Unlocking the Secrets of the Bestseller

Image of the New York Times Newspaper

by C. K. MacLeod

What are the ingredients of a bestselling novel?

In the book The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel, Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers use machine learning and a text-mining tool — the bestseller-ometer — to study the characteristics of the bestselling novel.

What the bestseller-ometer reveals is specific and potentially helpful. Using computers to assess a novel’s bestselling potential raises a number of questions:

  • Will acquisitions editors use algorithms and text-mining tools to determine whether a book is worth investing in?
  • Could indie authors use these tools see if a book will sell?
  • Could editors use it to help writers craft a more marketable book?

I’ll leave it to you to decide. For now, it’s worth thinking about what Archer and Jockers’ research has to say about books that sell brilliantly, and those that don’t.

In a nutshell, The Bestseller Code reveals helpful information about bestseller theme, style, plot, titles and characters, as well as something about the kind of education and training that bestselling authors have.

Archer and Jockers have compiled lists of must-read novels, selected by the bestseller-ometer, that demonstrate bestselling qualities that writers could emulate. If you’re suspicious about a computer’s ability to assess bestselling qualities, you could read the books yourself and arrive at your own conclusions.

While I can’t do justice to Archer and Jockers’ research here, I will say this: some of the writing advice on this blog lines up with the characteristics of bestselling novels:

If it’s your goal to best sell, trying the tips and tools in these articles can’t hurt. At the very least, they’ll help you to see ways to improve your writing. In the wider context, the information in The Bestseller Code is worth considering if your goal is to write a book that people will take time to read — and pay money for.

Image by Charles LeBlanc


Overcoming Procrastination with 3 Old-Tech Tools

Coloured felt pens

by C.K. MacLeod

Updated. Orginally posted August 7, 2012 at Beyond Paper Editing.

Will you do almost anything to avoid writing? Take heart. Most writers face this struggle at one time or another. Many of them work at home with abundant distractions. Drab everyday tasks begin to look inviting when there is a blank page to face—there is always a dish to wash, a floor to sweep, or a social media site to get lost in.

Why Do Writers Procrastinate?

Why do procrastination and writing often show up together? I think that every writer—novices and professionals alike—know that writing is hard work. Beginning means that you’re committing to a process that will occupy a reasonable chunk of time and a great deal of effort and discipline. Yet, distracting yourself with seemingly purposeful tasks (yes, that dishwasher does need emptying at some point), only delays the inevitable. So what’s a writer to do?

Make Procrastination Work for You

SARK, author of Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper suggests creating space for procrastination in the writing process. Rather than ignore the need to procrastinate (and then feel guilty by falling prey to it), writers need to find a way a way to make procrastination work for them.

Her tool, humorously named the Micromovement Wheel of Delight is none other than a hand drawn chart—old tech at its best. It enables writers to identify and capture those tasks that will help them ramp up to writing. Here’s what my version of the chart looks like:

SARK's micromovement wheel
SARK’s micromovement wheel

Here’s how it works:

  1. Identify your writing project. Record it in the middle of the wheel (see the image above).
  2. List five or six tasks, or “micromovements” that relate to your writing project between the spokes of the wheel. This is key. Tasks like taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, or texting a friend do not relate to your writing project. Sharpening a pencil or doing a quick Google search on the writing topic do. Each task must be on topic and should take no more than five minutes.
  3. Pick any task and do it. Micromovements are small. Anyone can commit to a two-minute task. Continue until all the tasks are done. You are now closer to completing the writing project. If you have completed a wheel but you haven’t finished the writing project, create another wheel with six more tasks to complete.

Make it Manageable

SARK’s approach to dealing with procrastination acknowledges the psychology of the writer. Writing is a monumental task, yet every monumental task can be broken down into tiny movements. Writers can’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment as they knock off those smaller tasks—all of which are designed to chip away at the bigger task. By thinking in terms of micromovements, you create, well, movement. Movement in the right direction.

