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Learn From The Best: How E.L. James Made Millions From Her Midlife Crisis

EL James Writing TipsReading Time: 5 minutes

E.L. James’ writing tips may not be a template you want to follow.  Her work has been sneered at, criticised and made fun of.

But, her success cannot be denied.

She had never written a book before.  But when she did, her success launched her to the top of the Forbes list of highest-earning authors.

Her debut novel Fifty Shades of Grey  was even quoted as being “bigger than the bible.”

writing tips from EL James


How it all started

After becoming obsessed with the Twilight series in 2008, E.L. James (real name Erika Mitchell) decided to write the Fifty Shades trilogy.  She describes it as her:

“my midlife crisis, writ large. All my fantasies in there, and that’s it.”

James’ claims that the trilogy is based on a combination of her personal experiences and imagination.  Here’s more on what she has to say on the subject:


Why her success is fifty shades of surprising

About this heading – I couldn’t help myself. #sorrynotsorry

But on a more serious note, there are so many red flags surrounding this author’s work that her success is truly fascinating.

Aside from the fact that E.L. James had never written a novel before:

  • She wrote the Fifty Shades trilogy from a young person’s perspective.  Even much of the language is teenagery.  And yet, so many adults loved it.
  • Competition from the already-saturated genre of erotic literature didn’t stop her success.
  • She didn’t go down the traditional publishing route with the first novel and instead, self-published.
  • Despite receiving heavy criticism she still sold over 70 million copies.

Seriously, how did she do it?


#1  She broke the rules

Her trilogy is scattered with grammatical errors, adverbs and repetition.  The basic rules that us writers wouldn’t dare to break.

But this didn’t stop its success.

Maybe this is because breaking the rules is okay – sometimes.  After all, people have been doing it for years, even Shakespeare.

el james writing tips

While James’s success might not reach as far as Shakespeare’s, she has proved that mainstream readers are more interested in the content than the technicalities.  And if they are engrossed in a story, they’ll be forgiving of technical issues.


#2  People hating your work isn’t always a bad thing

“a cut-price Mr Darcy with nipple clamps…the joke is taken too far…creepy doesn’t even begin to cover it.” Bryony Gordon, author of The Wrong Knickers.

“Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t just a literary copycat of Twilight, but a cultural copycat, as well.” Jenny Trout, a contributor on Huffpost.

“I’ve been thinking of alternate titles…Something succinct like: ’50 Shades of Grey’, ‘7 Shades of Scarlet’, & ‘372 Pages of Dumb.’ Or maybe: ‘120 Days of Boredom.'” reader review on  Dear Author.

These are just a few of the criticisms of James’s work.

Even J.K. Rowling had something to say:

“Think how many books I could have sold if Harry had been more creative with his wand.”

It didn’t stop there.

Hashtags were created in her honour – #BritishwritingisnotallGrey (Fiction Uncovered).

Alternative books were inspired:

wtitintips fifty shades of grey bestseller

So, how did the Fifty Shades trilogy develop such an immunity to bad press?

One word.  Curiosity.

A naughty novel is something that can sell through word of mouth but James’s success was about more than that.  It seemed that everyone had something to say about her work – good or bad.  And this made people want to find out for themselves.

Zoe Williams’s acknowledges this in her article Why women love Fifty Shades of Grey’.  Her opinion of the first novel isn’t too scathing but Williams’s describes the second volume as being “a bald and rushed go at monetising the brand.”  She goes on to write, “The third in the series, Fifty Shades Freed, is … Oh what am I doing? You’re going to read it. Of course you’re going to read it. You’ve probably already read it.”

Moral of the story?  As Dan Brown also demonstrates, writing about something that sparks curiosity and evokes controversy is a good start for a bestselling novel.


#3  The bestseller algorithm

Would you believe that a computer can calculate the chances of a manuscript being a bestseller?

Jodi Archer and Matthew L. Jockers do.  So much so, that they developed an algorithm and even wrote a book on the DNA of a bestseller.

writing tips for bestseller

Let’s see whether E.L. James has it.

