By Diane O’Connell
So many authors who come to me for guidance have dreams of writing a bestseller. And for some, that has happened. But it wasn’t by accident. I have found that the writers who have gone on to great success have all begun the writing process by following these three crucial steps:
Step One: Start with a Big Vision.
The most important step an author can take is to define what his book is about before he starts writing.
I’ve seen too many authors make the critical mistake of skipping this step. They may have a thrilling plot or compelling characters, but they haven’t decided what they want to say with their book.
I’m not talking plot or character here. I’m talking about something deeper: the ideas or themes you want to explore, such as a story of love and loss—or a big “what if” question, like, “What if dinosaurs were brought back to life?”
This is your vision—and it’s the most important step in writing your novel.
Even everyday problems can be made extraordinary and that is because the stakes are high. Rachel Joyce’s bestselling novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is about the most ordinary of characters, doing something very simple: walking to deliver a letter. Yet the stakes for him are so high, I could not put the book down. I wanted to know what happened!
Go to extremes! Think in terms of life and death, good and evil. For Harold Fry, the stakes were a lifetime of regret vs. the opportunity for redemption.
Step Two: Know Your Characters from the Inside Out.
The most successful novels have vividly drawn characters with rich inner lives, clear journeys that move the story forward, and relationships that change throughout the course of the story.
But how do you get there? By getting to know everything about your characters: their culture, their history, how they got to this place in your novel, what drives them—and then putting them through hell.
Imagine you’re a reporter. Question your character. Find his biggest strength, and his biggest weakness. Ask: What is the thing he needs to overcome internally? This is his deeper psychological need. Ultimately, this need is what will drive the plot—and what will keep the stakes high.
Step Three: Develop the Structure.
Too many authors I’ve worked with have run into trouble with their novels because they just dove right in and started writing without a plan. But a story must have a carefully thought out structure to succeed. Here’s how you do it:
Establish the current reality of your main character so your reader can get to know her.
Introduce “the happening” – an event that upsets that current reality.
From there, continually up the stakes – put obstacles in front of your characters. Don’t make life easy!
In fact, you want to make life as hard on them as you can. Include plenty of twists and turns. At some point, thrust your main character into a situation in which it seems all hope is lost—this is her moment of truth where she faces her demons.
That leads to a final conflict and a new reality in which your main character is transformed.
As you write, keep in mind that you are always writing for the reader. It’s your job as the author to write the words that will help your reader film a movie in her mind as she reads.
And that’s what makes for a bestseller.