway, this Indie author's cowboy character apparently only had one intended target, so he tolerated the harassment until his target appeared. And then suddenly, without warning, he slaughtered the target and all of the patrons. Good beginning, sure, but then the next few pages just threw me. This cowboy was actually some sort of time-travelling, alien, undead-hunting super cop. And no, I’m not kidding. Needless to say, I got through maybe thirty pages and just had to stop before space-faring elves or steampunk vampires appeared.
A narrow, ideal, dream zone exists between writing some boring crap that nobody wants to read and writing something that is over-the-top and painful to endure. Finding that zone can be a challenge. Add to that bad grammar, misspellings, overused clichés and verbiage (like “it was a dark and stormy night”), and even if you find that dream zone, you still won’t have droves of people eager to read your work.
I’d bet that every writer misses that zone more often than he/she hits it. So what’s a person to do? Well, if you want to be a writer, you have to write. Plain and simple. Pound out at least a thousand words per day and strive for five-thousand. The math is elementary—if you can manage five-thousand words per day, in less than two weeks you’ll have yourself a full-length novel. Will it hit that zone and be a success? Probably not. But having others critique your work will help you fix the problems in your writing, and practice makes perfect. Just keep at it!
And don’t hesitate to really dig in and even get help in determining your writing weaknesses. Some people are so wonderfully creative, yet they lack direction or purpose with their writing. Others need to brush up on their grammar and spelling. Some need to work on their vocabulary skills. No writer—even the most famous ones—is perfect in the craft. That’s why writers utilize proofreaders and editors to assist them.
You’ll know whether you have talent, I think, from the constructive criticism you receive. Acquire the aid of friends and family at first, although be prepared to receive skewed criticism. I’ve found that if people close to you tell you that they read your book in a single day or that they couldn’t wait to find out what happened with this character or that, you’ll know it was entertaining to them. If your mom or wife merely says it was “good” or that he/she enjoyed it, and yet that person never mention it to you again, you’ll know it probably wasn’t one of your best. A decent story will stick with someone and have that person talking about it for months or years. Heck, I can still remember some of the more meaningful books and stories I read even twenty years ago.
And because a writer misses that dream zone more often than not, the only way you’re going to hit it is if you keep writing. Success in anything very rarely comes overnight. I’m always a bit tickled by the people who spend years writing a book and then expect it to be a huge success. Unless you have some major connections with a successful author, agent, or publisher, your work that you spent years on probably is going to spend more time on a flash drive in your desk drawer than it will on the NYT Best Seller's List.
So keep writing. Write at least a thousand words a day—roughly the length of this post. If you can do that, you may just be successful.