How to Learn to Write Novels That Sell

by James Scott Bell

I love the writing craft. I love it the way Adrian Newey loves race car engines. I love popping the hood, breaking out the tools, getting greasy, figuring out ways to build better fiction.

Maybe that’s because in the early years I had to work hard to make sense of it. I was not one of these happy geniuses that has the knack from the get-go. When I made my decision to be a writer, I found instant joy in setting words on the page. The only thing was, those words were not connecting with readers. People who looked at my stuff would say things like, “It’s just not working for me.” Or, “There’s something missing.”

So I doubled down on my study of the craft. I went to my favorite used bookstore and bought an armload of Grisham, Koontz, and King, and didn’t just read them; I studied them. I marked up the pages and made notes in the margins.

Ah, I see what he’s doing here!

This makes me want to turn the page!

I really like this character.

I bought books every month from the Writer’s Digest Book Club. One was Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. The chapter on scene and sequel set off Roman candles in my head—an epiphany that I knew would change forever how I approached fiction.

I gave the next thing I wrote to one of my friendly readers, and this time he said, “Now you’ve got it.”

I felt like Orville Wright gliding over the sandy flatlands of Kitty Hawk as brother Wilbur waved his arms, shouting, “It works! It works!”

So if someone asks me what the best way is to learn how to write novels that sell, I’d put it this way:

Write a novel

I’m not being coy here. Write it the best way you know how. Don’t stop for any critiques, self or group. Finish the dang thing.

Then put it aside for three weeks. Print out a hard copy read it as if you were a busy Manhattan acquisitions editor looking at a manuscript on the subway. Have this question in the back of your mind: When am I tempted to stop reading? Mark those spots. But don’t do any editing.

When you’ve finished, make notes to yourself about the seven critical success factors of fiction as they show in your book: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, meaning. How are you in those areas? Be ruthlessly objective. A good beta reader can help. If you want to appeal to actual readers someday and convince them to part with their discretionary income, you need to know if there’s anything disrupting the fictive dream. Quite often you’re too close to the book to see it. Maybe even a lot of it. But don’t despair, because you can…

…Get better at writing novels

I got good at plot, structure and dialogue (because I’d spent a couple of years working hard to figure those areas out). I got published. Then I got a multi-book contract and had the good fortune to work with a truly great fiction editor. In his first editorial letter to me he told me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear. I groused for an hour, then resolved not to have a chip on my shoulder. I followed his advice and lo and behold my books started to pop up on bestseller lists.

So, new writer, get yourself rolling on two tracks—writing and study.

It’s NaNoWriMo month, and all over the globe writers are aiming to produce a 50k novel in 30 days. That’s pressure, especially with Thanksgiving in there. The main benefit of this exercise is seeing how many words you can write if you set your mind to it.

So figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a week, considering your life situation. Up that figure by 10% and make that your weekly goal.

That’s the writing part.

Add to that a systematic study the craft. There are craft books and courses (I modestly mention). Just as you write to a quota, study to a quota. In 35 years of wanting to do this, not a week has gone by when I haven’t thought about, read about, or made notes about the craft of writing.

Does this sound like too much work?

Does a wannabe golfer just go out and start hacking away (also known as killing gophers)? Or does he get some basic instruction and put in hours of practice?

There’s an old story about a golfer approaching a hole with a big water hazard. He wonders if he should tee up a brand new ball and risk losing it, or use one of his old balls just in case. So he tees up the old one.

A voice from the sky thunders, “Use the new ball!”

Whoa. Obediently, he tees up the new one.

The voice says, “Take a practice swing!”

He steps back and takes a practice swing.

The voice says, “Use the old ball!”

You have to practice a proper and repeatable swing, friends, otherwise you just ingrain bad habits.

Readers don’t spend money to read your bad habits.


Write a novel.

Remove all shoulder chips.


Write another novel.

Keep learning.

Write like you’re in love.

Edit like you’re in charge.

Keep writing.

Anything you want to add?

34 thoughts on “How to Learn to Write Novels That Sell

  1. “Has the painter not always gone to an art school, or at least to an established master, for instruction? And the composer, the sculptor, the architect? Then why not the writer?” –Paul Engle

      • Actually, Engle adds poets to those who should study their craft:
        “…Good poets, like good hybrid corn, are both born and made.” –Paul Engle

        He’s silent on the matter of plumbers and bomb defusers, but we can presume they, too, have established masters. Engle’s work is worth reading. (My favorite is “Burning My Childhood’s Poems.”)
        Here’s another excellent poet:

        Black Cat
        ❧It means a lot that black cat pot
        staring at me from my desk
        with lime green eyes and pricked up ears.
        Mam said it was long in years, that it
        ❧was her mother’s, she who baited
        lines and mended nets, delivered
        bairns, washed down the dead
        and could not read nor write.
        ❧I remember just a small brown face
        deep wrinkled on the bed,
        the smells of cabbage and old clothes,
        and black damp climbing up the walls.
        ❧It sits between the PC screen
        and the Buddha on the desk;
        apart from her genes it’s all I’ve got
        that old fashioned, black cat pot.
        –Harry Nicholson
        The shelf, with its cat:

  2. I 1000% agree–the best way to learn to write a novel is to write a novel. Do not stop for self or other critique–WRITE AND FINISH THE NOVEL. Then evaluate.

    I could be a poster child for what NOT to do if you want to write books, and I’d love to see new and aspiring writers save themselves a lot of heartache and a lot of time and take your advice to write and finish the novel.

