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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 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…

5 Steps to Write Thrilling Historical Fiction for Teens

Today’s guest post is by author Phyllis Still.

Have you discovered an intriguing character or story from history? You believe it would make a great historical fiction novel for teens, but the amount of research, organization, and development needed to complete the project gives you the hives. Why?

Perhaps, because I began my writing journey delving into the depths of an intriguing family story, I can help writers understand a hidden truth about historical fiction. It differs from other genres in the story world only.

How so?

The story location, past events, and even some characters are a mouse click away. A lot less work in my mind. All that is needed once the research is complete is for the author to weave in extraordinary and inspirational plots with emotionally relatable protagonists. Readers will believe the story is true, no matter the genre. Continue Reading…

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