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Characterization, Marketing Your Novel, On Writing, Plot & Structure, Thoughts on Writing

Writers, Keep It (Your Style) Simple

November 2, 2013

Novelists aiming to write popular fiction* need to develop a style that does not call attention to itself. If you’re writing for a wide audience, a straightforward narrative style – bare and spare – lets your story and characters take center stage.

Why? Because you don’t want your reader thinking about your writing style. That jars the reader from the imaginary world of the novel. It slows down the pace of the story.

If your intention is to write a literary novel,** go for it. Polish that style to a fare thee well. But if you’re aiming to write popular fiction, the advice to “keep it simple” applies.

Agents and editors overwhelmingly prefer spare prose. Ask any reader of a slush pile. Writers who “try too hard” in the stylistic department often do so to cover up a yawner plot and cardboard characters.

A good example of good spare prose that lets plot and character shine through is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Collins’s prose is not yrical. It’s workmanlike. It does its job. It keeps a reader turning pages.

Collins’s readers are turning those pages not because they enjoy how she can bend a gerund, but because her story and her characters are compelling.

Had she written The Hunger Games in a style that made the reader stop every few sentences to wipe away a rhapsodical tear (at the beauty of the words), but ignored honing plot and character The Hunger Games would have languished on bookstore shelves.

It is common for newbie writers who are honestly striving to do their best to think a “literary” voice is the way to go. They may not yet have mastered characterization, plot and structure, but think, “My writing style sings, so I’ll get published.”

Well, no. Agents and editors want simplicity in the writing, and a darn good story, with great characters. Why? Because that’s what readers want too.

So, keep it simple.


* Work that sells like gangbusters today – and may well become a classic in twenty years time. (Time alone decides who becomes tomorrow’s “literary author.” Shakespeare wrote aiming at popular success – and we all know how that turned out.)

** Fiction of the type English majors study in college classes.


Eclectic Musings, Marketing Your Novel, On Writing, Thoughts on Writing

On Luck and Writing

March 4, 2013

4-leaf-clover-jh1I do believe there is such a thing as luck in writing. It happens when . . .

  1. A writer’s manuscript hits an agent’s or an editor’s desk just after the agent/editor has had a fantastic lunch, or just won a freebie trip to Paris, or just scored a date with a dreamboat, or is otherwise in a really good mood.
  2. A writer’s manuscript about XYZ hits an agent’s or an editor’s desk just after the agent/editor has learned, observed, or been informed that books on subject XYZ are so hot they’re melting holes on bookstore shelves.
  3. An author’s book about XYZ is published just when subject XYZ tops a trend, or achieves peak news interest, or scores the #1 position in Google searches.
  4. A celebrity reads an author’s book and sheds tears (sorrow or laughter – your pick) talking it up on a top-rated talk show.
  5. A journalist finds an aspect of the author’s life/book (that will help sell the author’s book if broadcast) fascinating, writes an article about it – and the article is picked up for syndication by Reuters. Or, alternatively, the journalist writes the article for a top tier newspaper (LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) – and second and third tier newspapers take note and cascade their versions of the article.


Lucky instances 1 & 2 can help an author place a book with one of the Big Six Publishers. Lucky instances 3, 4 & 5 can make sure the book has “legs” – i.e., that it jumps off bookshelves and into readers’ arms – hopefully nestling close to their hearts.

But here’s the rub – in all of the above instances, one constant needs to be in play: the manuscript/book in question needs to be a top quality work.

Luck has a way of manisfesting itself on preparation.

Nonfiction books need to be well-written, researched, presented. Fiction books need to – well, look at some of the blog posts on this site about how to write reader-pleasing fiction.

When quality isn’t in place, an agent or editor will look for other options (or extensive revisions) – even if your subject matter is trending wildly. If your book does happen to get published, and it falls short of certain criteria for quality, it will languish on the bookstore shelves or readers may buy it but not be keen to buy your next offering. And for writers serious about making authorship a career, the goal is not one book sale, it’s loyal readers.

The takeaway for writers? Don’t worry too much about lucky breaks. They happen sooner or later to writers who focus on creating a body of excellent work – one book at a time. It may not be your first book, or your fifth, that brings your work to the attention of that larger audience hungry for just the kind of books you write. But it will happen sooner or later.

A small group of enthusiastic fans equals word of mouth endorsements – the best kind of marketing.

