Story Idea, Soul, or Personality of the Writer – What Makes a Book Successful?

Some great thoughts on pursuing a story idea that you know is good, putting your soul into the story, and how your personality affects your chances of success. Below are excerpts from three great articles from the archives on what makes a book successful. Links are provided to the articles. Consider reading them. Then give us your thoughts below in the comments. Feel free to comment on other’s comments and strike up a discussion.

When I first met Kurt Muse about eight years ago, and he told me the story of his clandestine efforts to topple Manuel Noriega, and of his subsequent arrest and escape at the hands of Delta Force, I confess that I didn’t believe him. The story was too spectacular—too big—not to have been written about already. But it all checked out.

After Kurt and his wife, Annie, met with my wife, Joy, and me at the always-wonderful Café Renaissance in Vienna, Virginia, we shook hands and a pact was made. Together, we would write a book about courage and patriotism; about success over outrageous odds. It would be a story of public servants who truly serve the public, about people who risk everything for strangers with no expectations of recognition or thanks.

No one would touch it. – John Gilstrap – January 30, 2009


On a recent writer’s forum, someone asked the basic question: “what makes a good book?” Or, better yet, why is it that some books are hard to put down while others are easier to put down than a bucket of toxic waste?

From a technical standpoint, we could analyze the grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, command of the language, and a dozen other things we studied in school. (Which begs the question: why aren’t all English professors bestselling authors? But that’s something for another blog post.)

We could also discuss the book’s premise, theme, plot, voice, style, pacing, point of view, accuracy, and all those issues that were topics at the last writers’ conference workshop.

But my answer to what makes a good book is simple: soul. By that, I mean the soul of the writer. The more a writer involves or reveals his or her soul in the writing, the more the reader can and will relate to the story. Since soul is what separates us from the chimps and fish, it’s the element of a story for which we can all connect. – Joe Moore – January 28, 2009


I have been pondering the sticky issue of looks, personality and success and how this translates in the world of publishing.

I remember reading a story in the New York Times a few years ago on the anatomy of a bestseller and it compared two books coming out that year that had received huge advances and marketing budgets – one was The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and the other was (and this is prophetic…) something I can’t even remember. Anyway, the gist of the article was that the author of The Historian had been willing to do a great deal of publicity and ‘be out there’ while the other author was virtually a recluse. While The Historian went on to make millions the other book sunk like a stone despite all the publisher money thrown at it. The moral of the story (I think) was that to be a bestseller a writer had to throw aside introversion to be successful. Basically, this article suggested, a writer could no longer afford to sit behind a typewriter or a computer. Nowadays that’s a no-brainer but still it got me thinking about the thorny question of writer personality (and let’s face it looks) and success.

So, throw aside your political correctness and ponder this question…is it easier to be an attractive outgoing writer than a shy, ‘more homely’ one?

Perhaps it’s a crass question but not one I think that is without foundation – especially when photographs are on book jackets and websites and your personality is judged in a range of venues – from online blog entries to in-person panel presentations. How would some of the literary stars of yesteryear fare in our current media-centric environment? Can a writer even afford to be introverted these days? How much is publishing success like a throwback to high school – when many yearned to be the prettiest and bubbliest of them all? – Clare Langely-Hawthorne – January, 12, 2009

Please give us your thoughts.

37 thoughts on “Story Idea, Soul, or Personality of the Writer – What Makes a Book Successful?

  1. Good morning, Steve. You as always provide an interesting and intriguing Saturday morning curation.

    I suspect that John’s failure to find a publisher for the work he discussed had to do with the topic. Noriega has long been the idol of the New York intelligentsia and I imagine that the book, as described by John, was greeted with the rending of garments, accompanied by weeping and the gnashing of teeth.

    Thanks, Steve. Have a terrific weekend!

    • Thanks, Joe

      And thanks for that insight into the influence the intelligentsia play in whether or not a book is “acceptable.” The same factors continue to be operating today.

