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The ten commandments of writing a bestseller

Every piece of writing is a story, whether it is a gripping report of a daring crime in a newspaper or the birth, rise and tragic demise of the Titanic. Our culture, civilisation and events are all communicated in the form of stories and, in our society, the best storyteller wins.

Regardless of whether your chosen genre is fiction, a biography, or the dramatic ebb and flow of war, as an author you have to hold your readers enthralled and wanting to read more. This formula works for all successful authors, from the leading literary conjurors J.K. Rowling and Tolkien to the ‘kiss and tell’ raconteurs like E.L. James or Jilly Cooper.

For those who are curious, we reveal the ten commandments of successful writing which, if followed and well marketed lead on to literal glory.

The First commandment of good writing - Engage all the senses

Book readers have an amazing ability to visualise words and project them within their minds. Who did what to whom, and what happened when and where are, of course, the basic anatomy of a book, but they don’t necessarily bring it to life. The why and how are also important - they enable the reader to identify with the thoughts and feelings of the principal characters. For instance, this can be achieved by granting the reader access to the emotional processes of the heroine or by enticing the reader to deduce the sinister motives of the villain through detailed descriptions of his behaviour and demeanour. It is this attention to essential detail which creates a rich and absorbing tapestry. Even the tiniest clue may turn out to be the key to the entire plot.

The Second commandment – Be irrational

Humans are not computers. Being human, we are prone to behave irrationally from time to time (not that computers don’t...) It is this very departure from conventional conformity which leads to intrigue and adventure. After all, if everything went according to expectations, there would be no story… without crimes of passion, spontaneous affairs, or fatal flaws in a plan, there would not be tales of the unexpected. If every game of sport went according to form, and every discovery to the school valedictorian, then there would be no underdog, no dark horse, and no euphoric triumph over the odds. People have a spectrum of foibles and frailties, from brooding rivalries to unexpected jealousies, and these drive the narrative of a good plot, just as unanticipated sacrifice and heroic selflessness can help to raise one. Every great hero is flawed, just as every great villain has a weakness.

The Third commandment – Be bold with your ideas

Every book has a magical secret – it is a confidential dialogue between the author and the reader. Even if others might know what book you’re reading, they don’t know what page you’re on, what you’re thinking, or what images are conjured within your imagination. This private dialogue is just that and, as an author, you can therefore say and introduce brave or revolutionary thoughts that your readers simply wouldn’t feel comfortable viewing on a screen in front of strangers or loved ones. We feel embarrassed when we watch contentious or erotic material with others, as they know what we are visualising and can read our tell-tale emotions through the expressions on our faces. In an increasingly less private and more judgemental world, an author can dare to introduce bold ideas and themes that no one would dare to watch on a screen.

The Fourth Commandment – Thou shalt not dumb down

The greatest literary works in history have only been read by a tiny minority. Take, for example, ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho (published in 1988), which sold over 150 million copies. This figure, however substantial, still represents less than 0.02% of the ten billion people who have lived since it was published (and it has been translated into most languages). Thus, by reason, any given book only appeals to a niche audience. Given that most readers have vivid imaginations, substantial vocabularies, and the ability to deduce the meaning of unfamiliar words, there is simply no point in simplifying your writing. After all, if they didn’t have such literary capabilities, they wouldn’t be such avid readers. If a given book sells one hundred thousand copies it is considered to be a bestseller - and that is only 0.25% of the world’s English speaking population. Thus the small proportion of the population who will be drawn to your literary genre are likely to be interested, knowledgeable and educated in your subject matter. The last thing you will want to do is to patronise them by dumbing down your language or narrative.

The Fifth Commandment – Be true to your subject matter

It is important to research your subject matter, even if you are writing an entirely fictional story. A sci-fi buff is unlikely to be impressed by a Space Odyssey which ignores the fundamental laws of physics, just as a love story which is set during a specific period of history must be faithful to the spirit of the age. Remember that a book is the literal expression of your ideas, and does not need to adhere strictly to the rules of public decency or observe every social nicety. Sometimes as an author you have to ‘get down and dirty’ with your subject matter, even if this entails the use of graphic or colloquial terms, uncomfortable topics, or the long extinct expressions of a bygone era. Above all, don’t treat your readers as imbeciles. If they need to look something up they probably will…

The Sixth Commandment – Be economical with the truth

It is important to leave something to the imagination. Many celebrities would doubtless be less attractive to their fans if their curtains remained open when they were not performing. Equally, only such details as are necessary for the flow of the narrative should be included, and all extraneous material should not be permitted to cloud the plot. Sometimes detail is essential to explain a plot device or to describe a character, but usually it is a needless and tiresome distraction to the flow of the story.

The Seventh Commandment – The importance of light relief

Even a gripping yarn needs a comedic interlude to provide the reader with welcome respite. Many of the greatest writers used comedic moments and comic scenes to periodically relieve the tension as the plot developed. Shakespeare was especially masterful in this art, and several modern writers are renowned for their use of wry humour. There is always an opportunity to introduce a bizarre, yet credible incongruity into the storyline; for instance, a masculine character being propositioned by a drag queen, or a leading lady in a white blouse being mistaken for a common waitress in a restaurant. Imagine the Chairman of the Federal Reserve having her card declined at the local store or an attorney who publically busted the vice rings of New York being arrested in a hotel with a call girl. Irony and poetic justice are powerful arrows in the literary quiver.

The Eight Commandment – We go to the theatre to laugh and cry

There is only one way to ensure that a reader has fallen for a character, hook, line and sinker, and that is to make them cry at their tragic misfortune or demise. Give your character uncommon nobility, a set of values or sentiment which lifts them above the base, selfish instincts of mankind. Martin Luther King had a dream and died for it, just as every noble captain goes down with his ship.

The Ninth Commandment – Write in technicolour

As you write, visualise the vivid scene, its atmosphere, the weather, and those all important details surrounding the key characters. Their expressions, mannerisms - whether they are well-dressed or dishevelled – these minutiae all matter when it comes to creating the scene that underpins the dialogue. It is not just what the characters say, but the way they say it, and the same applies to words as actions. Whether a character kisses a girl with shallow breaths, his hands trembling with fear and apprehension, or boldly and confidently kisses her, lifting her off her feet in triumph, matters. A kiss is not just a kiss - it is the very language of love…

The Tenth Commandment – Leave them wanting more

There should be a tinge of regret and a sense of elation when a reader finally finishes a book. It should be immensely satisfying - like the end of a magical holiday - but there should be a bitter-sweet sensation and a hopeful longing for more…

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