And if your larger audience discovers you when you produce Book Six, guess what happens? That’s right. They go back and buy the other five books you wrote as you built your ouevre.

In short, writers who stick to the basics – writing the best books they can – make their own luck.

Marketing Your Novel, On Writing

High Concept, or How to Make Your Novel ‘Buzz-able’ (Part 2)

June 5, 2012

In yesterday’s post, we explored Buzz-ability (High Concept), one of the no-cost value-adds an author can build into her work to ensure it has the kind of wide appeal that will help sustain a writing career.

As noted in the previous post, High Concept novels have the following in common: 1) They offer the reader something unique, and, 2) They appeal to a wide audience.

Following are ten examples of High Concept novels from current or recent bestseller lists:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman – Nobody Owens is a normal boy, except that he has been raised by ghosts and other denizens of the graveyard.

Kill Alex Cross by James Patterson – Alex Cross must stop an attack on Washington, D.C., while investigating the abduction of the President’s children.*

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain – Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway, tells her story

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein – A novel that reflects on what it is to be human, told from the family dog’s point of view

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith – A secret journal reveals the 16th president to have been a vampire hunter.

Middle School: Get Me Out of Here – A seventh-grader creates a new life by doing things he has never done before.

The Next Always by Nora Roberts – An architect woos his childhood crush while he and his family renovate a historic hotel.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever by Greg Kinney – Greg Heffley is trapped with his family during a blizzard.

Somebody to Love by Kristan Higgins – Parker Welles works to regain the family fortune her father lost.

Escape by Barbara Delinsky – A married lawyer packs up her life and starts over in New Hampshire.

On your next trip to your local bookstore, venture to the bestseller rack. Check out the descriptions of the top-selling books. Ask yourself: What is unique about this author’s book? What makes it Buzz-able (the kind of book that might be recommended at the water cooler)?

Note the insights you gain – and apply them to your next work!

* Book summaries above are from USA Today’s list of best-selling books.

Marketing Your Novel, On Writing

High Concept, or How to Make Your Novel ‘Buzz-able’

June 4, 2012

The last few posts have focused on how to get started writing your pageturner novel.

Now, let’s back up a bit.

Let’s talk about what you can do to make your novel “Buzz-able.”

What is a “Buzz-able” novel? It’s a novel with a story that has some unique aspect to it that people will talk about (“Buzz” about) to their friends.

Marketing efforts aside, the one thing an author can do to generate serious book sales – apart from creating a quality product – is to write a novel with a high Buzz factor.

Novels that have the capacity to create Buzz are also called “High Concept” novels. An author (or a fan) should be able to express what a High Concept novel is “about” in a sentence or two.

Here are the High Concepts of some recent novels from the current New York Times bestseller list:

Stolen Prey by John Sandford – An entire family is mysteriously murdered in a fashion usually associated with drug killings, but the victims live in a seriously upscale neighborhood and the father of the family was a bank executive.

Eleventh Hour by James Patterson – “[A  detective] is called to the most bizarre crime scene she’s ever seen: two bodiless heads elaborately displayed in the garden of a world-famous actor. Another head is unearthed in the garden and . . . the ground could hide hundreds of victims.” – description from

The Innocent by David Baldacci – A government hit man usually hired to remove threats to national security refuses to carry out a hit when something about it doesn’t seem right to him. The hit man then becomes a target himself.

The Road to Grace by Richard Paul Evans – “Reeling from the sudden loss of his wife, his home, and his business, Alan Christoffersen, a once successful advertising executive, has left everything he knew behind and set off on an extraordinary cross-country journey. Carrying only a backpack, he is walking from Seattle to Key West, the farthest destination on his map.” – description from

What do the above High Concepts have in common? 1) They are unique, and, 2) They appeal to a wide audience.

So, as you launch into the hard work of writing your novel, and as you plan future novels, test your work for “Buzz-ability” early on.

Here’s how:

– Think about novels that are similar to the one you are writing. What is different about your novel that would make it appealing to a wide audience?

– Describe your novel’s High Concept to three or four trusted friends. Ask them to tell you frankly if they would find the book of interest.

If you find that your novel draws little interest, go back to the drawing board and re-think it. You will be investing months and perhaps years of your life to your novel. Why not do all you can from the “git go” to ensure it reaches the widest audience possible?

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