A Formula For Best Sellers?

I’m #blessed. No for real. Thanks to the lovely Natalie C. Parker, author of BEHOLD THE BONES, I’ve been connected with some lovely  FAN-STINKIN-NOMENAL (it’s a word now) authors who are in the same stage of agented writing as myself.

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Novels by the wonderful Natalie C. Parker


This group of girls bonded almost instantly. We now refer to ourselves as the YAAMY Bears — it’s a yam thang — and find ourselves posting yam memes and GIFs at random. But best of all, we are sharing our journeys. This stage of writing can be awkward and lonely because you’re not sharing the same path with authors seeking representation anymore, but you’re not a published author either. Natalie has given us a tribe, shoulders to cry on, people to celebrate with, and I think I can speak for everyone in the group when I say…

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All that being said, I found myself typing out this long message to the girls on one of our many forums at 2:30 in the morning. It’s been on my mind since then, so I thought I’d see what you thought. Is there a formula for a best seller?

Writing the secret formula
I went to MidWest Writers this summer and attended a wonderful session on how to edit a best seller, and here’s what I took away from it:

The conference speaker talked about plot beats which, at the time, I knew nothing about. So, for those of you who were like me, beats are like the rhythm of a song. It’s steady, then it crescendos then it resolves. There is a common rhythm or set of beats found in nearly all the bestseller and blockbuster movies and the formula goes like this:

1. Slice of Life – This is where you start. You give the reader a sense of who the MC is, where they are from and what is meaningful to them. This can happen in the first few words. It can also occur over the course of a few pages. Giving your MC little obstacles to overcome (even big ones, though you don’t generally want to jump in with too much heart pounding action until the reader knows why they should care about the character) helps the reader to get a feel for how they react to things. Do they fume at traffic jams or are they chill? Do they cuss when they stub their toe? That kind of thing.

2. Inciting Incident – What is the thing that starts the sweater to unraveling (Oh Geez! Weezer’s sweater song is in my head now!) But IDENTIFY IT. Call it by name, for your own benefit. This helped me so much just to know what this was, because then I knew where it should fit in my MS.

3. Act 2 – Decision Time: This is when your MC has to make a decision about that Inciting Incident. Are they going to run away from home, get a divorce, find a new job? BUT in most best sellers, the FIRST response to that decision is no. No, I’m not going to do what I should, or what’s hard, or what makes sense. This helps build tension and sets pace! Then give it time and resolve it so your MC can be on his or her merry way with the plot.

4. Establish Flaws – This is where we see that the MC maybe doesn’t have it all together and isn’t quite as perfect as we all thought she was. You don’t have to give everything away, but maybe we start seeing some weaknesses or some unlikable things here. This way we’ve given the reader a chance to fall in love with the MC before we show her butt. Sort of like in dating and marriage. LOL This is also a great place to trickle in clues if you are dealing with an unreliable character.

5. Fun and Games – This is where I struggle, because I write such dark stuff. I don’t know how this bubbly preacher’s kid turned Edgar Allan Poe but whatevs. (P.S. if you write humor PLEASE do a post on that!) Anywho, fun and games doesn’t have to be bubbly or even funny, but this is where your romance typically happens. Your MC discovers they are in love. Or, if there is no romance, some of the lighter things in the novel are happening here. This is all for build and pace. Your chugging up the hill of that roller coaster, about to give your readers that my-stomach-just-fell-into-my-shoes feeling.

6. Mid-Point – This is the middle of your story. I know, deep, right? Things are starting to pull together and come to a head.

7. Bad Guys Close In – This is where your MC is getting backed into a corner by some situation or protagonist. They’re feeling a little hopeless here.

8. All is Lost – Giving your MC a situation they can’t possibly get out of is a pretty big theme in best sellers. There’s no way this can end up good for anyone as far as the reader can tell.

9. Dark Night of Soul – Things are moving quickly now. Your character recognizes that without sacrificing, there is no way out of this situation. Or maybe they don’t recognize it, but the reader does. This takes on all forms. In Jerry MaGuire, his career is on the line, in Twilight (forgive me) it’s Edward or Jacob, or Renesmee, or herself or Edward. Your MC can linger here for a moment to help solidify for the reader the stakes that are at risk. Remember this takes on so many different forms. Your story may be man against nature, or man against community. It still fits.

10. Climax — This is where the volcano explodes. The battle scene, the escape, the divorce, the throw down. The ugly.

11. Closing Image – Here’s your resolution, and my favorite: Bookends. This is where you take a theme that you started the book with, and you end with it. You give your reader a sense of closure with a profound idea, a loose end or a phrase used earlier and trickled throughout the book. In Jerry MaGuire it was a phrase: You complete me. In Twilight it was the theme that Edward could never read Bella’s thoughts and then she allowed him to.

