Put a dog on it: How to craft a bestseller

Every writer wants to believe that he or she can write a bestselling book.

I’m here to tell you there’s nothing wrong with believing that. I have no doubt that many times, my belief in that idea is the only thing that keeps me pounding out words on my laptop. To be completely transparent, I’ve never had a book reach the NYT bestseller list; the closest I came was learning that my memoir of dog adoption, Saved by Gracie: How a Rough-and-Tumble Rescue Dog Dragged Me Back to Health, Happiness and God, was a bestseller – at one point in time – for my publisher. Whether that one point in time was a week or a month, or even three hours, I honestly don’t know. And actually, it doesn’t matter, because the terrible truth of best-selling-ness is that it’s truly a transitory thing, as well as completely unpredictable.

As a reader, I also find that “bestseller” doesn’t necessarily predict my own evaluation or enjoyment of a book. I read plenty of books on the bestseller lists that leave me cold, to say the least. Other books I stumble across are amazing, but languish forever in No One’s Heard of It Land.

As a result, I’ve decided that I probably know as much as anyone about writing a bestseller, which is to say, no one really does know why some books win the lottery and others don’t. So the next time you’re struggling with your belief in your ability to write a bestseller, here are my tips(laughs?) to keep you moving forward:

  1. Sit down and write. Or you can stand up and write (I’ve been reading a lot lately about the health benefits of sit/stand desks). Either way, actually writing seems to be an uncontested avenue to producing a bestselling book. (Caveat: unless you’re famous, in which case you can pay someone else to do the writing and still put your name on it and get even more famous, although I think that’s kind of cheating, don’t you?)
  2. Write short sentences. Really. Bestsellers have short sentences. Like this one. If you want to write a literary novel, though, you can make the sentences as long as you like because the people who read literary novels generally read at a higher reading level and more assuredly appreciate the sheer beauty of the written language, even if they don’t have the market clout to send your book’s rating skyhigh.
  3. Use active verbs. (They even tell you this in graduate writing programs. I just saved you a ton of money and two years of your life. You’re welcome.)
  4. Put a dog on the cover of your book. Even if it’s not about a dog. Books with a dog on the cover sell better. Even the latest statistics show that dogs get more internet time than any other animal. Want attention? I’m telling you, put a dog on it.

In closing, I want to share with you the writing advice of a bestselling author named W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Happy writing!

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Crafting Compelling Titles and Subtitles

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Great advice for human interactions. Less useful for actual books.

Not only do we judge books by their covers, but when we read a book’s title we decide in an instant whether the book is for us or not.

As you’re crafting a title for your own book, keep in mind this general rule of thumb:

1. The title communicates the book’s “premise.”

2. The subtitle communicates the book’s “promise.”

Now that I’ve put it out there, I’m sure you’re scrolling through all your favorite titles that break this rule. Fine, be that way.

What can be learned from the thumb-rule, is that the best titles communicate to a distracted book browser something of what is inside the book.

The title lets the reader know the general premise of the book:

And the subtitle lets the reader know what the book promises they’ll get from it:

So as you craft your title, you want to be sure that the reader knows what the book is about (premise) and what’s in it for them (promise.)

Of course there will be those bestsellers that no one can account for, like Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, but it’s more likely that you’ll serve your readers and your book if a reader who’s scrolling through titles on Amazon, or flipping through pages at Barnes & Noble, can know—in an instant—that your book is for her or him.

I learned this rule about titles and subtitles from my savvy friend Jonathan Merritt a few years ago…after I’d published a bunch of books.

Here are my titles (excluding collaborations/ghost writing). If the title is a win, credit goes to the publisher. If it’s a fail, probably mine. So judge me…

Which of my titles communicates what you’ll find inside and meets a need readers actually have? Too late to change ’em, so hit me with your best shot…

This post first appeared on Margot’s blog, Wordmelon

10 Powerful Ways to Increase Your Writing Productivity

I’m nearly finished writing my fifth book, but I quickly discovered one thing has remained consistent with every title I’ve penned: the pull of distractions, threatening to hamper my work.

I’ve had to exercise intentional practices to help me maintain momentum. And through dedication and determination, I’ve discovered the following 10 powerful ways to increase your writing productivity. 