Here are some examples of the elements of a bestseller taken from their book:

Shorter sentences – James’s trilogy is full of short, staccato sentences.

Voice-driven narratives – the novel is told from the perspective of  Anastasia Steele.  She not only tells us every thought she has and every move she makes, but we even get a narrative between her and her ‘inner goddess’.

Less erudite vocabulary – James has written these books not only from a young person’s perspective but in teenager-style language.  Her language is simple, easy to scan and not very provoking.  The reader very rarely needs to read between the lines.

An emotional beat – Archer and Jockers state that many bestsellers have a series of emotional highs and lows.  We can’t deny that the Fifty Shades trilogy has this in bucket loads.

Human closeness – their algorithm concludes that ‘how humans relate to each other in intimate moments’ is the most popular topic.  Anastasia Steele gives a constant narrative of hers and other people’s reactions to intimate moments.  In fact, it is the cornerstone of the narrative.

Archer used the algorithm to plot the ’emotional beat’ of Fifty Shades of Grey and The Da Vinci Code. 

She found that “They were the only two out of the thousands of novels we studied that had this up and down plot at the right pace.”


Did E.L. James write a bestseller on purpose?

As she was writing Fifty Shades of Grey I am sure that E.L. James had several daydreams about it being a big hit.  But did she write strategically to create a bestseller?  I doubt it.

If she had, I am certain that she would have had it professionally edited – at least.

In my opinion, she found the formula to writing a bestseller by:

  • Tapping into fantasies that many women may have
  • Choosing a controversial subject
  • Using the age-old concept of falling for a loveable bad boy who ultimately changes his ways

What do you think?

See more in the Learn From The Best blog series:

Dan Brown’s Writing Tips For Page Turners

J. K. Rowling’s Top 10 Writing Tips


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Learn From The Best: Dan Brown’s Writing Tips For Page Turners

Dan brown's writing tipsReading Time: 5 minutes


Love him or hate him, Dan Brown knows how to write a bestseller.

dan brown's writing tips

His books have been translated into over 50 languages.

The Da Vinci Code reached the New York Times Bestseller list in its first week of release with an estimated $250 million worth of sales.

It’s safe to say that Dan Brown knows what he is doing.

So, what can we learn from him?  Here are some of Dan Brown’s writing tips.


#1 Is planning overrated?

In the first of my Learn From The Best blog series, I wrote about how J.K. Rowling planned the plots for the entire Harry Potter series before writing the first one.  Dan Brown didn’t.

He says that after completing Angels & Demons, he “never imagined it would turn into a series.”  And yet so many of his books to date follow the adventures of his fictitious character  Robert Langdon.

So where does this leave us?  To plan or not to plan?

Planning each novel is certainly useful.  It can avoid writer’s block and importantly, keep your novel on track.

When it comes to a series, it seems that your planning depends on whether or not you have decided that it will be one.

For example, J.K. Rowling decided from the outset that Harry Potter would form a series.  So, she outlined her plots.  But after writing her first book, she realised she’d given away the plots for all of them.  So she re-wrote.

Dan Brown, on the other hand, create a character and world that he fell in love with.  After writing Deception Point he craved “the semiotic world of Robert Langdon” which led to The Da Vinci Code.

The moral of the story?  If you know you want to write a series then plan it.  That’s the ideal approach.  If not, then let the strength of the characters and worlds you create, guide you.


# 2 Research adds realism

Dan Brown believes that “research is the most overlooked facet of writing a successful page-turner.”

I like this.

Regardless of your genre, carrying out detailed research adds depth to your writing.

Imagine you were reading a scene about someone on death row.  If you have no knowledge of what being on death row is like or no insight into real people’s experiences, then how will you transport your reader to your world?

Brown raises another good point:

“…the research process often unveils dramatic options that take your plot in directions that you (and your readers) did not expect.”

So, in addition to making your novel credible, research can also help you with plot twists – a crucial ingredient of a page-turner.

