What’s the formula(s) for writing success? by L.J. Martin

If you’re speaking of fiction, then the answer, if not the skill, is easy.  It’s writing compelling fiction.  That’s fiction that readers want to read, and who’ll compliment the writer or novel with “I couldn’t put it down.”  That’s compelling, and in my estimation, the finest compliment I, or any writer, can get.

So, what makes a novel compelling?  Why can’t a reader easily lay it aside, and turn off the bedside light?  It’s craft, and craft can be learned.  Much of it is simple construction.  By that I mean chapter length, scene construction, characterization, and story interest.  The first three are fairly simple; the last depends upon the writer’s experience and skill.  And I don’t necessarily mean experience in regards to writing, but rather experience in regard to living.

Luckily, some of us are born old souls, and we observe more than others, we absorb more than others.  I was not that writer until I had accumulated a few years.  Some are able to acquire the knowledge for story interest early on in life.  When I was 25 I began an adventure novel, a thriller, and after five chapters or so realized I didn’t know enough, and was too busy raising and providing for a family to take the time to try and “book learn” what I didn’t know.  So I waited until I was sans half my children and had some time on my hands.  Then I wrote a 130,000 word historical.  I can’t tell you how to make your novel interesting, but I think lots and lots of reading can do so.  You can’t, as a for instance, write about a forensics expert unless you either are one, have observed the process, or have read lots about them–usually non-fiction.

However, pacing, characterization, and the rest of the technical side of constructing a novel can be learned.  I use about ten manuscript pages for chapter length.  Why? It’s easy to get through about seven printed pages without being interrupted.  It’s a short attention span world these days.  That’s the good side; the bad is you still want to keep them reading, even if you’ve given them a chance (a chapter end) to lay your book aside.  And how do you do that?  You break a chapter in the middle of a scene, the conflict unresolved, or you end the chapter with a question the reader wants resolved.  You don’t end with “I fluffed up my pillow and reached up and switched off the light.” You end with the next sentence.  “Almost as soon as I closed my eyes, I heard the scraping of my casement window being forced open.”

And rule one, two, and three: 

1) There’s conflict in every scene, or it’s a transition and shouldn’t be longer than a paragraph. 

2) Enter the scene late and leave early.  No one cares about ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’

3) Deeper and deeper trouble. 

Those are the basic rules of a compelling novel.

L. J. Martin is the author of 20 novels and several non-fiction books (Bantam, Avon, Pinnacle) and articles, and writes a widely read conservative political blog http://fromthepeapatch.com.  He’s also an optioned screenwriter.  He’s written mysteries, thrillers, westerns, and co-written one romance with his wife, NYT best-selling romantic suspense author Kat Martin.  The Martins live in Montana and California.  A number of his articles (excerpted from his book WRITE COMPELLING FICTION can be found on www.ezine.com and several videos on GETTING PUBLISHED can be found on youtube.com (search ljmartinwolfpack). Learn more about the Martins at www.ljmartin.com, www.katbooks.com, www.wolfpackranch.com, as well as facebook and other social sites.

See the trailer for L.J. Martin’s Nemesis . . . 


Larry is giving away a copy of his western, Nemesis, and two copies of his thriller, Last Stand.  Leave a comment and you’ll be in the drawings.  He’ll also send a pdf copy via email of KILLING CANCER to anyone who requests one.

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38 thoughts on “What’s the formula(s) for writing success? by L.J. Martin”

  1. Hi Larry, and welcome to P&P–we are so glad to have you today! I teach a fiction writing class and your topic is one of the hardest things it seems for my students to grasp–how to make a scene compelling and where to end it to make it so. Great tips! Thanks for a very interesting post.

  2. Great post Larry, I am not a writer but this sounds like some good advise. Your books sound great and I wouldn’t mind reading one. I will have to check them out. Thanks for sharing such great writing tips with us today.

  3. Thanks for the welcomes. Of course there are a hundred other writing tips and tricks to “help readers along.” And they are tricks you can apply to letters, resumes, reports, classwork, etc. Don’t think they are only applicable to novels.

  4. P.S. I do videos for all of my work and Kat;s. It’s an amazing promotional opportunity/tool. I use Final Cut Pro which is a sophisticated editing program (Cold Mountain and many others edited thereon) but even the most simple video program will do a good job for the web.

  5. As a reader I totally understand about the chapter endings. I have to use Stephen King as a perfect example of keeping you wanting more at every chapters end. So it’s a love/hate relationship. Of course that’s the kind of books you want to read but they keep me reading far longer into the night than I should lol!! But like you said, those are the books you want to read. I’d love to try one of your books!

  6. Hi Larry,
    Your books sound like something I would like to read. Something different for me.
    Welcome to P&P.

  7. And I’d love to have you try one. Stephen King is not the “king” because he doesn’t use all the tricks to help readers keep reading. Dean Koontz is another great one. I love their short works: Misery and Intensity being my favorites. Both of the those the shortest novels either of them have written…and they move at a Cheetah’s pace. John Grisham is another writer who can say more in three sentences than most can say in three pages. Like all writers, all three of them are not on top their game all the time, but like most successful writers (economically), they’re damn sure on the majority of the time.

