Some writer friends of mine just got back from the national conference of Romance Writers of America. This is a huge conference, jam-packed with workshops on both the craft and business of writing. When I was a member of RWA, I attended the conference nearly every year.
This year, as I’m sure has been done in previous years, two mega-bestselling authors presented a workshop on writing bestselling novels, this one titled, Secrets of the Bestselling Sisterhood. I’m sure there were many nuggets of great information doled out, and I’ll venture to guess that “write the book of your heart” and “write the best story you can” might have been mentioned once or twice.
With all due respect to those two bestselling authors (who have both worked hard for their success), I have a few thoughts of my own about how one writes a bestselling book. And unlike those folks writing expensive how-to books and pricey workshops that purport to reveal the holy grail of how to craft that next big breakout book, I’m willing to share my opinion for free.
And here it is: There is no recipe. There is no checklist. There is no magical formula to follow that will guarantee a book you’ve written will become a bestseller. We can analyze the heck out of the bestselling novels flying off the shelves of bookstores and selling like hotcakes on Amazon. But none of that analysis will give you a guidebook to follow that will lead to equal success for your book.
The problem with bestsellerdom is that any knowledge gleaned from studying what’s been successful is that it’s hindsight, rear view mirror stuff. You’ll only learn what worked for those particular books. Just putting a boy wizard, a girl crushing on a vampire, or a dystopic future into your story is not a magic wand. There are so many intangibles about bestsellers that are impossible to quantify.
So what’s an author to do? If you want a chance at bestsellerdom (as opposed to 100% certainty), there are some things you can do to improve your odds. These suggestions are along the lines of setting yourself up for success. Like a runner whose goal is to cross the finish line first in their next marathon. A serious runner will train in the months leading up to a race as opposed to being a couch potato right up until race day.
So here are some odds-increasing steps for an author:
Write a story you can describe in one succinct sentence. An orphan boy discovers he’s a wizard and is sent off to a wizardry school to learn magic. An annual lottery forces teens to fight each other to the death in a gladiator-style competition. It makes the book easier to market and for the reader to more immediately grasp what the story is about.
2) Write visually
Write scenes you can imagine on a movie screen. Think action, not internal narrative. Make it easy for a producer who happens to pick up your book to envision the movie your book could become. Make it so riveting for your reader she can’t put your book down.
3) Write relatable, likeable characters
Likeable doesn’t mean sweetness and light, namby-pamby nice guys/girls. It means interesting characters, people who are heroic in spite of themselves. Write characters the reader would love to be, to exchange places with. Or, if it’s a harrowing story (like The Hunger Games), write characters so real their plight will grab the reader’s emotional jugular and make them feel as if they’re experiencing what the characters are experiencing.
Yes, there are crappily written bestsellers. But yours doesn’t have to be one of them. Particularly if this is your first book, your chances of getting an editor past the first page (or a reader checking out a sample of your indie published book) might hinge on whether said page is riddled with errors.
5) Work denking hard
Write like a maniac. Write lots of books. Most of the big bestselling authors out there didn’t start that way with their first book. It took time and many books to become an overnight sensation.
6) Get lucky
You make a book video, a world-renowned blogger spots it, and it goes viral. You write a blog post about your book and a celebrity stumbles across your blog, picks up and reads the book, and tweets it to her zillions of followers. You end up sitting next to Steven Spielberg’s nephew on a plane and he’s enchanted by your story concept.
Obviously you only have control over items 1-5. And none of the above may help your book become a bestseller. There are plenty of books out there that are high concept, have wonderful, visual scenes, great characters, and beautiful prose, but never became bestsellers. There are books that don’t follow these rules that surprise by becoming big hits.
I admit, too, this isn’t an exhaustive list. I bet you could come up with your own reasons why you enjoyed the last bestseller you read. Or maybe you read a book before it hit big and you just knew it was going to end up on the New York Times and USA Today lists. Tell me what you think are some of the elements of a bestselling novel. #SFWApro