Do you worry every time you sit at the keyboard that your story—or your storytelling ability—won’t be good enough to succeed?
Even after penning the Left Behind series, which has sold over 60 million copies worldwide and continues to sell 21 years since the first title was released, I still have to stare down the fear every time I write a new book.
Why admit this?
Because I’m living proof that you can succeed in this game even if you’re afraid of failure. In fact, I believe fear of failure is a good motivator and should be embraced.
I’m going to suggest three possible reasons why the Left Behind series became a phenomenon, so stay with me.
But first, let me answer a question many writers ask me: “How do you write a bestseller?”
The reason writers ask that, I think, is because they believe such success would put to rest their fears forever. It won’t.
I’m grateful that it doesn’t. Humility is the most valuable piece of equipment on our writer’s tool belt.
Don’t Get Me Wrong
By now you should know that I will never promise a magic potion, a silver bullet, or whatever metaphor you want to use to guarantee overnight success.
If there were a surefire formula for monster bestsellers, 1—I’d have used it a lot earlier in my career, and 2—I would duplicate it every year.
There Are, However, Three Secrets…
…that, upon reflection, proved crucial to the success of Left Behind.
1. Write from your passion
If you take nothing else from this post, get this: I did not set out to write a bestseller, and I never do.
If I had, I would have been tempted to follow all the current conventions, scour the competition, decide what kind of hero and villain work best, what kinds of scenarios, what to be sure to include or exclude, etc.
That’s a fool’s game. Fads, by definition, come and go. And if you’re trying to capitalize on one, it’s likely to be yesterday’s news by the time your book releases.
I wrote from my heart about something deeply important to me and which I earnestly wanted to share with as many people as possible. That compelled me to care about every word.
Hint: Be careful, if your novel is message-heavy, that it does not become sermonic. The story must do all the work, and if it does, the reader will get your point.
2. Engage the theater of the reader’s mind
Ever wonder why so many say, “The book was better than the movie”? It’s because not even Hollywood—with all the CGI techniques at its fingertips—can compete with human imagination.
If you can get your reader to see your story in his mind’s eye, you’ll keep him turning the pages to the end.
Hint: That doesn’t mean describing everything in detail. You’re stimulating the theater of the mind, not doing its job.
See if you can describe an orbital character with one word: knuckly, oily, dour, peckish, dismissive, haughty… and allow your reader to see that person any way they wish.
The larger the role a character plays in your story, the more you can say about what he looks like. But still, refrain from spelling out every detail so you leave to your reader the fun of filling in the blanks with his own imagination.
From Left Behind:
Ritz was tall and lean with a weathered face and a shock of salt-and-pepper hair…
Notice that I don’t:
- Describe how tall or how lean
- Say anything about his teeth
- Tell the color of his eyes
- Reveal his age
Each reader can see this character any way they wish, and why not?
3. Make description part of the action
Nothing stops a story dead in its tracks like a long passage of description.
If you’re poetically brilliant like Rick Bragg (All Over but the Shoutin’) or Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain), fine. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.
But the rest of us mere humans need to pull our readers into every scene without intruding and making them aware of our writing.
Rather than stopping to change gears and trying to paint a word picture of the setting before describing what happens there, make it part of the narrative flow, like this (from Left Behind):
One of my main characters, Buck Williams, is desperate to get out of O’Hare Airport in Chicago in the midst of a disaster. A young woman behind the counter at an airline club lounge tells him…
“The livery companies have gotten together and moved their communications center out to a median strip near the Mannheim Road interchange.”
“Just outside the airport. There’s no traffic coming into the terminals anyway. Total gridlock. But if you can walk as far as that interchange, supposedly you’ll find all those guys with walkie-talkies trying to get limos in and out from there.”
“I can imagine the prices.”
“No, you probably can’t.”
“I can imagine the wait.”
“Like standing in line for a rental car in Orlando,” she said.
Buck had never done that, but he could imagine that, too. And she was right. After he had hiked, with the crowd, to the Mannheim interchange, he found a mob surrounding the dispatchers…
Keep these three storytelling secrets in mind as you write, and you’ll pull your reader in like never before.
Which of these can you inject into your work-in-progress this week? Tell me in Comments below.