It’s the kind of success story writers dream of.
In 2014, Jane Harper decided she was finally going to do it — she was going to write a book.
She enrolled in an online writing course, and in just twelve weeks had completed her first draft of The Dry.
The fast paced, hard-edged crime novel was the kind novel Ms Harper had always wanted to write.
“I like books with a bit of mystery and suspense,” the former journalist says.
It was an instant hit. Critics loved The Dry for its elegant structure, Australian voice, and Ms Harper’s ability to vividly paint a landscape in the grip of drought.
Readers loved it for its tight pace, its awkard, lovable hero and its satisfying ‘whodunnit’ reveal.
The book raced on to bestseller lists around the world, won multiple awards, and was sold in to more than 20 foreign language territories.
Today, Jane Harper is still riding high on the success of The Dry.
The movie rights have been sold to Reece Witherspoon’s production company, and the script is complete. Ms Harper’s second book, Force of Nature, has been another bestseller, and she has another on its way.
So, how does she do it?
While at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Ms Harper revealed the secrets to writing a bestselling novel. Writers, grab your pencils…
1. Seriously. Get started
Before she wrote The Dry, Ms Harper was a full-time journalist who’d always wanted to write a novel. But she never got around to it.
Author Jane Harper put off writing a book for years. Then she wrote a bestseller. (Supplied: Pan Macmillan)
“I always thought I would one day have this great idea and this block of time and it would all beautifully come together and I’d suddenly have this book,” she says.
But a decade went by, and that perfect time never arrived. She realised she was just going to have to push herself.
“I honestly just got fed up with waiting for it to happen,” she says.
As a journalist used to working to deadline, she knew she’d need some motivation to get the job done. So she enrolled in an online writing course.
“You had to send off a synopsis and an opening chapter, and I thought, ‘I’m just going to apply because it’s going to give me that external pressure’,” she says.
She came up with a prologue and a synopsis. Twelve weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, she finished her manuscript — the first draft of what would become The Dry.
2. Make the time to work
Jane Harper wrote her first book while working full-time. She wrote her second book while pregnant, so it’s fair to say she knows a thing or two about time management.
“I’m very disciplined in my writing,” she says.
For The Dry, that discipline meant carving out one hour every day to write, with no distractions.
“I used to come home from work and I would stay in my work clothes and I would just sit down. I’d almost set the time and I would do one hour.”
After the hour of writing was up, she’d let herself relax, change out of her work clothes, make dinner and watch TV.
“Because you know you’ve only got an hour, you really try to make the most of it.
“You power through.”
3. The power of the prologue
For both The Dry and Force of Nature, the first thing Ms Harper wrote was the prologue.
For each, she says she had a key image in her mind — the murdered family in The Dry, and a missing woman in the bush in Force of Nature.
“I can see this dilemma, this issue, and then from there I can build up what might have happened and what could have happened and how would this affect the people around it.”
A good prologue can serve as a guide for the writer — a clear mission statement of where the novel is going.
“I think it really helps. It saves you a lot of words later on,” Ms Harper says.
It can help the reader, too.
“People who read it and think, ‘well, it’s not for me’, are probably not going to like the rest of the book.
“I like to just get it all out there, really.”
4. Keep it short and sweet
Across the glowing reviews for The Dry, the phrase ‘page-turner’ comes up again and again. It’s accurate. Chapters are short and sharp, and each finishes with the kind of cliffhanger just made for “binge reading.”
When it comes to structuring her chapters, Ms Harper is methodical and ruthless.
“Cutting off the last few paragraphs and ending it a little bit earlier can make all the difference in terms of making people want to turn the page,” she says.
“I’m quite logical about it. I think, ‘what can I end this on which will make someone want to read the next page’. It’s not even a feeling. It’s a very clinical look at what’s going to make someone turn over.”
5. The whodunnit better be worth it
Crime novels are fun to read. But when the final reveal happens, they can be ultimately disappointing. Sometimes, the bad guy was obvious from page one. Sometimes the ending is so convoluted it defies all logic.
When Jane Harper sat down to write her crime novels, she was determined they would end with a satisfying conclusion.
“There’s a real line between a trick and a surprise, and I think you always want to come down on a surprise.
“You want to give readers a chance so when it gets to the end, they feel like, ‘OK, so that was why X,Y and Z happened.”
She says she always knows ‘whodunnit’ before she starts writing. Once she’s finished the first draft, she then goes back and throws in a few red herrings, for good measure.
“When you do have a basic plot down, it becomes a lot easier to add in those red herrings, because you get more of a sense of how much you can give away, and where you can point people’s attention. A lot of those come in very late.”
6. Write for your readers
While Ms Harper has had a dream run, she’s eager to emphasise it didn’t all happen overnight. Her first manuscript for The Dry was a rough outline, just 40,000 words — a far cry from the final, detailed 90,000-word bestseller it became.
“What you pick up in the book shop, it’s like Instagram. You’re not seeing all the stuff that’s gone in to it.”
While she’s celebrating her successes, she says it’s the readers who still come first.
“When I was first writing The Dry, honestly, my real goal was just to finish it,” she says.
“And then you think, ‘well, I’ll try to make it the best book I can make it’. And then, ‘wouldn’t it be great if it got published’. And then, ‘wouldn’t it be great if it sold quite well.'”
“I’m so delighted by the success, I really am.
“But honestly, and I hope this doesn’t sound too cheesy — I love it when readers say they enjoyed it. Because that’s all I wanted, really. Just to write something that people would enjoy.”