Tag Archives: rules for writing

What Makes a Novel a Bestseller?

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When you ask a writer how successful they want their novel to be, most will answer they want it to be a bestseller. But what makes a book a bestseller? Are there rules that can be followed to increase a book’s chance of becoming a hit?

Not all bestsellers are well written. Not all bestsellers are recommendable.

Many fantastic stories are forgotten, never heard of, or flop when they hit the shelves.

So what makes a bestseller?

The truth is we really don’t know. We can try to identify commonalities between bestsellers, but at the end of the day Paper Towns is very different from The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and both those novels are nothing like Fifty Shades of Grey.

But, aren’t there at least a few rules we can glean from bestsellers, even if they are unalike?

“There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one can agree what they are.” – Somerset Maugham

If no one can agree what the rules are, then what can writers do to work toward a bestseller?

Just write. Writing isn’t about perfection. It’s about working hard and having your writing grow with you. When you get an idea, work with it. Flesh it out. People don’t know what will make a bestseller, despite many believing they do.

It would be great if every book published was a bestseller, but thousands of books are published every year. And, guess what? The vast majority of them aren’t bestsellers.

So, besides writing, what can you do?

Write your way. Many times bestsellers are books that offer something new to the literary world, or if the concept isn’t completely new, the view on it is.

Don’t let others tell you that you’re incapable of writing a bestseller. As stated above, no one knows which books will be bestsellers. They can guess, and sometimes they’re right, but they can’t know with one hundred percent certainty.

Work hard. It’s not just about writing. It’s about editing, marketing, and connecting with the literary world and potential readers.

At the end of the day, write the best that you can. Don’t focus on creating a bestseller. Take your idea, expand on it, write your first draft, edit and revise, get others to read and critique it, edit and revise until your work is the best it can be, and then work on the synopsis and query letter if you’re going the traditional publishing route, or if you’re self-publishing, publish and market your novel as if you’re not already working a full-time job.

How do you improve your work?

(Photo courtesy of Maurice.)

Cutting Down Word Count

You’ve dedicated massive amounts of time and worked extremely hard on writing your novel. Now you’re sitting at your desk (or wherever you write) with a complete manuscript. The problem? It’s complete at 120,000 words or 150,000 words or an even larger word count.

Yikes. The chances of getting an agent to read past that immense word count are slim, especially if you’re a debut author. Plus, usually with such a high word count there are extraneous materials within the novel. This leads to working on cutting down the word count during the revision process.

Decreasing a novel’s word count is a headache many writers face. However, too many words can take away from the story.

Cutting down on word count doesn’t have to mean hacking your novel apart nor does it mean taking out entire scenes. What it does mean is getting rid of the words or sentences that aren’t helping your story to move along. Yes, this does include good writing. Sometimes a sentence or a paragraph is fantastically written, but if it does nothing for the story it shouldn’t be in the story.

So, what do you look for?

Telling and Showing. Most writers already know that showing is generally better than telling. But sometimes we include both telling and showing in our novel. There’s rarely a need for that. Trim the redundancy by showing without telling.

Conversation. Spoken dialogue and written dialogue are two different things. When we speak, multiple conversations can occur at once, we use non-words, and we often repeat what we or someone else has said. (Think of all the ums, uhs, likes, and ers that are used when you’re speaking to friends and family.) If this happens in writing, the conversation can stretch on for pages. To make sure this doesn’t happen keep clarity and rhythm in mind when writing dialogue. We want the conversation to flow and for readers to be able to understand us without having to reread a conversation multiple times. Think of written dialogue as an edited version of what we speak.

A second wordiness problem is having the character describe something that readers should have read someplace else. Don’t let your characters be marionettes for the plot. Let them be real, breathing, and believable. People don’t say, “My long, thick, wavy, silvery-blonde hair is sticking to my slender back in this unusually humid, hot weather that is obviously the result of global warming due to big, private, industrial corporations that only care about the bottom line and not the fact that they’re destroying our delicate ecosystems, such as coral reefs and rainforests, for future generations.”

Please don’t do that. Establish the scene first and then only use dialogue if it’s something a person would naturally say in a conversation.

Description. Be careful of detailed description. Many writers attempt to describe every little detail in a room or a park or on a flower. Most of us who try this end up with wordy descriptions that tell us information we don’t need to know or really don’t care to know. For example, saying that a burly guy shoots the protagonist in the chest gives a pretty clear picture of what’s happening. Is it necessary to know that the gun was a SR9c compact pistol that weighs twenty-three ounces?

