What makes a best-seller?
No one has a definitive answer, but mine satisfies me: The reader never sees the words.
Got your attention, didn’t I? Well, the real title of this is The Psychology of Reading; What’s Going on In a Reader’s Mind, which is a goal all writers should have in mind, but that title wouldn’t have worked as well as this hook (because you imagined that your book got contracted for a movie because it was a best-seller, right? Or maybe you imagined taking bows at an author’s signing, with stacks of your books on a table in front of you, ready for a long line of people to get a signed copy?), which is the point of my article: The movie people see as they read.
I cannot remember the number of times I’ve been asked: “What makes a best-seller?” No one has a definitive answer, but mine satisfies me: The reader never sees the words.
When you’re writing fiction, what you’re doing is creating a movie in a reader’s mind. If the words make that movie flicker, or pause, or crack, or collapse, or confuse, or bore the reader, the book goes in the trash, and that’s that. But, if the words show a cohesive story wherein every part of the craft of writing is working with unnoticeable efficiency, the reader won’t be able to put it down, because the reader doesn’t want to turn the movie off.
Let me begin with the three most misused words I come across. My scenario is that Penelope has just discovered Odysseus is messing around with one of the Sirens. “You couldn’t even be discrete? Somebody even stitched me a note of the news on your dad’s funeral robe!” “What do you mean, it’s ok, you’ll make it up to me? I don’t think I’ve got another twenty years.” “Yes, sweetheart, just go a little bit further, and you’ll be right at the edge of that cliff, and I can paint the best portrait with the whole panorama . . . . Oh, what a shame. He fell off.”
The bad bogies here are: discrete, ok, and further. Discrete = a distinct part; discreet = reserved, modest, perhaps hidden. Further = mental move; farther = physical move. OK/ok = Oklahoma. Goes on an address/return address. At the least, it’s jarring, because your brain goes from reading a word to switching to initials. So, use okay. It’s smooth and easy.
One of the easiest ways of losing a reader is by writing what I call “pretzel sentences”(because that’s how they read). The technical term for that is starting sentences with an adverbial phrase. Adverbial phrases include one or more of the following bits of information: who, what, when, where, why, sometimes how:
Having decided on buying the pumpkin, she changed her mind on a whim and got a witch.
Not to be outdone, Jack noted on his essay that he’d written it twice.
And more to the point, he thought he should run away before he got caught.
Over the fence my hat he threw me to wear.
Nearing the wall, Jack found the light switch in the dark.
Dated nearly a year earlier, the notification had gotten lost in the post office and Jack never knew he’d won the lottery.
Floating as if on a cloud of good luck, Jack in delight found the chocolate fudge in the ice cream store.
Wearing a floral nightgown of red roses and yellow tulips, Joan answered the door only to see the stranger there she saw at the park earlier.
Authors tend to think that starting sentences with adverbial phrases sounds more poetic, or shows action. They think it’s a good way to break the repetition of opening every sentence with “The” or “She” or “He.” What they do is fracture a reader’s mind. A reader may think s/he knows what you showed them, but after their eyes have crossed and they’ve zoned out over too many pretzel sentences, they’ll realize they have no idea what the story is about, and down goes the book.
You can’t always avoid using adverbial phrases to open a sentence. Some rules of thumb to limit the usage, though: Don’t open sentences with words that end with “ing” or “ed.” And, ask yourself editing questions: “What is the point of this sentence?” For instance, the point of the last example is that Joan opened the door to a stranger. Or: “Do I need this info?” Is it really important that we know what color/pattern Joan’s nightgown is (perhaps, if it’s covered in red blood and gunshot residue)? I’d think it would be more important to let us know if this takes place in the morning or night—the suspense is higher if it’s nighttime. That does not mean you shouldn’t use the red roses and yellow tulips, just don’t use the description up front.
A note about The or She or He. Readers never see opening articles or pronouns. They see whatever follows “The,” (bridge collapsed with five school buses full of children on it) and whichever character is the “he” or “she” (was one of the lucky children in the fifth school bus). Pronouns are benign; it’s what the action is that the reader sees. If you’ve set your characters up as they are supposed to be, the reader will already have a clear picture of that person. When it comes time to have a single character doing a series of things it isn’t necessary to repeat the name in the action paragraphs.
