There are only so many tricks to help you sell more books. You can have a blurb that’s to die for, a cover that wins the monthly Book Designer award, and a website with a ridiculous email signup rate, but when you’ve reached the pinnacle of marketing prowess, the only way to improve your book sales is to write better books.
When you write fiction, improving your craft as you go is the equivalent of continuing education as a teacher or doctor. Writing more words over time will help you to improve, but finding specific ways to hone your craft will get you there faster.
When a voracious reader finds your well-written book, particularly as the first chapter in a multi-part series, that reader will latch onto your books for the rest of time. It’s up to you to make sure that your first book has engaging prose that keeps the pages turning.
Here are three writing changes you can apply immediately that will help your fiction to flourish:
1. Write Sentences With Suspense
Most of us learned how to write a proper sentence back in middle school or high school. You probably studied your subjects, predicates, and punctuation marks until you were blue in the face. These well-meaning English teachers taught us how to make a sentence grammatically correct, but they didn’t show us how to make it interesting.
K.M. Weiland of Helping Writers Become Authors said that most storytellers have been writing sentences wrong all their lives. When you take a sentence for granted, you miss out on the opportunity to hook, guide, and fulfill readers.
One solution to the problem is writing periodic sentences. A periodic sentence, which author Robert McKee called the “suspense sentence,” places emphasis right at the end. The first half of sentences should entice readers to keep reading, while the second half should serve as the payoff.
Take a look at these examples:
His book sales increased to 100 copies daily after four months of spending three hours a day on his craft.
In the last four months, after spending three hours a day on his craft, his book sales increased to 100 copies per day.
In the first example, the emphasis is on the time this writer spent working on his craft. In the second, we get the payoff of what happened as a result of his hard work. If you want readers to zip through your books and ask for more, then you should make the fundamental building blocks of your writing much more suspenseful.
2. Show Character Emotion
Countless books and articles on craft will tell you that you need to “show, not tell.” The phrase has been repeated so often that it no longer seems to have any meaning. Trying to apply vague advice won’t get you very far with your writing.
A simple way to add more “show” to your prose is to demonstrate character emotions through nonverbal cues. In their book The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi said that readers aren’t interested in being told how characters feel; they want to experience the emotion themselves. Ackerman and Puglisi found that in addition to using dialogue, authors could use physical signals, mental responses, and internal sensations to convey emotion on the page.
Use your powers of observation as a writer, both internally and externally, to determine how your characters nonverbally express their emotions. Here are two examples:
There was a loud clang in the other room. Patricia was as scared as she’d ever been.
“Honey, is that you?” Her voice was sad and afraid.
There was a loud clang in the other room. Patricia held her breath. She attempted to speak, but her throat started to close up. She swallowed hard.
“Honey, is that you?” Her voice was a shrill whisper through the hallway.
Example one tells the reader how to feel. Example two gives the reader a chance to experience the emotions on his or her own. Trust your readers to understand these nonverbal cues, and they’ll find themselves riveted until the book’s final page.
3. Make Setting Tell The Story
For many authors, setting is nothing but a string of adjectives they add in to flesh out a second draft. They’ve been told that setting is important, but nobody ever told them that setting could be the lynchpin for developing their characters.
USA Today Bestselling Author Mary Buckham said in her book Writing Active Setting that setting can show characterization, create the world of your story, affect pacing, show conflict, change tension, explore emotion, and much more. While setting can orient readers to the time, place, and social context of a story, it can also demonstrate a rich point of view for your characters.
When you have multiple characters in your story, it’s important to remember that each one will experience the world you’ve created in a different way. Buckham gives the example of how a typical 30-something housewife would observe the view from a city rooftop much differently than a discharged military sniper. While the former sees playing children and SUVs, the latter sees escape routes and potential threats.
Here are two examples:
Eric walked down the dark alleyway. When he got to the other side, he opened the front door to the diner.
Eric’s shoulders relaxed as he entered the space between the two buildings. He didn’t mind the rotten pumpkin beside the half-open dumpster or the droplets from above of water mixed with god knows what. For a moment or two, he could hide from this city, and that was worth the stench. He took a deep breath as he reentered civilization and sunlight, yanking open the door to the diner before slamming it shut behind him.
We know a great deal more about Eric in the second example. While the first one gets us from point A to point B, the second one uses setting as part of the story. Readers tend to put a book down when it gets boring. Tying setting in with characterization keeps your readers going.
Better Books Are More Marketable
Marketing on its own won’t necessarily make your book a bestseller. Neither will writing the most compelling book in the world. When you combine effective marketing with strong writing, however, you significantly increase your chances of selling more books. These three tips will change your writing overnight, but you’ll need to put in hours of work to implement them effectively.
It’s time to stop looking for the quick fix that will make you enough money to become a full-time author. The most effective “trick” remains building up a dedicated group of fans. When you employ suspenseful sentences, nonverbal emotional cues, and setting that tells a story, you’ll be much more likely to hook new readers for good.
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