How to write fiction that sells (my writing process)

How to write fiction that sells (my writing process)

Writing fiction is hard. I’ve said before that I don’t suffer from the insecurity most writers face when writing, because I know that my books will sell (because I’m writing them specifically to satisfy a target audience). But the truth is, I still flounder halfway through every book and doubt whether or not I can make it good.

Recently I posted a YouTube series on How to write fiction that sells, but that’s mostly talking about plotting. Plotting is important. You need to have Big Things happen in your story, periodically, with ever-increasing dramatic consequences.

But even after I’ve plotted well, I still find myself stumbling through the writing process. 

Here’s how it goes for me…


I plot the book as well as I can, and force myself to start writing. I sketch out scenes and conversations, putting as much down as I can, skipping what I’m unsure of.

I end up with some great visual images that I must include, even if I don’t know how they make sense yet. (A younger character covered in blood; my protagonist getting shoved off a cliff…). Ideas like this will popup. Always use the strongest image you can.

Then I’ll struggle with cause and effect. Why does this thing happen here – what prompted it? Generally, fiction wavers between:

SCENE. Goal, conflict, disaster.

SEQUEL. Reaction, dilemma, Decision.

The character is trying to do something, but they fail. They regroup, make a decision and try again. The whole novel is full of failures, until the final success. 

But you also need to make all the failures matter, but increasing conflict between all the characters. Ever decision needs to be a losing proposition. With every decision, they are choosing between two bad options, and by choosing, they are giving something up.

I’ll go back and forth between a few chapters, trying to sort out the progression of events, moving the scenes around until it all makes sense and the flow between them is right. This is where I often get stuck, for a few days. And I complain and am frustrated, and think the book will suck and it’s because something is missing from my story. But eventually, by focusing on that one problem, I’ll figure out a way to make it much better than I’d previously plotted – adding new dimensions to the story.

This compounds, until, after getting stuck in a dozen places, I’ll actually have a dozen different story-strengthening insights.

Where do the insights come from? From the problem.

So if I didn’t get stuck and frustrated – a result of recognizing the weaknesses in my story – I wouldn’t be able to improve my story to make it amazing.

Once I’ve got a big mess of half-written scenes but my basic structure is all there, I can go back and begin fleshing things in. Improving the dialogue, adding transitions and movements, smells and sounds, more visual descriptions (what were they wearing, etc).

I’m actually much better at this filling in/editing stage.

I’ll still get stuck in some places, but going back and revising/improving the early chapters will usually give me insight about how to handle the later chapters that are problematic (at the same time, I had to write to the end to figure out what the problems were, which is why you want to sketch the whole novel first in rough drafts rather than polishing it all as you go).

Once I’ve actually gone through and revised everything, gotten rid of my notes and gaps, I’ll finally have a rough draft that’s almost readable. But it’s not GOOD yet.

I’ll need to go through it again and make it good, by removing redundancy and repetition, tightening it up and removing anything superfluous, heightening tension and being careful with how much I reveal and where.

I’ll also flag inconsistencies with comments. Eye color? Clothes? Objects they had or didn’t have with them? I’ll just flag these for now.

Once I’ve edited and it’s clean, I’ll go through again and hit all my comments, making sure all the data and information is correct. Then it’ll basically be “done” – though there are sure to be at least a dozen typos.

At this point I usually publish anyway, or ask beta readers to help me get rid of the typos – however because I’m focusing on publishing quickly, my books often launch with typos and I try to clean them up later.

While this isn’t ideal, I’ve found that typos have very little effect on sales. Of course there shouldn’t be any, and I’d like to get better with my production schedule to leave room for more editing, but I also know it’s not the end of the world if the book ships with some typos, and it won’t really affect earnings.

Yes, I do get reviews about the typos. Most of my reviews say “I loved this book, it’s amazing… would have been 5 stars except for typos.” Do those reviews keep people from buying the book? Not really. My books still sell well. Maybe they would sell better without those reviews. Do whatever works best for you, and what you’re comfortable with. I had to find a process that works for me, and this was it.

1 Comment

  • Matt Powers Posted

    Wow, fascinating Derek. So you self-edit all your own work?

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