If the specifics play into the story, then maybe it is necessary. But for most of the time we can be specific enough without drowning the reader in imagery that’s not critical to the story. A few implied words often do the trick. Let your readers fill in the blanks.

In the end…

When you’re facing cutting down word count, remind yourself that it’s about the story, not the words. To help you gain some objectivity, give yourself some distance before starting that revision process. Doing so will give you perspective and help you to keep the core conflict in mind. Subplots are great and all, as long as they don’t overwhelm the main story.

How do you handle decreasing word count?

Showing Vs. Telling

Show don’t tell is a piece of advice most writers have heard of. But what does this mean in practical terms?

First off, exposition is useful in your writing, as long as you don’t over-indulge.

Fiction is about creating an emotional link between the author’s story and the reader. As the author, we want to help readers create a “suspension of disbelief,” meaning the readers move past the fact that our stories are fabrications.

To do this, we make fiction as plausible as possible and go for the readers’ emotions over their intellect.

One of the top ways to accomplish these two acts is to show the reader what’s happening, instead of telling them.

Telling catalogs emotions and actions. Showing makes the reader feel like they’re in the story. It activates the fives senses, or at least some of them. It’s what the characters do and say that convinces the reader.

Work with immediate physical and emotional actions: wind whipped her cheeks, his face went ashen, a fist curled in her gut.

Use verbs to carry the description. There are so many verbs out there that it’s wrong to ignore them.

Maria walked down the hallway. VS. Maria slinked down the hallway.

The second sentence gives the reader a clearer image of Maria and her mood.

As different verbs can drastically alter the way a reader interprets a scene, sentences can too. Be wary of telling readers how to feel in a sentence. Don’t tell the reader to be surprised, shock the reader with your words.

Think of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. With the line, “The tiny insect-crawl of the second hand was the last thing she saw before the lights went out,” Harris focuses our attention before causing something to happen that makes us jump. Harris shows us something unexpected instead of telling us it’s unexpected.

Showing results in more writing than telling does. But that helps to relieve ambiguity. If we say that the house looked old, the reader is left wondering what “old” looks like in this context.

Saying that the house is choked with vines, its paint flaking, a few of its support beams peeking through the cracks, and its heavy, velvet curtains moth-ridden gives a much stronger image.

Dialogue is also a useful tool in showing, not telling. It can suggest a character’s background, self-image, intelligence, personality, etc.

For example, Jace Wayland’s character in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones:

  • “And next time you’re planning to injure yourself to get my attention, just remember that a little sweet talk works wonders.”
  • Clary: “Don’t. I’m not really in the mood right now.” Jace: “That’s got to be the first time a girl’s ever said that to me.”

These two examples show Jace’s arrogance and charisma, and that he’s a bit self-centered.

However, there are a few arguments for telling instead of showing. One is briefness. As stated earlier, showing shoots up word count. If an event in your novel is relatively unimportant, it might be better to tell it. Two is recounting events. If your character is retelling an event that readers are already familiar with, don’t spend a ton of time on it. Gloss over it and get to the next big surprise.

For the most part, stick with showing, not telling. Vivid writing grabs readers’ attention. It draws them into the story.

Showing is a vital component of creating vivid stories that suck the reader into your world. So, remember these points when writing:

  • Don’t tell readers how to feel, evoke their emotions
  • Use strong and specific verbs
  • Use expressive dialogue that shows off characters’ attitudes and emotions
  • Use well-placed details to activate the senses

One last thing: If there’s a moment in your story or a story you’re reading where you don’t feel convinced, those are moments that are being told instead of shown.

Any specific novels that come to mind that tell instead of show? How about show instead of tell?

