How to Write a Bestselling Novel: 4 Tips from Octavia Butler's Notes
"Create a real world for them and for you."
Let me begin with a big welcome to the hundreds (!) of new subscribers who found Noted in the past few weeks: I’m so glad you are here! If you are new, you might not know that (thanks to paid subscribers) I visited Octavia Butler’s archive at the Huntington Library in California in January.
Also, I’m happy to announce that, with the help of paid subscribers, I was able to donate to the Huntington Library. Their librarians have done so much to preserve Butler’s papers (not to mention the other treasures in their collection), and I’m very excited that together we were able to help support them.
Here is the first post I wrote about Butler:
At the end of this post, I asked readers if they’d like another post on Butler. Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes:
So, here we are.
Readers might remember that Octavia wanted to become a bestselling author. She achieved that goal in 2020, well after her death.
Octavia figured out how to write a best-seller by studying other successful novels. She developed a formula for success that she applied to her own work. Butler’s formula consists of four strategies:
Thoroughness: Let the reader feel that he or she is being drawn into an “other” world that is complete and REAL. Draw them into a real world. Create a real world for them and for you.
Compelling, believable characters are alive for reader and writer alike.
Characters both reader and writer must care about.
Real and compelling conflict: STRUGGLE in which both reader and writer cannot help becoming involved
TWIST—The strand of the unusual, of the extraordinary that must be woven in tightly, realistically, believably throughout the story. For a new and unusual story solution break set. Redefine the problem. Imagine alternatives.
In what follows, I’ll use illustrations from Butler’s notes to expand on each of these strategies.
Octavia built real, complete worlds for her novels. These worlds might include aliens, time travel, or ancient spirits, but they always feel fully realized. Under this strategy, Butler writes:
Let the reader feel that he or she is being drawn into an “other” world that is complete and REAL.
Draw them into a real world.
Create a real world for them and for you.
To create a real, complete world, Octavia did a lot of research. For Kindred (a novel in which a modern woman finds herself in the antebellum south), she read slave-narratives. For Clay’s Ark, she studied “the culture of doctors” to understand her main character, Dr. Blake Maslin. (In Clay’s Ark, humans are infected with an alien microorganism that gives them extraordinary powers.)
In a notebook she used while writing Clay’s Ark, she reminds herself,
Without the medical side, I might very well not have a novel…
As slave narratives were basic and essential to Kindred, Doctor narratives are essential to The Flaying [Clay’s Ark]
Butler notes that she has “two serious planes of ignorance to populate,” so she sets out to learn as much as she can so that she might
Know the culture of Doctors. Feel it. Know it. Taste it. Smell it. Hear it.
She notes that “brain surgery is always scheduled for early morning.” She defines terms (astrocytoma, hemiplegia, angiogram). She describes epilepsy and chemotherapy. She takes notes on Lawrence Shainberg’s Brain Surgeon: An Intimate View of his World.
Questions and Answers: Building a Fictional Religion
For Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Butler created an entire religion. These novels take place in a post-apocalyptic world, where, a young woman leads a fight for survival and ends up founding a religion called Earthseed. While writing this novel, Butler asks herself,
But who are these new people: these Earthseed?
She imagines this series will last for seven books (ultimately, she only wrote two) and she notes that this religion “must be substantial—real.”To accomplish this, Butler asks herself questions and answers them from the perspective of the Earthseed religion. The mantra for this religion is "God is change," a sentence Butler writes several times on this page:
2. Compelling, believable characters
Once Butler developed a complete world for her novel, she populated it with believable characters. They should be
… alive for reader and writer alike.
Characters both reader and writer must care about.
So she asks herself questions about her characters.
Questions and Answers: Building a Psychological Profile
Butler returned to her question/answer strategy to flesh out characters. Preparing to write Mind of my Mind (1977), Butler explores the novel’s main character, Mary, and her husband, Karl. At the beginning of the novel, Mary lives in poverty and doesn’t realize that she has telepathic powers.
2 Who loves Mary?
A Karl. Though it is the totally selfish demanding kind of love that can be mistaken for a good many other less tender emotions. The man has never learned to love conventionally….
2 Whom does Mary love?
A Afflicted and immature as she is at the beginning, no one. Not even herself….
3 Just how bad, how hard was Mary’s life before she met Karl
A Difficult. Not grinding poverty, but continual energy consuming discomfort…
In addition to knowing her characters’ psychological profiles, Butler had to write dialogue for them. In Kindred, she differentiates enslaved Black characters, free Black people, and White enslavers through dialect.
Free blacks—Alice + her mother say: “You not!”
Slaves say: You ain’t!
Rufus +Tom [white slave owners] say: You’re not! or “You are not!”
If you want readers to care about your characters, make them sexy. As Butler explains, there are many different types of sexiness.
Anything not dangerously repulsive <like child abuse> can be sexy if you, the author, feel it is sexy. Remember, though, phoniness communicates as well as sincerity.