For instance, let’s assume Joan had polished her nails, combed her hair, and fluffed the pillows before she heard the doorbell ring. The readers have watched Joan do all these things; they’ve got her front and center in their minds. It pauses your movie (in the readers’ minds) if you throw in “Joan heard the doorbell ring and stopped fluffing the pillows.” The reader has to stop and picture Joan in their heads because you’ve made her name important. It’s not a long pause, but it is unnecessary and creates a flicker in the movie. There are many times an author uses 4-5-6 paragraphs of action and tries to intersperse “she” and “Joan” to break up what is perceived as the monotony of “she.” It is not necessary to mention her name until another character comes on scene.
Which brings me to taglines (he said, she said). You only need them when there are three or more people in a conversation once you’ve ID’d who the first two speakers are. As a general rule of thumb, “said” and “asked” (and please, always use “asked” after a question mark) are all the verbs of saying you need, because, like pronouns, readers don’t see them. When authors get fancy with the taglines: he whispered, he sneered, he choked, he cried out, he exclaimed, he yelled, he opined, he whined, the reader has to “see” all those expressions or “feel” all those emotions. The reader has to pause, think, move on. Pause, think, move on. Pause, think, move on. And what they are missing is the actual dialogue, which should show what’s going on inside the character, or make the question clear, etc. “Blast you, Jack, for being such an SOB.” is not enhanced a bit by “she said in a shrill voice.” Now the reader has to go back and reread the sentence, adding a shrill sound to it.
Some writers might think that sentence needs an exclamation point. No. Don’t get exclamation-point happy. The book begins to sound frenetic and the reader gets tired of being on a high edge all the time in anticipation of the next bit of excitement as personified by the exclamation point.
A bit about realistic dialogue and characters’ names: How often do you repeat a friend’s or enemy’s name in a conversation? “Good morning, Jack. How are you today, Jack?” “Oh, I’m fine, Joan. Where will you be going today, Joan?” “Well, Jack, I thought I’d like to go to the store.” “That sounds good, Joan; I’d like to go with you.” Even worse, reversing the sentence. “Joan, I like that perfume.” “Joan, come on, we’ll be late.” You talk to your dog like that, right? “Max! Snoopy! Rin-Tin-Tin! Heel! Get down! Come!” This style does indeed avoid your having to use taglines, but it also sends your reader into orbit, wondering what kind of idiot you take him or her for. You think they can’t figure out who’s talking? Really? Down goes the book.
Have you ever had a thought that anyone else has heard? No? Then why do you put in the phrase, “I thought to myself”? Or “He thought to himself.” “She thought to herself.” Who, in fact, can anyone think to? Excise that phraseology from your thoughts.
Ly adverbs are the deadliest killer there is in a book, or maybe the second deadliest killer, right below starting sentences with adverbial phrases. They are “tell” words, they are lazy words, they are smudge words, not action words, and your readers are going to drown in the goo of them, not get all on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next ly adverb that describes your verb of action. Some of the worst: absolutely, actually, additionally, apparently, barely, briefly, carefully, clearly, completely, constantly, definitely, eventually, exactly, finally, gently, hopefully, immediately, likely, literally, lovely, lovingly, normally, obviously, painfully, peacefully, perfectly, quietly, quickly, really, sincerely, simply, slightly, slowly, softly, suddenly, sweetly, totally, typically, ultimately, unfortunately . . . .
Which of these sentences would more likely keep you in your seat while reading this action/adventure book? “He limped painfully to the bolted door.” Or: “White-hot bolts of searing pain shocked his brain and sliced his shattered knee with every step he took to reach the bolted door.”
Ly adverbs tend to cluster, too, and are repeated ad nauseam. I edited a 90,000-word book not long ago that had a skosh more than 2000 ly adverbs—two percent of the story. Way too many.
It is not surprising that ly adverbs show up in taglines all the time, often leaving your readers’ brains hanging over a cliff, wondering what? what? what? when you’re thinking you’ve just succeeded in showing how these characters are feeling or how they’re saying something. (Hint: You’re not. You’re driving your reader away.)
. . . he slowly said . . .
. . . she actually screamed . . .
