I asked ChatGPT to transcribe a typical episode of the Bestseller Experiment podcast. This is what it spat out (I swear, I have not tinkered with this one bit!)…
[Intro music] MARK: Hello and welcome to the Bestseller Experiment, the podcast where we discover what makes a bestselling novel and inspire you to finish your book. I’m Mark Stay, and today I’m joined by… MARKUS: Markus, hi, great to be here again. MARK: It’s great to have you here, Markus. Now, today we’re going to be talking to a fantastic guest, an author who has sold over a million copies of her books worldwide. MARKUS: Wow, that’s incredible. Who is it? MARK: It’s none other than Jane Smith. MARKUS: Oh, I love her books. This is going to be a great interview. MARK: Absolutely. So, before we get to that, Markus, how has your writing been going this week? MARKUS: Well, I’ve been struggling a bit with the second act of my current novel. It’s been tough trying to figure out how to keep the tension high without it feeling contrived. How about you, Mark? MARK: I’ve actually been working on a short story this week. It’s a bit of a departure for me, as it’s a sci-fi story, but it’s been really fun to write. MARKUS: That sounds interesting. Have you got any tips for writing sci-fi? MARK: Definitely. I think the key is to start with a strong concept. You need to have something that’s going to capture people’s imagination and make them want to keep reading. And then, once you have that, you need to really think about the world that your story is set in. The more you can make it feel real and believable, the more your readers will be invested in the story. MARKUS: That’s great advice, thanks. MARK: No problem. So, let’s get to our interview with Jane Smith. Jane, thank you so much for joining us today. JANE: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me. MARK: So, first of all, congratulations on selling over a million copies of your books. That’s an incredible achievement. JANE: Thank you. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest. MARK: I can imagine. So, what do you think has been the key to your success? JANE: I think it’s a combination of things. Firstly, I’ve always tried to write stories that are emotionally engaging. I want my readers to care about the characters and what happens to them. And secondly, I think it’s important to have a strong brand. When people see my name on a book, they know what to expect. MARK: That’s really interesting. How did you go about building your brand? JANE: It was a gradual process, really. I started off by writing in a particular genre, and over time I developed a style and a voice that people could recognise. And then, as my readership grew, I started to focus more on what they wanted from me. I made sure that I was delivering the kind of stories that they were looking for. MARK: That’s great advice. So, what’s next for you? Are you working on a new book at the moment? JANE: Yes, I am actually. It’s a bit of a departure for me, as it’s a historical novel. But I’m really excited about it. MARK: That sounds great. Well, we’ll be looking out for that one. Jane, thank you so much for joining us today. JANE: Thank you for having me. MARK: That’s all we have time for today. Join us next week when we’ll be speaking to another bestselling author. And remember, keep writing and never give up on your dreams. [Outro music]
One of the easiest jobs I had when I was a sales rep was selling Simon Scarrow’s books to booksellers. Of course, the writing is superb, but so much of that first book, Under the Eagle, had everything it needed to become a bestselling series. A great premise, a great package, and Simon knew exactly who his readers were. Lots to absorb in this one! I was joined by guest co-presenter Julian Barr, whose own fantastical historical fiction is definitely worth checking out. Have a look here!
We bang on about our 200 Words a Day Challenge on the Bestseller Experiment podcast constantly (click here to find out more), so it only seemed fair that I should give it a go. It also occurred to me that the sheer number of projects I had lined up for 2022 might benefit from me writing every day, so why the hell not.
That’s 32,405 per month. A little over a thousand words a day. I rarely wrote more than 3,000 words a day, and in December there were a few days where it was a scrabble to get to the 200 minimum (mostly due to travel/family commitments).
Those 2599 minutes per month translate into about 43 hours a month spent writing… Which, considering I’m supposed to be a full time writer, doesn’t feel like a lot. But I’m also taking meetings, travelling to conventions, co-running/presenting a podcast, interviewing authors/guests, editing books and scripts for clients, and doing housework (it’s often the only exercise I get during the day!).
