Writing Secrets of Best Selling Female Authors
Women have proven to be masters in the literary field, just like in many other fields. From Sappho in ancient greek to modern-day female authors, their work has inspired and moved millions of readers. This makes one curious about the writing secrets of these authors, and how they became so successful.
So let’s take a look at the best selling female authors of all time, and learn from their writing routine, the way they depicted their characters, came up with the plot of their stories, and how they made use of language.
Named “Queen of Crime”, Agatha Christie is considered the best selling female author of all time, with a sales record of over 2 billion books. She wrote about 78 novels that have been translated into 44 languages, in addition to 19 plays. This is a huge number, which makes one wonder how did she achieve this success?
As with most success stories, Christie struggled for 4 years to get her first novel published. She was rejected by all the leading publishers at the time until The Bodley Head–an English publishing house–gave her a chance.
Have you ever sat down to write then felt crippling anxiety that leaves you unable of putting down a single word on paper? Apparently, you are not alone. Agatha wrote in her autobiography about starting a new book, “There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off.”
Yet with all the agony, she managed to come up with some of the most clever, well-plotted crime fiction novels out there. Agatha didn’t have a special room where she used to write; instead, she carried around notebooks where she wrote down plots. She also didn’t have a special time or a daily writing routine; she wrote whenever there was an opportunity, using the notes she jotted down.
Although she didn’t have a consistent writing schedule, Agatha used to go on long walks to think her plots over and say the dialogue out loud to herself. This gave her the opportunity to perfect her story. And another reason she wrote so many novels is that she usually worked on at least 2 books at the same time.
Even though Agatha said that plots ideas usually came suddenly to her, it wasn’t all out of the blue. In fact, she used to do the hard work of studying newspapers and looking for details she could use in her stories. She also always tried to look for neat ways of covering up the crime so nobody would suspect the real murderer.
Usually, she would start with how the murder took place, then move on to the murderer and his motive. After that, she would plot other suspects and their motives as well. This made it easier for her to plant the important clues and include some false trails.
One of the writing techniques Agatha is known for is relying heavily on dialogue, which helped in varying the pace of the story and heightening the suspense. Her stories started with a lot of description then gave way to the interaction and dialogue between the characters.
Agatha Christie’s stories are famous for their unique characters. One way she came up with her characters was by observing people in social gatherings and restaurants, then writing down their phrases and behavior. This, however, didn’t make her break her rule of not using recognizable, real-life people in her stories; instead, she felt that a writer has to make something up about their characters and not rely solely on real acquaintances.
Use of Language
The unique writing style of Agatha Christie intrigued the minds of her readers. She used the concept of deception, combining the structure of her story with a psychological spin. And even though she was raised by an upper-class family, her language was rather simple that all readers can understand and enjoy.
Looking at contemporary best selling female authors, we find J.K.Rowling with 15 books and more than 500 million copies sold in the past 25 years! This outstanding success occurred after facing a string of failures, both in her personal and professional life.
Rowling wrote her first book at the age of six, and her first novel at eleven. So it was pretty obvious to her that writing is what she wants to do. She describes writing in an interview as, “more of a need than a love,” and maybe that’s what gave her the dedication and determination that made her books bestsellers.
When asked if she has any tips she’d like to give others who are starting writing, Rowling made it clear that she doesn’t believe in the lists of must-dos; however, there are some recommendations that she believes a writer won’t get far without them.
This includes reading a lot, having discipline when writing, having both resilience and humility when faced with criticism or rejection, facing the fear of failure with courage, and being independent by not having to follow any “Top Ten Tips” religiously.
Before becoming famous, Rowling’s favorite place to write with cafes, because as she says, “You don’t have to break off and go in the kitchen to make coffee.” Now she starts her days early and begins writing around 9 am, and she keeps writing till 3 pm before she takes a break. During this time, she manages to drink 8 or 9 cups of tea, and eat things that won’t ruin her keyboard, like popcorn.
Rowling loves her garden writing room where there is a sink, a kettle, and a closet-sized bathroom. She usually puts classic music while writing, because human voices are quite distracting. She also loves to write longhand then later type her work on the computer. As she says about herself, “I like physically shuffling around with papers.”
We’ve all heard the story of how Rowling had the idea of Harry Potter while sitting on a delayed train. Even though this might appear as pure muse, she refers to discipline as a key to success. She says, “Moments of pure inspiration are glorious, but most of a writer’s life is, to adapt the old cliché, about perspiration rather than inspiration. Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.”
Moreover, she advises taking the time to plan the whole story before setting down to write. This is what she did with the Harry Potter series; she plotted out all seven books and their events before writing the first one.
Rowling drew inspiration for her characters from people she knew in real life. She would use their characteristics to form personalities, then take these characters on imaginary adventures.
As for their names, every character’s name was chosen carefully so that it matches their persona. She used names from literature, history, mythology, and foreign languages. For example, Harry is the Middle English version of Henry, which was the name of many kings; this refers to Harry’s role as a leader wizard.
The use of description is something J.K. Rowling excelled in. She says, “If you want to write a physical description of your character that sticks with your audience, focus on the single most interesting characteristic, and build your character around that.”