She devotes a notebook page to various forms of sexiness. For example, partnership, power, touching, knowing, and silence are all sexy according to Butler. Towards the end of the page, she names some of her characters as examples of particular kinds of sexiness. For example, Doro and Anyanwu (Wild Seed) illustrate how "Struggle” and “Arrogance” are sexy.
In a 1997 interview, Butler discusses how she reminds herself to infuse her novels with sexiness:
…one of the signs—I put signs on my walls as a reminder while I’m writing—is “sexiness,” not only sexiness in the sense of people having sex, but sexiness in the sense of wanting to reach readers where they live and wanting to invite them to enjoy themselves.
3. Real and compelling conflict
STRUGGLE in which both reader and writer cannot help becoming involved
Throughout her notes, Butler reiterates a novel’s central conflict. For example, while writing Kindred, she notes,
Kindred is the story of the love-hate relationship between a modern day black woman and her ancestors of the Antebellum south: A slave owner’s son and the free black women he enslaves & rapes.
But how does an author build real, compelling conflict? Butler has notes on that too:
This page is pure gold. I can imagine a creative writing exercise in which you take an idea for a novel and experiment with each of these prompts. For example, where is the “unity of opposites”? What “vital” thing might be at stake in the beginning of the novel? Which character has “reached a turning point” as the story begins? What decision “will precipitate conflict”?
The strand of the unusual, of the extraordinary that must be woven in tightly, realistically, believably throughout the story. For a new and unusual story solution break set. Redefine the problem. Imagine alternatives.
Butler lists shocking plot points she might incorporate into her novels. Let’s consider a page that refers to Wild Seed. She tells herself:
Do everything outrageous terrible grotesque thing! And make it real and likely & acceptable. Make your reader gasp! Then make him/her nod in agreement
Wild Seed is my favorite of Butler’s books. Here’s a brief summary: the novel is about two ancient, immortal spirits that chase each other through the centuries. Doro, a man, can inhabit any person’s body, destroying them in the process. While, Anyanwu, a woman, can transform her body into any human or animal.She is a healer; he is a destroyer. And theirs is a love story. This framework allows Butler to play with issues of gender, sexuality, and race as the two characters switch genders and races throughout the novel, allowing for many “twists.” In these early notes, Butler often refers to Anyanwu’s character as “Emma.” Here are some of the "outrageous terrible grotesque" things she considers:
There should be a period during which Doro is a woman and gives birth.
There may be a period when Emma
We should examine Emma’s body with her as she learns more about controlling & molding/manipulating it.
Emma’s—Anyanwu’s—clitoris was removed in her female circumcision ceremony. When she has attended a few births, she sees that American women are not so mutilated. She grows back the small organ—her cells remember—and Doro pleases her more than ever…
Read More Books
I’ll close with a fifth, implicit strategy: read lots of books. Octavia always advised aspiring writers to read more. For her part, she read quite a lot. She took books out of the library and frequented local bookstores. Butler had a brilliant strategy for recording her reading: she removed price-tags from books she bought at (real!) bookstores and stuck them in her notebook. If you look closely, you can see book titles printed on the stickers.
Notes on Butler’s Notes:
Study other authors: Butler read with a novelist’s attention to plot, character development, and pacing. She took notes on her reading so that she could learn from other novels.
Find your formula: Great novels contain an immersive world and fascinating characters. Some great novels are beautifully written, others have a well-built, dynamic plot. Some have twists. I love Butler’s formula for a bestseller, but there are other, equally valid, formulas out there.
Questions and Answers: To get to know your fictional world and characters better, ask questions and answer them. This method works for other genres too—including Substack posts.
Track your reading: I’m not sure we have a digital equivalent of saving bookstore price tags. Good Reads? Google docs? Personally, I always refer back to my library history to see the books I’ve checked out. Of course, there are also many, enduring traditions for recording one’s reading in a notebook. And, we still have real, material book stores.
I found Butler’s notes so inspiring that I almost believed I could write a compelling science fiction novel. I bet some of you actually can! Here’s hoping you transform these tips into a bestselling novel of your own. When you do, please come back and share your secrets with us!
Thank you, as always, for reading! Let me know you enjoyed this post by hitting the heart! You can also support Noted by commenting, sharing, and subscribing. If you’re enjoying these posts, please consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Till next week,
OEB 3242, p. 15
Butler, Octavia E. Conversations with Octavia Butler. University Press of Mississippi, 2010.
If you love dolphins as much as I do, then you have to read the section in which Anyanwu experiences the world from inside a dolphin’s body. It’s magical.
As mentioned, at this early stage, Anyanwu is named Emma.
Congratulations on your wave of subscribers. This was a great issue. It was very detailed and captured Ms. Butler visualized success. Thanks!
Another fantastic post. And what a genius way of keeping track of books! For the first time in my life I'm keeping notes on what I read. I'm doing it on a google sheet and it's fun, interesting and fulfilling. I'm noticing things I wouldn't notice without my 'Book Fun' google sheet. Like that I might enjoy switching to non-fiction after a bunch of fiction readin!