The Sales Secrets of a Blockbuster Author
Did you know that you’re poisoning your own success by spewing hatred over top-selling writers? It’s true. All around the world people wax toxic over the “garbage” on the bestseller lists. But rarely do they stop to think about the ingredients cooked into those potboilers.
Look at it from a different direction and these ingredients are more like alchemy than swill.
Take James Patterson, for example.
In no way is the man free of foibles, but he’s a good example of the kind of writer who is often smeared for achieving success. Regardless of your opinion, check out these 13 ingredients that explain his consistent position at the top of the charts.
Try a few on for size and you might just find yourself adapting his ideas — and all without selling out.
1. Think in Series
One of the best ways to grow a following and boost your sales success is to write a series. And more than once, if you can. Patterson has both the Alex Cross series and the Women’s Murder Club, for example, and it’s no mistake that he’s broadened his appeal by addressing both genders.
All his books are deliberately written in serialized format. Readers know, expect, and come to love that “oh look, another Patterson” effect. Even if the reader doesn’t go on to buy the next book, Patterson has succeeded in creating “pattern recognition.”
2. Think Like A Movie Producer
It’s hardly a secret that Patterson collaborates with other authors.
More than that, he lets them do the writing for him and then goes over their work. Some critics have pointed out that this habit has led to many errors in the books. A fault? Indisputably.
However, if you can bring consistency to your game, having books produced by someone else — but based on your ideas and outlines — is exactly how Hollywood wins the box office game.
So why not do that as an author?
Face it. Some people have ideas but don’t have the chops. Others can write beautifully, but couldn’t string a gripping plot together if their life depended on it. It’s by assembling the best of all worlds that Hollywood generates its billions.
Writers like Patterson aren’t hacks when they model this practice. They’re geniuses.
3. Write For Film
Too many writers who could succeed drown their words in “literary” pretensions. But you can’t make up for boring stories with linguistic pyrotechnics — not if you want to eat tonight.
By stripping your descriptions and dialogue to the bare minimum, you increase the chances that your readers will “see” what’s going on in your stories.
Who knows? One of them might be a movie producer.
4. Write Books That Work Well For Audio
There’s an Audiobook bubble forming and it’s not likely to burst soon — if ever. Thus, it behooves you to write books that are performable.
So go for the economy in your writing. Why use 20 sentences to express the meaning of a wry smile when “he gave a wry smile” will do?
5. Don’t Fear Stock Characters And Cliches
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once wrote that “the war against clichés is a terrible thing.” He was talking about the painter Frances Bacon, but the point applies to writers as well.
Far too many writers go out of their way to avoid clichés and stock characters. But the real alchemy isn’t in avoiding cliché. It’s in transmogrifying it. And making it new. For today’s readers.
6. Get It Going From Page One
Writing guru Sol Stein talks about turning on the engine on in the first paragraph. But if you’re like most writers, you haven’t got the keys out of your pocket until chapter three.
Writers like Patterson don’t make the reader wait for something to happen. You don’t always need to start in media res, bang in the middle of the action, but for the sake of all that is good in writing and reading, give us action! Before winter comes…
7. Use Multiple Locations
Another way to turn the engine on that many writing gurus talk about involves changing locations frequently.
In theatre, this is a mood killer because every time the curtains fall, you’ve got to restart the action. But on the page, you can use cliff hangers and effective chapter openings to propel the action forward.
So shift your scenes. A lot.
8. Open Loops At The Right Time
Along with changing locations, opening loops keeps things fresh. You just need to know when to introduce them.
What is a loop? It can be a red herring, or simply a detail that catches the reader’s attention and itches at their brain until it comes up again. Those are the moments when the reader thinks, “Oh great, now I have to know what comes next!”
Open a lot of loops.
9. Close Loops At The Right Time
Don’t let your reader think “well, that solves that” and then force them to wade through another 100 pages. Open as many loops as you can at different times in the novel but also close them all — as near to the end as possible.
And don’t fear the indeterminate ending. The ambiguity. The hanging question. It’s one of the key techniques Patterson has used for years to keep readers interested in what happens next to his hero Alex Cross.
10. Know How To Press More Than One Pleasure Button At Once
Should the reader laugh or cry? If they’re not sure, that’s probably not a bad thing, if you can pull it off. Because the problem with most stories is — they’re monotonous, one dimensional. They lack any sort of emphatic feeling.
Can you include more than one emotion in every scene? A lot depends on your genre and the nature of the scene. But here’s a tip: try including a third character who stands in for the audience and plays the devil’s advocate or otherwise lets the reader in on the game.
Their reflections on what’s going on can add an extra dimension of complexity. Tone. And emotion.
11. Use Good Titles
It’s unbelievable how many writers come up with groaner titles for their books. Probably, this is going to happen to every good author at some point, but you can mitigate the risk by keeping titles simple.
Writing a series of books also helps with pattern recognition. If your novel follows King Underdog, for example, your titles could be “Underdog Runs,” “Underdog Rules,” “Underdog Begs” etc. (And your autobiography could be titled “Growl”…)
12. Be Generous To Other Writers
One thing that sets Patterson apart is his generosity. It’s rare in the writing world to see such intense sharing with the competition. He even goes so far as donating money to struggling bookstores.
But you don’t have to be a millionaire to help out your fellow authors. Write a guest post, volunteer to give feedback, or edit and mentor young scribes. You may not see the effect at once but it can lead to rank-building sales over time.
13. Know Your Plot Conventions
Understanding exactly how to use a ghost, dilemma, crisis, decision & action, battle and a strong resolution can be tough. The good news is that you can learn the formulas as you go by practicing them. Short stories make a great start. Or even flash fiction. Then go on from there.
And the best part is that your mind produces material you can shape into the formulas of plot every night. With dreams!
In sum, there are no real secrets to writing success, except one. Don’t cuss at other people’s success. Learn from it. Put your work boots on. Study the professionals and, in time, you’ll join them. After all, that’s how every best-selling author began!