How to Form Your Bestseller in 10 Days

by James Scott Bell

It is my great pleasure today to do my part to bring us closer to a modicum of peace between two vexatious parties. No, not those parties. I’m talking about the Hatfields and Mc…wait, I mean the plotters and the pantsers. For I am about to offer a systematic approach to beginning a novel that has the potential to do what we all aim for—sell like dang hotcakes!

Yet I know how the word system immediately sets the various hairs on the back of an “intuitive” writer’s neck into a frenzy of fuzzy disequilibrium. Allow me to calm those hairs down. Because what I am proposing is in fact just another form of play and discovery, the very thing you love to do most.

Further, this system will open up vast new meadows for your imagination to frolic in, providing even more freedom than you currently experience. Because when you just start writing a story, you have already committed to things like character, setting, and situation. Yes, you now explore and “discover” as you write, but only within the confines you set up at the start.

This system will give you an infinite variety of story worlds to play with up front, so you can choose the one that gives the most float to your boat.

To my plotting friends, this system will push you to more wild creativity than perhaps you are used to. This will help you avoid one of the traps of militant outlining—making “same old, same old” choices.

So now let us say you have typed The End on your latest book…or have determined you really want to produce a first novel…and you wake up the next day, make the coffee, and set out on the journey. Give yourself 10 days.

Day 1. Grabber Idea

Make it your practice to spend some time each week in pure creativity exercises. Two of my favorites are What if? and the First-Line Game.

Train your mind to look at the world, the news, billboards, people walking on the street—and ask, “What if?” What if that elderly man at the bus stop is a serial killer on the run? What if that Bonobo chimp trying to communicate is the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler?

Collect them all, without judgment, for later review.

Write opening lines that are irresistible, without worrying about the story to follow. Collect these, too.

So, on Day 1, take out your list and see which ideas grab you most. Pick several and give them some play time. Begin to feel for the idea that most wants you to tell it.

I did the first-line game once and wrote: “Your son is alive.” I had no idea who said it or what it meant. But it wouldn’t let me go, so I wrote the novel Your Son is Alive.

Select your idea.

And there was evening and morning, the first day.

Day 2. White-Hot Document

Begin what I call a “white-hot document.” I got this idea from the great writing teacher Dwight Swain. You just begin a free-form doc writing anything that comes to mind about your idea. You follow tangents wherever they lead—plot ideas, character ideas, scene possibilities.

Talk to yourself—what is your idea trying to tell you? What is the deep tissue of the idea?

Keep writing and do not edit.

Sleep on it.

Day 3. Edit and Annotate

Look at your white-hot document. Start highlighting the parts that seem most promising. Add more ideas and possibilities.

Sleep on it.

Day 4. Edit and Annotate Again

You know the drill.

Day 5. Main Characters

Solidify your main characters—protagonist, antagonist, primary secondary characters. You don’t need extensive biographies. What you want is the why they are in this story—motives, desires, secrets

Day 6. Sell the Sizzle

All play and no work makes Jack a dull writer. So give your left brain a rest and assess the selling potential of your idea. Focus on these questions:

  • Do you have a hero worth following? Why?
  • Is your antagonist stronger than the protagonist? In what ways?
  • Who is your audience?
  • How does your idea add something fresh to what’s been done before?

Refine and reform your concept to strengthen the above.

Day 7. Pitch

Now create a focused pitch consisting of three sentences.

  1. (Character name) is a (vocation) who (immediate goal or desire)
  2. But when (doorway of no return), (Character) is (main confrontation)
  3. Now (Character) must (main objective)

Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody Miss Gulch.

But when a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her.

Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch so the great wizard will send her back home.

Tweak your pitch. Ratchet up the stakes in each sentence. This will provide an indestructible base upon which to build your bestseller. Later, it can be the basis for your book description (“back cover copy”).

Day 8. Heart-Whamming Ending

Write out, at least in summary form, an ending that will move readers, that will have them cheering or weeping…or both. See it in the movie theater of your mind. Hear the musical score!

This doesn’t mean you’re wedded to it. But just by envisioning a killer final scene you feed your idea and juice your desire to write. It is subject to change without notice, but at least it gives you a North Star to guide your journey.

Day 9. Signpost Scenes

I plan out signpost scenes, as explained in my book Super Structure. The beauty of this is that it gives a the skeletal frame that will fully support the flesh and blood of your concept. Some of these scenes can be placeholders, to be given content later. I do, however, pay special attention to the Mirror Moment, which tells me what my novel is really about.