You can use SARK’s micromovement wheel for nearly any task that seems too big. If you learn to think in micromovements, you’ll have a valuable tool for conquering procrastination in all areas of life.

So what are the other two old-tech tools? A print copy of Juicy Pens and Thirsty Paper for sumptuous inspiration. And coloured felt pens, of course! Grab those pens and go draw that wheel!

Image by Steven Lilley

Tips and Tools for Staying on Track with Your Writing

by C.K. MacLeod

The emperor has no clothes

Updated. Originally posted at Beyond Paper Editing.

Writers have a lot to think about: writing, revising, editing, formatting, marketing, platform building, and the list goes on. In all this flurry of activity, it’s too easy to remember the task that is most important: writing!

It’s becoming more difficult to focus on writing with everything an author has to juggle. Like the emperor with no clothes, writers are in danger of having no books! Here are some tips for staying on track with your writing.

1. Use old tech.

To keep him from being distracted by social media tasks, Bryan Cohen, author of Writer on the Side: How to Write Your Book Around Your 9 to 5 Job uses “old technology” with no Internet connectivity while writing.

He uses an Alphasmart Neo 2—an intelligent keyboard with a tiny e-ink-like screen that only allows for writing. It’s less than two pounds, powered by triple-A batteries for hours of power, and can be easily toted into distraction-free dead zones. I use a similar intelligent keyboard: the QuickPad Pro.

Similarly, George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, has been ribbed for using a “writing computer”— an ancient DOS machine from the 80s loaded with WordStar 4.0. Have you seen the page count for the Game of Thrones series? Who’s laughing now?

2. Set limits for online time.

If using old tech is a bit too hardcore for you, consider social media timing tools to help you prevent social media time suck. Rescue Time will keep track of how you spend your time online and furnish you with a data report of your online activities, if you’re brave enough to go there. The free browser plug-in can set time limits for social media or block websites when it’s time to get to work.

3. Do your two most important tasks first.

As a writer, one of your two most important daily tasks is writing, right? Tim Ferriss, the author of the Four-Hour Work Week, does his two most important tasks before 11:00 a.m. each day. These tasks do not include checking email.

In fact, Ferriss does his to best to avoid checking and responding to email more than twice a day. Instead, he has an autoresponse message for his email account, indicating when he’ll be checking mail, so people know that his response won’t be instantaneous. He then batch processes his emails offline using Boomerang for Gmail and in the past, The Email Game. These tools can help you organize email messages by priority and set time limits for processing email.

4. Pare things down.

To determine what will work for book promotion, J.F. Penn, author of the Arkane Thriller series, has tried a wide variety of social media platforms. She often works 11-hour days to fulfil her “authorpreneur” tasks. To carve out more time for writing, Penn has decided to let some of her social media platforms go, and has chosen, instead, to focus on the ones that bring her joy—her blog, The Creative Penn, her podcast, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. This is still a tall order for most of us, but the lesson here is that you can’t do it all—even if you’ve committed to 11-hour days.

5. Be strategic.

If you’re not sure how to pare down your social media engagement, Frances Caballo, author of Avoid Social Media Time Suck, suggests focusing on platforms where your readership hangs out. “You want to be where your readers are,” she says in an interview with J. F. Penn of the Creative Penn podcast. To find out where readers hang out, see Frances’ picks at the Creative Penn website.

You can be strategic about when you use social media sites, as well. For example, according to Pam Dyer, a top-50 social media power influencer at Forbes, Twitter users are more likely to see tweets on weekends between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m., so why not schedule important tweets during these times? Dyer lists popular social media sites with suggested times for using them at the Social Media Today blog.

6. Outsource.

If you’ve pared things down, become more more strategic, and find you still don’t have the time you need to write, take a page from Joel Friedlander’s book. Friedlander is the author of the popular self-publishing blog, The Book Designer, and he’s everywhere. How does he do it?