  8. Lawyers who write are interesting to me: Grisham, Turow, Martini being great examples and favorites of mine. Steve Martini is the only one I’ve spent some time with, and he’s a real gentleman as well as a great writer. Lawyers write “briefs,” and need to get their point across in the fewest words…so do great writers. Ben Franklin, on writing a five page letter to a friend closed it with, “Had I more time, I’d have been more succinct.” That says it about as well as it can be said.

  9. Welcome to Wildflower junction, Larry. Great trailer! I totally get you about chapter length and am happy to be on the “same page” with you there! The chapter ending hooks are a great reminder also. Thanks.

  10. Welcome, Larry. We’re so glad you could join us today. Like catslady I know a great book by how long I stay up reading it. Thanks for the tips–I apply them every day.

  11. Another key to compelling reading is “enter late, leave early.” So many writers get bogged down with the mundane day-to-day niceties of conversation, that lend little or nothing to moving the plot forward. David Lean said “the next thing that happens in a story is the next thing of interest that happens to the characters.” that pretty much eliminates “hello, how are you?”

  12. Wow you now have me thinking about some of my favorite writers and I see how they keep me in the book and unable to put it down. I shall be looking forward to reading your books.

  13. Good Morning Larry,

    I love all your work. Your wife Kat is also one of my favorite authors.

    I love your post today. It gave me some insight for my own writing. I write mysteries and romance.

    Please email me a pdf of of your Killing Cancer I would love to have it. My email is nativeauthor@gmail.com Of course, enter me to win one of your books

    Have a great day and always

    Walk in harmony,

  14. Oops, I also go to the gym three days a week and play golf one afternoon. I’m up well before the sun (guilty old soul, I guess) or I couldn’t get things done.

  15. Thanks a million, Melinda. I’ll shoot you off a pdf copy of KILLING CANCER. Please search for that page on facebook and give us a “like” click. Lot’s of uplifting stuff there. The book has just come out from BOOKS IN MOTION as an audio. xoxo

  16. I missed a post? Didn’t come up…too long maybe. So here’s your answer, Robin.

    I do a conservative blog, raising hell with the current condition of the country. I do lots of photography, see Larry J. Martin on facebook for some. I moderate WRITING WELL, on facebook, with lots of other writers. I do KILLING CANCER, facebook, and talk via the phone with lots of cancer vics, particularly prostate and squamous throat and tongue, both of which I’ve beaten. I hunt and fish and play golf and go to the gym with Kat. And I make sure I’m watching out for her and her career by doing videos and promotion. And I cook lots, see http://www.wolfpackranch.com. Other than that, not much.

  17. I’m shooting a video interview of Kat as I do this blog, so forgive my back and forth. She has a coming book SONG FOR MY MOTHER, a very sweet mother’s day offering, which I love. A super gift book for that wonderful holiday.

  18. My pleasure, Tracy. Cancer is such a mind game that it’s super important to give lots of support, and lot’s or love and reasons to “live on.” Your first reaction is to put your head in the oven, then it’s time to get busy on diet, exercise, and positive thinking. xoxo

  19. If any of you or anyone you know and care about will benefit from some good words about killing cancer, don’t hesitate sending me an email address where I can shoot off a copy of my book, KILLING CANCER, as a free pdf file, which you can print or read on your computer or reader which will take pdf’s. Also, go in Facebook, search KILLING CANCER and click like, to keep up with some occasional new stuff.

  20. I would appreciate receiving your pdf. Killing Cancer. My husband is a prostate cancer survivor, and cancer is very prevalent in this area. How wonderful that you have used your writing skills to turn your experience with a bad disease into a way to help others. Thanks for your support of others with this disease.

  21. Thanks, Estella. I don’t dp much blogging, other than political stuff. It’s nice to exchange ideas, thoughts, and opinions about something more pleasant. I finished my interview with Kat, so now it’s capture video on the computer, and edit. While I check back here.

  22. What a great post. It is interesting to learn about your writing and background. I am captivated with your books which sound compelling. I will definitely be checking out your conservative blog since I admire anyone who has integrity and is a true patriot.

  23. Interesting article. I like reading Westerns so will have to give yours a try. I have read most of your wife’s books and enjoyed them.

  24. Larry, I’m a little late posting today but wanted to welcome you to P&P. It’s such a thrill to have you. It’s nice to meet another author whose passion is western fiction. I read the genre for years before I got hooked on western romance. I can’t imagine writing anything else.

    I haven’t read much of Stephen King but Dean Koontz is one of my favorite authors. I love how he can write such vivid description and hooks you in every scene.

    Have a great day and come back to visit often.

  25. Larry, went to all of your websites and have bookmarked them. I would like to read KILLING CANCER. Thanks.

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