The 12 Most Important Rules for Writing a Bestseller

Bestselling author Libby Fischer Hellmann has recently put together in two-minute videos the 12 rules you should follow for crafting best-selling page-turners that will grip your reader - 12 videos, that last a total of some thirty-five minutes yet cover the main points of a three month course.

Click  here to see the series
 The 12 rules (and corresponding video):

1. Suspense: it works only if you describe a threat and you don't resolve it for as long as you can, leaving your reader biting his nails;

2. Opening sentence: craft it so the reader wants to read the next sentence. Example from Ken Follett: "The small boys came early to the hanging." (from Pillars of the Earth);

3. Raise the stakes: create complications,dangers and challenges for your characters;

4. Closing sentence: it should be a "sting" or "cliffhanger"; you leave the action in media res, i.e. incomplete or unresolved, so your reader is moved to start on the next chapter to find out "what happens next";

5. Character backstories: in plotting your novel, write out in detail your characters' life stories; you'll use only 2 to 5 percent of this in your book, but you'll know your characters so well that you'll know exactly how they will behave/react when you put them through the challenges you've planned for them;

6. Authenticity: you need to make sure characters are behaving in a realistic, credible manner;

7. Characters' arcs: they are not fixed, they learn from what happens to them and this might change them a lot or only slightly - in a series, the main character needs to be recognizable from one book to the next;

8. Show, don't tell: this is obvious, but still fundamental: don't say "she is angry" but that "she went rigid"; an excellent example from Michael Connelly is quoted here;

9. Use the power of language: the artful choice of words makes the difference, a good plot alone does not carry the story; you need to focus on the emotional content of the words; to improve your language ability, read, read, read, including  Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose;

 10. Less is more: how to write lean prose, her tips:  for the settings, 3 sentences are enough; back story should be minimal, sprinkle it here and there; use few adjectives (never more than two); strip out words like ever, just, always, sometimes...

11. The rythm of language: alternate length of sentences, make some short and crisp, others long and lyrical;

12. Casts: an acronym for building blocks (or target you need to hit) to structure your book's chapters; it was devised by award-winning mystery author Nancy Pickard; the system decripted: 
c = conflict; it needs to be on every page and chapter;
a = action; not necessarily the primary action but something has to happen;
s = surprise; even a small surprise will do;
t = turn or change; not necessarly big but it has to happen;
s = sensory details, i.e. show, don't tell.

See the videos for more details. 

Libby Hellmann promises to tell us more in future. But this is already quite a plateful! Anything else you want to add? What is most important for you?

For me, point 5 is the most important and that's why the challenges my characters face so often come from themselves rather than from outside (that's typical of so-called "psychological novels"); then add an external challenge, and, bingo, you've got a thriller!

There is obviously more to the art of crafting novels, in particular how to orchestrate the chapters and pull the threads of a story, making them all come to a head at the end for maximum drama and suspense...But let's hear what Libby has to say on that one!


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