The 3 Features of a Bestseller

Dec 10, 2017

I’ve never paid attention to the features of my story which might make it more likely to be a bestseller.

But I’m all grown up now, so I thought I'd best take a closer look at the difference between the novels I've long admired and fiction's bestsellers of the last hundred years to understand what makes one book sell millions, and another thousands.

Not all of these three features need to be present in the one story, but of course 'layering' them up in the winter of our publishing discontent, might be smart.

1. The Extreme Situation



  • extreme locations or landscapes
  • extreme dilemmas
  • extreme danger, murder afoot

'Literary' fiction works the other way round, and deposits an extraordinary person in a normal or 'normalized' situation - think Orwellian or Kafkaesque dystopian nightmares. We have a whole range between classics and bestsellers best exemplified by The Bourne Identity on the one hand which has an extreme situation meet its match...

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Dec 03, 2017

The Secret Life Of 45-Year-Olds.

‘Playing’ as children, is partially a rehearsal for growing older, for trying on lives. As children, we put on the clothes -  the ties and high heels - of our parents and try them for size. We try out situations too. I love the video clip above from the hit reality TV series - The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds.

It’s an interesting age, says Dr Laverne Antrobus, one of the psychologist-commentator-spies on the TV show: “They are going through a phase of experimentation, trying on different identities, to see which one fits.”

Maybe writers don’t leave this phase?

Some lovely soundbites from the show:

“I want to be a vet Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and the Queen Saturday and Sunday.”

“When I grow up, I want to be a jelly maker, a pencil sharpener… a toy maker”

With a romance blossoming in the treehouse, five year olds Sienna and Arthur play 'mums and dads' in one...

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The Saggy Novel

Nov 30, 2017

So you're at 30-40k and it's all gone a bit saggy.

Here are 3 reasons why.

First of all WELL DONE for creating so much material. Hats off and I'm betting you’ve struggled on and dragged the novel along against your own fading hopes for a few chapters now.

Fear not. If a novel sags - it’s usually easily diagnosed and fixed.

1. Your character is TOO close to you in gender, age, background and location.

We are never meaner or less sympathetic to anyone than we are to ourselves. So that’s not a good ‘hero’ for a novel because if you’re lacking in sympathy for your hero or heroine, the reader will be too.

There are quick fixes:

1. A Make-Over - change everything superficial about the main character. This is my ‘back of the head’ test. You must be able to see the back of her head. Immediately, that’s not you since you haven't seen yours. Immediately, it asks you to think about their hair colour and build, their posture (tense,...

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How To Be Ali.

Nov 26, 2017

Five Ways To Write like Ali Smith.

1. Write fast

The Brexit vote was 23 June 2016. Ali Smith's novel Autumn, dubbed the first Brexit novel, was published October 16th. Ali Smith wrote this book within three months or ninety days.

"It’s a brilliant and unsettling conceit, leaving you marvelling that writing this good could have come so fast." (Financial Times.)

"I've been thinking about writing a seasonal series of books for about 20 years now, and in 2014, after finishing How to Be Both, I realised it was time to start. This might simply be because I knew now it was possible, after Hamish Hamilton made such a beautiful finished book-form for How to be Both in a matter of weeks (!), to turn a book around quite speedily compared to the usual time it takes, and this excited me about how closely to contemporaneousness a finished book might be able to be in the world, and yet how it could also be, all through, very much about stratified, cyclic time." Ali Smith.


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‘I believe, really, that everything interesting begins with one person and one place.' John McGahern

Nov 25, 2017

I commend to you today John McGahern and his work ‘Amongst Women.’ He was not plotty writer, but he was a genius writer, supremely elusive in his work.

McGahern adhered closely to Flaubert’s guiding ethos that the writer should ‘be present everywhere, but not visible, like God in nature’.

If you have not discovered him you should. ‘The Pornographer’ is on the hero book list for The Novel in Ninety course.

Mr McGahern came to rock boats, not lull cradles.

As you will read in the blog tomorrow, I’m venturing to suggest you raise your game and follow rabble-rousing footsteps.

John McGahern, like so many of the greats, wrote for two or three hours a day, with ‘a lot of time looking out the window in between’. (Slow, steady writing beats bingeing; it produces results, not emotional fatigue. At we work with one hour a day for 90 days to produce novels.)