  1. Schedule writing as an event on your calendar. If it’s a priority, formalize your intent by putting it in black and white with a time stamp.
  2. Prepare in advance. The evening before, fix energizing food and drink that will provide convenient and easy sustenance. Lay out comfortable clothes to help you get right to work. Make sure all of your tools are organized and ready. Then get a good night’s rest. (I use a touch of lavender essential oil to help me sleep deeply.)
  3. Keep your word. Often, we are mindful to keep our promises to others, but don’t think anything of breaking the vows we make to ourselves. When you tell yourself you are going to write — just do it!
  4. Create your own writer’s cave. When I started out, this was a very specific place in my house. For me, the word cave fit, because my writing room was first located in a basement bedroom. There were no windows, it felt isolated, and frankly, I had to force myself to stay in what often felt like a dungeon. But by practicing discipline, I learned something important — I can write anywhere.
  5. Clearly communicate writing rules to family and close friends. When I started writing passionately, my loving peeps did not consider it a serious endeavor. To some, working from home meant I was available for them to pop in for extended visits, to call or text about random things, or to pressure me to participate in endeavors I had neither the time or inclination for. Didn’t they know I needed to write? I fought frustration until I remembered a rule I had incorporated for my business coaching. So, I told family and friends that when I closed the door to my office or posted cave-dwelling on social media, that this was a Do Not Disturb symbol. I asked my peeps not to bother me, unless it was important enough that they would call me out of a meeting 500 miles away. It took a couple of weeks for training, but now it works beautifully.
  6. Protect your writing time fiercely. Beware of interruptions — especially from yourself. I love the J.K. Rowling quote above, but I would have to add, sometimes the endless requests come from an internal voice. Guard yourself against distraction through unnecessary activities like television, social media, or scrubbing the toilet.
  7. Turn off the tube. This may sound silly and simple, but how many of us have lost volumes of time to mindless television shows. If it isn’t feeding what you are writing about, flip the switch to off.
  8. What's on Your Bucket ListGet up and move on a regular basis. I do one-minute intervals at least hourly when writing. Running in place, jumping jacks, leg kicks, and air boxing all keep my blood pumping and my mind working.
  9. Don’t fall prey to overwhelm. Break your work into chunk-sized fragments. Instead of focusing on the entire chapter you need to write, just set a goal to write the next paragraph. If a whole paragraph still throws you into a tailspin, pen your next sentence.
  10. Enjoy the experience. Remind yourself of that younger version of you who dreamed of this opportunity. Most people never get to mark this off their bucket list. Relish these moments — they’re what you were made for.

How do you protect your productivity?

Sometimes Writing is Like Washing Eggs

I pulled the photo album from the shelf, the binder bulging from photos and story. I flipped through the black and white pages of faces unknown and known.

  • Of Mom and her siblings on the front steps of a South Dakota farmhouse.
  • Of elementary-age Mom with dark hair between her blonde-haired sisters, Sylvia and Joyce.
  • Of mom as a teenager dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, next to her brother, Glenn, helping their dad with the haying on their 480 acres.

I turned pages until I came to a section of memories my mom had written before her death four years ago.

Her history. Her story.

A tale about eggs.

Yes. Eggs.

“Eggs were a year-round cash crop for the family,” Mom had written. “Many chickens were raised and eggs needed to be picked daily. Evening after evening Lillian (my grandmother) would sit in the kitchen and wash more than 200 eggs. If she missed a few days, she could have 1000 eggs to deal with.”

Every night my grandmother washed eggs. After the laundry with a wringer washer. After feeding grandpa and eight of the twelve children that were still at home. After the dishes in the small, white ceramic sink. After mopping the floor from the muddy footprints of twenty feet. After prayers and tucking into two bedrooms.

After it all, Grandma washed eggs. With circular movements, Grandma washed off the dirt, blood, and chicken poop. Sometimes she would be so exhausted, she would fall asleep while still sitting in the chair. Jerking awake, she would pick up one egg, and then another, going late into the wee hours while the cuckoo clock on the wall ticked off the minutes.

Daily. Monotonous. Un-glorious. Necessary.

Life.

I was contemplating my grandmother’s endless eggs last week while I was doing the unexciting task of editing a manuscript, taking apart sentences egg by egg. I wanted to wait until I felt inspired. I wanted to work on a creative, fun, and new project. I wanted to go clean the kitchen. I wanted to read a book. I wanted to go sort out a closet.

I wanted…(you get the idea!)

Instead, I looked at verb choice. Commas. Sentence fragments. I read my editor’s notes and made changes. I checked a reference for accuracy.

So much of writing is about washing eggs.

What eggs do you have to wash this week?

 

Against the backdrop of the Sonoran Desert, Lynne Hartke writes stories of courage, beauty and belonging–belonging to family, to community and to a loving God. Her book, Under a Desert Sky, was released in May 2017 with Revell/Baker Publishing. She blogs at www.lynnehartke.com. You can find Lynne on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

How to kill off your characters without even trying

One of the things I enjoyed most about writing my cozy Birder Murder mysteries was coming up with inventive scenarios in which my protagonist found dead bodies. Since this happened in the first chapter, the rest of the novel was a twisting path to solve the ‘why?’ and the ‘who done it?’ behind the dead body. I found that rather than making a book easy to write, starting with a victim really puts a writer under the gun…so to speak.

