“It’s Moneyball for novelists.” —Dan Kelly
After a decade of novel editing, it was time to write down some of the information compiled inside my head. The result? A book called Bestseller Metrics, also a patent pending system by the same name that can catch and diagnose many writing mistakes that development editors get paid to find. The manuscript is not yet finished, and I’m actively soliciting feedback, not just from senior authors (who might say nice things if they like it), but also unpublished writers who could benefit from using the system. (For free, of course.)
I need to say here that I’m not pushing a formulaic style of writing. In fact, my system frees writers from formula to reveal principles that underlie successful novels. It works for writers of most genres who have a full-length fiction manuscript from 50,000 to 150,000 words that they’d like to sell.
I start with an intensive examination of handpicked bestsellers in popular genres. Here is the first test a writer can easily apply to their own work:
Character Counting—Believe it or not, most bestselling novels feature a similar number of characters in the first quarter, whether it’s recent hits like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, or an all-time classic like The Big Sleep. What’s a very common problem with beginning manuscripts? Too many characters appearing too frequently to keep track! Bestseller Metrics catches the problem early and offers proven solutions—even for unfinished manuscripts.
Here’s an excerpt about the rationale behind Character Counting:
No matter how many minor characters swirl in and out through the mid-story, it’s a core cast that shows up at the beginning (or almost the beginning) and marches through to the end of any novel. Incredibly, the average amount of characters that carry through is 12— whether book length is 70k or 146k.
Once you test a novel, any novel, on the character count of its first and last quarter, you gain a new perspective on continuity. The numbers are not subjective—character continuity is either there or not there. The results are like an x-ray into the skeleton of the story. It’s not the whole picture, but it’s an important part of story foundation.
If the number of surviving characters in the last quarter is too low, this may signal a lack of interconnected relationships that flesh out the “world” of the novel. (Please note emphasis on the word “may.” Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice is a notable exception. Why? Because vampires live forever, outlasting all the human characters.) A low number may also indicate an absence of subplots that serve to keep interest high on a number of levels. Subplots develop on the strength of characters, and if they’re not there in the last quarter, it’s doubtful they’re there at all.
If the number of surviving characters in the last quarter is too high, there’s risk of not enough page time for the core cast—readers don’t get acquainted with them enough to develop a bond. Characters start whipping by on the page, or drop in and drop out before readers have the chance to form an attachment. The more bonded readers are to your characters, the more invested and enthused they are likely to be about the story.
How to Test Your Manuscript
A series of simple tests, done on paper, asks questions about your story. Results are easy to calculate—anybody who can count from one to ten can do it. Scores are then compared to those of famous bestselling novels in a variety of genres, and suggestions are provided for improvements.
The system has pinpointed and solved problems that stubbornly elude writers’ groups, workshops, how-to books, and even critique in MFA programs. (In fact, I’m hoping educators will adopt the system as a tool in their writing classes.) It works for writers with a finished manuscript or one-in-progress; prepares beginners before they begin writing, and acts as a powerful tool in the hands of any seasoned professional who wants to deconstruct their literary competition.
If You Would Like to Try the Tests
Please drop me a line: ashedit *at* gmail *dot* com
What People Are Saying
Elaine Ash is surfacing the boundary between art and science. She is a pioneer. —Dr. Timothy Allison-Aipa, Statistics PhD
[BESTSELLER METRICS] codifies insights that I have been groping toward in the dark for years. —Albert Tucher, author
This is one of the most enlightening books on writing I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of them. —Rochelle Staab, President, Sisters in Crime SoCal
“I’m a big believer in the value of empirical evidence over anecdotal. Yours will be the first book I’ve ever seen that applies those principles to writing without coming across as pressing for a formula.” —Dana King, Nick Forte series, speaker, P.I. novel expert
“Why settle for subjective feedback about the inhabitants of your manuscript when industry book doctor Elaine Ash has discovered the great novels all share serious math. Compare your character list to those of the literary champs and learn why numbers tell their own story.”—Jack Getze, Author, Austin Carr Mysteries, Fiction Editor, Spinetingler
It shows you how others have written successful bestsellers, not how to fit your work into a formula. It makes you aware of the rules, so that when you DO break them, you know WHY and WHEN to do so.—Sam Wiebe, Last of the Independents, Invisible Dead
Elaine Ash doesn’t teach you how to write in this book, she teaches you what works using a method that revolutionized the entire industry of baseball already. Learn how to play moneyball with your creative writing! —Benoit Leliévre, Deadend Follies