Beach Reading


6a00e54ff9f2cf88340120a786bd73970bI am in a rut. I haven’t read a book that I truly loved in too long. You know the kind I’m talking about—a book that won’t let you put it down, one that you recommend to everyone you meet, that you might not lend because you know you’re going to read it again. 

This is my fault, I think. Since deciding to write full-time years ago, I’ve gravitated towards high-brow literary novels. You know the kind I’m talking about—a book that makes you feel unworthy as a writer, one that you talk about with your more literary friends but don’t recommend, one that you’ll happily lend out because you didn’t even finish it and will never touch it again.

There are reasons why I torture myself with the likes of Updike, Roth, Pynchon et al. I wasn’t an English major in college and then came to the writing game late. As such, I feel like I have to compensate by flash frying my brain with writers of exceptional talent. Over this past weekend, I was at the beach with a large group of friends and more than half of them were reading one of the books from the Stieg Larsson trilogy (The Girl with/who…). If you haven’t read them (like me), they’re crime novels, good ones apparently. Good enough to sell 40+ million copies worldwide as of this spring. 

Because I haven’t read any of Larsson’s books, I was left out of the conversation all weekend. Currently, I’m reading Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon. It seems like it will be a good book but after 100 pages I still don’t know what’s going on. There’s a set of twins, one schizophrenic the other not, a guy with a severed hand, and a couple who moves to the Midwest for mysterious reasons. It’s very well written. But, with all due respect to the author, I’m quite sure it hasn’t sold 40 million copies worldwide.

Which reminded me of an important lesson for my own writing: plot is king. As writers, we all love literary acrobatics—a well-turned metaphor, one-word sentences, shifting POVs—but readers love story. And if you want to get published, you’ll learn sooner or later that the customer is always right. Ask any agent or editor and they will tell you that a good story can overcome bad writing (but rarely the opposite) any day.

I learned this lesson painfully. When I turned in an early draft of my most recent manuscript to my agent at the time, I was very impressed with the quality of my writing. I’d worked hard to make it flow. I played with sentence structure and variation. I felt like an artist. My then-agent read it in a week and called me to tell me that we were parting ways. I was devastated. When I asked why, she bluntly told me that she didn’t buy the plot; she didn’t believe that it was remotely conceivable and therefore couldn’t sell it.

It was a hard lesson, but one that I took to heart. I dedicated the next two drafts of my manuscript to re-working the plot, adding elements, turns and arcs that made it both believable and compelling. I added a murder. I stripped away characters that didn’t add to the story, cut scenes and dialogue that didn’t advance the plot. I simplified language and made the structure linear. 

The result, I hope, is a much cleaner and gripping story, one that serves the plot and not the prose. Because, as much as I’d like to write like Dan Chaon, I’d rather sell like Stieg Larsson.

The question this week is: How do you make—and keep—your story plot-driven?


JMHammock1 John Meils is currently finishing a first novel, tentatively titled The Warring House. He has written for Elle, Men’s Health, and, among others. To learn more about him, visit

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  1. One thing that I am learning helps me is to sketch the story out in a 10 page or so synopsis of the plot before I ever set down to do the actual writing. Not only does this give me an overview of the plot but points out potential areas for subplots and additional character development all while making sure that I don't digress too far off of the main plot. It's a technique I wish I had thought of when I was writing my first two books.

  2. It's a good question. I'm writing young adult fiction and I have struggled with plot events... but at times, when I feel organized, I take the time to just write everything (plot-wise) I know at the time. I find that inspirations come as I write. The more I write, the more I think of, the more I'm reminded of... and the more questions and "What the hell, this doesn't make sense... it needs to be changed" moments emerge - establishing the base for a better creation.
    I'm taking some advice from novel-writing books. It makes sense that we try not to make events happen for events' sake. Personally, I try to seek a balance between 'plot and character' - if event X occurs, how would my character grow/be affected?
    "I stripped away characters that didn’t add to the story, cut scenes and dialogue that didn’t advance the plot. I simplified language and made the structure linear." - This is good, but the chacters who are still in the story probably would like to be affected by the events, be shown some humanity, so that the reader may relate to them as well as to the apocalyptic events.
    You're right, Twilight has mediocre writing, but the concept is gripping.
    The thing that comes to mind which helps me at times - I picture my characters clearly in my head and ask them what they would do in certain situations, any situations. I imagine them in danger, I picture them in triumph, I picture them making a sacrifice. It gives me a better idea of their personalities, what their ambitions are in the story.
    I had been struggling with nitty-gritty questions about the backstory and at times, what you've already created needs to be changed - so try not to be too attached - I had a sudden inspiration while I had been drifting in and out of sleep. With one single tiny change of an event, the whole backstory has changed to become stronger than before. Now, it's become more of a perfect stage for the present story to dance on.
    I might be a weird one, but I seek advice from my hero, my protagonist... when times are diffcult - he is the kind of person who is maturing into what I would like to become.
    Hope this helps =) That said, I'm still struggling with the actual writing myself.