Here is what Dan Brown says about his research process:

  • Start with some general  ideas and themes (Brown usually starts with a location and big idea)
  • Carry out some in-depth research of the chosen topics
  • Outline and start writing the novel
  • As the novel tightens, continue carrying out research

If you are wondering where to start with research for your novel, Notion Press shares some ideas:

page turner writing tips


# 3  Write your first and last chapter simultaneously

This is an interesting take on novel planning.

To avoid plots getting blurred, Dan Brown advises starting the writing process with the first and last chapters.  He says that this “serves as pillars on which to construct the middle of the book.”

Makes sense. If you know where points A and B are, you can find a route from A to B.


In my opinion,  the success of this tip depends on the type of writer you are.

I, for example, am a planner.  I like to storyboard my entire novel before writing it.  So essentially I know my A and B points beforehand even if I haven’t fleshed them out.

If planning isn’t your bag then perhaps Dan Brown’s writing tip is worth a shot.  If you try this, I’d love to hear about how it worked for you.


#4 Reading helps your writing

It’s obvious really.  But always worth reminding ourselves of it.

When I find an author I love, I tend to read a few of their books in a row.  This perhaps isn’t the best strategy if you are reading to develop your writing.  If you are anything like me, I find myself writing like that author.

It’s important to develop your own voice.  To do this, Brown actually advises to “not read other novels while writing your own novel.”  He acknowledges that other novelists would disagree.  But he justifies his opinion by saying that “the less you read (while actively writing), the more eagerly your mind will strive to create.”

Having said that, he does agree with the commonly dished out tip that “reading great novels is crucial to the development of any novelist, and there is no substitute for reading voraciously.”  Brown particularly likes to read a lot of non-fiction (it forms part of his research).


#5 Write what you want to know

Usually, aspiring writers are advised to write about what they know.  But Brown raises a good point – if you write about what you know, you make it harder to stay intellectually interested during the writing process.

He talks more about this here:


#6 The page turning formula

I’ve Googled it and I can’t find it.  Brown isn’t giving this golden nugget away.

That’s fine.

Having read all of his books, here is what I have gleaned:

  • Plots span over a short period of time e.g. 24 hours.  This keeps it pacy and full of suspense.
  • His chapters are short and typically end on cliffhangers.
  • As he gets your heart racing, Brown makes you wait for the payoff.  He drops in some facts and creates a gap between you wanting to know what happens next, and actually finding out.
  • The ‘goodies’ are generally likeable.  The characters who you feel suspicious of are usually not the main ‘baddie’.  This keeps you guessing – his books offer various prime suspects.
  • His male and female partners have a hint of romance but this is never actually realised.  It keeps us wondering whether anything will develop between them.
  • Brown’s intense descriptions and factual content keep you interested in whether certain conspiracy theories or secret organisations are real.  This bond between fiction and reality is a clever way to keep readers interested.


Have you got anything to add?

I’ve tried my best but I am sure I haven’t covered everything.  If you have some tips to add, or can share your own experiences, please comment below!

See more in the Learn From The Best blog series:

How E.L. James Made Millions From Her Midlife Crisis

J. K. Rowling’s Top 10 Writing Tips

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Learn From The Best: J. K. Rowling’s Top 10 Writing Tips

Reading Time: 4 minutes


Who is better to advise us on the top tips for writing a book than J. K. Rowling?

J.K. Rowling has a story to tell.  No, I’m not talking about Harry Potter et. al.  I’m talking about her – J.K. Rowling.

She epitomises a modern-day version of the classic rags to riches story.  Her philanthropic efforts and ability to slay Trump on Twitter means we just have to love her.

This talented writer is known for being private.  Her interviews are rare.  But on those rare occasions, she sprinkles fairy dust on anyone struggling to feel motivated to write.

Here are her top 10 writing tips for writing a book.  Not straight from her mouth, the ones I like the best from interviews and articles I have read about her.

#1  Fail to plan, plan to fail

One most commonly preached top writing tips is to plan well. Some people like storyboarding, others don’t.  But one thing is true of all writers – they are rarely successful at writing a good story in one sitting.

‘Harry Potter’ was born in 1990,  Manchester, on a delayed train journey to London.  Rowling proceeded to spend the next five years outlining the plots for the other stories in the series before even writing her first novel.

