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.
This is a very simple summary of the basic structure for successful commercial fiction. However, there is a lot more to writing great scenes, which is what’s needed to write a great book.
But, structure aside (and you can read up on novel structure via the dozens of posts on this blog or grab my books Layer Your Novel and The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction), I’ve determined there are 8 essentials that make or break a novel, and when I study best sellers, these seem obvious to me—but maybe not so obvious to most writers.
And one other key point: the secret to writing a successful novel lies in being able to identify what’s missing in your scenes and using a targeting approach to revising.
Why is this so important? Because if you have a good scene, to make it great, you have to run through the checklist of these 8 essentials to ensure they’re all in place. And some of these 8 essentials may surprise you.
In other words, the best way to write a terrific novel is to use a specific lens to write, revise, and critique.
Because this very specific method is the ticket to success for many writers, I’ve put together a unique course that I’ve never seen any writing instructor offer. Over the last year months, I’ve beta-tested this with more than 200 writers, and the results have been fantastic.
8 Weeks to Commercial Success
So, in order to make this experience available for more writers, I’ve redesigned the course and made it an evergreen “go at your own pace” course. The door to enrolling in this course is now open!
This is a very targeted method that makes revising clear and simple. And powerfully effective!
The most important thing you will learn is you must identify your genre, study it, and know exactly how best-selling authors in your genre utilize and integrate these 8 elements in their scenes. You want to write horror novels like Stephen King? Then you need to know how many lines per page he shows emotion in his characters and in what way. It’s not unlike a math problem (and okay if you’re not great at math!). Analysis is the key to success. And you’ll be doing a lot of it in this intensive course.
The 8 Essentials
These are the 8 essentials to commercial success that you will master over these 8 weeks:
1) High Moment and Character Change: You have to know the specific purpose of your scene, build to a key moment at the end (last lines) of your scene, which creates change in your character.
2) Microtension on every page. All points to the secrets and twists to come. What are you not saying simmers under the surface of your scenes. This will make or break your story. Discussion of critical action-reaction cycle.
3) Nuances of deep POV, including unique voices for every character. It’s important to establish character mood, mind-set, and motivation right from the start.
4) Sensory detail. Going beyond five senses, using specific wording to set mood and tone for the scene. What the character processes through her senses should reveal important things about her and not merely convey information.
5) Emotional manipulation—you must know how you want your readers to feel and how to get them there. And you need to masterfully learn how to show emotion in three key ways.
6) High Stakes! High, believable personal and public stakes that ramp up to the climax.
7) Purposeful backstory in the right amounts and the right places.
8) Tight, distilled dialogue. It makes or break a scene. We’ll look at “on the nose” dialogue and discuss dialogue mechanics. Characters rarely say what they mean, but what they need seeps through.
This course is now an evergreen “go at your own pace” course. You can take your time going through all the material and studying the sample scenes. And remember: you have lifetime access! Enroll HERE!
Testimonials from students who’ve taken this course:
“Susanne’s Master Critique Groups show you how to develop and polish every aspect of your scenes. Her wealth of experience and compassionate teaching will help you keep your readers hooked on every page.” —Will Wraxall
“I had hit a brick wall and not written anything in six months. This workshop was a much needed kick in the pants. I found the commitment to submit a scene a week for critiquing, and critiquing two other writers’ scene every week, fleshed out the helpful basics Susanne teaches. What I learned about writing gave me a fresh evaluation of my work and more importantly the motivation and the tools to enjoy writing again.” —Gene Quinones
“I have learned SO much in such a short space of time. It was a big commitment to make, but it was so, so worth it. I won’t ever regret it—at the very least, my writing will be so much better than before. The very best outcome is beyond exciting and I feel far more confident about making that dream a reality.” —Liz Thompson
“As someone who has only really started writing about a year ago, I can say without doubt that this course has made my writing 1,000 times better. Not just simple things like not putting in so many speech tags or formatting. The structure of my novel, the POV, sensory detail. While I had some of these things already, learning what works and what doesn’t has improved my writing. I honestly did not know what to expect when I joined this course, but it has changed my writing and my joy of writing for the better. I cannot thank Susanne enough, and I look forward to continuing to learn from her in the future.” —Joshua Bruce
“The master critique group has been amazing. Since starting this group, my writing skills and grasp of story mechanics have improved exponentially due to Susanne’s guidance and direction as well as input from members of the group. I was stuck writing on my own, and this has given me the push and tools I needed to accomplish my goals.” —Jenny Perry, PhD
“Susanne’s Master Critique Group was very useful for receiving external feedback on my work. I learned a lot by doing this course and improved my ability to critique and see what needs revising in my own work as well. Susanne is a great teacher, full of energy and enthusiasm and can edit a writer’s scene without offending but illuminating where it can be improved. It wasn’t easy but I thoroughly enjoyed the process.” —Samantha Ridgway
While this method is really the “secret” to success, it’s no secret. Highly productive, successful authors infuse their scenes with these 8 essentials, whether they use this method of studying other best sellers or not.
However, whether you are a beginning novelist or have a number of novels published, here’s the thing: you don’t know what you don’t know. And unless someone points out what your weak areas are or where you are missing elements in your scenes, you can’t tell why your scene isn’t working.
It’s a lot of work to apply everything you’ll learn, but you are going to be amazed at the improvement in your writing!
Enroll HERE to be on your way to writing a commercial best seller!