  3. P.s. I like the prologue of "The Warring House", by the way. I'm going to try that style.

  4. I tend to agree with Tani504 in finding the balance between character and plot. Basically every story I've ever written either starts with one or the other: a handful of cool characters I'd like to do something with, or an event I'd like to build around. If its an event, or image in my head, then I construct solid characters to fill that space before I write anything. If its characters that come first, I construct the story in an outline form and hit my crucial plot points.
    I have found that if I breathe enough life into my characters, and I have an idea of where they're going, I just let them take me there. There's a point I've struggled with in my WIP. I have to get my heroes to their first introduction with the villain and I've gone through probably 4 different versions of that because it never felt genuine enough. They never wanted to go there and apparently I couldn't tell them to. So in this last draft I'm working on, I added a character that basically gives them the drive to do it, because nothing in the story so far seemed like true motivation.
    Hopefully it works this time around, but I guess I won't know until I craft it!
    My point is that if you make your characters move then your plot will move. If your central POV character walks around all day pontificating about life and love and loss, then you may have a fine "high-brow" and thoughtful novel on your hand. But the plot will be very limited; the story won't have legs. Take your characters on an adventure. Throw them into the thick of things and see how they hold up. If you can't find anything exciting for your character to do, the problem probably isn't your plot.
    Sounds like you're on the right track though! Good luck!

  5. What I've found helps me to keep a plot believable, fluid and grounded is to question everything. Every idea you have for a plot twist, choice of action, motivation or interaction, ask yourself "why is this happening?"
    Too often there are key events in books that seem to happen because the author simply said "I want this to happen" and then create the lead-up to it without thought as to whether it makes sense.
    Read any book or movie's reviews and you will see that any of the best-written stories have plot holes. Questioning your choice of direction can be the difference in just how gaping that hole is.
    Sometimes there is little option but to request of the reader that they take a little leap of faith with you. That leap is taken much more willingly if you pave the way with reasons to have faith and tolerance.

  6. Sometimes, I write down the basics of what's going to happen in every chapter of the novel so that I always stay on task. I often change it up if I think of a new idea or feel like something needs to change, but having the layout always keeps me moving.
    If I don't write down the exact plot for every chapter, I at least have the idea in my head of what's going to happen. Every single thing that happens needs to lead up to the next thing which leads up to the next thing which eventually leads to the climax and then the end.

  7. I wish it was that easy for me. I am rarely able to outline an entire story...even a chapter. I wait for my characters to speak to me and tell me what happens next. Which often means I could wait for weeks before that happens.

  8. Outlines and story synopsis, creating your characters before ever writing the story...yeah, that was the advice given to me when I took novel writing courses. What I the time I had done all of that work, I had absolutely no ambition to actually write the story. Furthermore, I felt restricted by the outlines and the synopsis, and so the actual story never happened.
    That is not to say outlines and synopsis are useless. They can be useful, but I find I work my stories out in my head several times, and then suddenly, I want to write them. I know how it begins, and to me, logically, I know what should come next.
    I wrote my first soon to be published novel in this manner. Do I need to do re-writes. Heavens yes! Interestingly enough, the first draft, with no rewrites, was snapped up by the first publisher I sent to. Still, my editor suggests some areas that can be improved. And I shall take that advice.
    And there is some good advice here I shall seriously consider when I begin my next novel. Soon now...

  9. I believe that in order to keep one's story plot driven, you have to have an extremely elaborate plot in the first place. Plan out all the events, settings, characters, ideas and thoughts, before actually putting them out on paper. I've noticed, from personal experience, that ideas usually come out at the oddest of times. My ideas usually knock at my door during grim hours such as dawn or at times when I'm extremely "high" on caffeine, or possibly while I'm commuting to and from school. I usually take scrap paper and jot my ideas down. Once I get enough free time, I filter these ideas, take what's relevant and execute them, placing them suitably within the intricate layers of my budding piece of art.
    Outlines barely offer me aid when writing, this is natural and depends from person to person. For an effective plot, you need to manipulate the minds of the potential audience you are targeting. You need to find the gaps in their minds where any flaw on your part would be deemed acceptable for the audience. This is using effective wit and redolent diction as "make- up" to hide any lapses in your plot where the characters start to diverge. Once covered, you may resume with the story line.

  10. All I have to say is we live in a postmodern world and the narrative is irrelevant now. The word "plot-driven" makes my stomach revolt and the taco i ate for dinner spirals up my throat and onto the computer screen.

  11. Keeping a story plot-driven isn't always easy, but there are ways to overcome such a dilemma. For myself, as it were, I find it easier to keep my stories both interesting and flowing by taking on the mindset of the characters themselves. In essence, I write my stories not as the writer, but as each character instead. As a result, my stories seem to be more naturally plot-driven. Such a tactic only works however, by really becoming the character. If you can't sell it to yourself, how are you going to sell to your readers? Good luck in your endeavors.

  12. I hear and see what people say, but I think my brain just works differently. I think everyone has there own way of pulling it all together. I write in burst's and later I edit and fit them together. I never could make a complete outline, i just went with what i was given.


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