How to write a bestseller

Did you miss me?

It always takes me awhile to get back into the swing of things once I get home from a trip.  But now I’m back at my desk and thinking about what a great time I had at the San Francisco Writers Conference — and what a terrific town San Francisco is.  Ages ago I went to medical school there, and every time I go back, I’m reminded that there’s no place like it in the country.  How many towns can boast a female chief of police AND a female fire chief?  Then I opened up the local newspaper and on the front page was an article about a local official’s boyfriend, who’d set fire to their residence.  It wasn’t until a few paragraphs into the article that I realized the “local official” was a man.  Oops!  In San Francisco, you can’t assume anything.  The town is full of surprises — and delights.

The Writers Conference was another delight.  Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen have built it into a classy event that covers a wide range of topics.  One of the sessions I was anxious to attend was the talk “writing the breakout novel” by literary agent Donald Maass.  I’d been hearing about Donald Maass for some years, from people who’d raved about his how-to course on writing bestselling novels.  Even though I do happen to write bestselling novels, I’ve always wondered if I really know the “secret”.  Most of the time I think I’m just operating on my storyteller instincts, with a lot of luck thrown in.  Could Maass help me pin down exactly what makes a bestseller?  Or is it all just fairy dust?

When I finally did catch my first glimpse of Maass, I was surprised he was so young.  I’d been hearing about him for so many years, I’d expected a gray-haired gentleman.  He read off the titles on the current New York Times fiction bestsellers list and challenged the audience to list what those bestsellers had in common.  The result?  Not a lot.  There were thrillers and literary novels, books with heroes and books with heroines, a book set in Afghanistan and a book set in Jersey, books with high stakes and books with quietly personal stakes.  As he pointed out, you can’t predict which topic or which plot will hit the list.

But you can find certain things that bestsellers have in common: characters you care about, stakes that matter to them, and what he referred to as continuous “microtension” – a story with a high level of conflict, an underlying sense that something important is always about to happen, or could happen.  He also said something that I myself have concluded (and in fact blogged about sometime ago): action, in and of itself, is not tension.  In fact, it can be downright boring.

I found myself nodding in agreement with everything he said.  He managed to verbalize what I’ve tended to do by instinct.  Wow, I thought; there really is an algorithm for writing a bestselling novel! 


14 replies
  1. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Well that’s great! And yeah, I’ve been checking every day just about to see if you’ve put anything up. Whenever I go to hack away at my latest idea, I almost always have the MAIN gist of the story in mind, but the filler story is what eludes me. I can’t seem to find that “microtension” as you put it and make it work with reasonable consistency in my script. Good blog, Dr. G, because I was just thinking about that the other day when I sat down to attack my story but then quit five minutes later when I couldn’t find any reason to continue it. Have you decided on a title for your next novel, or is that hush-hush still? A bientot!

  2. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:


    It was a pleasure meeting you at the conference. I haven’t had the chance yet to blog about it, but Cindy Pavlinac finally sent me pictures she took of me there so I have that to accompany my text. I’ll send you a link once I post it.

    I agree with your surprise at Donald Maass’ youthful appearance. He founded his agency twenty years ago and I can only think he must have started that in his early twenties. He is very impressive, as are you.


  3. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    welcome back Tess-Police Chief Heather Fong is the first woman of Asian background to be a police chief in a major US city

  4. wendy roberts
    wendy roberts says:

    Welcome back! SF is such a marvellous, vibrant city. Sounds like you had fun.

    I’ve enjoyed various flavours of The Donald’s workshops. He comes to the Surrey Writers’ Conference each year and since it’s in my back yard, I’m always there too. Ten years ago my very first one-on-one agent pitch was to Mr. Maass. I was very pregnant at the time and experiencing labour pains. He politely (and quickly) rejected my very first manuscript 🙂

  5. Stephe
    Stephe says:

    Uhm, yes, we did! Glad you’re safely back.

    Thanks for the fantastic information on Donald Maass, and his tips on microtension. I’ve always pictured a gray-haired gent when visiting the Maass website for an update. LOL! It only goes to show you… 🙂

  6. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Hey Tess,
    I think Im not the only one wondering if the San Fran lot had decided to keep you.