When it comes to developing your non-dead characters, however, there are plenty of easy ways to kill them off, even if you don’t mean to. Let’s take a look at the quickest ways to inadvertently make your characters lifeless, dull, unrealistic, and totally unengaging:

  1. Don’t let them speak. Dialogue is one of the best ways to develop your character’s character. Without dialogue, your reader gets descriptions upon descriptions of what a character thinks and does, but never an insight into actual verbal interaction with another character. Spoken language reveals nuances that make a character come alive. Does a character speak a regional dialect, peppering the conversation with unique turns of speech, or does he stutter in frustration? If your reader doesn’t ‘hear’ your character, you’re not making use of one of the five senses. Shortchange your reader of ‘listening’ and that character loses a dimension of personality, along with sympathy.
  2. Let them talk too much. We all know people who don’t let you get a word into the conversation; those are the people we try to avoid! A fictional character who does this is beyond insufferable, becoming a ‘talking head’ who drives the pace of the story to a dead stop. It’s also a classic case of telling, instead of showing. Balance action with dialogue to create a rounded character.
  3. Make them perfect! This may be the fastest route to killing a character before the story even gets started. Who cares about someone who has no faults, no misgivings, no dark sides, no shortcomings? Readers aren’t reading to learn about someone’s perfect life. Readers want to see their own failings, confusions, regrets, and wounds in a character, so they can relate and find the possibility of healing and hope in their own lives. A perfect character is flat. No one needs them…especially an author.
  4. Make them predictable. If your heroine always falls for the wrong guy, your reader will give up on her. If your hero always wins, how boring is that? If your reader knows how the book will end after reading Chapter One, why bother reading the rest? The best characters make mistakes, eventually learn from them, and become better people. (Not perfect people, per #3 above.) Great characters are works in progress, even after the last page. If your reader doesn’t imagine what happens to a character after the end of the story, that’s a sure sign the character never really ‘lived’ for the reader.

Are you creating characters that live? What are your best tips?

Before You Release Your Words Into the World…

If you’re writing a book you hope to see published, your words must serve the reader.

  • Maybe it’s a memoir.
  • Maybe it’s self-help book.
  • Maybe it’s the story of a remarkable relationship.
  • Maybe it’s tips about gardening.

No matter what you are writing, it has to have value for the reader.

So before you send your proposal or manuscript to an agent or editor (or before you send it to me to review!) imagine that the agent/editor/publisher will be reading your words with one question in her heart: What’s in it for the reader?

Questions I want you to ask, of your proposal/manuscript, before you release your words into the wild…

  • What is the value, for the reader, in this book?
  • When she finishes the first chapter, does she want to keep reading?
  • When she’s really tired, is there a reason for her to keep turning pages?
  • Does every sentence, every page, every chapter serve the reader?
  • When she finishes, can she articulate the single important takeaway of the book?
  • When the reader sets this book down, has she gained something from it that she wants to share with a friend over coffee?
  • Does she want to buy a copy for her sister because the book had so much value?
  • ls she able to apply what she’s learned to her own life?

If the answer to some of these questions is either “no” or “I don’t know,” I want you to return to your word-baby and review it one more time through the spectacles of an agent or editor. Name the value–write it out–that the reader gleans from each chapter.

If you can’t identify the takeaway value for the reader–the “payoff” for purchasing your book–then work at it until you can.

Ultimately, “your” book is not about you. It’s about the reader.

Serve the reader.

This post first appeared on Margot’s blog, Wordmelon

Defining Real Writing Success

The new year has come and gone, and we’re in the full throes of fresh starts, new goals, and updated resolutions. This has me thinking about the definition of success — and more specifically, defining real writing success.

Most authors would say success is selling thousands of books, which means reaching thousands of people. It’s a worthy goal and necessary if you want to write professionally, long-term. But lately, as I’ve considered the time and energy required from an author, I realize the importance of balance. I’ll explain.

The more contracts I sign, as speaking engagements multiply, and because I’m selling more books, I’ve gotten a glimpse of the future. And it can go in one of two ways.

I don’t struggle with self-discipline as some do; instead, lately I’ve noticed my struggle to relax. When I can’t unwind, it’s time to make a change.

I have a choice. I can pour even more of my time and energy into my writing and speaking career, and to a degree, I need to, but I must exercise caution. As a natural workaholic, I could slip into a regular routine of fourteen to seventeen-hour work days. Because of deadlines, commitments, and special opportunities, there are times when I need to pull a writing day like that, but if it becomes the norm, I’m in danger. There’s a fine line between protecting your writing/speaking time and neglecting your family and close friends.

Life is Better with Friends

Recently, I imagined what it might look like to work myself into a frenzy, reaching success as many would define it, only to realize I might stand alone at the top. If we don’t have friends and family to share and celebrate with, what are we working so hard for?

This epiphany has put me on a mission to usher some balance back into my life. I adore the days I get to sequester and write, but I equally love spending down time with my family and friends. Both are valued activities to me, and they deserve equal time.

My work ethics and integrity are intact, but I am choosing to slow down enough to breathe  deeply, while on this crazy, thrilling, and daunting writing ride. To me, defining real writing success is simple.

I have goals to write and sell many more books, but part of my planning strategies now include more time set aside to enjoy walks with friends, cups of coffee with people I respect, and to laugh often with my family. I want to catch up on life, and I believe by doing so, I’ll have even more to write about. I don’t want to “make it” as a writer, only to look around and discover I’m perched in a precarious position — standing all alone.

How do you maintain balance between your writing and real life?