The secret of writing successful stories

Question-markIf I could tell you the secret of writing a successful book, would you like to know what it is?

There is actually a secret, and it’s pretty neat.

What’s more, it works on all genres and subgenres, and will even help you break the genre barrier and reach beyond, which is where you want to be if you hope to sell in big numbers.

A recent discussion that cropped up on Google Plus, and one that often appears among writers, was about a certain book that people love to hate.

I won’t mention it by name in order to protect the innocent filmmakers involved, but it rhymes with highlight and features sparkly vampires.

I read it a while back along with a bunch of other successful books including The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games, all of which racked up ridiculous sales numbers.

The reason I read them, other than to appease the people telling me I should (hint hint), was to try and understand why they were so popular.

The comment that sparked the discussion on Google Plus claimed that the sparkly vampire book was badly written – a subjective remark at best, and way off the mark at worst.

To some extent I can see where the comment was coming from. The novel didn’t work for me either, but I was hardly its target audience, and that’s not a reason to say it was badly written.

Having broken it (and others) down, I found it more or less structurally perfect and technically fine. What it lacked, if anything, was originality. Other big sellers contained quite a few original elements, so the secret wasn’t there.

And I suspect that’s where this particular comment originated.

The book rhyming with highlight followed a standard formula in an emerging subgenre, while doing little more than tweaking the known tropes.

In the end it gave its readers exactly what they wanted and expected.

In short, it didn’t do anything special from a story standpoint, so the secret wasn’t there either.

So what was the secret?

Here’s a question. What would you do if you could apply that secret to your own writing, without:

  • compromising your integrity as a writer
  • giving up on originality
  • dumbing down or nullifying your brilliant ideas?

What would you do if I said the secret was simple and could be applied to almost any story?

Take a look at any book that’s sold millions of copies, read it, and then take a look at that book’s audience. What do you see?

You see people who:

  • recommend the book to their friends
  • discuss the book online and off
  • look for other books by that same author.

In short, you see fans. Lots of fans. Why do books find fans?

Because fans care about your characters and what happens to them.

It’s as simple as that.

Make your audience care and they’ll tell their friends, discuss it online, and even look for more of your stories. They’ll become fans, and you’ll become successful.

You don’t even have to alienate your niche market to do it.

It’s obviously not as easy as it sounds or everyone would be selling millions of books, but the more people you can make care about your characters and what happens to them, the more successful you’ll become as a writer – assuming you judge success by sales numbers.

If not, forget you read this post and keep on doing what you’re doing.

If you want to sell books though… well, now you know what it takes.

Read more articles about The Craft of Writing.

Conflux Writers Day April 2014

Conflux BannerJust a brief post to let everyone know I’ll be doing two presentations at the Conflux Writers Day on Saturday April 5, which is a prelude to the Aurealis Awards that night.

The inaugural Conflux Writers Day will take place at University House, Australian National University, Canberra.

The theme is ‘The Writers Journey’, which will be covered by four sub-themes – Writing Skills, Writing Processes, Submission and Publication and Building a Career.

My first presentation, Presenting Your Blog Posts for Maximum Impact will focus on:

  • text layout
  • readability
  • images and other features
  • how to keep people on your site for longer
  • accessibility issues and what to avoid.

My second presentation, The Elements of Novels, will feature information about:

  • balancing the beginning, middle and end
  • purpose of theme
  • how to distil a novel into a single, sharp, meaningful sentence
  • the three essential characters every novel needs (and how they work together).

In all, there will be a total of twenty sessions, plus an additional four plenary sessions by:

  • Joanne Anderton
  • Kaaron Warren
  • Ian McHugh
  • Keri Arthur

It will be well worth your time if you’re able to come.

Further information:

You might like to check out my Novel Structure Diagram which forms part of The Elements of Novels presentation.

Top 10 ways to Successfully Pitch to an Agent or Editor – The Cretin’s Guide

1. Arrive late.

It’s what a movie star would do after all – and the best way to achieve success is to model yourself on the successful people who’ve come before you. Agents and editors need to learn to respect ‘the talent’, and you’ve got plenty of it. As punctuality smacks at desperation, never pander to their schedules.

2. Tell them you’re on a mission from God!

In fact, let them know exactly what God said to you, word for word. How could they possibly deny you after that? Jake and Elwood Blues would be proud. If they aren’t convinced, drop hints that Satan might get involved.

3. Dress and act like one of your characters.

Editors and agents see a lot of people, so make sure they never forget you. The more eccentric you act, the better. In fact, take a replica of an item from your story into the pitch and show your expertise by delving into the item’s significance.

4. Tell them how much better you are than…

JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Stieg Larsson or whoever else your story is derivative of. Preferably dump on those authors too, making sure you highlight exactly why they’re so crappy and why you’re so good. By making successful writers look bad you’ll come across as a genius.

5. Invite your friends along to act out a scene from your manuscript.

Make sure there’s plenty of action too – preferably involving real sword fights, firearms or explosions. Bonus points are awarded if you can claim to have made the explosives yourself.

6. Begin with the words…

“I would like to propose to you…” Editors and agents love word-play and will have never heard that one. Other great choices might include: “I know a good hitman…” and “I’ll consider having sex with you if…”

7. Preparation will make you sound dry and boring, so don’t do it.

Be spontaneous instead. Show them just how well you know your story by relating every single detail to them, and for additional kudos points or to get over the potential problem of nerves, have a few drinks before arriving – six or eight should do it.

8. Make sure they start reading straight away.

Print out your entire manuscript for them to take home, but tell them to start reading straight away – you’ll wait. That way you’re sure to hook them and you can start counting your millions almost immediately. As they get engrossed in your story the brilliance of your prose will also make them forget about any other pitches that day, effectively eliminating your competition.

9. Threats are a little old-school, but still effective.

They’ve worked for the Mafia for generations after all, so why shouldn’t they work for you too? Get creative and scare the crap out of them so they’ll sign you up on the spot. For best results bring along a body-builder friend in a dark suit and sunnies.

10. Lecture them about their industry.

You need to prove you know more about it than they do. In fact, tell them you could easily do their job if you just had more time, but you’re being generous by giving them the work instead. Make sure they know just how lucky they are.

Do you have a tip worthy of the list? Let me know by posting it in the comments.

If you’re after some ‘more serious’ articles on writing, check out The Craft.

Need Vs Want

Give your characters something to pursue – something they desperately want. Do that, and you’ll create a far more interesting story.

Whatever they want, make sure it’s an external goal, something tangible and achieveable.

Put them through some hoops to get to it, but no matter how important it is – ensure they discover they don’t really need it before the end.

Getting what they want never gets them what they really need, and what they need is the important part.

Say your hero wants to rescue the princess (cliche, I know), but it happens (Luke Skywaker, anyone?). More than likely they’re going to do it (Luke does in fact rescue the princess).

However, is it what they need?

Do they really need prove something to themselves instead?

Maybe what they need is true love. Maybe its discovering or accepting something about themselves. Maybe its finally doing what they believe in.

Whatever they need, it will be internal.

Put simply:

  • Wants are an external goal, but getting them won’t fulfil your characters.
  • Needs are internal. When they fulfil their needs, the story is over.

It’s just another element to make your story more interesting and satisfying.

Read more about creating a writing/editing plan for your novel.


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