. . . Polly said, quickly grabbing the cracker . . .
. . . Joan softly whispered, and died.
There is a nano-second’s crevasse between the ly adverb and what happened. “Quickly” doing what? the brain asks. He did what slowly? the brain wants to know. The brain always wants to know the what before the how. And so it begins to rearrange the writing so it can envision the action without exhausting itself with wasted energy on your picture . . . and there goes your movie because the brain is now drained. Bored silly, too, maybe.
Do you “reach over and get”? Do you “look over and see”? Do you “walk over and touch”? Or might you, in real life just get, see, touch? What is the point of the word “over” in those sentences? And for that matter, reach, walk, or look? Other words you don’t want your reader to muddle through: “In her blindness, [AP alert!] she reached out with both hands to feel her way along the wall in the hope of finding a door she could escape through.” I hope that most of you would agree that we feel with our hands (not noses, tongues, or feet, though we can). We have to reach out to touch something because our hands are not attached to our sides. So, we can cut the verbiage and get to the real message: “She was blind and lost. She felt along the wall, searching for a door that held a doorknob to escape.”
How many times do you use these words: big, little, small, large? No matter how few, you will have created a blur in the film. Use them a lot, and you’ve created an invisible movie because you’ve not given the reader anything to see. Be exact. Be precise. If it’s a tree you’re talking about don’t say “There was a big tree in the yard,” show the reader what it looks like: “There was a hundred-year-old live oak in our front yard. Its heavy, thick branches swept the ground clear for twelve feet around its base and when the sun was lowering, it cast a shadow over our front porch that my daddy once told me was near fifty feet away from that old girl.”
When you nod, do you think someone needs you to clarify your meaning by your adding: “I nodded my head to indicate that I was fully in agreement with what you said when you said what you said”? To nod means to say yes; no further embellishment is needed; “he nodded” is sufficient. You do need to say: “He shook his head” (with no further words) if the character is indicating no. You can’t just say “He shook.”
Think about these two sentences: “He paused briefly.” “He took a brief moment to think about it.” What might be the meaning of a pause or a moment? Both are brief, don’t you think?
Allow your readers to see what you see. Make the definitions fit the object. Water can be deep and wide; so can caves. Hills/mountains can be high or round or steep; horses are measured in hands; gold is weighed in ounces, etc. Every time you use big, little, small, or large, you’ve wasted a chance to engulf your reader in your story. They are all meaningless words. If you say that “Helen got a large pot off the shelf,” I might think it’s a planting pot for beginning tomato plants, and you mean it’s a pot to cook lobsters in. Well, true, I probably wouldn’t be that far off, but why not erase any doubt before it starts? Remove all four words from your language data base, if you can; or, failing that, go back over your manuscript when you’re done and find all the places you used them, and see if you can’t improve the sentence(s).
And now to color. Exploding, demonic, fiery, jazzy, woozy, angry, flowing, blowing loving/living color! How many black-and-white movies have you watched in recent times? So why is your book in black and white? Color is all about emotion. You can convey an emotion or a feeling (including physical) with color with fewer words than trying to explain being angry, for example. I just looked up “red” in my thesaurus, and stopped counting at sixty-one synonyms with many paragraphs of words to go. Color is a mood-maker. (They aren’t called “mood” rings for nothing.) Color me a thunderstorm in one of your character’s minds. Color me the dew on a mid-summer’s morning grass. Color me the glimpse of sunlight/moonlight on the killer’s gun (which is what kind? Don’t tell me it was a large gun). There is much you can do with color, so don’t leave it out.
And last, for all the same reasons as with color, there is smell. Smell is associated with memory, and everybody has memories. Mix it with color for all it’s worth. I can remember the smell of my tingly pink, sunburned skin after all day at the boardwalk and beach in Atlantic City. I can remember the smell of an egg that rolled under the refrigerator and went very stinky bad. Gag. And how about the smell of gas and blue-white smoke at the drag races? Or, oooh, how about singeing your hair? Icky smell. The way my sons smelled at birth; there’s nothing in the world comparable to that; I imagine it’s a little (oops) like heaven.
Best-sellers? Yes, I think they’re made up of words that no one ever sees. And if you’re on your game, words that are not there.
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