I also only average 13 words per minute, so I’m not particularly fast.
But… I wrote every day and, as you can see, it all adds up. I usually start at 7:30am on my main project and work for two hours. I start writing by hand in a notebook (each project has a specific notebook), usually typing it up the next day and, in the process, redrafting it. Later in the day, I might work on a secondary project, or edit a client’s book etc.
May was my most productive month as I was in the thick of the drafting of Woodville #4 (exciting title to be revealed soon!). January was my least productive month, at least in terms of words, as I was in the thick of drafting TV scripts: lots of story, though not as many words as a novel.
What Was I Writing?
Here are the projects I worked on in 2022. Most of these have vague titles/descriptions because they’re either works in progress, or they simply haven’t been picked up or announced yet.
YA TV Science Fiction series: a pilot episode, a series episode, and pitch document.
New Fantasy Novella (hoping to self-publish this next year).
Cosy Crime Mystery that I’m co-writing with my wife Claire.
A Disco-themed RomCom screenplay that I’m working on with another writer and is in development with a production company.
What’s Not Included?
I only counted words that contributed towards creative projects, so I didn’t include my diary entries, emails, newsletters, blogs (like this one), or any of the notes or reports I’ve made while editing books/scripts for clients. I’m also a story consultant on a TV thing, which involved reading scripts and giving feedback, but while that was sort-of creative, it’s not my show, so I didn’t count them.
Was it Worth it?
I remember in those early episodes of the podcast where almost every author we spoke to said they wrote every day, and we got very excited thinking we were onto something… Until we got to Sarah Pinborough who said in her own brilliant way that she thought the whole “write every day” ethos was “bollocks” (listen to the full episode here, it’s one of my favourites). And she’s right in a way… If we’ve learned anything in over six years of the podcast it’s that every writer finds their own way of doing things. There are no rules, only principles.
That said, if you’re just starting out then one of the most important things you can do is develop a regular writing habit. And all you need to do is write 200 words a day. You can do that in 20-30 minutes tops. We ask people to try it for a week, and see if they get hooked (and they very often do, and also end up writing a lot more than 200 words a day). It’s less intense than NanoWriMo, and if you follow the #200WordsADay hashtag on Twitter you’ll find me and a community of writers sharing our word count every day. We’re all in it together. Sign up for free to the challenge here, and download Moonbunny’s tracker here.
Was it worth it? Definitely. I got a lot done this year, and I never lost any momentum and it never felt like a burden. Will I do it again? I think I probably will… I might give myself more time off over Christmas next year, but who knows? The thing is, I love writing. It’s a privilege to do it full time, and getting those words in every morning is my happy place. When I’m writing, nothing else worries me and I can’t wait to get back there again. Maybe I’m just weird? Or I’m a writer? Or a combination of the two?
Happy New Year to you all and good luck with your writing in 2023!
I had a great time chatting to Elizabeth Noble on this week’s podcast and she talks about writing novels with huge casts and big families and lots of moving parts etc. And before that, me and Mr D talk about the recent ALCS report that showed that UK’s authors earn only an average of £7,000 a year from their writing, and a bit in Private Eye that noted that so many of our big brand male authors (and their characters) are all getting quite long in the tooth… so where are the new big brands coming from?
SJ Bennett is great fun on this week’s podcast. After a successful career writing award-winning YA, she made a big shift in genre and category to cosy crime with her new series Her Majesty the Queen Investigates. We talk about fear of failure, life-changing decisions, and getting publisher royalty cheques for 97p…
I recorded a few rambling thoughts about writers and their mental health on World Mental Health Day…
Hello folks, I’m recording this on World Mental Health Day, and this is something we talk a lot about on the Bestseller Experiment podcast, which is writers’ mental health, which is fragile at the best of times. And I honestly don’t really have any answers for you or anything like that. If you’re having serious problems then talk to a professional. Call The Samaritans, that sort of thing. But I can talk about it from my own perspective. And what’s helped me in the past because the thing is, it doesn’t really go away. It never really stops.