For Pacing: The speaker suggested asking a beta reader to put a note in every place they got pulled away from reading to do something else by anything other than an earthquake or medical emergency. Those are probably your places where the book lulls. She suggested giving the character a minor conflict in those areas that doesn’t muddle up the plot or add too many new elements to the theme. It can be something she is already dealing with that happens to raise it’s ugly head again.

Also another REALLY  interesting resource is the Plot Library. Apparently, there are only like a few plots out there since the beginning of time and every story can fit into one of these plot lines. I thought it was fun to look through them and see which one my book and my favorite books fit into!

Is there really a formula for a best seller? Who knows. Most will agree that, like any art form, there’s no right or wrong way to write a book. But, that being said, even as an artist, I need to know how shading works. I need to know that if I’m trying to paint realism, if that’s my goal, then if the sun is on the right side of an object, the shadows will only be on the left side. This is a guide. It helped me organize my writing and identify the pieces that WERE ALREADY THERE! I don’t necessarily use this until I’m in the editing process. I don’t hold to this formula while I’m writing. I use it to sort it out afterwards. Maybe organized writing is the key to a best seller, maybe it’s something else entirely, but identifying these spots in my writing helps ME better understand it. I hope you can get something out of this too.

No Writer is an Island

I was a little sheltered as a kid. Okay, I was a LOT sheltered as a kid. I was home schooled. I went to the theater for the first time at the age of fifteen, wasn’t allowed to go to sleep overs, use swimming pools, wear swimming suits or say fart. Pootie was an acceptable replacement, though. (POOTIE??? How is that any better? It’s not MOM! It’s not! Lol! Love you, Momma.) My entertainment was limited to black and white reruns of the Dick Van Dike show, Perry Mason and Lucile Ball. We were allowed to watch AMC, so the classics became my reality. In my head, I started talking in short burst like the main characters in those black and white detective shows and ending everything with, ya see? One of my favorite movies was NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, a 1962 war movie starring Jeffery Hunter.

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The main character in the movie was an escaped POW being hunted. He was helped by many villagers as he made his way across the country to freedom. The point of the movie was that, though he was alone, he couldn’t have done it on his own. It’s the same for us.

No writer is an island.

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Yes, you are unique.

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Yes, you have worked hard.

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And your work is entirely a product of your dedication and talent.

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However, you could not, and cannot, do this on your own. As unique as you wish yourself to be, you are a piece of a puzzle.

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You need other people. We all do. In the beginning process when we’re critiquing one another’s work. In the middle when we are supporting one another through the rejections. In the new beginnings when we find representation and pursue publication. And, contrary to popular belief, we need one another more than ever after publication. It’s the people on the street, on their laptops and cell phones and around water coolers that sell books. It’s other authors on the same path. These are the people we need. So how do we ask for help and rely on these people without being a burden?

There’s an old adage I learned during my sheltered upbringing:

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Sow encouragement, time, energy and finances into someone else’s life and someone — maybe not the exact individual you helped, but someone — will sow into you.

So, while islands are lovely places (my latest thriller takes place primarily on an island so I’m partial), we have to reach out, for our own success, for the success of others, but mostly because that’s our purpose. Look around. Nothing on this planet is created to survive without being connected. How are we any different?

Getting the Call

There is nothing more surreal than a realized dream.

Nothing.

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I’ve dreamed of so many little things: the day I get to change my Twitter bio to say “repped by _____”, or the moment I get to post the announcement, “Guess what everybody! I’ve signed with ____.” I wondered if the real moment would be as gut tinglingly thrilling as in my daydreams.

And it was.

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In December of 2015, over Christmas break, I wrote my fifth book, and my first thriller. It gushed out of me, a lake from a leaking dam. It was different than anything I’d ever written. This main character had no traces of me in her. She was someone I didn’t know, someone I’d discovered, and gotten to know. I was scared of her and mesmerized by her, and felt for her.

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Me and my new imaginary friend.

I didn’t want to query this book right away, which was out of character for me. I’m usually dying to get it out there when it’s done. Years of writing was finally starting to mature me though, so I waited. After taking my time to polish, I decided to start querying seriously in April, 2016. By May I had serious interest. I received phone calls from agents in June. Things were happening. For real. I couldn’t believe it. Not long after, I saw a pitch contest on Twitter. I hadn’t planned on entering it, but I make a habit of always having pitches in my back pocket, ready to go if needed. It was a busy day, and I didn’t have time to tweet all day, so I just put one tweet out.

