Thursday, June 28, 2012
What author doesn’t want to write a bestseller? I bet most of us—if not all of us--dream about fame, fortune and a place on the bestseller list. But how does a book actually get there? First of all, everyone says write a fantastic novel. Ok, you ask, how do I do that? No one knows for sure what exactly pushes a book out front and becomes a blockbuster bestseller! Obviously, the book has something special. Yet it can’t be bottled.
But here’s the good news: bestsellers have common elements. Maybe the next bestseller will be yours.
1.The future bestseller must be entertaining. Delete the boring parts or at least hide them in a file that no one sees but you. I hate to permanently delete, so I don’t. So far I’ve never used those old scenes, but they’re still around if I ever need them.
2.Keep the reader hooked by writing a page-turner, ‘can’t put it down’ book. If you trust your critique partner to give her honest opinion, ask her/him for it and then thank her even after you hear the verdict. Don’t ask you mother or your best friend for total honesty. They won’t want to hurt your feelings, no matter what they think of your book.
3. Write a book that’s movie friendly. It should be fast-paced, and adaptable to the big screen.
4. A reader should be able to condense what the story’s about in 25 words or less. That way we know the story isn’t too confusing or complicated. I know that’s hard even for authors, but if a reader can tell the gist of the story, including the hook, in a few words, then she’ll be able to tell others about it. Word of mouth sells books.
5. What’s the story question? Is it obvious enough for the reader to identify early on in the book? For example: Will Scarlett marry Ashley or will she marry Rhett? (Gone with the Wind. Waving to Julie!) That question follows us throughout the story. Here’s another one. Will the shark come back again? (Jaws) Make the question clear.
6. Develop strong complications not easily overcome. How will Scarlett marry Ashley if he’s engaged to Melanie? A few other major complications—Rhett Butler and of course, the Civil War, followed by the struggle to survive and eventually prosper during Reconstruction.
7. The hero and heroine can’t be wimps. They have deep convictions and resolve and strong passions that rise above most human experience. Their emotional intensity results in courageous and surprising actions. The hero and heroine act decisively, pushing and shoving against obstacles in their paths. Things are difficult, but they move forward without a lot of introspection. They act more than they think.
8. The readers must make an emotional connection to the hero and heroine. Despite all of Scarlett’s flaws, we feel for her as she tries to catch Ashley who’s unattainable and really temperamentally unsuitable.
We give Scarlett grudging respect after she returns to Tara and finds it practically ruined because of those darn Yankees. We want her to fight for the land and for Tara because it’s worth fighting for. No one else has equal courage or determination. The spoiled southern belle is turning into a strong woman. We empathize with her struggles and admire her tenacity, although we’d probably cringe at some the tactic she uses to survive and prosper.
We also empathize with those who suffer, especially when they bring it on themselves. We wonder why Scarlett doesn’t understand she’d be happier with Rhett than Ashley.
9. In a bestseller the hero or heroine at first seems overmatched. He has to summon all his energy, bravery, intelligence and skills in order to survive. Readers like the characters’ commitment to their goal, even if it’s not totally selfless.
10. References to the past (back story) are usually pared down to the essentials. The present is very important. I think Gone with the Wind is an exception in this respect because Scarlett’s mother Ellen has a chapter devoted to her past even though it’s not crucial to the story. I happened to have enjoyed learning about her. But the book was written in 1936 and the writing style was different. Bestsellers now are shorter with less back story and less introspection—not that Scarlett was at all introspective!
11. Bestsellers employ suspense, particularly the threat of physical or psychological danger. The warning signs or threats of dreaded future events are in place early. This suspense gradually accelerates and pulls us along into the story. In the Godfather, the horse’s head appears early, so we knew these people mean business and won’t hesitate to use violence.
12. Action trumps interior monologue. I think this is true even in a romance, although romances have more internalization than action thrillers have.
13. In a bestseller a small story is often told against a sweeping backdrop such as a war. For example, Gone With the Wind is more than a romance. It explores large issues and big themes including war, slavery and women’s empowerment. Scarlett looks out at the world, she doesn’t look into herself. There are two stories—one about a narcissistic, spoiled teenager, and another about a young woman gaining strength through responding to adversity.
These are just a few elements found in most bestsellers. Can you think of any more?
I’m giving away an Advanced Reader’s Copy of A Path toward Love. If you’re interested, please leave your e-mail address.