If you achieve any kind of success, you get different kinds of stresses. Certainly, if you’re starting out, it’s stressful because you might have a job and a family and all sorts of of things clamouring for your attention, making it difficult for you to write. And then there’s where you do get something published, either self published or hybrid traditionally. And it goes out there… (exhales)
And it can be… Not many people talk about this. It can be a bit of an anti climax, frankly. Because you’ve got to write the next one and the one after that. And it never really stops. And then… I get this all the time, which is you see other people doing well and you think, Why isn’t that me? What did they do to get that thing?
I’m sure people look at me and say, how come that flabby pasty git got a film or a book deal or whatever… But this is it, y’know, we’re all in it together. We are. I saw a thing the other day on a writers’ group I’m on where a couple of writers sort of turned each other. It’s heartbreaking to see that because we need to support each other.
I mean, if there is any big piece of advice for writers, I’d say find other writers. Find other writers because they understand you better than anyone else. I know a lot of people… Writers who, y’know, their family, frankly, don’t understand what they do, why they do it. So find other writers, find another group. I mean, we’ve got the Bestseller Experiment. We have a lovely group on Facebook.
We’ve got the Bestseller Academy, a lovely bunch of people there. We all… There is a very positive attitude there. We do lift each other up and console each other… (distant train horn) When our trains are late, that kind of thing. Seek out other writers. Seek me out if you want to drop me a line. I’ll do what I can do, but I’m not a doctor. Not a professional. Anyway, there was a point to all this… Well… Mental Health Awareness Day or whatever it is. We’re all aware that there are big mental problems. We talk about them more, which is a good thing. Perseverance is a thing. If you want the answer to how come that big pasty flabby git got so much of this, or that, or the other… it is perseverance.
I mean, I started writing seriously just before my daughter was born. She’s 21, nearly 22. And the number of times I could have stopped. Number times I could have given up. Number of times I could’ve said, nah, this is not for me. I’m not getting the success that I, y’know… this soon. Or not getting the success I want. But I love the writing. I think that’s the key for me.
I enjoy the process. I won’t pretend it’s always easy. Sometimes it’s really, really difficult. Sometimes there are days you need a break. Like today. Not doing any writing. Going for a walk, which I haven’t done for ages. Absolutely ages.
See this is a bit of a ramble. But anyway… Find other writers. Persevere. Keep at it. Take a break if you need one. But as Mr D says on our podcast, you know, the one guaranteed way to fail is to give up and… It’s understand in the face of: you publish a book, 25 people buy it. You get a stinky review. No one sees your movie. Now one reads your book. You’d be forgiven for giving up.
And if that makes you happy, then maybe that’s the way to go. But if, like me, you’re compelled to write, then you kind of have to. One of the first guests we had in the podcast was Joe Abercrombie, and he gave the best advice. He said that the longer you dance naked it in the rain, the more likely you are to be struck by lightning. And that is the best summation because it’s a crazy thing to do what we do.
It’s irrational, sometimes. It doesn’t make sense. Makes no financial sense.
But every now and then… Zap. It works. Anyway, like I said, this is a bit of a ramble while I’m rambling. I hope that helps. But happy writing. Keep writing. If you’re enjoying it. If it’s making you miserable, maybe it’s time to stop. But if you’re enjoying it, with all the rough and tumble that comes with it, keep writing. Happy writing.
How many point-of-view characters is too many for your story? I was watching the Indiana Jones movies and it got me thinking… and helped me with the next draft of my novel.