The wordplay and clever use of language are clear in the Harry Potter series. This includes newly invented words, names with underlying meanings, and Latin spells. Now Bloomsbury has a glossary that is dedicated to Harry Potter words.
Even though there is no exact figure of the number of books Jane Austen has sold, her novel Pride and Prejudice alone sold over 20 million copies. Her books have been translated into 35 languages and have inspired a huge number of biographies and documentaries. In fact, there have been over 70 films and adaptations of her life and novels.
Using a quill pen dipped in a small inkwell, Jane wrote almost every day. She sat close to a window for light, on a tiny walnut table. She initially wrote on small slips of paper which she then hid in a writing box.
She used to write an initial draft then cross out sentences, then revise the whole book. Reading the draft out loud to her family and friends, especially to her sister Cassandra, was also part of the process.
One thing Austen’s books are known for is having conflict and tension. Her characters often are faced with risks of losing their position in society, their inheritance, or their true love. With every page of the story, the plot deepens.
She also used subplots and secondary characters to explore different themes. And she gave special attention to details, which played a key role in her stories.
The literary world of Jane Austen is full of some memorable characters. She achieved this by making them as complex as possible, just like real people. She didn’t believe in writing heroes who are flawless, or villains who are pure evil. Moreover, she took her readers on a journey where they can watch each of the characters as they grow and develop.
Even though Austen’s language is different from the one we use nowadays, it worked well at the time. The language she used sounded natural as she used a mix of parody, irony, indirect speech, and some realism.
Austen also made use of humor, imagery, and character description to add comic relief to her stories. This isn’t done to entertain the readers only, but also to criticize and comment on the society at the time.
With more than 700 books written and 500 million books sold, Barbara Cartland left behind a huge collection of romance novels. She made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for writing 23 books in one year!
Barbara started her writing career by submitting columns to newspapers, before publishing her first novel. This gave her a loyal audience and made her first novel a hit. What really stood out about her books was how readers could relate to them, even though they were simple in terms of plot and characters.
One of the reasons behind the huge number of books Barbara wrote was the help she received. The matter of the fact is that she didn’t sit down to write the novels herself. Instead, she dedicated her books to her literary secretary who typed them out. This resulted in her ability to produce a book every couple of weeks.
She said about this process, “As I sit there I’m simply telling myself a story, and I am told my voice changes as I take each separate part – I see exactly what is happening as I describe it and I live through each dramatic incident.”
Barbara kept her plots pretty simple. Her stories usually had the same outline, she just changed the characters and story. She also refers to her stories as “lifelike,” as she relies on her vivid imagination, drawing on places she has visited or stayed in. There is always the happy ending where the vulnerable heroine marries the aristocratic hero and they both live happily ever after.
The heroines in Barbara’s books are usually the innocent, Cinderella type. They usually had delicate features and innocent personalities. Her heroes, on the other hand, were “tall, dark, and rather challenging.” This results in the traditional kind of romance where the rather naive heroine falls for the challenging hero and, as the story progresses, they find their way to matrimony.
Danielle Steel found her way to the Guinness Book of World Records, as her book was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 381 consecutive weeks. She sold around 900 million copies of her books and is published in 69 countries, in 49 different languages.
Steel didn’t write novels only; she also wrote children’s books and a few non-fiction books. Her stories are as interesting and complex as her personal life, as she had many divorces and lost a son to suicide.
As she says on her website, Steel’s children are the most important thing to her. This led to her writing at night and spending the daytime with them, sleeping around four hours only. She also worked on more than one book at a time, and each took around two and a half years to finish.
Once she gets an idea for a book, she starts writing down notes, mainly about how the characters think and feel, before she starts working on the outline. Then she starts typing her novels on Olympia SG1 standard typewriters.
Steel gets inspiration for her books from many different sources, such as the newspapers or someone’s experience. She said in an interview, “Sometimes I read a story in the newspaper or hear about someone’s experience, and it sparks. And then I play around with it for a day or two and make notes. If I don’t like the way it feels in those preliminary scribbles, I don’t pursue it. But if it looks like it’s beginning to work, I go with it. I start thinking of the different twists and characters, and it snowballs.”
Most of Steel’s novels had the same formula: a rich family faced with a crisis, such as getting into prison, suicide, or war. She dives deep into more dark issues and tragedies, “the things that hurt us or scare us,” but she always makes sure to “bring them home to a safe harbor.” She also focuses a great deal on human relationships and family issues.
The characters in Steel’s stories usually have the privileges of wealth, beauty, and success. However, they often had a flaw that set them apart from the readers, like having an alcoholic husband who beats his wife. Their privilege, however, doesn’t help them deal with the different aspects of life and relationships.
As for the female characters in her stories, Steel made her heroines strong and authoritative. She gave value to their rational behavior and mental strength. They usually have to fight for their existence, without giving up on their values.
The success these famous female authors had wasn’t by chance; it is thanks to their dedication and consistency. Their passion for writing managed to move their readers as they wrote stories that inspired and challenged them. And we can all learn something from that.