Posts Tagged how to write a bestseller
There’s a question I get asked a lot. So I thought I’d let two Rozzes, 15 years apart, slog it out.
Young Roz, fresh-faced ghostwriter: Why don’t you write a quick series of novels that would sell shedloads and make a mint. Then you can spend the rest of your time on your, er, slower-selling books. The arty ones.
Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. It’s not that simple.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But you’ve had the best bootcamp ever for commercial fiction writing. You’ve worked with ruthless and brilliant editors. You’ve seen your books as posters on the London Underground.
Older, wiser Roz: When I ghostwrote, I was new to professional writing. Unformed. Looking for my way. Then I started on my own novel and everything changed. Once upon a time, my goal was to please those taskmasters. I discovered I could suddenly please myself. I’d learned to drive the car; now I could take it anywhere I wanted.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Well come on, why do those books take so long? I can hammer out a ghostwritten novel in six weeks. I thought My Memories of a Future Life would be a left-field suspense. Lifeform Three was supposed to be a light futuristic romp. What on earth were you doing?
Older, wiser Roz: The books kept changing. The more I worked on them, the more they seemed to pose an irresistible mystery about life. A novel in progress isn’t just a thing I pick up at the keyboard and put down again. It travels with me. An endless conversation. A personal crusade. Keyboard-time is when I catch up with the points I honed as I watched a film, worked an editing shift, went for a run, cooked dinner, groomed a horse. That process is one of the pleasures of building a novel. And frequently the frustration. Do you know what? I don’t want to live with a book unless I can take it to its genuine limit.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Don’t over-think it. Just write to a trend.
Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. I was chatting to a senior editor at a Big Five publisher. ‘Roz,’ he said, ‘we’re looking for another Girl On The Train. Just knock one off. The manuscripts we’re getting from agents are rubbish. We need you.’
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: I am totally going to do that.
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, you will. You’ll take a publisher’s informal hint and write a thriller that chases a trend. By the time it’s ready, the trend will be over. And anyway, I don’t read books like that.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But … bestsellers. Hot categories. Salivating now.
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, the cash doesn’t just rain out of the air if you write one manuscript. You need to feed readers regularly. You won’t just write one, you’ll write several. Even a book that is fast to draft has a lot of other time behind it – knowledge of the market, promotion activities, reading the innovators so your work is fresh enough. Have I mentioned that readers will spot if you don’t adore that genre to your very boot-soles? Writing like that is not a part-time job, it’s a dedicated role. It’s full on, full time. What bandwidth does that leave for crafting a nice book for the soul?
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But there are surprise breakouts. I’ll take a few rejections on my determined chin, and eventually we’ll be Rowling in £££s. I’ll whack a book on Kindle when it’s invented, learn some sales-fu and watch it rain dollars.
Older, wiser Roz: Oh just buy a ticket for the lottery.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Think of those Tube posters for the books we ghostwrote. Wouldn’t it be nice to see our real name there?
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, there was a time when I could dash off a genre book. I was new and eager and didn’t know what I wanted to write for myself. I’m happy to ghostwrite non-fiction, because that’s creative journalism. I like editing too; it’s the fun part of problem-solving, helping another writer with their vision. Being a supportive godmother instead of the flailing, gnashing parent.
In the professional world of publishing, there’s no such thing as writing a book for easy money. So I prefer to be careful how I spend my creative energy. Because there’s a lot I want to do.
(Psst… if you’re curious to know more, sign up for my newsletter.)
Are you making an outline for NaNoWriMo?
We all need different levels of planning. Some writers like a step-by-step map so they can settle back and enjoy telling the story to the page. Others want the joy of discovery while their fingers are flying.
However you do it – whether formally beforehand or as your wordcount builds, these are the questions you need to tackle. (And even if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, you might find them useful.)
Why is this story going to grab a reader?
All stories need to dangle a lure – an element of intrigue, the remarkable, the sense of something unstable, a disturbance. That could be:
- a literal outrage like a murder
- a dilemma that puts a character in an impossible position
- an event that appears to be ordinary to you or me, but is a profound challenge in the character’s life.
Unless you are deliberately exploring the ‘anti-remarkable’, ask yourself what will make the reader curious from the start? Something exciting? Something weird? Something horrifying, unjust or wrong? Something comical? Something the readers will recognise as part of their own lives? This will probably be your way into the story too.
Why are your protagonists and antagonists compelled to take part in the story? Why couldn’t they just turn around and walk away?
What is the first change that starts the story rolling?
Why does the story begin where it does? Have you started too soon, in order to get set-up in? Might you be better cutting those scenes and filling in the back story at natural moments further in? Or have you started too late and missed some moments the reader will enjoy?
How does it escalate?
No matter how bad the situation looks from the start, it needs to get worse or the story will seem stuck. As the narrative goes on, the events and what people do must matter more. The price of failure must rise. If you’re writing in conventional three-act structure, which movies follow, there will be definite points where the story shifts into new gears – these will be the quarter, half-way and three-quarter marks. But even if you aren’t, you need a point where everything totally blows up, and a moment where the characters feel the worst has happened.
I never would have thought…
How does the story take directions the reader wouldn’t have guessed – and how will you convince them that they are fair?
Is it still the same quest as it was at the start?
Most stories start with the main characters wanting or needing something, but that goal can change. A simple search for a lost dog becomes a crusade against the fur trade. Perhaps at the end your characters want the opposite to the thing they fought so hard for in the early days. Stories where the characters’ priorities shift are very powerful. Stories where they don’t can seem predictable.
In the end…
What does your ending resolve? How has the characters’ world changed? Can the story really go no further? Is anything left unresolved – and if it is, does that suit your needs?
Speed is of the essence in NaNoWriMo and it’s much easier to write characters when you’ve spent time getting into their skins.
Do you know a few trivialities about their daily lives? You might need a hobby for them to do to get themselves out of the way, or a commitment that might put them on a particular road when something happens. Have a list of a few likely trivialities about your characters, and then when you need one you don’t have to stop the flow.
But if you don’t have time for that, just insert a tag such as [findout] and come back to it in the revision.
Much more important is to know how they relate to each other in the story – because the best plot moments will grow from friction and alliances. Do you know who gets on with whom (or would if they got the chance to meet)? Which characters would never understand each other? If you gave them all the same challenge, how would they show their different mettles? Which story events will really push someone’s buttons?
That’s my template for starting a NaNo novel. What would you add? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.