    My main issue has been analysis paralysis. Too often it hinders completion of my projects. As I believe Terry recently mentioned (as have others) you’ve gotta not only finish the thing but put it out there. You’ve got to expose your work so you can grow.

    And while I’ve used crit groups in the past (and no crit group horror stories, I’m happy to say) I’m not sure I would go back to that model either.

    But for me half the fun of writing is learning to write better. If at this moment I was the author of 100 published books, I’d still want to come to TKZ or other writing sources to learn more. Because you do learn all the time.

    Example: Yesterday I was listening to a discussion about aspects of writing mysteries, & 1 thing someone mentioned I hadn’t thought about. When I think of writing mysteries, I’m typically thinking in terms of how you don’t want the reader to be able to figure out the killer–you want that reveal at the end. What I hadn’t stopped to consider are mysteries where you surprise the reader with the MOTIVE or reason the victim was killed. I’m sure all other writers are saying “Well DUH!” but for me, it was something I just hadn’t thought about. That’s the fun of the continuous process of learning to write fiction better.

    I always want writing to be a fun, educational experience. But I also need my writing to be finished. LOL!

    • But for me half the fun of writing is learning to write better.

      Totally with you on that, BK. It’s work, but it’s work I love, so it’s more of a joy than anything else.

  3. I’m good with writing first drafts. But how do you figure out a schedule for revising? A daily word count doesn’t seem to make sense, but I can’t figure out how to set target goals otherwise. Any advice, please?

    • Janet, a time or page goal is best for revision. E.g., two hours/day for revision, or ten pages, etc. But I always stick to my word quota on a new project, noting that any new words I add when revising gets put down on the quota sheet.

    • As I write, I flag loose ends with “zxc,” an easy triad to type, instead of losing momentum by “fixing” on the spot. On revision, I try to resolve ten zxcs a day. Yes, I can cheat by skipping ahead to a few easy ones, but it gives me a bit of a measure of progress.

  4. That about covers it, Jim. 😉 Devouring craft books, applying what I learned, and dissecting other novels were key for me, too. When those light bulbs blazed on, it was the best feeling ever, like finding the key to a secret garden.

    I’ll add: Enjoy the journey. If you’re not having fun, this profession probably isn’t for you.

    • Yes, and as BK said above, learning (with bulbs flashing) is so much fun.

      There is also tremendous satisfaction in knowing that you’ve moved ahead in the craft, that when a problem arises in your MS you know how to fix it.

  5. Such great advice, Jim!

    I esp. like “Remove all shoulder chips.” Writers need to get over their ego and listen to objective criticism. Editorial comments might not always be right but they point out areas that need work.

    Be the tortoise, not the hare. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Play the long game.

    • I’ve had the good fortune to work with some terrific editors, and had several back-and-forths with them on substantive issues. If I felt myself getting huffy, I’d make myself step back…and much of the time I saw that what they were saying was right on. It made the books better, and that has to be the end goal.

  6. You have to practice a proper and repeatable swing, friends, otherwise you just ingrain bad habits.

    Oh, how true. For twenty years that’s what I did. I was isolated from the writing community with no internet, typing stories out one tap at a time on a Hermes portable typewriter, making the same mistakes over and over because I had no one to tell me what I was doing wrong.

    It wasn’t until I connected with other writers and we critiqued each other’s work that I learned I was telling a story rather than showing it…I was in everyone’s POV, even the waiter’s bringing the drinks.

    Thank you, JSB and TKZ for all the hard work you pour into this blog. You have helped so many struggling writers.

    • Thanks, Patricia. You’re so right that “telling” and “head hopping” are common errors among new writers. I well remember how I felt when I finally “got” both of those things. It’s such a great feeling when you know you’ve improved.

  7. I’ve had only modest success as a writer, but still get emails for newbies looking for the magic formula to getting published. From now on, I’ll refer them to this post — it’s the closest thing to a formula they’ll ever find.

  8. Well said, Jim. I was on a writing panel at our local science fiction convention on Friday. My biggest advice to someone who wants to write fiction: First, write, not worrying that it may suck. It probably will. That’s okay. Two, finish what you start. Three, learn—get feedback on what you wrote, look at a story you loved and see how it worked, take a class, or a workshop, read articles on craft and practice what you’ve learned.

    For me, learning and improving craft is a central aspect of writing fiction, and it’s very enjoyable. If there’s anything that keeps us youthful as writers, it’s learning and practicing what we’ve learned.

    • Good catch, Harald. That first successful flight was 12 seconds. The last one that day, piloted by Wilbur, lasted almost one minute. Exciting indeed! I’ll make the change.

  9. Great, Jim! I hope I never start thinking I know enough, because I’d be lying to myself.

    I think I’d add this: Teach what you do know. I always learn more when I share what I know with others.

    I think TKZers do that really well.

  10. Best writing advice ever. “Write a novel.” Harking back to the Wright brothers, they built the first successful airplane by doing it. They had problems along the way, but patiently solved each one. We can learn a lot from those guys.

  11. Wow, this knocked me right in the head. Thank you.
    I’m the person who does most of what you tell us not to do, even though I know better. But, what really hit the target was to just keep writing.
    I actually love the rewrite process, whick means I sometimes spend hours on one page without moving forward. I can write 2,000 words, come back the next day and spend hours or even three or four days rewriting it.
    Thank you so much Jim, you have turned my page. I can now…will now, move from being a hobby writer to a writer.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you, for ever piece of that valuable information.

  12. Pingback: Writing the way it works for you | liebjabberings

Comments are closed.