Margie Lawson

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Deconstructing a Bestseller

Ever wonder what it is about those bestsellers that keep readers engaged to the very last page? How those authors keep the stakes high and immediate while creating a rich, dynamic tale? Ever wonder what makes agents want to represent them? And editors want to acquire? Or maybe you’re new to a genre and trying to understand the nuances and popular tropes. We all know the business is subjective, and that there are about a million things that can go wrong when writing a novel, but there’s something we can do to give our stories the best chance for success. If you’re trying to make sense of what went wrong with your story, why it didn’t find representation or hit a big list, deconstructing bestsellers in your genres is a great way to find out. It's also a fantastic way to set up your next story and eliminate the pitfalls of many writers.

Trust me, I know all about the pitfalls. I started writing about ten years ago, and someone recommended I consider cozy mysteries, because their popularity was on the rise. ie There was room in the market for a newbie like me. The problem was I’d never heard of a cozy mystery. So, how could I write one? I needed to get up to speed fast, and I did. I’ve since published about thirty in that genre, writing series for three publishers. Assuming you already know and love your genre, you’re way ahead of where I started, and it’s definitely not too late to make your next manuscript a bestseller. Deconstructing successful novels taught me how the stories worked, and I discovered that they all come down to a loose template I can recreate for my work in progress. And you can too. This is how.

Create a Template For Success

Have you ever heard of Netgalley? It’s a website where you can make a free account and have access to information on all the upcoming titles in your genre. When you find a book that looks interesting, you request to read it, and publishers often grant access. For aspiring novelists, this is a priceless opportunity. The website allows users to sort upcoming titles by genre and publisher, which means you can target what you want to read right down to where it will be published. Some of the available titles won’t release for another six months, which means users are reading what editors bought most recently. So download and read all you can! It’s a crash course in who’s buying what right now in the industry.

Then grab a notebook. You’re a writer, so I know you have plenty of those around. If your notebooks are more for emotional support than actual use, open a file on your computer. Type a number one, then the title of the first book you’re reading for research, add the publisher if you plan to target one in particular. You might find that small presses and independently published titles handle things a bit differently than the Big Five, so that’s worth noting as well.

Now, start a new page, title it Chapter One. Make another number one for your list and add some bullet points with phrases about everything that happened in your first book’s opening chapter. Nothing too specific like: Annie was chased into a forest by a man in a ski mask. Think more generally, like: the heroine was in danger. Or maybe the hero and heroine had a meet cute. Note when the author set the scene and which details were included. Ex:

  • the location
  • season
  • weather
  • or protagonist’s problem

Write it down. And notice what isn’t there—like an explanation of everything that brought the characters to that point. Then start a new page, call it Chapter Two, and repeat.

Soon, you’ll have a list of ten or twelve books in your genre, recently purchased by the biggest publishers, and you’ll have documentation of the key elements in every chapter. Now grab a highlighter and start flagging similarities.

  • Did all ten of those books have a meet cute in chapter one?
  • A death?
  • Magic creeping through the castle?

 Not all? Did the majority? And of the ones who didn’t have the same key details in their opening chapter, did that thing eventually occur? When? I bet you’ll find it by the end of chapter three, because novels have patterns. Identifying and recreating those patterns is how you learn to write the genre you love.

If you don’t want to make a Netgalley account, there are cheat sheets just like these filling shelves at your local library. Except at the library, they’re called new releases instead of advanced reader copies. New releases will be a little older than ARCs. The time frame between a manuscript’s acquisition and the actual publication can be as long as twelve to eighteen months, sometimes longer. That will depend on the publisher’s release calendar. But, new releases are a great alternative to pre-releases, and libraries are a bookworm’s Disneyland, so you really can’t go wrong.

Apply the Template to Your Story

After you’ve read enough books for the patterns to emerge, you have to pair the research down. Consolidate. Create a single outline or framework from all the common things you found in each chapter. And that is your template. If you’ve already written your story, compare the template to your work. How does it measure up?

Have you been rejected on submissions because your pacing is off?

  • Where do the key events in your manuscript occur compared to those in your template—based on bestsellers and new releases?
  • How you can arrange what you’ve written to fit the mold?
  • What are you missing?
  • Or where did you leave the genre behind completely?

If you haven’t started writing your story yet, use the generic template you’ve created as a guide. List your chapters in a new document and fill in your own matching element. Do the newest releases from the biggest publishers in your genre showcase a meet cute on page one or by the end of the chapter? Then so should you. Do they fight their attraction for 2/3 of the story, only to kiss, hit the sheets, or confess their feelings in a feel-good chapter that precedes a massive misunderstanding in the next? Do they grow because of it and come together in the final pages following a grand gesture? Am I just describing the template for every romantic comedy? Pretty much. So, make sure yours is hitting the marks too.

Make Your Template Work for You

Whether you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, mystery or romance, deconstructing the newest and best releases in your genre is a tried-and-true strategy that helped me learn to write cozy mysteries and romantic suspense series that sell. And I’m currently practicing what I preach with the women’s fiction genre as well.

I hope you’ll give this method a try and let me know how it goes. If you’re already doing something similar, I’d love to hear that too. I want big success for all writers and more amazing novels on shelves. I can’t wait to read yours!

Teacher:

Julie Anne Lindsey

Julie Anne Lindsey is an award-winning and bestselling author of mystery and romantic suspense. She’s published more than fifty novels since her debut in 2013 and currently writes series as herself, as well as under multiple pen names, for Harlequin, Kensington, Sourcebooks and Crooked Lane Books. She is represented by Erin Niumata at Folio Lit and is the 2020 Golden Quill Award Winner for Series Romance, a double finalist (and winner) of the 2020 National Readers Choice Award for Romance Adventure, the 2019 Winner of the Daphne Du Maurier Award for Mystery & Suspense, the 2019 Stiletto Award for Romantic Suspense and the 2019 National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award for romantic suspense. When Julie's not creating new worlds or fostering the epic love of fictional characters, she can be found in Kent, Ohio, plotting murder with her shamelessly enabling friends. Learn more about Julie at julieannelindsey.com 

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