Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Heart of a Bestseller Part I

What makes a bestseller?
What hidden techniques do bestselling novelists like Dean Koontz use to pen blockbuster after blockbuster after blockbuster?
How can you apply those same tricks and secrets to your own fictional stories?

For the answers, read on, fellow writer. Read on.

Let's take a recent bestseller from Dean Koontz, Your Heart Belongs to Me, and analyze it, scene by scene.

Chapter 1

  • The first thing that happens is that you find out the protagonists name (first two words in the entire book): Ryan Perry and that something is "broken" in him. This establishes the major point of view character and creates suspense. Not bad for a first sentence.
  • Next, the first page of the book tells us a little about Mr. Perry. He is thirty-four, in good shape, likes to exercise, he has money (he has his own home gym and personal trainer), and the man likes to surf. This is almost strictly telling, detail after detail, but it is delivered quickly while we are still spellbound wanting to know about this "brokenness."
  • We get more details, a phone conversation with his significant other, Samantha, drizzled with the brief recounting of their first meeting. Notice these details are quickly related and well-written.
  • During their phone conversation, we learn more about Ryan and Samantha, notably an occasion when Ryan "rode a shark." Again, interesting. Back and forth goes their dialogue with nary a tag of "said" to be found. Koontz identifies the players up front and then lets their particular speech patterns orient the reader.
  • After the phone conversation, we get a little action (dressing to go surfing) and some more details about Ryan's personal and business history.
  • The next scene takes place at the beach. Some dialogue, intermingled with poetic descriptions of the sand and surf. Classic Koontz.
  • Once out in the waves, wading and waiting for a ride back to the beach, Ryan experiences what seems to be a heart attack. At this point in the story, all we know as a reader is that something terrible is happening to someone we already like. The scene ends with everything now seeming formidable and oppressing, the sea rising up against our hero, nature conspiring for his death.

What secrets can you dredge up from this first chapter?

1. Introduce the main characters fairly quickly.
2. Give each character a distinct and memorable speech pattern (way of speaking, commonly used terms and nicknames).
3. Bridge backstory with small scenes and ongoing action.
4. Begin and end with suspense. Keep the reader wanting more, unable to put down the story. Do this by indicating something "broken" or wrong, but not precisely labeling the "brokenness" just yet. Hint at future danger looming in the horizon.
5. Take something familiar to your character (surfing and the ocean to Ryan in our example) and turn it against the character, make it the seeming enemy.

Check out the next installment of "The Heart of a Bestseller" very soon.

God bless you!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

How to Open Your Novel Like a Bestselling Author

Great novel openings are as varied as the bestselling writers who write them. And most bestselling authors open differently with each book. Take Dean Koontz for instance. Sometimes he opens his novels with action, sometimes with description, sometimes with an introduction of a memorable character.

Let's look deeper into how Dean Koontz (and other bestselling authors) crafts unforgettable first chapters. Heck, first pages!

The third installment of Koontz's Frankenstein trilogy, Dead and Alive, begins with a description of the weather. In most author's hands, such a beginning would fail miserably. Koontz, however, is no ordinary author.

How does he get away with starting his novel with a weather forecast? Below are a few of his sneaky little secrets.

  1. Koontz starts with "Half past a windless midnight," setting the ominous tone with striking imagery, beautiful language. He continues this throughout the novel.
  2. Koontz uses vivid verbs. Rain does not fall, it "canters."
  3. Koontz uses rhythm and cadence, a kind of musical poetry to entrance the reader.
  4. Koontz describes how the setting is different. Clubs and restaurants that usually stay open late are closed.
  5. Koontz explains (yes explains, this is telling folks!) that a hurricane is coming. This is not your average weather report. This is a problem on the horizon, danger looming loud and big.
  6. Koontz doesn't write like Hemingway (not usually, anyway). Many of his sentences, including the first one in this novel is long, very long. However, he doesn't waste words: he pulls everything he can from each and every word.

In summary, the opening of this novel works because the language is poetic and suggests trouble, problems, change and perhaps even violence. The words draw you in, pull you down the page, unrelenting in their ability to keep you reading.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Avoid Backstory Bloopers

Stop dead in their tracks.

That is what readers will do if you begin your novel or short story with dreaded, boring backstory. If you want to ruin all chances of your novel breaking out, go ahead, be my guest. Dump all the details of your character's past and family history on page one.