#2  “Kill all  the adverbs!”

Ok, so this is technically a Mark Twain tip which has been famously backed by Hemmingway.  But, when searching for good tips for writing a book, scattering adverbs sparsely is one that Rowling agrees with.

When interviewed on the Charlie Rose show, she commented on how she wished she could rehash her earlier Potter novels and remove all the adverbs.

#3 “Sometimes you have to get your writing done in spare moments here and there.” J.K. Rowling

As writing is a creative sport, writers often feel like they can and should only write when they feel inspired.  Rowling unguardedly disagrees and claims a work ethos that she drops into her top writing tips – treat writing like work.

Most aspiring authors are desperately trying to write themselves out of a 9 to 5 and if nothing else, can feel reassured to know that J.K. Rowling used to write through the night.  Since having a family she waits for the house to be empty but still puts in a solid eight hours daily into writing.  If you want your writing to pay out, treat it like a job.

#4  You are allowed to have more than one on the go

Many of us writers are guilty of this – pursuing more than one novel idea at a time and feeling guilty for doing so because none of them are getting finished.  To our reassurance, listed in the J.K. Rowling tips on writing is her admission that she often does the same.  She admits that novels get completed faster if you focus on just one but, it is not an unrealistic prospect to be working on multiple projects.

#5  She re-wrote her first chapter fifteen times…

No matter how well you have planned your novel, one of the top writing tips that J.K. Rowling imparts is that re-writing is essential.  She herself reworked her first chapter fifteen times until it was perfect.

#6  Keep your readers on the edge of a cliff

Out of all the good tips for writing a book, this is the one that Rowling had to learn the hard way.

I flinch at the thought of it.

After J.K. Rowling had written her first of the ‘Harry Potter’ series, she realised that she had given away her entire plot – for all seven books!  She had to re-write it in order to keep the readers wanting more.  How?  Well, that leads me to the next of the J.K. Rowling tips on writing.

#7  Write strategically

If you follow the first of these top writing tips you will be in a position to think strategically.  In order to avoid the above-mentioned mistake Rowling made, you should ensure that you do not give too much away.  This sounds obvious but, is, in fact, an easy thing to trip up on.  This is because you know what is going to happen so can struggle to see it through the eyes of the unknowing reader.

#8  “What you write becomes who you are” J.K. Rowling

“… so make sure you love what you write!”

Any successful writer will tell you that they did not wake up one day and say to themselves “Today I have decided to become a writer”, they simply are one.  If you want to write, just do it.

If your aim is to publish, one of the good tips for writing a book is to bear in mind that not everything is publishable.  But, it is important to write from your heart.  One of the most alluring things about the ‘Harry Potter’ series is its passion – the only thing that could possibly drive such a concept that has been so intricately designed.

#9  Create good characters

In a QA session hosted by Stephen Fry, at the Albert Hall, adult audience members asked questions about the Harry Potter characters – as though they were real!

One member asked “Professor Snape has always wanted to be Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. In book five he doesn’t get the job. Why doesn’t Professor Dumbledore let him be the DADA teacher?”

Create a world – it doesn’t have to be a fantasy based one – but one that your readers will be drawn to.  After all, most readers read for escapism – make people want to escape into your world and hang out with your characters.

#10  Be patient

J.K. Rowling openly talks of her struggles to get published – it certainly wasn’t easy for her.  Given that it took around a decade from ‘Harry Potter’s’ inception to being published, being patient is a crucial trait.

It is true that if you have been rejected by every publishing house in the world, it may be time to accept defeat but, equally, consider this.


J.K. Rowling – An Inspiration

An unknown Joanne Rowling, an unemployed woman living on state benefits became J.K. Rowling, billionaire author within 5 years.  ‘Harry Potter’ was rejected by numerous publishers for a year.  She waited patiently and it paid off.

Want to feel even more inspired?  Listen to J. K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech.


See more in the Learn From The Best blog series:

How E.L. James Made Millions From Her Midlife Crisis

Dan Brown’s Writing Tips For Page Turners