Every year, we’re lucky to have great sponsors for our nonprofit events. Ulysses, a NaNoWriMo 2017 sponsor, is a professional writing app for macOS and iOS. Today, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Layne shares her best tips for writing books that sell:
I’m what one might call a “process-junkie” Although I’ve been a full-time author since 2013, my
background is in the corporate world, and I was on an operations team. Figuring out the best way to
go about accomplishing tasks and goals was literally my day job.
And it’s a proclivity that’s carried over into my writing life. I’ve published over two-dozen books, and
in my early days, half the battle was figuring out how to write those books with the most effective,
stress-free system possible.
It took me a couple years and several writing programs, but I’ve finally found my Holy Grail of
I’ve been using the writing app since 2015, and it’s the first and only program that I’ve never
cheated on. In the past, I’d flit from program to program, convinced that the next one would make
the writing process easier. I’ve used Ulysses for two years now, and never once wavered in my
loyalty. Simply put, it works. Ulysses is built for writing quickly and writing well. Since switching to
Ulysses, I’ve signed multiple book deals, hit the USA TODAY bestseller list multiple times, and even
made the elusive New York Times list. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Here are my 5 top tips for writing books that sell, as well as how I utilize Ulysses to achieve
1. Your story comes first.
Looking to write a book that sells? It won’t matter how compelling your characters, how nuanced
your setting, how exquisite your prose if you don’t have a story—a plot. Bestsellers tend to be high-concept; they’re stories that can be described in 1-2 sentences, in what’s often known as an
Take a look at these examples: Orphan finds out he’s a wizard and gets sent to wizarding boarding school. Teen volunteers to take sister’s place in death match on live television. A Harvard professor
follows clues left in Da Vinci paintings to solve a two-thousand year old secret. Harry Potter, The
Hunger Games, and The Da Vinci Code. Three wildly successful books that pique reader interest right
from the very first: “It’s a story about …”
Even if you’re not a planner/outliner, it’s crucial to know what your story’s about before you write.
Luckily, Ulysses makes it extremely easy to keep your plot front-and-center as you begin the writing
process. Unlike traditional word processors where you have to work with one long scrolling
document, Ulysses allows you to create “sheets” within your book’s project folder/group. The first
thing I do before starting any book is to create a sheet that I label STORY. It’s where, in a single
sentence, I sum up the core of the book’s plot. I’ll use other sheets/features for more detailed
planning, but having a single sheet with a single sentence serves as a quick reminder of what the
story’s about when I start to lose my way.
2. Think scenes, not chapters.
When I first started writing, I used to picture my manuscript as one big entity (the book) chopped by
into random intervals (chapters). The result was a meandering, often boring, slog. My breakthrough
came when I moved beyond books on writing too books on screenplay writing. That’s when it
clicked. A book, just like a movie, is made up of scenes. Small, mini-stories, that are interesting in
and of themselves. Often, those scenes are contained neatly within one chapter, but not always!
Some scenes span multiple chapters, other chapters contain multiple scenes. Think of your book
like a movie—something should happen in each scene. It doesn’t have to be an action scene, per
say, but each scene must move the story forward in some way (even via dialog) in order to keep
readers turning the pages.
Ulysses is perfectly designed for this “scene” approach to writing. I set up all of my books so that
each scene gets a dedicated “sheet,” and the list of scenes sits along side the left side of my screen
as I write (or can be hidden, for distraction-free writing). If I want to access a particular scene, I need
only to click on it from the list. No scrolling through hundreds of pages to find “that one part …”
3. Leave breadcrumbs for yourself.
The hardest part about writing a book in a month (or writing a book at all!) is staying excited when
we get to what’s known as “the sagging middle”—that part of the story where the fresh newness
has worn off, and The End seems very far away. To combat this mid-book slump, I like to skim over
all of the scenes I’ve already written, as well as create placeholder sheets/scenes for whats to
come. As mentioned above, Ulysses makes it easy to organize your book by scene, but there’s
another trick that makes this even better: by putting two “plus signs” on either side of a piece of
text, you can create a note to yourself, that won’t show up in the final document. For example, I can
also remind myself what Chapter Twelve is about putting two plus signs around this chunk of text at
the top of my Ulysses sheet for that scene:
The above text will show up for me in Ulysses, but the plus signs tell Ulysses not to export that
particular “note to self” in the final Word document. Not only does this scene summary make for
easy quick reference looking back at what you’ve already written, but it can serve as motivation/
inspiration on future scenes! You can see the crux of that exciting climax scene waiting to be
written, even if you’re not quite there yet.
4. Break the writing rules.
I used to think there was one “right way” to write a novel—that precise writing was good writing. I’d
agonize that all of my chapters had to be roughly the same length, and at least 2,000 words. I’d
think that if I did alternating POVs at the start of the book, I had to keep that going throughout the
entire book. I thought that one-sentence paragraphs weren’t allowed. Or that you could never ever
start a sentence with but or so, and that sentence fragments were completely off limits. I followed all
the rules, published a few books with a big publisher… and sold almost no books, and made
almost no money.
I figured if I wasn’t going to make much money from my books, I might as well have some fun with
it! So, I started breaking rules. If a particular scene ended up at 898 words, and I loved the idea of it
being its own chapter, I did that, even if the surrounding chapters were 3,000+. I once wrote a book
where 80% was the heroine’s POV in first person, 20% was the male POV in third- person. I’ve
written scenes made up primarily of text messages.
And you know what happened when I started breaking rules? I started hitting bestseller lists.
Breaking rules and trying something different doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer—it means you’re
developing your own style. This again, is where Ulysses really shines. Traditional word processors force
you to see your book in a very “finished” format, even in your earliest drafts. You may not realize it,
but this “formal” appearance can really hamper any creative innovation. Ulysses provides freedom
of structure, and because it’s a Markdown editor, you’ll be focused on what your words and stories
are, rather than whether they or not they adhere to the “rules.”
5. Push through to the end.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, don’t stop until you reach the end! This seems so obvious,
but it’s truly the most crucial advice I can give. A finished book is what separates authors from
writers. Writers write. They put words on a page. But they also sometimes stop. Authors push
through to the end so they have something to publish. Confession: my official story is that I wrote
my first book in 2011, but the truth is, I tried NaNoWriMo 3 times in the early 2000s. I’d always
start out November strong, excited about my new story, already envisioning the mansion I’d buy
when I edged out Stephen King in book sales. All three of those times, I quit before even reaching
30,000 words. But the strange thing: it was never a sudden stop. It’s not as though I was on an
inspired writing tear one day, and then would just abruptly abandon the book the next day. It was
slow. Subtle. I’d tell myself that I had writer’s block, and just needed to “reevaluate” my story, and
go back to fiddling with the my outline. Or tweaking my notes. I’d tell myself that I just needed a
little time away from my story, and would watch TV instead. Or I’d tell myself that my problem was
lack of organization. I’d spend hours (yes, hours) in my then-writing program, playing with formatting
and cork boards and style editors. Slowly, I’d fall further and further behind in my word count, until
finally I just… quit.
This is why Ulysses is so crucial. I know I sound like a broken record, but Ulysses is one of the few
programs that gets it right. It keeps the focus on what matters: words. But with just enough
organization prowess so that you don’t lose your way.
Lauren Layne is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen romantic comedies. A former e-commerce and web marketing manager from Seattle, Lauren relocated to New York City in 2011 to pursue a full-time writing career. She lives with her husband in midtown Manhattan.