There Are No Rules

There are a countless number of books, websites, and classes designed to teach people how to write, including the rules associated with writing. Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty, Rum Punch, Glitz, etc., has ten rules for good writing. However, W. Somerset Maugham, author of The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Elmore Leonard’s rules include:

  • Never open a book with weather.
  1. Rule: Weather is usually used as a conversational opening, when there’s not something better to talk about.
  2. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Though weather is continued for the next paragraph, the main character is introduced after the opening line.
  3. The Rapture by Liz Jensen: “That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperature was merciless: ninety-eight, ninety-nine, then a hundred in the shade. It was heat to die, go nuts or spawn in…Asphyxiated, you longer for rain. It didn’t come.”
  • Avoid prologues.
  1. Prologues tend to be used improperly as massive information dumps, are too long, have nothing to do with the main story, can be folded into the main story, or are used to set the mood (which should be done in chapter one anyway).
  2. Prologues can be good, if used correctly: used for a critical element in the backstory or used to resolve a time gap with critical information
  3. i.e.: Garth Nix’s Sabriel and Lirael novels both contain prologues that resolve a time gap and include important background information.
  • Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  1. There are plenty of published and successful books that use more than “said.”
  2. i.e. – Veronica Roth’s Insurgent, “‘She is not my friend,’ snaps Lynn.’”
  • Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
  1. Again, there are lots of successful novels that break this rule.
  2. i.e. – Delirium by Lauren Oliver: “‘Hi, Carol,’ Hana says breathlessly, catching up to us.”
  • Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  1. Rule: When overused, an exclamation loses its meaning.
  2. i.e. – In Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants five exclamation points are used within the prologue.
  • Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  1. i.e. – Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants: “‘Oh Jesus,’ I said, suddenly understanding. I stumbled forward, screaming even though there was no hope of my voice reaching her. ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’”
  2. i.e. – Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories: “Funeral, he said suddenly. Going to my brother’s funeral.”
  • Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  1. Rule: Convey the feel of speech through expressions and phrasing, not misspellings, etc.
  2. i.e. – The Color Purple by Alice Walker: “My mama dead. She die screaming and cussing. She scream at me. She cuss at me. I’m big. I can’t move fast enough. By time I git back from the well, the water be warm. By time I git the tray ready the food be cold. By time I git all the children ready for school it be dinner time. He don’t say nothing. He set there by the bed holding her hand an cryin, talking about don’t leave me, don’t go.”
  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  1. This is subjective. Some readers like description of characters, other do not.
  2. i.e. – In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, three men are described in one paragraph: “Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners…His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien…”
  3. i.e. – In Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, it takes multiple paragraphs to describe Kennan: “…he did nothing but smile. / And he was devastating when he did. He glowed faintly all the time, as if hot coals burned inside him. His collar-length hair shimmered like strands of copper…tan and too beautiful to touch, walking with a swagger that said he knew exactly how attractive he was…he was almost average in size, only a head taller than she was. / Whenever he came near, she could smell wildflowers, could hear the rustle of willow branches…a taste of midsummer in the start of the frigid fall.”
  • Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  1. Rule: Too much description and the story’s action comes to a standstill.
  2. i.e. – John Crowley’s Four Freedoms: A Novel has long, detailed descriptions of objects and places sometimes extending for over a page.
  3. i.e. – James Joyce’s The Dubliners: The Dead: “The middle of the room was occupied by two square tables placed end to end, and on these Aunt Julia and the caretaker were straightening and smoothing a large cloth. On the sideboard were arrayed dishes and plates, and glasses and bundles of knives and forks and spoons. The top of the closed square piano served also as a sideboard for viands and sweets. At a smaller sideboard in one corner two young men were standing, drinking hop bitters.”
  • Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
  1. Rule: Readers skip thick paragraphs of prose, but not dialogue.
  2. This is another subjective rule. For instance, I’m not an erotica fan. I once bought a book thinking it was a fantasy adventure. It turned out that the book was more erotica than anything else. I didn’t finish that book, but gave it to a friend, who devoured it. So, where I found the sexual descriptions repetitive and rather boring, she was engrossed.

As you can see from the examples I’ve provided above, Maugham may be right. Leonard’s list of ten rules can be counted more as suggestions, observations, and helpful points than as strict letters of the law. If they were, these rules wouldn’t be contradicted.

With writing, it isn’t a linear process. There are no definite steps to follow. You move forward and backward. You write something brilliant one day and then the next you have no idea why what you wrote the previous day was so good. Eventually, if you stick with it, you finish writing a story.

Fiction writing holds no absolutes. There’s no right or wrong way to write your novel. There are suggestions and insights from successful authors. But, the only true measure of what kind of shape your novel is in is by how well it’s received by you and your readers.

Do you lean more toward Maugham or Leonard’s belief about rules for writing?

[Elmore Leonard’s rules from The New York Times “Writers on Writing; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”]