Day 10. Write a First Chapter That Grabs Them by the Throat

Give us an opening that has an immediate disturbance for the main character. Begin with action. Act first, explain later. Don’t bother with extensive exposition or backstory. You can dribble that in later. Do not, under any circumstances, write the parts that readers skip (h/t Elmore Leonard).

Nice going! You’re ready to write your book. An added tip: start a novel journal, a diary if you will, where you talk to yourself about your novel each day before you write. How do you feel about your story so far? You only need to take a few minutes to do this. Pay special attention to any notes sent upstairs by the Boys in the Basement.

Keep writing. Do only light editing on the previous day’s work, then plow forward. Schedules and life circumstances vary, of course. Is time a problem for you? Just remember: a page a day (250 words) is a book a year. A book a year is a prolific writer.

Once you finish your novel you move into the editing phase. But while you are there take 10 days to get your next novel ready.

Do this over and over again until you are dead. You’re a writer, after all. This is what you do.

Carpe Typem.


31 thoughts on “How to Form Your Bestseller in 10 Days

  1. I ❤️ this.

    I’m already doing a lot of it. A have a huge What If file. I think in bookends so I always see my beginnings and endings together. I had the titles for my Civil War trilogy (A Time for War, A Time for Peace, A Time for Love) before I ever started writing them.

    In my morning pages I always do a project check and if I’m stuck I pop into my imaginary bar in Key West where my writer friends hang out and they give me pointers.

    I like your idea of having a journal for each project. It’ll also give me a reason to use up these beautiful journals people give me and the ones I can’t resist buying (on sale). I have binders for each project already (I think better writing longhand out in my garden or at the beach) I but I think having a work journal for each project as well will help my quicksilver Gemini brain to focus and know exactly where I am and what I need to be doing next on each project.

    Structure is my weakness. It’s boring but I do understand like my daily to do list to keep my home and work in order it’s necessary. So I bought your book (which I’ve been reading over coffee in my garden) and I already see things I can do to make these projects better. Thank you.

    • That’s nice to hear, Cynthia. Glad I could help. The novel journal idea I picked up from Sue Grafton. She was not a plotter, and used these morning pages to help her get the book written. I use it as a way to deepen what I’m writing…what layers are underneath the surface? etc.

  2. No “frenzy of fuzzy disequilibrium” here, Jim. (grin) And I’ve done all the things you recommend. In fact, I once spent several years outlining one novel. I wanted it to be “perfect,” you see, and I thought I could somehow make it so—for everyone, I guess. An impossibility, that. What one reader finds perfect another will think sucks canal water from all 50 states.

    (As an aside and for the record, the novel I spent all that time outlining? Still not written. I knew the whole story, so I was bored at the prospect of writing it.)

    Then in early 2014, I found Heinlein’s Rules and Writing Into the Dark. I was skeptical, but I decided the only way I could prove or disprove it for myself was to set aside my fears and give it an honest try. To my surprise, it worked. What was better, the process was actually freeing. Refreshing even.

    I gave up all control. Instead, I learned to trust all that I’d learned from a lifetime of absorbing Story.

    The truth is, writers no more have to consciously think about applying various aspects of the writing craft than they have to consciously think about applying a period at the end of a sentence. They know how to tell stories. They need only to learn to trust that they know. Trust—belief in one’s self—is the key.

    Now, and for the last 67 novels and well over 200 short stories, I control nothing. I roll off the parapet into the trenches of the story and race through it with the characters, recording what happens and what they say and do. And I don’t second-guess the characters. I’m only the recorder (or as King calls himself, “the stenographer”).

    It took me awhile, but I finally realized two things:

    ▪ The characters, not I, are living the story, and
    ▪ The characters are pure. They don’t worry about depth, or structure, or words, or scenes, or setting, or the five senses, or any other part of the writing craft.

    Likewise, the characters have never heard any of the outlining-revising-rewriting-critiquing, negative, critical-mind myths that so many push. To be fair, they also have never heard of the process I advocate: following Heinlein’s Rules and writing into the dark. Characters don’t care either way about any of that. They’re too busy living their story.

    Metaphorically put, for close to 60 years I was languishing along with millions of others in a massive, deep, dark mine. As a writer and writing instructor, my choices were to repeat the same echos that were bouncing off the walls the whole time I was down there or to find a way out.