      I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

  2. Steve
    Thanks for today’s words of wisdom and for including my previous post on introverted writers – I do think authors need to be more willing than ever to be visible on social media etc. when promoting their books in order to be viewed by publishers as marketable ( although I don’t think attractiveness for authors counts as much as content on social media).That being said, I also think the work itself is always paramount and if it resonates with readers and generates word of mouth support I’m not sure the writer’s visibility or personality ultimately matters in that case – maybe some mystique can even help! Honestly, who knows!

    • Thanks for stopping by and adding your thoughts, Clare. Your post from 2009 is good advice. My guess is that many writers are introverts, so we need to be pushed.

      Your post spoke to me because I am terrible at marketing, self-promotion, and social media. I would rather use all my time to write, but I am learning the importance of such activities from all the good people here at TKZ.

      Thanks again for the original post and your thoughts today. Please feel free to pop in today and respond to other commenters.

      • Not just introversion.

        I KNOW a presentation in person would cost me a month of energy and ability to do anything else – chronic illness is a pain 🙂 – but we do have technology now that even 2009 which is fairly recent did not have.

        And viewers are now used to the slight pause that indicates two of the people on their screen in a news article are in very different places.

        So an appearance by zoom or equivalent would still be possible for those without the ability to appear in person. One would still be at the mercy of interviewers and their editors, as well as TV time constraints, but it would be possible, when traveling – or even having the energy to be filmed at home – are not.

        Now to get over the fear of looking like a dork!

        • Thanks for sharing, Alicia. Good point about zoom technology easing the anxiety of interviews or in-person events. You mentioned fear of how we look. That’s common. I expected some comments today regarding our appearance and the effect of aging.

          At some point, we have to throw ourselves into the event and concentrate on what we want to say, and not how we look.

          Good luck with taming those fears.

    • I think you are absolutely right, Clare, that authors today need be visible on social media, and that it’s content that matters. I consider my author newsletter to be my primary “social” media. It’s a marketing channel to readers, sure, but first and foremost, it’s about connection with readers. My two cents at any rate as an indie author.

      You are also so very right that the work itself is paramount.

  3. To respond to Clare, I don’t think ‘easier’ is the best word in the context of being a ‘writer.’ The writing is done alone, and being introverted or extroverted doesn’t seem to matter at that stage. However, the promotion side is a different story, and it depends on whether the authors’ goals are financial success and public fame or just being happy with the writing and if the sales meet whatever goal that author has.
    It’s never “easy” to be shoved out of one’s comfort zone.
    Then, there’s the “once you ARE a big name, it doesn’t really matter what you write because your fans will glom onto the books long before they hit the shelves. I’ve noticed some upcoming releases on Amazon’s page that have a blank cover, “Untitled” and the author’s name, and they’re doing just fine.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Terry. Good points. The writing side and the promotion side are very different stories. And those of us who are less comfortable with the promotion side need some prodding. That’s one of the reasons I picked Clare’s post.

      Hope you have a successful weekend.

  4. Happy Saturday, Steve. Great words of wisdom this morning.

    I strongly agree with Joe Moore’s observation that it’s the soul of the writer that makes a good book. Certainly a great book. Craft is vital to be sure, but its your uniqueness, expressed in your voice, the way you emphasize and express your characters’s voices, the nuances of the tone of the book come from it. It is that essential essence of the author which permeates everything about the book, pacing, conflict, tension, characterization, description, the emotions in the story, and so on, and intensifies and elevates all of those elements.

    It’s also, like its most obvious expression in fiction, voice, to be so hard to define and explain, it’s like trying to explain the electric quality being six years old and stepping outside on a cool, bright summer morning, or grab at smoke.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Happy Saturday to you, Dale

      Thanks for your comments. I like the way you describe the “soul” in writing. I think it was Ray Bradbury, who wrote about the “Joy” in writing. And that may be coming at the subject from a slightly different angle, but still aiming at the same thing.

      I find that on the days when I have to push myself to get into my writer’s chair, I enjoy the writing more when I am less tied to my outline, and just turn the characters (and my soul) loose to explore. I think that frees my voice and soul to pour themselves onto the page.

      Great comments, Dale. Wishing you a wonderful weekend, as well!

