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What writer could resist the title: Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers?

Having just finished this book, I’d like to share a few notable insights. Bear with me as this will likely require more than one post.

Here’s the first quote, one that James Hall includes from another author, Michael Korda who has written about American bestsellers.

At least half the books on any given week’s bestseller list are there to the immense surprise and puzzlement of their publishers … That’s why publishers find it so hard to repeat their successes – half the time they can’t figure out how they happened in the first place.

Aha … perhaps this is why my agent and I are having trouble finding a publisher for my novels!

Hall organizes his book to reveal twelve features of hit lit. The first feature is “An Offer You Can’t Refuse” – essentially tricks of the trade that make a story so compelling the reader can’t put it down. What are these tricks?

A novel must:

  • entertain
  • engage readers in a compelling, simple and dramatic premise
  • offer an unfolding story with “one complication after another”
  • include characters “of deep conviction and fervent, stubborn resolve, capable of passions that rise well beyond the normal range of human experience”
  • make the story worth the readers’ time by forging a “powerful emotional bond … composed of one part pity, one part fear”
  • minimize backstory
  • create “some form of serious peril” very early on
  • enhance the tension with “the power of the ticking clock”

Feedback: what historical fiction authors or novels do you think follow these tricks of the trade?

Next post … a few more of the twelve features.