    One day I happened across Heinlein’s Rules. I was struck by their simplicity and challenged by how difficult they are to follow. But aided by a technique called “writing into the dark” and spurred by hope, I set aside my fears and took a chance on trusting myself.

    I left the critical-mind safety net myths of outlining, revision, and critiques behind. As a result, I was able to climb out of the mine.

    I was surprised to find my stories sold and were received better. And as a bonus, I hadn’t allowed my critical mind to second-guess my characters and revise the originality out of their stories. But the climb wasn’t easy. It was an accomplishment.

    All of that said, it doesn’t matter to me in any real way how anyone else writes. I wish the best for everyone, but what doesn’t directly affect my time off or my paycheck is of no consequence to me. I’m not trying to convince anyone. I’m just testifying. It would be selfish of me not to at least lower a rope into the mine so others may follow if they wish.

    Trying WITD costs nothing but a little time. If a writer tries it and can overcome the initial discomfort, a whole new world will open up. And if s/he can’t, s/he can always go back to the labor of outlining, revising, rewriting and inviting others’ critical mind input (critiques). No harm, no foul.

    Still, it’s up to individual writers to take a chance, or not, on believing in themselves. Naturally, it’s far easier to remain in their comfort zone and depend on others for the “right” way to do things. And that, too, would be fine with me if I had any say over it, which happily, I don’t.

    I have never said and would never say writing into the dark is the only way to write. But once a writer breaks through the fear, it is by far the easiest, most liberating, and most fun.

    • Point, counterpoint, Harvey. Thanks for the missive. Allow me to hit the ball back across the net.

      Of course, what I am proposing is not spending “several years” (!) trying to outline a “perfect” novel. Yeesh. I am also advocating fun and freedom, with a little bit of thought, in the process.

      The truth is, writers no more have to consciously think about applying various aspects of the writing craft than they have to consciously think about applying a period at the end of a sentence. They know how to tell stories.

      Not sure where this “truth” springs from, but in looking at hundreds and hundreds of neophyte manuscripts over the years, it’s quite clear that the overwhelming majority do NOT know how to tell stories…at least, in a way that will sell those stories to others. What they have in their head is not what they put on the page. Craft is what teaches them how to do that.

      The characters are pure. They don’t worry about depth, or structure, or words, or scenes, or setting, or the five senses, or any other part of the writing craft.

      But guess who does? Readers. The people who decide to buy, or not buy, your books. If a writer doesn’t care about these things, the readers know it, often within two or three pages.

      Naturally, it’s far easier to remain in their comfort zone and depend on others for the “right” way to do things.

      Translation: Nobody can teach you anything about the craft.

      Hmm…wonder if that applies to plumbers and surgeons and airline pilots?

      But once a writer breaks through the fear, it is by far the easiest, most liberating, and most fun.

      It’s always good for a writer to break through “fear.” But there are other ways that are liberating and fun, like discovering how to tell stories better so they actually sell…to publishers and to the public.

      Now for my second cup of coffee!

      • I will also point out that “costs nothing” isn’t totally accurate. To learn the Writing Into the Dark system, you either buy the books (which means you’re being “taught the craft”) or take the workshops, which can be pricey.
        I agree with you, JSB, that sure, you can write a book, and if ‘putting it out there’ is your goal, any process will work. But if you want people to BUY it, you have to meet their expectations for story.

        • Terry, The Writing into the Dark system is pretty much entirely laid out for free here:

          I’m pretty sure the whole book was presented on his blog. As well, but if it isn’t any time spent there = you’ll get the whole system. I own the book, mostly because having received the info for free…I felt it a good idea to support the author. Also, it’s nice to have it in one concise place and I learn better by reading than watching videos.

          I’ve learned many of my favorite authors use a form of writing into the dark as their writing process. Not because they learned it from DWS, but because they found it was a system that worked for them. And, yes, people are buying their books. (Certainly, I am.). I suspect some, if not all, of these writers do very little of what is suggested in Mr. Bell’s post. We all push the boulder up the mountainside a different way…for one, I love Dwight Swain’s writing on craft, and the white document sounds great…I’d just do it as part of the actual manuscript. Similarly, I like “the pitch” idea, as something to do after I’ve written the manuscript to help crystallize in my mind the story I’ve just written to understand how to best market it…it is a good (probably great) start for writing the book description for example. I’ve also learned from very painful experience that writing/knowing the ending does not work for me. I call it giving myself spoilers. I lose all interest in telling a story, reading a story, watching a story if I know how it ends. Again, that is just this particular writer. John Irving, who has written many novel that I have loved, claims to always start his novels by writing the last line. It obviously works for him!