  5. I like that line, “But my answer to what makes a good book is simple: soul. By that, I mean the soul of the writer.” from Joe Moore. It’s actually something I hope for within myself, and the ‘qualities’ other see in me come out in the pages of work. Figures crossed.

    I hate books with no personality. I think that’s the reason I pass on buying books after reading the first page. Joe was talking about soul in a complete novel. However, maybe there has to be a thriving pulse in the beginning to give it life.

    • Good morning, Ben

      Great thoughts! I’m with you on looking for the soul of the writer, personality, jumping off the page. All the other foundational aspects need to be there in the story, the things we discuss so much here at TKZ. But the voice and the soul are the icing on the cake. It keeps the reader turning pages, and recommending the book to others.

      Good luck on turning loose your voice and soul in your books!

      • Hey Steve. For me, I’m trying to narrow down what “Voice” is from my point of view. I’ve done a deep dive regarding “voice” over the last two years. I do like James Scott Bells book on the subject, but for some reason I think an author needs a personal connection to your work.

        I often think about something from the music industry called the “it” factor. Meaning that you have to IT for people to listen to IT.

        I wonder about books vs. the ‘it factor’ and how readers might connect the same way a pop song appeals to the listeners. The obvious answer is yes, but then again, what is likeability when it comes to the different variations of story telling and point of view? (Something for another time).

        This could be the question that drags me down a philosophical hole while I try to lift myself up as a writer.

        • Ben, in regards to the “IT factor,” I found an out-of-print book by Dean Koontz – How to Write Best Selling Fiction – that may address some of your concerns. The book was published in 1981, but still is worth reading. Old copies are selling for hundreds of dollars, but I was able to find the book in the Ohio library system. It gives Koontz’s opinion of how to give your book the “IT factor.”

  6. Steve, thanks for another great collection of past wisdom that’s as relevant in 2022 as it was in 2009.

    Clare’s observations esp. resonated. Just as books are first judged by their covers, so are authors judged by their appearance and personality.

    In the comments, Kathryn Lilley offered excellent observations: “I learned to don what I call an “author look” that includes getting my hair done, makeup, and certain outfits. I think I even put on an author personality, which is slightly more outgoing than my usual self. It involves smiling more and reaching out beyond my comfort zone.”

    John Gilstrap’s comments on Clare’s post are a bonus blog.

    It’s hard for authors to think of ourselves as entertainers but that’s what we have to be.

    • Thanks, Debbie. And thanks for pulling out some relevant comments from those blogs. I wish we could give bonus points for those who read the original entire article.

      “It’s hard for authors to think of ourselves as entertainers but that’s what we have to be.” Your comments reminded me that in my previous profession, when I was at the office, I donned confidence, compassion, concern, and always a splash of humor. Where do they sell those “writers’ clinic coats?” I need one.

      Have a weekend full of entertaining.

  7. I feel like I entered yesterday’s time machine. Thirteen years goes by quickly!

    An update on SixMin:

    While the book is long out of print, it lives on as an ebook and has become a reference text for not just Special Forces groups, but for other groups who are facing or are likely to face extreme mental or emotional stress. I’ve been told that psychiatrists for the NFL use portions of the book in their practice, but I have no idea which part or how it is used.

    The film rights are still under option to the same producer, but this scumteenth iteration of the script is no longer even about Kurt Muse or his family. I haven’t read the script, so I cannot comment on the quality of it.

    As Joe Hartlaub alluded above, I’m becoming progressively more convinced that the majority of bigwigs in today’s entertainment business don’t like America or Americans very much. There’s a strong market for stories of military failure or incompetence, but very little appetite for slam-dunk victories. I’m hoping that the success of “Top Gun-Maverick” might be a turning point.

    • I’m becoming progressively more convinced that the majority of bigwigs in today’s entertainment business don’t like America or Americans very much.

      Sad, isn’t it? The same America that gave them the opportunity to become bigwigs.

      Folding up my soapbox now and putting it back in the closet. 🙂

    • Amen, John. There’s a huge appetite for “slam-dunk victories.”

      Thanks for the update. And thanks for mentioning that your book is a reference for special forces and other groups facing extreme mental/emotional stress. I put it on my TBR list.