Really. See how much backstory you can cram into the first couple pages. Who needs action, suspense or drama. Give me half a dozen paragraphs about how your hero came to be the person he is today. Better yet, describe in intimate detail his upbringing, complete with his favorite subjet in school.


OK, you may be saying. What about the novels, even bestsellers out there that seem to ignore this advice.

Truth is, once some authors prove to publishing houses and editors that they will pull in big bucks regardless of the quality of the story, you can only guess how quickly shoddy work gets pushed through the publishing presses. Fact: Sometimes current bestsellers are NOT the best teachers of how to write your own bestselling novel. It doesn't make sense on the surface. Not one bit. However, on deeper reflection it's sad, but true.

Here's how you can avoid backstory bloopers:

1. Avoid backstory in the first chapter of your novel, period.
2. Avoid backstory as long as you can. Drop it in as late as possible.
3. Now go back and move it farther back in your story. Move it one or two chapters deeper still.
4. If backstory IS essential, dole it out in bite-size sentences, not whopping paragraphs.
5. Condense the backstory as much as possible. Shorter is sweeter.
6. Mix backstory with current action, drama and suspense.
7. Make getting the backstory a scene goal, or somehow important to a character.
8. Surround the backstory with conflict and turmoil.
9. Make the backstory part of a shocking revelation later in the novel.
10. Now go back and move that backstory farther still in your novel!

Remember, the longer you delay giving backstory, the more interested the reader.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Secrets of Bestseller Premises Part 2

In the first part of this topic, Secrets of Bestseller Premises Part 1, I wrote about culling the world around you for blockbuster story ideas. This time I want to deepen the conversation.

To truly craft an unforgettable premise, it's often necessary to discover new and surprising conflicts. In other words, unique ways for characters to interact, relate and fight each other.

Begin by listing the most common plot devices in your genre. What has been done before? How has it been done? Where has it been done? When (historical novels, etc)?

Then brainstorm all the possible changes to those old, worn ideas. What if the main character was a female instead of a male? The desert instead of the city, the jungle instead of the country, underwater instead of space? What if the conflict erupted between two doctors rather than two cowboys, two brothers instead of two strangers, two kids instead of two adults? What if it happened in the future instead of the past?

You can change just about anything in an old idea and come up with a brand new idea that you can use to rouse readers.

In romances, you can change the way the couple meets and the challenges that keep them apart until the end. With mysteries, the villain and murder weapon often change, sometimes the expertise of the detective changes, too.

How can you take an old idea and turn it on it's head? How can you combine plot ideas in new, surprising ways?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Bestseller Writing Secrets From "District 9"

A second secret writing tactic from the movie, District 9, happens late in the film, when the main character, the protagonist, is faced with a difficult ethical dilemma. He is forced to decide between what he wants (to reverse the process of his body transforming into an alien) and helping an alien friend and his alien child flee to their spaceship to save the alien race.

Facing such a tough decision in itself is an often-used plot device in bestselling novels. You would be wise to write a scene or two in your stories where your hero must choose between what he wants most and something, anything else of value. The tougher the choice (the more valuable both options) the more reader interest.

But it is the choice the hero makes that propels middle-grade fiction to blockbuster status. In District 9 the main character decides to help the alien and his alien son escape, thus putting another before himself. It is an act of courage, sacrifice and heroism that moves audiences.

Therein lies the second secret: Allow your hero to make the tough choice, and let that choice show courage, sacrifice and humility. Do it. Readers will fall in love with your characters.

Take these practical steps to apply this secret to your story immediately:

  1. List each main character in your story (each point of view character).
  2. Circle the dominant point of view character (the main main character).
  3. Answer the questions, "What does this character want more than anything? What else do they want?"
  4. Answer the questions, "What would be a difficult choice for this character to make? What two things would the character hate to have to choose between?"
  5. Brainstorm ways for one of the choices to include an act of bravery or self-sacrifice.
  6. Write a scene or scenes where the character must chose between the two choices.
  7. Try to give several other characters in your story hard choices to make during the course of the story. See how it enhances reader interest and suspense.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bestselling Writing Secrets of District 9

Fair warning: the first half of District 9 stutters along like a broken shopping cart. It's in the much better second half of the movie from which I will pluck a few secret writing tactics (Note: I don't recommend you see the movie, but if you do, this blog may very well ruin it for you).