      • 1. “What they have in their head is not what they put on the page. Craft is what teaches them how to do that.” Yes, that’s a definite problem. I don’t advocate not LEARNING craft with the conscious, critical mind. That’s its role. I advocate learning/absorbing, then trusting that knowledge to seep through to the subconscious, where the characters will apply it instinctively as necessary.

        2. “If a writer doesn’t care about these things, the readers know it, often within two or three pages.” I agree completely. Our only difference that I can see is in application. I’m not saying At All writers shouldn’t care about craft. I’m saying they shouldn’t think about it and apply it consciously as they’re writing. In fact, most readers (critics aside) are like the characters. They don’t consciously think about all those things. They just start reading. They want to be entertained.

        3. “Translation: Nobody can teach you anything about the craft.” Nope. That’s an erroneous translation. Again, I advocate learning the craft and doing so with the conscious, critical mind. But I also advocate that writers should trust themselves and their creative subconscious when it comes to conveying the story that the characters, not the writer, are living.

        By the way, thanks for engaging in a rational discussion. I left the comment only to provide a viable alternative for TKZ readers.

  3. The timing of this post is perfect. I’ve been working on a non-writing project the last 4+ months which has consumed my life, and when it’s over next month I want to start reclaiming some writing territory and this is an excellent way to do so.

    Although I want to take my current project and do these activities–the only thing that makes me nervous about brainstorming first lines and ideas is that I am traditionally unsuccessful at NOT hopping from one project to the next. Not a good plan when you only get a little time each week to write.

    I’m glad that under Day 6 there are more questions besides “Do you have a hero worth following?” It takes adding those other questions as well to take a good hard look at your protag–because sometimes it takes a while for them to really solidify in my mind.

    And thanks for the mention of Super Structure–time for me to revisit that one for a review on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

  4. I could relate to this post big time, Jim. About three or four years ago, a new story seed took hold. Loved the premise–it involves a subject near and dear to my heart–but I only had the bare bones. So, I mulled it over while working on other projects. Most of my ideas came at night. I’d jot them down in iPhone’s Notes section. Every night, I’d think about the story…who the lead might be, the obstacles she faced, the conflict, etc, and I’d write more notes. During the day, I kept plugging away on my projects.

    Weeks turned into months, months into years, but the story idea wouldn’t let me rest, so I made more and more notes, playing with it, adding pieces to the plot. The entire plot still wasn’t fully fleshed out, but I’d compiled a ton of notes.

    Fast-forward to May 2022. I’d completed the Grafton County Series and began to plan my next Mayhem Series book when that haunting story came out of nowhere, slapping me across the face. Why not use these characters for that story? Once I made that connection, all those notes, all that naked creativity, converged into the story I’d wanted to write for years, the words pouring out of me faster than I could type. And now, I’m racing toward the finish line (due by the end of this month). 🙂

    • What a great account, Sue! Love it. An idea that won’t let go, even for years. Yet you had all these notes. That’s like the “white-hot document” plan, only this was a “slow simmer.” Nice!

  5. When I took a workshop from David Morrell, he said he starts every project with a long conversation with himself, and writes it all out–pages and pages, writing the conversation verbatim. “Good morning, David. How are you doing today?” and takes it from there. What he’s thinking about, story ideas, relevant stuff, irrelevant stuff. When he’s stuck, he can go back and look at it.
    All of your suggestions, as always, are gold, although I can’t let go of one project until it’s finished. The best I can do is noodle ideas while my editor has my manuscript, but I have to do all my edits first. I need that book solid in my head for my editing process and there’s no room to move on to something else.

    • Yes, Terry, I like Morrell’s process, what he calls looking for the “inner ferret,” the thing that is really gnawing at you to write the book.

      As for more than one project in the mind…there are lots of writers like you who don’t want to muddy up the current WIP with thoughts of other projects. There are also those, like me, who find it refreshing to go from a WIP to something “in development” and back again. The respite lets the Boys do some Basement work.

      It’s all a mad, marvelous mix, this thing we do.

  6. Thanks for laying out this method so clearly, Jim. I have been gradually moving to this approach. I still like to line up my characters in the starting gate and point out to them where I would like them to go (in that scene). How they get there will be entirely up to them, and they may cross the finish line totally someplace else, necessitating rewriting the outline. It gives me the right-brain freedom of play and flow, and the left-brain illusion that I have a plan and am in control.

