The Bestseller Code

What if a book combined two of my favourite subjects – creativity and maths? And then packaged it all together to create a book that analysed the bestsellers of the last 30 years and came up with a code for how to write a bestselling novel? That’s exactly what Jodie Archer and Matthew Jocker’s new release, “The Bestseller Code” does. Using a complex series of algorithms they analyse what has differentiated the bestsellers from the flops.

The New Yorker pointed out that The Bestseller Code tells us what we already know and to some extent that’s true. The classic pointers from any creative writing course are there: A character has to be active, not passive. A plot with lots of twists and turns sells. The three act structure still works. But if the Archer and Jocker’s model hadn’t identified these things, then wouldn’t we be worried? What credibility would a model that favoured passive characters over active characters have?

There were a few gems in the book that stood out for me.

– don’t have too many themes – in bestsellers, one theme usually makes up 30% of the book

– books about relationships and human interaction sell – on some level most bestsellers feature this topic. Readers care how the character interacts with others, and how those relationships evolve, be it love or hate

– journalistic style sells; the skills that journalists learn in creating copy that grabs the reader immediately are invaluable in fiction

What does this mean for me and how can I use this book to write a bestseller?

The Bestseller Code identifies the common features of best selling novels. As an experiment I’m going to engineer these features into a book for NanoWrimo this year. A bestseller perhaps? I hope so…

 

Two approaches to writing a novel

National Novel Writing Month starts in just 4 days. As the excitement builds, I’ve started to think about how I’m going to approach it this time round.

I believe that there is no right or wrong way to write a novel but there are a couple of approaches I’ve used with varying levels of success.

APPROACH 1. The planning approach
For the first novel I finished writing (note the emphasis on finished), I took a very practical, logical approach. There are three key elements to planning a novel; plot, characters and structure. I thought about each of these in turn before I started writing. I made sure I had a plot summary written up, including what happened to each of the characters and the resolution of any sub-plots. I wrote detailed characters descriptions, which included physical descriptions and character motivations. Then I thought about structure; should the story be in chronological? What dramatic tension could be created by going back and forward in time?

Before I started writing I created a huge Excel spreadsheet. I planned out what key things would happen in each chapter, and colour-coded chapters to show which characters each featured.

Strengths of this approach:

Motivation: By having a structure in place I was able to keep motivated. When I reached a point where I might have got writers’ block, I had the excel to guide on what to write next. This meant I finished the novel.

Structure: I didn’t need to worry about planning at any point, as the structure was already in place. It also meant I didn’t wander off into sub-plots and remained loyal to the key plot.

Consistency: I always had the character descriptions to hand, so none of the characters eyes changed colour mid-way through the book.

Weaknesses: 

Lack of creative flexibility: There were times when I really would have liked to follow those random sub-plots that I thought of while I was writing, instead of sticking rigidly to the plot. In my second and third drafts I ended up writing in extra chapters and plots which I hadn’t let myself write when I was writing the first draft.

Losing interest: The rigidity of the structure meant I sometimes got bored and lost interest. I knew what was going to happen at the end of the story and therefore their were no surprises for me. Sometimes I just wanted to write a brand new story based on another idea. But I kept going and completed the novel.

Heavy editing: You can’t know everything about your book when you write the plot summary. Which means some bits will need to change in the second and third drafts.

APPROACH 2. The winging it approach
Another approach is to just start writing and see where it takes you. This is a much more fun approach. You can play around with the characters and put them in all sorts of situations to see how they react.

Strengths:

Fun: I found this a much more enjoyable way to write a novel. When I got bored of a storyline, I put it aside and focused on another sub-plot or character and came back to it later.

Creative freedom: You can let the characters speak for themselves and decide their own fate. You have the freedom to let them drive the story.

Weaknesses:

Deleting: I had to be quite gung-ho with the delete button when I came to editing the novel; deleting whole chapters, characters and plots which I had got bored of and hadn’t gone anywhere.

Re-drafting – There were lots of plots that needed redrafting too, as they had changed as I’d had better ideas as I went along. Sometimes, I had to go back and rewrite the beginning of storylines to make them make more sense.

Heavy editing – There was also a lot of inconsistency in character descriptions, so the book needed a heavy copy edit to strike these outs.

So which approach will I use for National Novel Writing Month?

One of the things I’ve learnt from trying the two approaches is that you can never avoid editing. Things change as you write and you have to learn as you go along. Iterations are inevitable. So, with that in mind, I’m not going to worry at all about whether what I’m writing is rubbish, or might be deleted later. I’m just going to write. I’m going to go with the “winging it” approach. I write for fun, and that approach is the one I most enjoy. However, there is no right or wrong way to write a novel, and if you are more of a natural planner, I’d recommend you start working on that Excel spreadsheet now!

