Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Sound-Secrets of a Bestseller

What does "sound" have to do with writing bestsellers?

Maybe everything. Before I stumbled upon this sneaky little writing secret, I wrote "OK" stories. My writing was sub par, good but not great, trapped in that thorny cage of perfect sentence structure and grammatical correctness. Not until I read about these "sound secrets" did I truly understand the depth and complexity of the art of storytelling, the hidden byways that transformed mundane writing into mesmerizing fiction (or non-fiction, as it may be).

If you'd like to make that same transformation in your writing, if you find yourself unable to move forward in your writing ability, if you regularly (like I did) bang your head up against the brick wall of rules and instructions about what makes a good sentence, then this is for you. Listen closely, fellow writer, and discover something I think is remarkable and perhaps life-changing.

You may never read another story the same way again.

Here, then, are the "sound secrets" of bestseller writing:

1. Good writing is as much (and maybe more) about how the writing "sounds" than if it is technically correct.
2. After you write a sentence or a paragraph or you whole story, come back and read it out loud. Really, it's not a bad practice. You may "hear" your writing differently when it's brought up from the page or screen into the life of the verbal world. If it sounds choppy (and that's not your goal), fix it. If it sounds strange in any way (and that's not your goal), make some changes.
3. Writing for "sound" is part science and part art. Over time, you will develop better writing "ears." Be gentle with yourself and keep practicing. Compare your work to bestselling writers. Notice the cadence of their sentences, the musical quality to their paragraphs. Read good poetry and fiction.Dean Koontz is a good author to read for "sound." So is Stephen Hunter, author of the Bob Lee Swagger novel series. A recent author I discovered is Micheal Williams, author of Trajan's arch. (You can find this book at
4. When editing your writing for "sound," consider combining sentences, or separating them, changing the structure or changing the length. Each sentence should flow naturally into the next, like waves rolling to the shore, or a current tugging your reader along. It is a subtle art of nuances, background shadows playing on the wall,unseen and unnoticed, but imminently important. It often makes the difference between clunky fiction and catapulting success.
5. Remember, as a general rule, vary your sentences structure and length. This is the start of "sound." Of course, at times you may want to write a string of short, choppy sentences. That creates mood. Tone. Atmosphere. You may also want to write a very long sentence, unbroken by the mind-stopping presence of a period, punctuated only by the occasional comma, a dance of words on the page to draw the reader further and further into the iron grip of your story. The point is to write on purpose, controlling the pace of the story. A slow Waltz here, a Quick-step there.
6. Word choice also matters. This will probably be the focus of a future article, but suffice it to say that poor word choices can ruin a perfectly good sentence. Choose your words wisely. Use a thesaurus. Steal cool words from other authors (just don't plagiarize, please!)

With these tools, you have what you need to "re-tune" your writing. Work on the sound, the cadence, the music of your stories, and watch them hypnotize readers, editors, literary agents and publishers alike.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Heart of a Bestseller Part II

Welcome back, friend. Continuing with the last post, here are some additional writing secrets culled from Dean Koontz's Your Heart Belongs to Me.

Chapter 2

-The main character reacts and responds both physically, emotionally and mentally to the "episode" in the water (Don't know what I'm talking about? Review the previous post, Heart of a Bestseller Part I).
-The chapter is filled with wonderful sentences like, "The offshore breeze strengthened, blowing liquid smoke off the lips of the waves."
-The two main characters move from the beach to an apartment, where they eat and talk about Sam's (female main character) history with a certain family member. Talk is off death and dying, with a bit of Koontz humor drizzled in for flavor.
-The chapter ends with a short, powerful scene where Ryan (male protagonist) experiences another "episode" with his heart.

Chapter 3

-This four-page chapter details the "episode," detailing both the physical experience and Ryan's response to it.
-More beautiful language.

Chapter 4

-More response to the episodes. Ryan decides to have a doctor check him out.

Chapter 5

-Ryan at the doctor's office.
-The dialogue between doctor (who is a friend) and patient dominates this chapter. The doctor gives information, Ryan responds to it. After dumping the painful prognosis, the doctor and patient talk of common things, things having nothing to do with death and dying or heart problems. They talk about boats.
-The end of the chapter finishes with the twosome returning briefly to the painful prognosis.

What writing secrets can you learn?

*Craft memorable and vivid sentences that fire your reader's brains with delight. Study how bestsellers like Koontz pair words and structure sentences.
*Describe (show!) your protagonist reacting and responding to what happens in the story.
*Go one step further by showing how your characters respond emotionally, physically and mentally to the events of the story. This will add depth and realism to your novel.
*After characters discuss a painful or uncomfortable topic, have them briefly talk about mundane subjects, like mutual passions for boats, for instance. Then, right before the end of the scene or chapter, have the characters return to the painful topic. This will lend the often elusive quality of subtext to your novel or short story.

Stay tuned for the next installment, Heart of a Bestseller Part III.