    Good to hear that you’re back safe and sound though. Look forward to future blogs from you about writerly stuff, it keeps my mind going and thinking why I want to write as well as aiding by backing up theories Ive had for a bit. I’d guessed for a while that generating characters that you cared about was essential so its nice to see that theory backed up.

    All the best,


  7. struggler
    struggler says:

    Tess – How to write a bestseller? Well I’ve just finished one, and I’ve started another. The first (whose author, protocol dictates, I cannot mention) was all action and zero characterisation. Or should I say, 90% padding and 10% real action. This author has published twelve novels and I’m you have met him/her, let alone are familiar with. I couldn’t care less about even the lead character (who appears in all twelve novels), yet these books are well-established bestsellers.

    The other author, I guess, I CAN mention: Michael Connelly. I’m reading his second book THE BLACK ICE which came out way back in 1993 and features his favoured leading man Harry Bosch. And yes, Bosch is a character I care about, involved in stakes that matter to me, and there’s masterfully crafted “microtension” from cover to cover, an underlying sense that something important is about to happen.

    What I conclude from this is that, sadly, well-drawn characterisation does not a bestseller make. You of course have succeeded in the form of Jane Rizzoli (for example!), but some novels by other writers hit the top 10 with little more than wham/bam/ker-pow within and the buying public still love them and stay loyal to them. I suppose one of the best examples of this meaninglessness is Ian Fleming’s James Bond; he’s not really well known to the reader other than by way of what he does – although to be fair the novels (which I read over 40 years ago!) offer a little more insight into 007’s character than the films ever do.

  8. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    Welcome back to the cold East coast. I’m glad you had a gay old time in San Fran (pun intended.)
    Microtension. Doesn’t that exist in the minds of every story writer? Something conflicting or exciting is about to happen? I find that in almost every story that I have read. Oh, well, learn something new every day.
    Welcome back! We did, indeed, missed ya!

  9. putney1968
    putney1968 says:

    I am taking a novel writing class taught by David Housewright in Minneapolis. He talks about creating characters that the reader cares about and always keeping the story moving ahead. I think that works as one of many operational definitions of “microtension.” Easier to define than create, I am finding. I have taken the plunge and signed up for the SEAK medical writing course in October. I look forward to meeting you and learning from you.

  10. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:

    It took me awhile today to get it all together with all the links and pictures, but I finally finished my blogpost about the San Francisco Writers Conference. You can find it here:

    Scroll down to the bottom to see the photo that Cindy took of us together.

    Oh, and I saw this morning that Maine was struck by a heavy snow storm.


    Hopefully spring will come soon for you.


  11. Tess
    Tess says:

    what a terrific roundup of the San Francisco Writers Conference! You reminded me of what a fun time we had together, chatting at the cocktail party about archaeology and wine — two of my favorite topics.

  12. WJS
    WJS says:


    After having a busy college lifestyle, I managed to finish The Bone Garden. I have to say that I am extremely satisfied with the novel, and it sits on my favorite bookshelf as a memoir. It would be a friendly reminder to me as I see it as I past it everyday, foretelling the stories of Rose Connelly and the harsh times of the 1880s.

    Prior to your blog you posted about how to write a bestseller. There is a trend I am keep seeing overall that would affect the development of the characters and how the author portray them. That trend is the economic changes and how customers wanted their demand while the publisher proves the supplies.

    Few years ago, all the hype was about New York Times Bestseller and that bulls*** going of telling who’s the best and such. I honestly loathe the system, and I think more people are getting tired of the system, because it was based on the quantity value. Writers like you and few others who value in character development and keep it way would bring the quality value.

    People would actually appreciate the quality value and take that into the consideration for the long term to come. When that happens, you would have a long trail of loyal or respectful readers, guaranteeing you a place in work.

    Well done, and I truly enjoy your wisdom and insightful into various topics in life on your blog and throughout your books. I would love to chat with you personally via emails. I believe you may find me and my young life interesting because I am actually deaf and partly blind (Notice my not-so-perfect English grammar).

    Josh Simpson

  13. naomi
    naomi says:

    Donald Maass will be at the Midwest Fiction Writer’s fall conference in September. This is in Minneapolis, and since I’m near there I’m going to attend. I’m glad you blogged about his class. I’m always curious about speakers and what they know and how they will impart that knowledge and information to others. Now I’m curious to learn more. 🙂

    Welcome back!

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