D-Day

Well D-day has come and I’ve finally uploaded my debut novel, 27, to the Amazon kindle store. Amazon willing (and let’s be honest Amazon does have deity-like powers these days), it should be available tomorrow.
It seems like it’s been a long journey, from writing the actual novel in the first place, to the 18 months of editing, to the real pain of proof-reading and then the last 24 hours of formatting.
Of course, those in the know tell me that the real journey starts now, that the marketing is much, much harder than the writing. I’ve been pretty lax on the marketing side and now need to get emailing all those book bloggers and influential publishing types. I did have one stroke of luck, though: I’ve been asked to do an interview on Resonance FM on Tuesday. The interview will focus on my work on Five Stop Story, but I’ll try to throw a bit in about my novel too! The show starts at 6:30 on 104.4 fm. I’ll be joined by poets, Indigo Williams Armando Halpern.

6 degrees

So now I have my feet firmly planted back on British soil, I have started to enjoy all the culture that London and the UK has to offer. I’ve been busy, and although I’ve been back in the UK for two months, I only went to my first play last weekend.

“6 degrees” was performed at the Soho theatre to a packed auditorium. The play wasn’t really one play, but seven shorts, all connected by thin threads. Part of the fun was watching the drama unfold and part of the fun was working out just how all the people were connected to each other.

The plays were all by up-and-coming writers and were focused on the younger generation, an audience which I sometimes feel is underserved by the theatre. The standard of writing was superb and the pace of the stories kept my eyes glued to the action unfolding on the stage. There were also too many talented actors to list. I didn’t look at my watch once, which is practically unheard of for me. (I’m usually thinking about what time the interval is and planning how to strategically maneuver my way to the front of the ice-cream queue.)

Soho theatre runs it’s own writers’ centre to develop new writers so it’s certainly one to check out if you are interested in writing for the theatre.

 

CatNav Reviews the Five Stop Story App – 10 out of 10!

I recently received a completely surprise review for the Five Stop Story app from Cat Nav. CatNav helps readers navigate the vast number of reading apps available in the app store. It identifies the best apps, reviews them and rates them.

It gave the Five Stop Story app 10/10. See the review below. You can download the Five Stop Story app from the app store here.

 

Review of Five Stop Story

Five Stop Stories Limited (Age +12) [10/10]

Similar in style to the Watchbook app, Five Stop Story is a gateway to a number of exciting stories. The app comes loaded with three short stories that give an indication of the type of quality you can expect. If you like what you read, you can subscribe for a year for just £1.99.

Five Stop Story’s interface is clean and minimalistic, allowing you focus on reading the stories. The text size can be increased or decreased and – aside from sharing your favourite passages on Facebook and Twitter – that’s about it.

Thankfully, there are options for sorting through the featured stories. Tabs are included for the latest and most popular. You can also choose to browse by author, genre, date and so on.

With so many stories available it’s probably best to focus on The Other Dave Clark, which is included free with the app. Written by Dave Clark, this short satirical story imagines a nightmare scenario where Nick Clegg wants to see more competition in society and so proposes cloning everyone. This spells trouble for our hero Dave as a committee decides who deserves to live, the original or the clone.

The Other Dave Clark is a perfect showpiece for the app. If every other story is only as fractionally entertaining as this, then the app is going to be immensely successful.

As the name suggests, Five Stop Story is designed to be read in short bursts, on a daily commute for example. There are already lots of stories to suit every mood and this is a great start to Five Stop Story.

This app is essential for iPad and iPhone owners, it’s as simple as that.

Joshua Douglas-Walton, CatNav

 

You can dowload the Five Stop Story app here.

If you want to see your own work featured on the app, you can enter our monthly competitions on the writers page of the Five Stop Story website.

You can find this review on the Persian Cat Press site here.

You can find more great reading apps on the CatNav app here.

Have you missed the boat?

Almost a year ago, I spoke at the Bangkok Literary Festival about Five Stop Story and the state of the publishing industry. Other speakers included Ken Hom, Stephen Leather and Christopher Moore  and I felt a little out of my depth. How would people respond to me, an unpublished writer who had just set up a short story competition?

When I was researching my talk I looked into the success of Amanda Hocking and how she had achieved it. I remember thinking, “that’s amazing, but surely I’m too late to ride the back of that bandwagon?” She had started publishing her books in April 2010. Since then millions of authors have followed her path. I told myself it wouldn’t work today. Additionally, and more importantly, my book wasn’t ready.