Hello, folks. I’ve been rewatching these beauties. Three brilliant films and a fourth one… Actually, to be fair, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t as bad as you might remember. Certainly when I was rewatching it today, I really enjoyed the first half and began to wonder if I’d been too harsh on it when it came out. Then in the second half it all started to unravel and the ending really was just not satisfying. And of course, with my writer hat on — not a Fedora — I started to wonder why. Now, first of all, let me make it clear: this is not going to be a hatchet job on screenwriter David Koepp. A man I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing for the Bestseller Experiment Podcast. I’ll put a link to that episode in the description below (here’s the link). He is a genuinely delightful chap whose skill as a storyteller is beyond dispute.
Also, film production can be a crazy time, especially with a big franchise movie with colossal expectations. I don’t envy anyone having to work under those kind of time constraints and those levels of expectations and scrutiny. And we simply cannot know what was asked of a writer while in production. Screenwriters are not the authors of a the movie. There are only one voice among many trying to tell a story, and with so many cooks it’s no wonder that sometimes the soup ends up with the sheep’s eyeballs in it. Also, also… I’m rereading the first draft of my next novel and guess what? I’m making exactly the same mistake. Only I have the luxury of time to recognise it and fix it. So what’s the problem with this and many other stories? Before we go on: just a warning that there will be spoilers not only for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but all the Indiana Jones movies so far. And if you’re watching this in the future and wondering why I’m not talking about the fifth movie, that’s because it’s still in production.
So what exactly is the problem of Crystal Skull? People have pointed the finger at the Nuking the Fridge sequence, the monkeys in the Amazon, indeed that whole chase sequence has a CG gloss to it that when contrasted with truck chase in the first film lacks any sense of verisimilitude or stakes. But the Indy sequels have always had visual effects and SFX that look iffy. I mean, think of the airship/biplane sequence in The Last Crusade, or the action sequences that are a bit silly like the flying inflatable life raft in Temple of Doom. And I don’t have a problem with inter-dimensional aliens.
They’re no more outlandish than the other maguffins in the series, so I don’t think it’s anything to do with those things.
There came a moment at the end of the film when there’s all sort of stuff whizzing around and things are collapsing and John Williams is bringing everything to a resounding crescendo.
And I know I should be thrilled. But… I’m bored. And our heroes are standing there watching things whizz around them and not really doing very much. And then they run. We have a succession of resolution story beats that are meant to have some kind of emotional resonance. So Oxley coming to his sense, Mutt accepting Indy as his father, Mac’s death, Spalko getting the knowledge she craves and paying the price for it.
And Marion and Indy tying the knot. So, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 threads there. That’s a lot even for a two hour movie. The previous three films all had fairly simple story arcs. In Raiders, Indy had to learn to understand the power of the Ark. At the beginning, he’s dismissing it as superstitious nonsense. By the end he’s screaming at Marion to keep her eyes shut, and that saves both their lives. By the way, ignore all that Big Bang Theory nonsense about Indy not having any influence on the outcome of the story.
It completely misses the point. The film isn’t about finding the Ark, it’s about a grave robber rediscovering his faith.
So, in Temple of Doom, Indy has to learn that the artefacts he obtains have a greater value than being stuck in a Museum. “Fortune and glory kid.” And in the Last Crusade, it’s a story of father/son reconciliation. Simple. In Crystal Skull… You get the father/son thing again. Indy and Marion again. Oxley, the old mentor. Mac, the friend who turns traitor, something about cherishing knowledge at the end…
There’s so much being thrown at the viewer, that they don’t know what to latch on to and so disengaged with the story. There are so many threads to wrap up, but none of them are done satisfactorily. So the problem with Crystal Skull is too many characters… Okay, that’s reductive. They’re have been many stories that have oodles of characters and do just fine. Look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s why it needed a 15 endings to wrap everything up as satisfactory– satifact– satisfactorally… I can’t even say it! People make jokes about it, but if any of those endings had been missing, the very same armchair critics would be complaining about that. Also, that epic trilogy had plenty of room for those characters to develop. Imagine cramming all of that into 2 hours. As an aside, I’ve been reading Joe Abercormbie’s new trilogy. And I’m halfway through and this series has about six point of view characters, but already I can tell that Joe is giving himself, and them, the room he needs to tell their stories properly. The more point of view characters you have, the bigger your story is going to be.