‘In fiction, the most powerful weapon the writer has is...

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How to get your novel ready for submission to agents.

Nov 19, 2017

1. You've got a funny feeling. No doubt the Germans have a word for it. A combination of discontent and tenderness. Restlessness and longing.

You want to write a book. You want to write about you. You don't want to write about you. You want to write a novel.  

2. You've always read a lot. Sometimes you put a book down and think - wow. Yes, that's how it is. You look at people on the train. You wonder. You think - oh dear, this job means jack shit to me. I'm going to write a novel and set myself free. Maybe I should get some training or something. I'm not sure how to start.

3. You look at what's available. Some of the courses have serious kudos and they're hosted by agents or publishers. You could get discovered! They're very expensive. You'll save up and one day, when the time comes, you'll do the course. Then maybe you'll buy yourself some time off between jobs to write the novel out.

(Or, join Kritikme and start writing your novel now. Go to 11.)

4. You're saving up,...

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Can I write a book about myself?

Nov 12, 2017

'Can I write a book about myself?'

This is one of the most common questions I'm asked.

Here's the answer.

Yes, and you should. But don't make it about yourself.

Your novel starts with you, yourself, and ends without you.

“All fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.” P.D. James

“The Coetzee who emerges from an informed reading of his papers is very different author from the one we thought we knew. Most surprisingly, his writing process turns out to be highly autobiographical, at least in its points of departure. It then involves a gradual, but determined process of writing himself out of the narratives, a ‘burning off of the self’ as it were.” David Attwell

Why? And how?

Writing is, and I'm not ashamed to say it, the deepest form of therapy, treatment or self-doctoring not on the market.

It's like this.

A story starts with your recognition of your own deepest concern combined with your inability to...

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Using Short Sentences. (BANG!)

Nov 05, 2017

Creating Impact.

I ran three versions of a first page past the writers at Kritikme. One of the writers pointed out the version she liked best had a 'pile up' of images. I thought this was a very good turn of phrase for the best way to create impact fast, failing a knack for perverse metaphorical genius.

We can't always be poetic. We cannot always find a new way of saying things. But if we offer visual images in short sentences, we can create an effect on our readers that is an assault on their senses. Think Bob Dylan.

One short sentence hard on the heels of the last is a highly engaging way to write. It forces the reader into a world that is unfolding with immediacy, speed, possibly danger. Wham. Slam. Bang. Things are happening fast as in an emergency. The story is unfolding. The reader is alert.

If you listen to the words of the song by Squeeze 'Goodbye Girl' in the video above (press play in the photo above) you can see how using even quite ordinary short...

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National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo)

Oct 29, 2017


Ready for the white page? This coming month it's all the rage. It's National Novel Writing Month. 

The bedfellow of fear is lust. They say those with vertigo half long to throw themselves from great heights. An actor or a dancer trembles with fear and excitement before taking to the stage. So it's no surprise that writers are nervy before they launch themselves upon a white page or new document. 

Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?


The world was not perfect before you entered it. It won't be when you leave it. But it would be good to leave something behind if only a scruffy note to say 'I was here.'

Say what you see and tell it truly. That is all.

Remember too, it's what you see. Only you can write what only you can see.

Blot your copybook. Trouble the blank page with mayhem and murder. Harass a problem, rile it. Contradict yourself. Pin your victims to your notebook and...

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Plot in one sentence

Oct 22, 2017

When we talk about plot we mean something very simple. The question we leave in the reader's mind at the end of the sentence, paragraph, chapter and book. Finding the answer to that one question is what keeps the reader turning the pages.

When you review your work you will be eagle-eyed on the lookout for the question in every chapter. Every chapter must beg one or it gets binned at second draft.

Save yourself some revision time and write your novel from question to question via chapter to chapter.

How is she going to leave him?

What is wrong with her child?

Is she going to get fired?

Wil she kill her neighbour?

The gravity of the questions posed escalates true to Nabokov's formula for a novel “The writer's job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them."

You could think of a novel as a series of questions if you want to, but of course a novel poses a big question in the format of a moral dilemma usually structured as...

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