After my own talk was over I went to watch Stephen Leather’s talk. He told of how he made his book a bestseller by releasing it on Christmas Day 2010, when loads of people had just been given a Kindle for Christmas. It shot up the charts. Again, I was inspired by his story, but again I felt that that boat was now just a spot on the horizon. I’d missed the opportunity again.

Now, I’m starting to look at self-publishing again and this time my book isn’t so far off. It just needs one more edit from me, a proof-read then a professional edit and I’m good to go. This time I’m not going to let myself believe I’ve missed any boats. There are always more boats. The trick is not to watch the ones that have left but to look to the horizon to spot the ones that are sailing in.

Amazon Breakthrough Novel – Round 2

A few weeks ago I learnt that my novel, “27,” was through to the next round of the Amazon Breakthrough novel. 10,000 people entered and they chose 2,000 people to go through to the next round based on the pitches for their novels. I was one of the lucky 2,000.

I know. 2,000 is a lot. My chances of winning are 1,000 to 1 (there are 2 winners.) It doesn’t matter. Just getting through to the second round has given me a boost and reminded me how much I love writing and how it is worth doing!

Now my opening chapters are being read by 2 Amazon Vine readers. I keep telling myself that the readers are always subjective. Some readers even hate best-selling authors like J.K. Rowling and Jodi Picoult, so it’s more than possible that some readers might hate my work. Equally, most readers I’ve shared the book with have been very complimentary (some are my friends, but others are other authors) so I probably have some chance.

For the moment, I’ll just congratulate myself for getting to Round 2 and keep my fingers crossed for the next stage. I should find out if I’m through on 20 March.

Celebrating 11 years of the Bangkok Women’s Writers Group

I’ve been a member of the Bangkok Women’s Writers Group for nearly a year now, and sadly will soon be leaving, as I’m heading back to London to work. The group is a talented bunch and their feedback on my novels and short stories has been invaluable.
Luckily Anette Pollner, who leads the group, is organising an event, which happens to place just before I leave the country. On 10 April, writers from the group will read from their works in progress at the artspace@newsong on Soi 39/1 Sukhumvit, Bangkok. The readers include Anette, myself, Carol Stephens, Dana MacLean, Lenora Bell, Mariejoy San Buenaventura, Michaela Zimmermann and Tejaswini Apte.

About the Group:

The BWWG meets every second Tuesday 7 PM at Starbucks Soi Lang Suan to workshop their writing in a supportive and creative environment. Current members include several published and international prize winning authors, novelists, essayists, academics, humorists and poets, as well as a few complete beginners. The authors come from different continents, and from a wide range of backgrounds and age groups.

The BWWG has been meeting continuously for 11 years. In 2007 they published the Thai English language bestseller ‘Bangkok Blondes’, and in 2009 they gave a reading at the British Council and published a pamphlet.

 

Traditional or Self-Publishing?

For ages, I’ve been considering the question of whether to self-publish my novel “27” or to seek traditional representation. A couple of months ago, I couldn’t decide, and so as I often do in these situations, I decided that I would just pursue both options and see which one worked.

Using a very useful spreadsheet from the Writers’ Workshop (available here) I went through all the UK agents, looked at each of their websites and shortlisted them based on these criteria:

  • – Represents authors I have heard of
  • – Open-minded about new writers
  • – Good website and seems au fait with social media (The target audience for my work is 20/30-somethings so I wanted to select an agent who understood this audience)

I got as far as a shortlist of 20, and then I spent two days drafting a query letter.

Then I stopped to think. Stopping to think is sometimes dangerous as it can lead to inaction. On this occasion though, I think it stopped me from wasting time.

  • I thought about the ratio of query letters to publishing contracts (less than 1 in 5,000?)
  • I thought about the length of time, it takes to i) get an agent ii) get a publisher iii) get published ~ let’s say a year each for i) and ii) and 2 years for editing and marketing in part iii) – so 4 years in total (if your book is what they are looking for)
  • And then I asked myself where will traditional publishers be in 4 years? I suspect that with the way the market is going, some of them won’t even exist.

So do I want a traditional publisher? Well, I wouldn’t say no if one tapped me on the shoulder right now and offered me a good deal. But for the time being I think I’ll try self publishing.

Neglected!

My blog has been somewhat neglected lately. It’s sat lonely and unloved in some shady corner of the ether, probably reading under a palm tree, while it waits for me to return and bless it with my ramblings.
Lots has happened since my last post. Firstly I have decided to bite the bullet and self-publish…More about that tomorrow, when I will share some of the resources I’ve found so far to help me prepare.