I’m frequently asked to give the ‘insider secrets’ of how to write a bestseller.
Sadly, most writers searching for an answer to this question are baffled by the vast amount of conflicting information on the internet. But one person I know with a very clear view is HarperCollins publishing editor Jane Johnson.
Apart from being a successful historical novelist , Jane is UK editor for the George R.R. Martin series A Song Of Ice And Fire which was made into the TV series Game of Thrones. She also published the J.R.R. Tolkien books during the 1980s and 1990s and worked on the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. I was very fortunate to have her as the editor and driving force for my bestselling ‘Merlin’ book.
I caught up with Jane this week and asked if she would give some ‘insider’ insights for writers.
“Jane, as the editor for famous authors such as George R.R. Martin, and as an established author yourself, can you give three tips for writers that will inspire them, and set them on the road to success?”
Here’s what she had to say:
1. Write with a fire in your heart…
“First and foremost write the book you want to write, not the one you – or others – think will sell. You’re going to be working on this project for a LONG time, believe me, so you’d better love it. Write with a fire in your heart and you’ll create something special, something readers will want to read.
There may be all sorts of received wisdom out there about ‘what agents are looking for’ or ‘what publishers want’ or ‘what’s selling’ but who wants a second-rate copy of someone else’s idea? Write something unique to you and it will stand out from the crowd.”
2. Authenticity is key…
“Readers need to trust an author in order to be carried along by the story without tripping over obstacles that are sticking up out of the path. If a reader is struck by a detail they sense is out of place or incorrect they will thrown out of the narrative quicker than a blink and you may never get them back again.
I’m not saying ‘write what you know’ or heaven knows there would be a lot of very dull books out there: but make sure that when you have the idea for your story formed in your head you do your research.
Go to the places you’re setting your narrative in, eat the food, see the sights, ride the camels, and imagine, imagine, imagine your characters in these places and situations. Then you can bring the world to life and readers can see through your eyes the vistas you’re describing, smell the spices in the market, hear the crickets chirring at sunset. You don’t want to overload their senses, but a single telling detail that encapsulates a moment your character is immersed in can do the work of 1000 words.”
3. Your words should be a transparent window for the reader to look through, not a fireworks display or an obstacle course.
“Research is crucial. Talk to the experts, read the source material, become the world’s greatest expert on the subject, and then bury your research deep! No fiction reader wants to read an academic history book or a forensic science manual: readers want to be transported and entertained. Your depth of knowledge is the sea on which your characters sail; but all the work should be going on beneath the water — like swans’ feet — while the story proceeds smoothly and swiftly across the surface.
And when you’ve finished your first draft go back through your text and cut, cut, cut. There’s not a single first draft in the world that wouldn’t benefit from editing: aim to cut at least 10% of your original text. Be ruthless! Cut those flowery phrases and the self-indulgent imagery. Your words should be a transparent window for the reader to look through, not a fireworks display or an obstacle course.”
A Great Example Of These Tips In Action:
What Jane failed to mention is that her own new book ‘The Sultan’s Wife’, is actually a breath-taking example of all three of these tips in action.
Her exotic historical novel is set in the courts of the Sultan of Morocco and Charles II in 1677, and features a fascinating central slave character, Nus-Nus. Most fictional characters gradually disappear from the mind after a few months. But Nus-Nus has stayed with me, and my hope is that Jane will bring him back again.
The story is fragrant, bejewelled and full of murder, intrigue, poisonings, deadly conspiracies and romance. But while it offers beautiful writing craft and a page-turning narrative, it’s the depth of authenticity that enthrals, demonstrating the power of drawing on personal experience.
In fact it’s clear to me that Jane not only adores her subject material but has lovingly researched it. She is married to a Berber Tribesman and knows Morocco well, and even rode camel trains across the Sahara to experience the rhythms of daily life in the desert.
As I read, I could smell the fragrances, hear the clamour of the markets, feel the immensity of the desert and amidst it all, the tenderness of love.
Jane and Abdel – Sahara Desert
I’d like to say thank you to Jane for taking the time out of her busy schedule to share her insights. You can read more about Jane and ‘The Sultan’s Wife’ on her website. The book is also available on Amazon with the first few pages available to read for free. (See the ‘click to look inside’ feature.)
What do you think? Do you agree with Jane? Are you writing the book you should be? Do leave a comment below.
Article written by Jonathan Gunson
Author / CEO Bestseller Labs
Notice: This article is copyrighted material. Reproduction of brief snippets of this article with a link to this site are permitted, but it may not be reproduced in full anywhere without the written permission of Jonathan Gunson at BestsellerLabs.com