I’ve covered a lot recently on author platform this year, but I almost never talk about craft. It’s time! If I wanted to rename this post, instead of How to Write a Bestseller it could be called Write Good Books to Sell More Books or Sell More Books with Your Craft.
HOW TO WRITE BESTSELLERS
At least, a little. I literally have a master’s degree in fiction, but craft isn’t my favorite thing to teach. Mostly because it’s subjective. I do sometimes work with authors one on one regarding craft, but I find the focus on selling easier for ME.
WHY? Because authors are emotionally invested in their craft. So, discussing this is hard. We either think our books are amazing or terrible, and we have a lot of feelings on the subject.
People don’t always respond well when they ask why their books aren’t selling and the answer is: your writing.
I know it hurts. I’ve sat silently through critiques in grad school while people shredded my work. Just … destroyed. I got over it. Having a beer at the bar with everyone after helped. For today and this post though, we’re going to try to look a bit more objectively at our own craft.
CRAFT LIVING, BREATHING, FRESH CHARACTERS
The key to writing bestsellers (IMO) isn’t a clever premise or something no one has ever thought of before. It happens when a writer creates characters that resonate with readers. When readers get emotionally invested in a book, it’s usually because of a character or characters. They gobble up the book and then get the next one. They tell friends. They get OBSESSED.
This means that your primary characters as well as your secondary characters should be compelling, fresh, interesting, and create an emotional connection. It’s amazing as readers that we can relate to so many different kinds of characters!
I think a big part of this happens when we see the soft underbelly of that character. We see their weaknesses and hurts.
But, wait! Don’t people love strong characters?
Yes, they do. But when they characters have no chinks in their armor, no weaknesses, no flaws, no pain, they seem very … other. I’ve realized this the hard way when I’ve created very STRONG characters that might wear a lot of armor, that unless I show what’s underneath the armor early on, readers have a more difficult time getting invested.
As writers, we KNOW their flaws and secret pain. We know the hurt. And I’m not saying we shove all that into the first chapter, but readers need to be able to relate. To see the humanity. The brokenness.
When characters come alive off the page–and not just the main characters, but strong secondary characters as well–the readers become invested. Maybe even fanatical.
START STRONG WITH A GREAT FIRST CHAPTER
I’ve already mentioned making sure the characters at the start seem relatable. I also think that first chapters matter A LOT. If I don’t finish a book, it’s usually because I stop in the very first chapter.
Hooking readers happens right here in chapter one. As you go back to edit, make sure that you’re spending a GOOD amount of time on this very first chapter. Keeping it interesting, anchoring the readers in the story, dropping some hints as to what will come, and making them fall for your characters.
That first chapter has an undue burden, but it definitely does matter on how much the readers are invested.
MEET AND EXCEED READER EXPECTATIONS
You need to know your genre and the reader expectations. I do think genre matters. And even if you’re doing literary or general fiction, it may be harder as some of the expectations might be more broad, but still you need to read and be familiar with other comparable books. It needs to fit inside of a genre. Some books straddle, but this is difficult to navigate. Be aware of that going in.
But you can also subvert and surprise reader expectations. I love putting twists on tropes. You know the adage: know the rules so you can break them? We can also know the expectations so we can put a twist on them.
An example from one of my books: in Managing the Rock Star, there is a fake relationship to help the rock star’s tarnished image. Totally common storyline in rock star romance. But the fake relationship isn’t between the two main characters. One of the main characters sets her love interest up in a fake relationship for PR purposes and then has to watch while he’s pretending to like someone else. This created delicious tension. I don’t market it as fake relationship, but the trope is still in there. Surprising. Fresh.
GET REAL AND HONEST FEEDBACK
One thing I’ve started adding into my process is a paid beta reader who reads for STORY and then we talk about what does/doesn’t work. We discuss the character motivations, places that might be slow, things that needed more time.
- I use Midnight Owl Editors for this!
Depending on where you are in the journey, you could find critique partners in your genre, developmental or content editors (paid), or a few beta readers. I’ve pulled beta readers from my ARC team when there are people who provide feedback that was helpful. You might have some ARC readers who are great with story. Some … not so much. This can be a bit riskier just in terms of the kind of feedback you’ll get.
- Read more: ARC and Beta Readers
You can also hire a coach. This is something I have done (but am not currently doing) and I know that it can really help to have someone else’s eyes on your big picture and your words.
While reviews are a form of feedback, I’m separating them. Why? Because this is a different kind of feedback. My ARC team is awesome. But many of them are there because they LOVE my books. Even if I tell them to leave honest reviews, it’s always a four or five star. They might not mention issues.
If you are selling a lot of books and NOT getting reviews… that can be feedback in and of itself. It may mean people aren’t reading after they buy (like, if you have a free promo, they might pick it up and then not read for a while) or that they DNF the book. Or, they read and it was just okay, so they didn’t leave a review.
When people have strong feelings, they leave reviews. And those reviews can be a GREAT place to mine for information on how to strengthen your craft.
(To keep perspective, my most popular book has over 500 reviews, but has sold 10k copies. Even when you write a book people LOVE, the percentages of reviews is low.)
Should you JUST listen to your readers and reviewers? Heck no! But it can help you to consider the things that people saw as weaknesses in your books as well as the strengths. If you don’t like reading through them, hire a PA to do this and distill down the reviews into what they see in terms of how you can improve your craft.
IGNORE “BAD” BESTSELLERS
But what about those terrible books that sell a billion copies? And what about those really awesome underrated books?
A few quick thoughts on this. The first is: stay in your lane. When we’re looking around too much at what others are doing, we get upset and unhappy. We spend undue time getting frustrated and outraged. Get over it.
Second, sometimes poorly written books still have amazing characters. Or, they have a storyline that hooks people. We are wired for story. Sometimes an author might bumble through prose but have characters and story so compelling that readers just snap it up. Some genres have less discerning readers who will overlook a LOT for the sake of just hitting all the reader expectations.
As for great books that don’t sell … sometimes that’s a marketing thing. When you’re just starting out, the world is crowded. You have to get seen. (For more help with that, check out my post Why Isn’t My Book Selling.)
Sometimes though… we aren’t seeing our book clearly. People talk about beer goggles. Well, sometimes we’re seeing our own books through author goggles. We see our books for what we want them to be, not what they ARE. And we might need some realtalk telling us that our books are not the bestselling machines we think they are.
FINAL THOUGHTS – HOW TO WRITE A BESTSELLER
Craft is something we grow from. I have a master’s in fiction. Am I still taking craft classes? YES! Do I still pay people to look at my work? YES! Do I still make mistakes and wish I could rewrite books I’ve published? YES!
Don’t get to a point where you think you’ve learned it all because you have a degree or sold a lot of books. Continue to develop your craft through writing and through taking classes or hiring other people to look at your work and help you make it better.
Writing is art. It’s also craft. And in this world of indie publishing, we also need to think of it in the broader landscape of marketing. It’s also … business. At least, if you plan to sell books. 🙂