But you know, with some stories you just need to take one character on a journey of change. There’s no shame in keeping it simple. Done well, it can be the best thing ever. And as I said, I’ve made the same mistake on the first draft of my next Woodville book. I’ve been so seduced by the excitement of bringing in new characters that I’ve been ignoring my regulars.
It’s a really easy trap to fall into. A new character brings energy to a story. It’s great story fuel, and you can keep the reader and viewer engaged. But if that character isn’t given the room to grow in the story, then it becomes noise and fury amounting to not very much, actually. So, one of my next jobs on the next draft is to focus in on the most compelling threads. Two or three at most and make sure they have the most satisfying arcs and resolutions. A doddle. What could possibly go wrong? Stay tuned for more updates as I plunge into this edit. During the meanwhilst, happy writing!
How long did The Crow Folk take to develop? A lot longer than you might think. In this second part of the highlights of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, I talk about false starts, rewrites, junking old versions, nearly self-publishing, and how some notes from my agent changed my mind.
Hello, folks, welcome to the second part of the highlights from the episode of the Bestseller experiment, we talked about all about this thing.
And in this one, we talk about the development of the book, how long it’s been swishing around in my mind, versions that I got rid of, how it was nearly self published. And we feature notes from my editor. All of this in about eight, nine minutes. It’s jam packed. So do please enjoy…
That’s really what I wanted to ask as well. Mark, a bit about this come up a lot, actually. And people are very curious about how the book was developed. And and Mike Revell, thanks for your question. Mike, he said, I’d love to know more about your writing process for the book. Now, if I’m if I’m not mistaken, this book was written with the two hundred word a day challenge, wasn’t it?
No, that’s book two.
That’s book two.
Yes, yes. Way ahead.
Yeah. But this this was well, the thing is, I had as I said, I had entire drafts of scripts and novels dating back over 10 years and I just got sick of rewriting the same thing over and over again.
So I got rid of it all.
You just what you just chucked it all away?
You just said, well, it’s filed away.
Yeah, very little of those… The village is the same, the name of the village, some of the magical background, but essentially most of it’s gone. Did you actually go through a process as you as you were archiving those notes of saying, what am I going to keep from this? Or was it just..
Yes, yeah. But you kind of think, OK, what’s evergreen? What’s what’s going to… What’s the good stuff? And there wasn’t a lot of it, although one of…The story might come back for book four or five if I get there, you know, because that there’s something about that story that I do want to come back to. But it will be told from Faye’s point of view, not the creature’s point of view. So because I was going for kind of a Swamp Thing vibe with with the original and it just didn’t work. And anyway, so so I had I had all these old drafts and pretty much all of it was jettisoned.
So interesting. And so how did you how did you kind of go through the process from initial notes to outline and draft? Mike asks.
Well, it was because it’s the first in a series, I kind of saw it as a bit of a superhero origin story. Faye finds magic, learns how to use it against a terrible foe, her first real test as a character. And I spent a little time making sure I had the main characters right. I kind of discovered where I wanted her to be by the end of the book, and I did pretty much jump into it. So it wasn’t… I didn’t outline very much. I’d outlined The End of Magic heavily, as you know, Back to Reality. We outlined heavily because we were working together. This was this was much lighter. Now, I was… I’ve been prepping this all afternoon, so I did try and find notes and it’s been quite hard to find where I made the switch. I basically started this in December 2018. That was the point where I think I jettisoned all the other stuff, looking at the different old Scrivener files, you know, so and that draft, that, that first draft I found is pretty similar to what’s been published. And also the other thing is I had planned to self publish, inspired by our own Ian W Sainsbury, friend of the podcast, award winning author. I was going to do a quick release, three novellas, Boom, boom, boom, because and I think what helped was mentally, I was thinking, okay, these are going to be short about forty five, fifty thousand words, so just jump in and have fun. And I did. I had loads of fun.