One tweet.

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It received attention from a few more agents that would later result in some wonderful conversations with real, beautiful, talented people. Offers of representation came in July. Was this really happening? Yes, in fact, it was. But a strange thing occurred. Something I didn’t expect. Something that sort of sucked a little bit of the joy out of the process for me. The decision. I didn’t realize how emotionally connected I would become to the people who showed interest in my manuscript. They were so encouraging and they believed in my work. They believed in me! They had ideas and visions for the future. My decision meant I would be ending those dreams for someone. I don’t know how agents make these kinds of stress-filled decisions on a daily basis. I’m in awe of what they do.

giphy (2) After much consideration, many late night talks and drives with my other half, my husband and I made a decision. A beautiful decision. I would be represented by Sharon Pelletier of Dystel and Goderich Literary Management in New York.

I am thrilled about the journey ahead. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what made this book more successful than the others I’ve written. I hope that maybe some of my reflection will help other authors out there on the same journey. Here are the factors, beyond the fact that lots of reading and writing and time have grown me as a writer, that I believe helped this time around. Timing. I’ve always hated when other authors mention this, because it takes the control out of my hands. But sometimes it’s a right time/right place scenario that comes into play. Marketability. I love every single one of my stories, but I think the plot for this one is timely for the market, and that helps.  A concise pitch. For once, (thank you Jesus!) I was able to boil my whole book down to a single, hard hitting sentence. I believe, initially, this is what resulted in ten full requests right off the the bat. A good way to get your creative juices flowing in this direction is to look at the insides of book jackets to see how they describe their books. Apply it to your work, and let it inspire you! Waiting until it’s ready. Agents are always reading, always considering work. Getting yours out there faster doesn’t ensure you’ll get an agent. Good, polished writing will do that.  And finally, networking. If you’re not on social media like Twitter, you’re missing out on entire writing communities that can be very helpful to your work and connect you with wonderful people. Writers conferences, online contests, and Facebook writer’s groups are all ways you can hone your work. I told someone the other day who was just starting this journey to think of it like college. You put four to five, maybe more, good years of hard work in to learn a skill so you can do it well. Expect to do the same thing in writing, before you make it to the next level. Then you’re not setting yourself up for disappointment, and the journey can be quite thrilling. It has been for me, and I can’t wait for what’s ahead.

Come with me!!

 

 

 

 

 

Are Writers Control Freaks?

Control.

Is it why we write?

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Think about it. The worlds we create are entirely at the mercy of our every whim. If we don’t like the way a character is shaping up, or the direction a story is going, we can change it. If the ending doesn’t suit our fancy, we can mold it until it does.

Even the process of writing is an act of control, down to our very methods. Whether we’re pansters or plotters, we usually do it the same way every time. No matter how disorganized it may seem to others, we each have our specific formula for creating that works for us.

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So, does that mean writers are control freaks?

For a time, maybe. But that’s only because in a short while, after we’ve finished our creations — or when we choose to walk away from them because they’re never truly finished — we’ll give up that warm, fuzzy, comforting sense of control and exchange it for the cold, distant, angsty feeling of uncertainty.

We know, ultimately, it’s coming, that moment when we are going to have to let go, watch our creation fly from the nest, and wonder if, where ever it has landed, people will see the beauty and potential in it as we do. It’s a heart-shredding feeling. It’s an exciting feeling. I like to compare it to the beach, because…beaches.

Sending your work off is like going to the beach.

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Putting our work into the hands of others is like walking off the shore and into the water. The waves of emotion are strong sometimes. Especially when things actually start happening. The possibility of our dream is within reach and the waves grow stronger, switching from excitement to dread and back again. I’ve found I can’t linger in this wake for too long or it will pull me under and own me. I’m learning it’s best to feel the power of the wave for a moment, then get back on the shore, and start building another sand castle. Though, despite what I’ve learned, I still put my toes back in the water, sometimes. Thankfully, I have friends on the beach that keep waving me back onto the shore. That was a really long metaphor, but you get the point.

Whether you’re on the shore or you just dove into the water, you know all too well the process is a mix of emotions. Which is precisely why we do it. Are we control freaks? Maybe, a little, but it’s only to balance out the experience. Because, after all, we are telling our own stories, and in the end, a well-balanced plot is what it’s all about.

Is Writing Success A Fluke?

“A fluke is one of the most abundant fish in the ocean. So if you go fishing often enough, your bound to catch a fluke at some point.” 

