The Secret to Writing Commercially Successful Novels

I’ve been writing novels for more than three decades, and while I have learned a lot about how unpredictable the market is, there are some specific characteristics that have consistently set apart novels that see success.

Regardless of genre, today’s novels are primarily cinematic, which is a huge shift from the way novels were written back when I started. All you have to do is open a Michener or Steinbeck novel, flip some pages, and no doubt you’ll land on excessive (by today’s standards) narration. The author telling you about a place or characters, albeit in an engaging way (usually).

But what truly stands out is the “telling” of the story. Not “show, don’t tell,” which is what today’s novelists are urged to adopt as their mantra.

While there are exceptions to this (see Diane Setterfield’s novel Once upon a River or Leif Enger’s So Brave, Young, and Handsome for terrific examples of “old-fashioned” storytelling narrative), most successful novels read like movie scenes. The scene is in deep POV of one character, starts in the middle of something significant already underway, gets right into action (which can be dialogue), and builds with rising tension to a high moment at the end. That, in a nutshell, is the typical scene structure.

I teach the “twenty-minute rule” for scenes: not more than twenty minutes should pass for your character from the first line of a scene to the last. Of course, you can have multiple scenes in a chapter, but each scene needs to be a capsule of time; if you need to jump ahead an hour or more, end the scene. Then start your next scene in the new time period, with something already underway. Continue Reading…

The Key to a Successful Novel Lies in Genre

If you asked me what is the most important thing an author needs to know to ensure they will have the best chance of success with their novel, I could sum it up in one word: genre.

You have to know what genre you are writing in. And, on top of that, you have to do your homework to be completely “fluent” in that genre. That means learning to identify the markers for that genre.

Readers have specific expectations that they bring to a genre. So that means you, the author, must identify your niche genre, write to those expectations, and be sure that all marketing materials, including cover design, perfectly reflect that genre.

That might seem like a no-brainer, but, sadly, I see a lot of writers clueless about the genre they are writing in and haven’t done their homework.

Let me give you an example.

Here are the elements of Southern Gothic stories:

  • Voodoo and spirituality
  • An air of mystery, and/or the supernatural
  • Grotesque history, especially focusing on the South’s history of slavery
  • Social anxieties represented in racial tension
  • Deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters
  • isolation and marginalization
  • violence and crime
  • sense of place
  • freakishness and the grotesque
  • destitution and decay
  • oppression and discriminat

Some Southern Gothic authors include Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers. You have to know not just the markers of a genre but the great authors who’ve mastered the genre. Then you need to study those authors. Continue Reading…

The 5 Turning Points in Your Novel

Almost every great story has five turning points. Movie, play, novel—regardless of genre. Traditional story structure goes way back to ancient storytellers sitting by the fire and regaling listeners with their tales. While we didn’t live back then, we can assume their stories had these essential five turning points. They’re the foundation of practically ever story we’ve ever heard.

If you’re writing fiction, you need to know what these turning points are. While short stories don’t often conform to this structure, you will see it sometimes. But if you’re writing a novel, this post’s for you.

Turning Point #1:“Opportunity” Knocks

Turning Point 1: “Opportunity.” Yes, this is the inciting incident. Michael Hauge puts it so nicely: “An event occurs that creates desire in the protagonist. Reader gets a glimpse of their longing or need.”

Ah: core need. How often I harp on this. Protagonists (and all main characters) need motivation. We do things for a reason, and your protagonist needs a strong reason to chase after her goal. We bond with characters whose needs are clear. We see what they care about, what they’re passionate about, what they love to do, what they believe in. But underneath all that is the need. A basic, maybe even primal need.

Every great story has this. Scarlett O’Hara needs love. She sure hasn’t a clue what it is or how to get  it. But it’s her core need. Continue Reading…

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