Friedlander has hired a virtual assistant, or VA, to help him with time-consuming social media tasks, like organizing guest posts and formatting and posting blog posts. J.F. Penn and Pat Flynn have also hired VAs, and Jim Kukral and Bryan Cohen, hosts of the Sell More Books podcast, often make use of Fiverr for photo editing or ebook cover tweaking. Tim Ferris estimates that he saves 10 hours a week on minutia by using Task Rabbit to outsource tasks.

The Indie ethic is a DIY ethic. But DIY doesn’t mean DIA—doing it all.

7. Be accountable.

How do you know if you have enough time to write? One of the best ways to find out is to keep track of your daily writing progress. Women’s fiction author Jamie Raintree has designed a lovely Excel spreadsheet that can help you keep track of your daily word count. It’s free when you subscribe to her email newsletter.

Scrivener users can use Project Targets to set daily word count goals:

Scrivener Project Targets

Well known traditionally published authors produce on average between 250 and 5,000 words a day, and high achieving self-publishing author J.F. Penn will clock in at 2,500 words in a two-hour window of writing. Set your own daily or weekly word-count goals, and if you don’t achieve your goals, it might be time to try some of the steps described above.

There’s a prevailing theme here, isn’t there? Social media, email, and all things Internet, appear to be some of the main barriers to writing. I’ve managed to priortize my writing, at least for today. But it’s after 11:00 and my email beckons…

Image by 세라 박.

A Tool for Distraction-Free Writing

QuickPad ProBy C.K. MacLeod

I rediscovered my QuickPad Pro in a recent office cleaning frenzy. It was squirreled away in a cupboard with an old VHS video recorder.

QuickPad Pro is an intelligent keyboard, designed for simple writing tasks. Circa Y2K, journalists reportedly hauled them overseas when lugging a 10 lb laptop was inconvenient, or finding a power source was impossible.

My QuickPad Pro weighs in at 2 lbs 2 oz. While the problem of heavy laptops has been addressed with today’s ultrabooks (my 2014 ultrabook weighs in at 2 lbs, 15 oz), you’d be hard pressed to find an ultrabook that will run for 100 hours before it needs a recharge. It was this single fact that kept my QuickPad Pro out of the giveaway box.

Pros and Cons of Old Tech

If you have an intelligent keyboard in your cupboard, don’t recycle it yet. There may be possible new uses for your old tech. Consider these pros and cons:


  • lightweight and durable
  • starts up quickly (one-button start)
  • distraction-free (no Internet connection)
  • an excellent first-draft tool because you can only write in plain text, which means you’ll get into the habit of focusing on writing and leaving editing and formatting for later
  • runs for 100 hours on three AA batteries
  • doesn’t require the use of a mouse (goodbye RSI?)
  • responds to some keyboard shortcuts, which helps with navigation
  • people who own intelligent keyboards love them and still use them; there’s even a Facebook group for the one I own
  • online support for the QuickPad Pro is excellent
  • some authors (James Scott Bell, George R. R. Martin and Bryan Cohen are three examples) are producing reams of writing using old tech
  • unlikely to be stolen in a smash-and-grab, and it won’t be coveted by your kid


  • the screen has a bit of glare, and it isn’t backlit, but this isn’t a deal-breaker
  • the screens on some intelligent keyboards, such as the Alphasmart, are quite small
  • the angle of the screen is a bit awkward, unless you stack a few books under the screen end of the device or sit up straight while writing (probably not a bad idea)
  • over time, the keyboard can become a bit sticky
  • transferring files to your computer (where you’ll edit and format them) can be tricky if your computer cannot recognize your intelligent keyboard
  • intelligent keyboards are no longer being made, so if you want one, you’ll need to keep an eye on Ebay

Tip: Before you write your next novel on an intelligent keyboard, first check to see if you can transfer files to your computer. If you can’t, search for a forum that can offer tips.

New uses for Old Tech

My QuickPad has become another tool in my my RSI blasting arsenal. It’s helped me to create distraction-free writing sessions, and I’m also experimenting with writing in markdown on my Quickpad. Who knows what can happen when old and new tech worlds collide?

Do you use old tech for writing?