I’ve recently developed a love for The Office. I know. I’m a decade late, but better late than never, right? In one of the later episodes, Dunder Mifflin competes in a trivia night. To the surprise of everyone at the office, the not-so-bright Kevin scores the winning point and $1000.00 to help the company meet their quarterly goal.

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Oh, Kevin.

And then he says something that blows my mind. He says, “Some people might say that tonight was just a fluke. But I want to leave you with this piece of trivia. A fluke is one of the most abundant fish in the ocean. So if you go fishing often enough, your bound to catch a fluke at some point.”

Flukes. Beautiful beasts, aren’t they.

So, what am I getting at here? Am I suggesting that publishing success is purely luck. That talent, and a good story, and skillful prose has nothing to do with getting the attention of agents, editors and publishers?

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Uhhh…no.

There’s a certain amount of good fortune needed to get noticed. You need to catch the attention of the RIGHT agent, at the RIGHT time. Sometimes your story hits them on a personal level at just the right time in their lives. Maybe they have a craving for a Romance with robots or a Thriller with farmers, and at that very moment, your MS passes over their desk. But even then, if it isn’t skillfully written, if it hasn’t been combed over repeatedly and fine tuned, if it lacks depth and passion, well, you probably won’t be having fluke for dinner.

Writing is composed of writer guts — all of them, all the organs, just splayed out on paper, stress induced hernias from squeezing out all the passionate words, (this is getting really gross), the author’s soul, and Adamantium-reinforced determination.

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So, this writing thing, it’s not up to luck. It’s not like playing the lottery. Yes, there’s a certain amount of right time/right place involved, but essentially, it comes down to honing your craft, getting better, the best you can make it, and trying. Over. And over. And over. Keep putting that line out there, and eventually, you’ll catch yourself a nice fluke.

She’s Not Antisocial; She’s Creative

She’s a little quirky, not very good at holding conversations, forgetful, late, and wears odd thing. She hides during lunch and takes frequent bathroom breaks during gatherings, just to get away from the noise. A lot of people think she’s anitsocial, but she’s not.

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She’s creative.

Here are a few things about Quirky-antsocial-girl that might help you to understand her.

Noises get to her. 

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There’s a lot going on in her head. I mean, A LOT. She looks at the color of your shirt and considers how it will work in her next painting. You mention a book you’ve read, and she automatically thinks of how she can apply your favorite parts of the book to her novel. So, when you add noise to the noise that already exists in her head, it can be very distracting to her. She may have trouble consentrating on her environtment or the converstation she’s participating in. She knows that about herself, so she often avoids noisy environments. And what’s noise to her might not be noise to you.

She really, really, really wants to say the right thing, but rarely does. 

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Because of this internal noise, she finds it hard to say the right things. Or, worse yet, she just blurts out the noise, which leads to pressumably nonsensicle responses. To you, her comments might not make any sense, but to her, there’s a perfectly logical connection in her mind.

She’s much better on paper. 

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Due to the communication block, she can appear dense, but she’s really very deep and has some very cool and informed outlooks on things. She’s better at communicating if she can write things down. It gives her time to sort out her thoughts and filter some of those crazy rabbit trails out of the conversation. You might get a lot of emails, texts and hand written notes from her that are really impressive, but when you meet her in person, she’s not quite as spectacular. Rest assured, there’s no one writing her messages for her. She’s just much better on paper.

She weighs her options. 

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She’s very intuitive and in touch with human emotions, yours and hers alike. Because of this, she’s very aware of how uncomfortable she makes people. So she weighs her options. Sometimes, to avoid the awkwardness, she chooses isolation.

Minutes should not be wasted. 

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This is why she’s always late. It’s also why she’s a bit forgetful. Every minute is an opportunity to create. EVERY MINUTE. She rarely sits to watch a movie or socialize. Unless she’s napping due to creative fatigue, she’s always up and moving and doing something. She feels a little piece of her wasting away if she doesn’t. Five minutes before she needs to be somewhere, she often finds herself knee deep in an extensive project. It’s usually pretty hard for her to disconnect from it. Even when she steps away, she leaves a part of her mind behind to finish up.

She’s really very happy. 

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People see the isolation and the oddness and assume she’s tormented, lonely or unhappy. But the truth is, she’s not. Every day is an opportunity to her. She’s excited by the smallest things in nature. She creates exciting stories in her head and is always thinking about the next project. So, don’t feel sorry for her or assume that her motives are self absorbed. She’s okay. She’s happy. She loves you, and she wants you to understand her and love her too.