      Hopefully the film producer for SixMin will “see the error of his ways” (and the way to riches) and turn that film script into something more patriotic.

      Thanks for stopping by and giving us an update!

    • I think, as an outsider’s point of view, people like vulnerability. As a Canadian it’s not about wanting to see America’s military fail. No one wants that, but seeing the wreckage and failure is compelling.

      I heard an interviewee on the CBC about Indigenous culture and why there is such a negative viewpoint on native people in Canada. His point is that there was a lot of success that never gets discussed about aboriginal life, business, and culture. He used a comparison and said something like this – “People are interested in the one in million plane crash – no one is interested in hearing about the hundreds of thousands of successful landings.”

      However, I feel successes get redundant. We are in the day an age where we’re drowning in stories when the good guys have an easy time to achieve their aim. Predictability of the plot is ruining the story experience.

  8. Side note: Legend has it that when someone wrote Carl Jung, asking which was the right spelling—extravert vs. extrovert—Jung’s aide replied, “Dr. Jung says it’s extravert, because extrovert is just bad Latin.”

    I enjoy speaking to groups; it’s an energy creator. I once was told on a Friday that I had to address a large EPA conference on the following Monday. The speech hasn’t been written nor the slides completed nor the reservations made. Not exactly fun, but a challenge I met without a qualm or a quiver.

    Book quality and book success are different animals.

    • I envy your extraversion, J. I was born boring. I bet your speech to the EPA was a success.

      I certainly agree that book quality and book success are different. In the area of advice, I always say that “there is no correlation between confidence and competence.”

      May your weekend be filled with quality and success.

      • Thank you. One of the attendees did say my speech was good. When I told him the circumstances, he said it was really good, considering.

        More memorable was my post-conference hop on company time to Naples, FL, to visit my aunt and uncle. It was the last time I saw him healthy. He passed away on my next trip.

  9. Interesting how these 3 separate posts flow together. I have long known that the books/genres that tend to be most popular with readers tend to be my least favorite (some exceptions, but typically my norm). However I do believe if you put your soul into your books, even if they are not the most popular genre, that they will find their readership. I simply could not stick with the process of writing if I had to write stuff I wasn’t enthusiastic about.

    As to throwing aside introversion–ain’t gonna happen. 😎 Thinking about the extroverted people I know, maybe they’d surprise me but I don’t see them settling down in front of a computer quietly for the number of hours/weeks/months/years it would take to write a book. However, this goes right back to the point about putting your soul into your books–if you are writing things that you are passionate about, it gives you the ability to do what it takes to get the job done. Whether it’s coming out of your shell to promote your work or speak; or an extroverted person getting the needed ‘settling down’ time to sit & write—you have that ability because you are so into what you’re doing.

    So the bottom line for me is writing what you love to write.

  10. Thanks, BK.

    “So the bottom line for me is writing what you love to write.” You got it. If you love what you’re writing, the joy, soul, and voice will shine. And, as you said, if you’re passionate about what you write, you’ll “come out of your shell” to promote it.

    Sounds like Bradbury’s philosophy.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  11. Thank you, Steve, for another great post from the TKZ wisdom archives.

    I also think the author’s soul has to be poured into the story, and the author has to move beyond his/her comfort zone to market the book. But, in order for the book to be successful in today’s marketplace, I think there’s something else. Maybe it’s luck or fate or serendipity. Whatever it is, we have to realize that millions of books are published each year, and many of those books are good. In order to stand out in the crowd, something has to click with readers.

    So I guess my definition of success is more than just selling a lot of books and making good money (though I want to do that.) But for me, real success is about excellence and committing myself to do the best I can.

    • Thanks, Kay, and my apologies for the late response.

      All good points that you make. Ben discussed the IT factor in music. Whether it’s “luck or fate or serendipity,” there will always be something magical about what captures readers’ fancy and makes the book “click” with them. We will spend our writing life chasing IT.

      I like your final paragraph on the definition of success. We may never discover the IT factor, but we can strive for excellence and commit to doing our best, always learning and improving. That’s leaving a legacy.

      Have a wonderful remainder of the weekend!

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