I was insomniac last night, so here are my 4 a.m. thoughts on what makes a successful story. Obviously, what readers love is subjective, but I believe these are three things that we as authors should strive for in whatever genre or age category we write in:
Provide readers with an excellent
2. Execution, and
I thought of these after reading This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (a fascinating example of the power of word-of-mouth, this 2020 book just shot to #1 on Amazon's Best Seller list due to a passionate tweet: Bigolas Dickolas is the Best of Book Twitter; it had been sitting on my Kindle for three years but I read it this week)
The premise is the hook that makes a reader pick up the book, or decide they want to pick it up after hearing about it. Whether you're writing a high-concept thriller, a funny graphic novel, or literary historical fiction, a tantalizing premise is what will bring your intended reader to your book. This doesn't mean your premise has to be super high concept; it just has to promise the type of story that your reader loves. For example, here's the premise of two recent favorites:
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Gallery/Saga Press 2020, novella): In this mind-bending sapphic sci-fi romance, rival time-traveling agents move across timelines and multiverses in service of the war between their sides and end up falling in love through clandestine missives.
This Was Our Pact, by Ryan Andrews (First Second 2019, MG graphic novel) No one in town knows where the paper lanterns that are released down the river each year go (legends have it they turn into stars), so a group of kids decide to follow them and end up on a magical Ghibli-esque adventure (with a bear).
You might have the most intriguing story idea, but the way you execute it will lift it from good to brilliant. This is where readers delight in your turn of phrases, the structure of your story, the art/illustrations, or the flashes of insight and connection. For example, I loved these sentences from Time War:
"They will sail together, to a land of monsters and miracles. Currents will bear their massive fish-tailed ships across, freighted with silver and tapestries, with knot work and destiny."
or "My vine-hivey elf world, as you say, versus your techy-mechy dystopia" (which also seems like a pithy description of fantasy vs. sci-fi).
I also loved both the sheer inventiveness and outrageousness of how the rival spies communicate with each other as well as the epistolary format of parts of the novella.
For This Was Our Pact, I really enjoyed the writing ("Did they really journey far into the stars, like the old song sang?") and the art, and how relatable middle-grade friendship themes were shown in the fantastical setting:
For me, the payoff is whether the story sticks its landing or fulfills the emotional promise of the premise. After taking a reader on the storytelling journey, using language or art that brings the story alive, does the story conclude in a way that answers the initial questions and makes readers sit back in delight or contemplation? With a mystery or thriller, it's usually the twist ending that delights the reader. In the case of an installment of a beloved series, it can be the familiar comfort of seeing favorite characters having another set of adventures in the style the reader expects. In a literary novel, it might be the feeling of sitting with a profound truth expressed in the story. In the case of Time Travel, it was the ingenious resolution that made me rethink all the previous scenes (I can't say more without spoiling it). For This is Our Pact, we learn the answer to the initial mystery in the final beautiful illustrated spreads after going through a fantastic journey.
The payoff in genre novels (such as fantasy, sci-fi, romance, mystery, thrillers) is often plot-based, resolving intriguing stories with cool endings, but the payoff can also be emotional or philosophical, making the reader feel or think deeply. Of course, my favorite books are those that combine both.
Be sure to enter my book giveaway below of Christina Li's RUBY LOST AND FOUND, which accomplishes all of these three elements beautifully.
Upcoming Events & Next Book
The last time I sent a newsletter was almost a year ago (ack! I'll try to do better), when my middle grade sci-fi Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation came out. Since then, I've loved going to schools, book festivals, and generally interacting with readers of the book.
Here are some upcoming activities. Please consider joining:
Sat. May 13, noon ET: a panel with YA and MG authors Judy I. Lin, Elisa A. Bonnin, and Refe Tuma, Navigating the Debut Year: Insights from Middle Grade and YA Authors (it's part of the online 2023 Nebula Conference, which is $150 to register for 3 days of programming)
Sat. May 20, noon ET: a panel with YA sci-fi authors Kate Dylan, Olivia Chad, Claire Winn, and Sarena Strauss, The Future is Here: Cyberpunk, AI, and Augmented Futures in Stories (free)
Saturday, Aug. 12, 1:00 - 3:30 p.m. ET, workshop, Submitting to Agents and Query Workshop a 2.5 hour hands-on workshop about the querying process for traditional publishing (for adult and childrens writers), including sharing and class critiques of your queries ($45)
Coming Summer 2024
A project that's taken up time these past months is writing and revising my new middle grade novel with a fun animal friendship, Near & Deer, coming out from Scholastic in Summer 2024. Here's the announcement:
Giveaway of RUBY LOST AND FOUND by Christina Li
I'm giving away a copy of Christina Li's middle grade novel, Ruby Lost and Found, out on May 16, 2023. This is a beautiful story of a girl who reconnects with the memory of her grandfather through a scavenger hunt and a new friendship. I had the privilege and honor of blurbing the book:
To enter the giveaway:
1. You must be a subscriber to my newsletter
2. Reply to this email (or to the newsletter welcome email) with a recent favorite book recommendation.
(You can also enter to win the book in Christina's separate giveaway on Twitter, which ends on May 16)
This giveaway ends on May 19, 2023, noon ET. US addresses only.