Once the main character begins his alien-transformation, the story kicks into high gear. Slowly and with delicious pacing through the second half of the movie, the hero becomes one of the aliens. First, an arm. Then he starts losing fingernails and teeth. You get the picture. Each small transformation glues the audience's eyes to the screen. Everyone is thinking: "What will happen next?" The transformation severs as a kind of ticking time bomb, raising the tension-inducing question, "Will the hero stop the transformation before he completely changes?" This, my writer friend, is the first secret.

Is there a slow transformation you can show in your story? Maybe it is a character who slowly turns to the dark side (think, Star Wars). Perhaps a couple who slowly, but surely, fall in love. Then again, you don't have to limit yourself to morphing fictional people. You can show a setting change, perception change, attitude change, or belief change. Be creative. Come up with your own unique way to give your readers the juicy tension of story-long change.

Let's recap. Showing a slow, piece by piece, change can ratchet up the suspense in your story. Bestselling novels show change. Lots of change. Characters change, settings change, perceptions and attitudes change.

Stop for a moment and ask the following questions of your current story.

  1. How can one of my characters change throughout the story?
  2. Is there a physical change I can show?
  3. How is the change connected to the plot?
  4. How many characters (main and minor) change in my story?
  5. Do they all change in the same way? If not, how does each one change?
  6. How are all the changes connected the plot and theme(s) of the story?
  7. Are there other changes I might create in my story? (Setting, for example)

Change, especially slow change throughout the story, creates suspense-- page-flipping, nail-biting, edge of your seat suspense.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Secrets of Bestseller Premises Part 1

Mega hits.

Your first step towards your breakout novel is creating a bestselling premise. If you can do that, you can write a breath-taking ride of a story, the kind that keeps overworked, underpaid literary agents up at night. The kind that lands six figure publishing deals, including movie adaptions.

Sounds good, right? But how do you do it? How do you create an idea with bestseller potential? How do you yourself at the publishing world and take no prisoners? Let's get practical.

Just as there is a first step in crafting a bestseller, there is a first step in designing a premise with breakout potential. This first step, which I call "The Psychological Secret of Bestseller Premises," is the subject of this post. As you read it, as you sit there thinking about the information deeply, allow yourself to share it with your writer friends and family.

The psychological secret begins when you train your mind to filter everything through the question, "How can I use that in a story?" Another way to ask the same question is, "What if?"

Just this morning, as I was browsing through a gun magazine at my hotel in Atlanta, GA, I stumbled upon an article about self-defense. The article listed ways self-defense shootings go wrong. And my mind automatically started asking, "What if that did happen? What if ALL that bad stuff happened to someone? What would the person do? Why might it happen? What might make the situation worse?"

You see, bestseller premises grow best in open minds. Minds alert for the next big idea. So, to give you a practical action strategy, make it a point to stop throughout the day and ask yourself, "Can I use anything around me for a story?" It doesn't matter if you are reading the newspaper, watching TV, at the grocery store, or flipping through a gun magazine in Atlanta. Once you start to practice this seemingly simple question method, you will begin the process of training your mind to ask the questions and make the connections automatically. Over time, you start to pick up ideas others miss. You see the potential simmering just below the surface. Then, and only then, you are on your way.

Use the following quick tips to create your bestseller premise.

  1. Stop 3 to 4 times a day this week and look closely at your surroundings.

  2. Ask yourself, "Is there anything here I can use in a story?" It could be a character, a setting, a plot event, anything.

  3. Ask yourself, "What if that DID happen?"

  4. Notice how you feel about the idea. Are you excited and enthralled or nonchalant? If you feel powerfully about the idea, then you may be on to something.

  5. Write down the idea as soon as possible. You don't want to wake up tomorrow and realize you've forgotten the bestseller idea.

  6. Play with the idea. Who is involved? Why might it happen? Where might it happen? What might make matters worse? Even worse than that?

  7. Remember, when you find the right idea, you'll know. You'll often feel it in your gut. Your juices flow. You glace around hungrily, looking for a computer, a pen and paper, anything to scribble down the story.

If you have gained anything from this blog, please share it with others. It is my gift to you. It can become your gift to others.

Come back soon for the next installation, Secrets of Bestseller Premises Part 2.

Thank you for visiting.