So that was, that was the thinking behind that one.
It’s just. Yeah.
Go for it.
And how many words in the book One? you remember how it turned out.
There’s a little story behind that. And Rhoda asks a question later on about how… Because I got to about forty five in the end it ended up at about sixty five. So still quite short.
But actually Rhoda asks she says, I heard the book started out as a novella and ended up being a full book. Is that right.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
So how did you go about extending it.
Good question. And I did dig out my notes. I’ve got my email from Ed. So let me let me read you…
Ed being your agent, correct?
Ed Wilson, the lovely Ed Wilson. And this is great. So I and I said to him up front, I want to self publish this, but have a look at it and see what you think. And I got his email. He said nothing too major, but all ties into my big point. Why is this book only forty five thousand words? Woodville is completely effing brilliant. And he has, bless him, starred out out the “uck” there. He says tonally, tonally spot on.
Just in case it ever got read out on a podcast.
He’s always thinking ahead.
Yes, he’s a smart man, is Ed.
Yeah, he says tonally spot on, perfectly realised, structured and paced, deliciously readable. This is cozy fantasy. The genre mash up we didn’t know we needed the characters zing off the page. You develop a real emotional connection in such a short space of time. I was in pieces at the end, you bastard, which is great.
He’s just written the blurb right there.
And we’ve talked about the praise sandwich on here before. You know how you give criticism. You start with this is good. You know, there’s a but coming thundering over the horizon. OK, so he says but there is sooooooo… I think there’s seven O’s in that so and it’s all in caps. So that’s more you can do because you’ve limited the work and you don’t have time to properly establish the setting before you get stuck into the plot. We need to see more normal village life, more Dad’s Army war preparations, more vicars and oversized veg and tongue in cheek Archer’s style village politics before the talking pumpkins appear, or rather before the villagers see the talking pumpkins. The way you’ve written it, we have the big reveal and the fantastical events go above ground within the first third of the book. And in a book this length that’s too soon, you’re giving up too easy and losing the fundamental tension of what is and isn’t real. Who is and isn’t barmy. When you have more twists and turns, more tension around who and what Faye, Charlotte and Mrs Teach … Those are the witches… Are. You can keep structure and tone the same. Fundamentally, that doesn’t have to change. Just add more tension, intrigue, spooky goings on. Sow seeds for future books. And then once you’ve established the series, you can do pretty much what you want. This first book is vital to establish the series. You’ve got to properly establish it. Book one is too important to have it dismissed as just a novella. So this was great. And I had a manuscript from him marked up all the way through with notes all the way through. So that was my jumping off point to answer Rhoda’s question. It was, you know, the the tension, the questions. I was kind of giving it all away too quickly and just dig a little deeper as a result.
So I’ve got a I’ve got to say, you know, that is the reason why you try and get an agent, because so many people think so many think agents are just, you know, you give given the book and then they go and flog it. You know, they go off and they have a beer or a glass of wine with with their connections. And then they try and sell the book over lunch. But people don’t realize that good agents are your best friends and your best, you know, constructive critics as well. And it sounds like, Ed, at that point in the journey really gave you the crossroads to say, look, these are all the things you can do without. I mean, if somebody is self publishing without an agent, for example they wouldn’t have known where to go at that point. They may have just put it out as a forty five thousand word self published and missed out on what potentially could have been the most incredible ride of their life. So that’s absolutely fantastic. And what a great insight as well to hear that stage of the journey at that point. Absolutely brilliant.
Thank you, folks. Really hope you enjoyed that. All sorts of fun stuff coming up in future episodes, including how I worked with historical language. Writing a book without any swear words. That’s a first for me. I’m comparing my different publishing experiences. So that’s know working in crowd funding and self publishing and traditional publishing, looking at how those all work and all sorts of other good fun stuff. So do please subscribe and I’ll see you next time.