The Two Keys to Writing Successful Commercial Fiction

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of author interviews with best-sellers like James Patterson and Stephen King. And the two things that keep coming up from these writers is that if you want to succeed as a writer, one who can actually quit his day job eventually, then you need to have an incredible work ethic and you need to write things that people will actually want to read.

On the face of it, doing just those two things can sound so easy, but it’s sort of like saying that if you want to stay strong and healthy you have to eat right and get regular exercise. Everybody knows that already, but it’s still a constant battle to learn the lesson and make it stick. So many people have a hard time taking care of their health because we’re constantly surrounded by all these distractions and temptations. It’s way too easy to grab lunch at a fast food joint, or add pop and a bag of chips to your lunch. And why not have a cookie for dessert while you’re at it, right? Then instead of wanting to hit the gym and work off those calories, you feel like taking a nap or heading out for happy hour with friends. Before you know it you find that another day, another week, another month has gone and you’re even heavier and more tired and more out of shape than before.

It’s all about habits, energy, and focus.

So, the first thing is you have to write every day. Yes, seven days a week and 365 days a year. It’s what Patterson does. It’s what Stephen King has been doing for forty years. So, if you don’t believe it’s as simple as that or don’t think being prolific is the key, just look at the number of books those guys have written over the past few decades. It’s insane, but it’s also totally possible if you commit to it and get your work done. That probably means getting up early so you can get your work in before you have to show up at the office or the shop or wherever you work. And when you’re working you need to stay focused on your projects. You can’t let yourself get distracted by social media or checking your email or reading the news. You need to get your writing done. As you start to work on your daily habit, it’s also very beneficial to set a word count total for each day. If you can only swing a half-hour a day to begin with, then maybe you keep things modest at 500 words. If you can do an hour or more, then you should be writing at least 1000 words a day. In fact, writing a 1000 words a day is probably the optimal place to start. On the one hand, it’s a manageable block of writing both in terms of output and fleshing out a single scene. On the other hand, it’s going to feel like a bit of a stretch when you’re first getting started with your daily writing. It will build your writing muscles and improve your creative stamina.

Once you can do 1000 words a day without too much work, then you know you can set longer term goals. For example, you can think seriously about writing a novel. The average popular novel is 60,000-80,000 words. If you’re routinely writing 1000 words a day then you can feel confident that you’ll be able to crank out a first draft in just two or three months. If you have an outline. Otherwise, you’re going to have to reverse outline the first draft and see if the overall story arc works. Save yourself the extra work. And save your beta readers the grief of fumbling for the words to explain why your novel doesn’t quite hand together. Do an outline first. Not only that, but share the outline with a few trusted fellow writers or avid readers and see what they think of the storyline. Yes, this can feel like you’re spoiling the surprise, but there’s no way around this process. Besides, with all the novels and movies that have been written, do you really think that you’re going to come up with something that’s so revolutionary that your readers haven’t seen a variation on it before? Seriously? I mean, there’s a reason that somebody was able to write a massive scholarly tome about the seven plots that comprise the entire history of world literature. Humans are storytellers and we love telling variations on the same stories over and over again.

The second thing is writing accessible prose. If you want to publish commercial fiction, if you want to break out on the best seller list and actually make better than hobby money from your writing, then you absolutely have to write things that people want to read. It’s not about pandering or aiming at the lowest common denominator. Yes, these books are maybe not “high literature.” They’re beach books or airport books or grocery store books or whatever you want to call them. But what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with providing people with books they actually enjoy reading? Doesn’t every author want to capture a reader’s attention, fire her imagination, hold her in suspense, make her miss her bus stop or stay up past her bedtime so she can read just one more chapter? To do this, you have to focus first and foremost on readability. You can’t get all fancy and erudite. You can’t be worried about impressing readers with your massive intelligence or your impressive education or your giant vocabulary. Save the big fancy words for when you want to beat your family at Scrabble. You have to tell a story that people want to hear and you have to do it in language that comes alive but that is also simple enough that the reader forgets about the author and the book. The reader has to fall into the world of the novel so that the pages turn themselves. Get rid of anything that gets in the way of that magical experience of the outside world melting away while the reader is lost in your book. Those are the books that people love. They’re the books that people tell their friends about. And they’re the books that make people eager to find more by that author. In one of his interviews, Patterson says books like this, truly engaging page-turners, are rarer than most authors realize.

As someone who starts reading way more books than he actually finishes, I think Patterson is absolutely right.

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