3 commercial storytelling lessons that helped me sell more fiction books

3 commercial storytelling lessons that helped me sell more fiction books

I’ve started self-publishing 3 years (so 12 years ago in internet years) and failed abysmally. My goal was selling enough books so I could comfortably take home 1-2 grand each month by the end of the year.

Mission: failed.

I wrote stories no one was interested with covers no one clicked. Needless to say, I was frustrated but eager to learn. I had consumed tons of other indie authors shooting up the Amazon sales ranks like the Rocketeer, selling thousands of books, even though their storytelling sucked (IMHO). It thought their work was lightyears away from being professional.

I needed to get better at my commercial craft, so I DEVOURED 50+ storytelling books, honed my typing, and glued my ears to storytelling podcasts. I’ve put most of it into practice and learned lessons that dramatically boosted my sales.

Below, I want to reveal the top 4 commercial storytelling lessons I’ve learned…

1) Niche down, down, down and down

It’s better to serve a tight niche with few(er) but fervent readers than a general niche with many readers. For example, science fiction is a general niche with millions of readers worldwide, but sci-fi space opera is a niche with “only” a few hundred thousand dedicated readers. (Not an accurate number, but a mere calculation from Amazon sales ranks and the bestselling authors I’ve asked). Writing specific sci-fi opera will make you more money than writing general sci-fi, even though the pool’s much smaller.

Sub-niche readers are voracious.

I’ve talked to dozens in the sci-fi sub-categories and they’re on fire for new fiction. They consume their chosen category of obsession with…well, obsession. They usually read 1-2 books per day(!) and need the next fix like a junkie his coke. General readers of a genre LIKE the genre, but sub-genre readers LOVE LOVE LOOOVE their sub-genre. Remember, fandoms are always specific.

So whether you’re writing romance or sci-fi, look for a fervent sub-niche within that group (Romance: Billionaire S&M? Sci-fi: military space opera?) and deliver the goods. You’ll be selling.

2) Loop ‘till you poop

Okay, bad pun, but I wrote this headline at midnight and needed to cater to my childishness.

Loops are the spicy ingredient that makes every genre story (potentially) addictive.
They’re based on the notion that humans read and tell stories to understand their world. Even when you’re reading fun escapist stories about an arrow-shooting 17 old girl asking herself whether to have sex with a werewolf or vampire, the underlying motivation is to learn about life. Survival.
I highly recommend watching the storytelling interview with author and screenwriting guru Robert McKee.

Now, what does that have to with the loop? Well, a loop is an open-ended question asked in the first act of your story. In a crime thriller, it’s often “Who’s the perp?” or “Why did s/he commit the murder?” This loop gets hopefully closed in the 3rd act.

In my sci-fi stories, I ask tons of loops in the first act. Like, who’s the mysterious alien race? What’s the secret to the VR game that’s so scarily popular? What happened to mankind on that planet?

The reason why loops are powerful is because they trigger the survival mechanism of the brain. It wants to learn, learn, and learn to survive–”Don’t go near that bush, bro, there’s a sabre-tooth tiger!”. Hence the page-turning effect.

Knowing why X committed the murder or why that spaceship had to crash-land on that planet triggers your membrane. The brain says: oh-uh. Possible life lesson here, better pay attention to it.

That’s why you should loop in the first act. Set up at least one major mystery and answer it by the end of the third act. Of course, you have to resolve the loop by the end of the book. If readers still don’t know what Uncle Jimmy’s hiding in his basement by the 5th book, you piss off your reader base.

Having said that, if you plan on writing a selling series you’ll have to use two types of loops.

  • 1) Micro-loops that get opened at the beginning of the book 1 and get closed by the end of Act 3.
    (Example. Loop start: Uncle Jimmy hides something in his basement. Loop end: it’s Uncle Jimmy’s twin brother.)
  • Macro-loops that get opened in the first book and closed in the last book of the series. Example: Book 1 loop: Uncle Jimmy has a twin brother. Book 3 end loop: Uncle Jimmy and his twin brother are actually clones who had escaped a secret government facility.)

So when you write your series, open a micro-loop in the 1st act of the 1st book and close it by the 3rd act of book 1. Also include one macro-loop that gets opened in 1 book one and closed in the last book. This way, you’ll have readers burn through your first book and the ones after that. You’ll end up selling more books.

3) Follow the Trope

If you’re an indie author wanting to make money from your stories, because you know, a Netflix subscription and covfefe actually cost money, you should target genre fiction. The biggest ones are “crime thriller”, “romance”, “sci-fi & fantasy”, especially on Amazon.

But to succeed in your chosen genre, you have to understand the underlying tropes or you’ll piss off your target audience. Tropes are recurring themes. In a sci-fi space opera, it’s a captain and his misfit crew, a special spaceship, aliens, orbital and ground-based battle, yadadada.

In Dystopian YA fiction, it’s usually a 17-year old girl living in a dark world run by an authoritarian regime where grown-ups are assholes, except for the 2 hot guys she’s got to choose from.

I’m only slightly exaggerating here—if you write YA and your main character isn’t a teenage female dealing with issues, it’s a tough sale. Light romance and trouble with grown-ups are part of the trope.

If you write space opera but you include no spaceship, aliens or intergalactic battles, you get slaughtered in the reviews. Sub-niche readers expect reoccurring elements.

That’s why you should Google the tropes of your (sub)genre and understand the basic themes that those readers expect. If you manage to deliver the tropes while adding a unique touch, you can make a lot of sales.

Conclusion

I love writing genre fiction. It’s a mix between mastering compelling storytelling (AKA hooking readers to your digital pages) and understanding how to serve a hungry market crowd. The tips above helped me become a full-time indie author. I hope they do the same for you.

Please share this post if you find it useful!

  • http://www.stephenwillis.co Stephen

    Awesome article, probably the best you’ve done on the topic to date!

    • http://www.marsdorian.com/ Mars Dorian

      Thank you, Stephen. I realized I had stopped writing for my blog since I put all of my effort into writing books and paid blog articles, but I plan to release more stuff here.

  • http://stanfaryna.wordpress.com Stan Faryna

    You make reasonable propositions. Can you share a graph of your sales progression that correlate to your various process corrections?

    • http://www.marsdorian.com/ Mars Dorian

      I can include it in the next post. I love the technical & data stuff more and more.

      • http://stanfaryna.wordpress.com Stan Faryna

        Super!

  • Greg Turnquist

    Some would say you are pushing people to “commercialize”, but I can tell what you’re really saying. If you are going to write for a certain genre, then WRITE FOR THAT GENRE. Don’t compromise it with other things. We can’t all be Michael Crichton, hoping to launch a new genre.

    • http://www.marsdorian.com/ Mars Dorian

      That’s why I put the ‘commercial storytelling’ in the header–I wanted to ensure that people instantly knew this was about writing that pays bills. After having released 5+ books, I can say that writing with an audience in mind is fun. If I were only to write for myself, I wouldn’t publish a single book.

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