What does it take to create a bestselling novel?

A woman’s hands holding an open book with the words “BEST SELLER” in large red font.

By Allison Tait.

Every author, whether aspiring or emerging or established, dreams of writing a bestseller. A book that will rocket up the sales charts, whether propelled by word of mouth or prize-winning status, dragging its writer behind it into a dream life of champagne and literary lunches.

Whether the reality of being a bestselling author quite gels with the dream or not, the ingredients that go into them are not imaginary. It takes a particular recipe to make thousands, if not millions, of readers fall in love with your book.

Fortunately, the Australian Writers’ Centre is in the habit of interrogating interviewing bestselling authors ALL the time in an attempt to extricate their secrets for you. So we’ve upended the archives to discover some of the secrets of creating a bestselling novel.

Here are insights from six authors who are bestsellers in their particular fields and genres (click the author’s name to read or hear the full interview).

An idea you love

“Just write what you want to write and write what you love. Maybe it isn't the hottest genre right now, or not what seems to be in demand at present. Write for its own sake and don’t worry about whether it's going to be published or how you’re going to find an agent or whatever.

“I still believe – and this is from the perspective of an ex-editor and an ex-agent as well as an author myself – the best books are always the ones where the people just wrote what they wanted to write and then try to work out what to do with it as opposed to the other way around.”

Garth Nix, fantasy, latest novel Terciel & Elinor

A captivating character

“People associate crime fiction, detective-based crime fiction, and thrillers with plot. They are very plot-based because you want lots of mystery and drama and plot twists and surprises and puzzles to solve – but characters are what people fall in love with. In a discussion about thrillers, people always say, ‘Oh, I love Jack Reacher’.”

L. A. Larkin, crime and thriller, latest novel The Safe Place

Think of your book as a piece of art

“I think it's really important that, no matter what, you stay true to your craft. And I think that writing is very artistic – it's an artform. You're painting a beautiful canvas of a story. You want the book to sell, but you need to focus on your craft, and you need to take the time to get to know your characters.

“Think about the book as a piece of art versus a money maker.”

Deborah Rodriguez, commercial fiction, latest novel The Moroccan Daughter

Author Deborah Rodriguez with her book ‘The Moroccan Daughter’ and a quote about writing as an artform.

The right tools

“The books I write have dual timelines – plus each timeline has a main plot and a secondary love story subplot that I like to keep track of. I use Scrivener’s label feature to do this so I can see at a glance how often I’m alternating between timelines, and also between subplot and main plot within each timeline.

“This means I can quickly tell if one timeline has gone on for too long, or if I’ve forgotten the subplot entirely, or any of the other pacing problems that might occur when juggling multiple story strands.”

Natasha Lester, historical fiction, latest novel The Riviera House

Rewriting

“Understand that you will write and that you will rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. And that is okay. That's not a bad thing – that's a good thing because it's just going to get better and better.

“I used to be really lazy, and, I think, quite arrogant, and think I could just bang it out in a couple of drafts… I've now learnt to read my work really critically and say, ‘Does this feel like it's holding together and making sense of all of the things I want it to make sense of?’

“I can be quite critical and honest with myself and keep rewriting [until it’s right].”

 Nova Weetman, children’s fiction, latest novel Elsewhere Girls (with Emily Gale)

Put it out there

“Publishing a book is a really weird thing because to write a book you have to spend a lot of time by yourself – it’s quite an introverted activity. And, then you put your name on the front cover and you put it out there to be evaluated, reviewed, or worse, ignored.

“To my mind a lot of people who write a book fit the first part of that – they’re quite introverted. And, so it can be a bit of a warm blanket to say, ‘I’ll revise it one more time.’ Because to take that step to the extroverted side of it, of putting your name on a book and literally sticking your neck out there, that’s a big step.

“But at some point you have to say, ‘This is the best I can do” and put it out there.’

“And, yes, you need a bit of a brass neck. I’ve had reviewers say that [my novel] Scarecrow had less literary merit than a shopping docket. I get people on Amazon.com who hate my guts. It’s going to happen.

“But, you also get those wonderful emails from people who say, ‘I’ve never read a full book before, but then I read Ice Station or Hell Island and now I read all sorts of books.’

“So, get [your work] to a point where you’re satisfied you’ve done the best thing you can do, and then put it out there.

“Then, start thinking about what’s next for you.”

 Matthew Reilly, thrillers, latest novel The One Impossible Labyrinth


 

Author Allison Tait smiling

Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, Al is currently working on a new piece of art (aka novel). Find out more about her at allisontait.com.

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