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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bestselling Novel 101: First, Grab A National Geographic Magazine...

How to Write a Bestselling Novel...Tips that just might work

I was browsing the internet last night and came across what I thought was a farcical article about creating a zinger of a novel. It turned out to be the school project of a university student. After a few guffaws and chortles and all manner of mean-spirited thoughts along the lines of, “who IS this guy?” I took a look at it again.

Step One: Go to the bookstore and buy a National Geographic magazine. Then find a quiet place, page through it, and select your setting.

Silly me, I thought a plot line of some sort should come first. But you know what? The more I thought about it, the more I realized what a snobby McSnoberson I was being. Why the hell not grab your setting from National Geographic? It’s full of foreign locales that would make very original stories for middle grade and young adult readers. However, if you do that sort of thing and end up with a novel set in the new and upcoming Dublin (N.G. does lots of urban pieces of major cities too), you should probably back up your setting with plenty of research other than the sentence printed under photos.

Here are a few more tips I found on various websites that made me do a double-take:

Make sure you have a hero, a wingman or sidekick, one main villain (maybe with sidekick villains, but they would be easy to beat on their own), and a girlfriend (for the hero—the sidekick doesn’t need one, but can have one if he’s not needed to beat the main villain)—at least four big characters are needed to keep people from being bored, and you can have up to six other guys. More than that is too many to keep track of.

I saw this and thought maybe the author was referring to rules in comic books (which I have a healthy respect for, but don’t read). Then I thought again. HARRY POTTER kind of follows those rules (at least in the beginning—the last couple of novels have enough characters to populate Delaware). So do many Jane Austen novels, not to mention Dickens. Maybe it’s worth factoring in—do you have at least four main characters? This tip is probably not necessary, but something to think about; if you can’t name the characters in your book on two hands, then think about dropping a few.

Your novel should have two main characters C1 and C2 (a man and a woman) and two secondary characters C3 and C4 (also a man and a woman). C1 should fall in love with C2 during the course of the book, or, if already in love, their love should deepen. A subliminal attraction should also exist between C1 and C4 to increase tension.

What about C2 and C3? What are they doing while C1 and C4 are busy with their “subliminal attraction”? Nope, this rule just seems mean to me, but I thought you YA authors might take a look at your manuscripts and see if it hits home (there’s not as much emphasis on love in Middle Grade reads).

When you hit a wall or get writers block, insert a fight scene.

This is hilarious—I remember being really stuck on a middle grade manuscript last year (I eventually moved on to another Work-In-Progress). The premise had the kids visiting an Amish farm (don’t ask—it was an Amish-kid-from-Lancaster-County-gets-a-taste-of-the-cheese-steak-eating-Philly-kid story that didn’t pan out) and I just got really bored with the plot. In hindsight, I should have started a fight of some kind—there are so many handy materials around to make a fun fight on an Amish farm, right? Pies, chickens, straw hats—damn, it could’ve been gold. Anyway, a “fight” could be as simple as an argument between characters. Fights are great because they show how your characters behave under duress—are they cordial fighters? Sarcastic? Below-the-belt hitters? Go ahead, throw a fight in the mix—you might be surprised what your character does.

And finally...

Have two cups of coffee and one large crunchy apple twenty minutes before you start to write.

I had to include this one—I haven’t tried it, but it made me laugh. Coffee is a diuretic and apples have lots of fiber, so maybe this person was thinking you should end up on the toilet (which, let’s face it, is where many of us get our best ideas).

So there you go, some random tips for creating your bestselling novel!

As always, if you haven’t browsed around my links yet, please make yourself at home.

**If you’re ready to query your manuscript for an MG or YA novel, I highly recommend Casey McCormick’s website, Literary Rambles (scroll down on the right to “Researching Agents”). In addition to what agents are looking for, she lists interviews and other goodies**


  1. Dude. First of all Casey rules! Her website is one the the VERY best resources for writers anywhere, and she does it all for free (as far as I know).

    Now this is a great post, and certainly interesting food for thought but my own personal feeling is that writing rules are like records in sports: meant to be broken.

  2. Thanks for the comment :)

    Yeah, the whole post was supposed to be a bit of a sarcastic take on some of the "rules" people come up with, while taking into consideration the fact that they seem to work sometimes.

  3. Those are great--just goes to show there are as many ways to write as there are writers!

  4. Hysterical. Since I began teaching, I've been amazed by "the rules"...because when you have to transfer the obscure knowledge in your head to make it user-friendly for others, you realize that there are some (not as formulaic or written in stone as the above), but in the end, it helped my own writing to think (ugly writer word...wait for it) logically about the process. -Daniella Brodsky

  5. Daniella--love it! I've heard writers say that rules kill the creative process, but I agree with you in that some of the guidelines have helped my own writing too. It's sort of a "know the rules before you break them" type of deal for me. Then again, the ones I included in my post are very much individual writer's opinions (i.e., I haven't seen the coffee and apple tip on any agent/editor blogs)