    Carpe Ludere!

  7. Thank you! Great post that I’ve bookmarked. (Yes, I have a whole webpage bookmark file called “James Scott Bell.”) I think I can use your advice to finally finish a story that’s been in my head for 15 years. Here’s a line I might use in that story. “I regret the day I found the love of my life.”

  8. This is a great “system,” Jim. I’ve used elements of it. My big breakthrough as a writer was learning story structure and outlining. The risk for me is letting the outline take too long. The same is true for the novel journal, a very valuable technique I learned both from you and David Morrell. If I’m not careful, the outlining can end up taking months, and the journals can be pretty wordy.

    In fact, the journal for my library cozy is much longer than the novel. When you include the various revision outlines, and the subsequent outlines for the new blank draft, close to twice as long. All this work did help me internalize mystery structure, but I’d say it still went too far. I like your “a few minutes a day” on the journal. The system you lay out here, really a creative process, arrives at the perfect time for several separate projects that have been percolating in the back of my mind. I can play with them in Day 1, and go from there.

    I may have asked you this question before, because spending too much time outlining has been a challenge with me, but do you have an additional tips, insights, advice etc. on cutting to the quick with outlining, and keeping it efficient and time limited?

    Thanks so much for today’s post!

    • Glad to hear it, Dale. And I quite understand the tendency to have the outlining phase take too long.

      As for tips on “cutting to the quick,” a couple of suggestions come to mind.

      First, give yourself a SID—self-imposed deadline. Set a date when you must begin writing the novel. I used to tape blank calendar pages to the door of my office, with days marked when to begin and when I wanted to be done. It helps to see that each day. At least, it helps me.

      Second, follow #10 by writing the scene after it…and the one after that. IOW, get going on the novel and let the writing itself generate forward momentum.

      I like what Dennis Palumbo says in his book Writing From the Inside Out: Every moment you spend writing is a moment spent not fretting about your writing.

  9. For the white hot document, figure out what works best for your brain. For some reason, pen on paper works best for me. It has a mental three-dimensional quality typing does not. I also use index cards for hashing out the plot and subplots.

    For the newbies here, don’t worry about doing all this in seven days, and you aren’t doing it wrong if you spend more than a week in this process. The early creation process takes what it takes, and you are writing even if you aren’t putting words on the page. A novel is like an iceberg, you only see the words on the page, not the mental work, research, etc., of the process.

    • I like both those things, too, Marilynn. Writing with pen on paper frees up a different area of the brain. (I believe our own Brother Gilstrap writes much or all of his drafts in longhand). I also like to use mind mapping in the creative phase, pen on blank sheets.

      I was trained using the index card system. Loved to lay them out on the floor and mix them around. I now do it on the Scrivener corkboard.

  10. Thanks for this post. It’s organized in a concise and useful manner.

    Finally, after spending the last several weeks incarcerated in editing & proofreading prison, I published my 4th novel. I was a strict planner/outliner until I used Debbie Burke’s concept of “discovery drafting,” which helped me break through an impasse and finish this novel.

    A couple of weeks ago, I started the next novel and have used many of your suggestions: I’ve been writing “white-hot documents” for two ideas: choosing characters, motives, and settings (I’m a big fan of atmospheric settings). Since I’m so early into this novel, I’ll try the rest of the steps you’ve included in this post.

    Toggling between two novels, even after I’ve moved to the editing stage for the first, doesn’t work out for me, though. It causes too much noise in my head and distractions to my process. However, I do keep a folder where I collect ideas for future novels, characters’ names and traits, situations, and plotlines.

  11. Late to the party today — just returned from the Killer Nashville Writers’ Conference.

    I like this list, and i’m printing it out to keep by my writing chair. The idea of the white-hot document is new to me. I have a three-ring binder for each of my novels, and I keep notes as I’m developing them, but I’ve never spent time doing free-form writing like you described. I’m going to work on that. Question: Do you think writing in long-hand is more conducive to creative thinking than typing? I’ve done a little reading on this and may do a blog post about it. (Carpe write’em?)

    Btw, I saw Reavis Wortham’s name as a finalist in one of the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award lists. Congratulations, Reavis!

    • Kay, I find typing my white hot document helps me think faster…but I do like to do mind mapping from time to time, with pen and paper, as it lets me doodle and find connections.

  12. Another platinum post, Mr. Bell!

    (I also have a Killzone File, with folders bearing all of the TKZ team’s names.) This one went into yours.


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