Saturday, October 11, 2014

Ten Steps to Writing a Best-Seller: Step 1 - Ordinary/Extraordinary

I have several books on the Amazon "Best-Seller" Charts at any given time, usually in the sub-category of legal thrillers. Nobody is saying these are NY Times best-sellers or USA Today best-sellers. No, I'm simply repeating what Amazon calls them.

I want to share with you what I have learned about writing best-sellers. I am going to do this because I know that lots of my readers are people with a book or two inside of them. How I wish someone had sat me down and shared with me some of the things I'm going to share with you. I can't promise great success with your writing, but I can promise that I will give you enough good direction that you will save yourself from making some of the huge mistakes in writing thrillers that I made when I was starting out. Want to give it a whirl? Please keep reading
1.Ordinary character in extraordinary situation
This is the starting point, finding a character, an ordinary Joe or Jolene, and putting him or her in an extraordinary situation. Think about the all the thrillers you have read. The good ones, like my book The Defendants always take an ordinary person to begin with, in this case a young lawyer who doesn't really know the first thing about practicing law. He's so new and wet behind the ears that every legal step he thinks he wants to take on case, he first has to run by his friend and older, experienced attorney, Quentin. This serves two purposes: first, it gives me the opportunity to show how inexperienced he is, when he has his meeting with Quentin and they discuss the defense of the young waitress while they're having coffee. They discuss a lawsuit and how and why it would be best to be filed a certain way. While this is a good scene for characterizing the young Thaddeus Murfee and his friend and mentor Quentin, it also is a top way of explaining why, legally, things are going to happen a certain way.
But even more important, Thaddeus Murfee, a common, garden variety lawyer, suddenly finds himself defending a high profile case for which he has no experience. What does this fact bring to the book? Two things: first, it engages the reader by giving him or her someone they can relate to, someone who finds himself or herself in a scary situation with only inexperience, but a good heart, to face up. The second thing this setup does is bring conflict into the book early. In this case the conflict is man against himself (his own inexperience), as well as green lawyer against legal system that's way smarter and way meaner than he ever imagined. So, we're got our setup. But what else is this setup doing for our story?
The defendant in this case is a young woman who went out for a drink with the wrong man on the wrong night. She wakes up hours later only to find she has been tattooed on her breasts with the man's name. Lots of young people go out drinking and have terrible things happen. Or at least very embarrassing things happen. Who hasn't gone out and hooked up with the wrong person and come to hate yourself for it later? Well, that's what our hero Ermeline does when she goes to Victor's office for one celebratory drink. Lots of people can relate to this character, Ermeline: again, an ordinary person (cocktail waitress) thrust into an extraordinary situation (charged with one count of murder). We are building up our conflicts with this and we are also hooking the reader by presenting another character they can relate to.
But please let me digress for one minute, then I'll conclude this Step 1.
Here's why I want to digress, to put up a red warning sign: which is this: Oftentimes I see new or inexperienced writers develop a new character like this. First, he or she is an ex-Navy SEAL. Can we relate to such a character? Really, how many of us are ex-Navy SEALS and thus can relate to such a character. We don't know if ex-SEALS feel fear like we would in a scary situation, we don't know if they kill without remorse (we would have great remorse if we had to kill, 99% of us) and we don't know how an ex-SEAL would handle this or that situation. So this is a mistake: don't give your main character super-human talents, skills, or experience. Why? No one will relate to him. It's true. Instead, give them Thaddeus Murfee, a nobody attorney in a nowhere small town with zero legal skills but a huge heart. That's why Dorothy's lion in the Wizard of Oz is a favorite: because he has heart. We can all relate to having heart because we all do. When faced with a hard situation we will always try to stand up to it and meet it. We may not want to at first, and we may hem and haw, but in the end we will give it our best shot. Which is what Thaddeus Murfee does in The Defendants
Next Step: The Sidekick. Check back for Step 2 in this Ten Step series of posts on writing a best-seller.
Now. Back to your own writing. About that main character....


Unknown said...

First. congratulations John on your bestselling series. If I can only achieve part of your success, I'll be happy. Second, thanks for the invaluable writing tips straight from the trenches of self-publishing. I hope one of your tips is on having an engaging title. I really want to know why Chase is a bad baby!

BTW, do I have to have read the prequels before I read Chase?

John Ellsworth said...

Hi and thanks for the kind words!

Lawyers and many doctors often refer to birth-injured babies as "bad babies," as in "Mrs. X got a bad baby." It's a horrible way of expressing this, but it's typical in the industry, sad to say.

Well, Chase is one of these precious ones.


John Ellsworth said...

Regarding my series:

They can be enjoyed in any order. No need to read 1 before 4.