WRITING A BESTSELLER
I recently had lunch with a very successful writer friend,
who has been delighted to find his last three books landing high on the New York Times Bestseller List. His
success is well deserved. He works extremely hard every day, and he never
hesitates to help out writers and others. He even picked up the tab for our
Our conversation roamed from past mutual projects, to mutual
friends, to ongoing publishing activities. Here my friend paused before giving
credit to another bestselling writer for teaching him a number of the traits
common to the genre of fast moving thrillers on the bestseller list. He then
listed those things in quick succession:
Never use a dollar
word when a nickel word will do…don’t use ‘cacophony’ when ‘loud’ makes your
Short sentences. Short
paragraphs. Short chapters.
Never over describe a
room. Pick out one feature and move on.
The same applies to
what a character is wearing.
Use dialogue to drive
Cut exposition to an
plotting…then simplify it some more…then some more. If a reader has to
backtrack to figure out what was going during their last reading session,
you’re doing it wrong.
I must confess, this list initially blew past me. I like the
word cacophony, and (as a reader) I’m
not much of a fan of what is on the New
York Times Bestseller List.
However, as I drove home, my friend’s succinct points kept coming back into my
mind. I’d read two of his legitimately bestselling
novels and enjoyed them. I could see where he had applied each of the edicts,
err, I mean points, he’d listed. But
I also had an epiphany, err, I mean, I
realized how hard they were to follow.
It was also clear, while not every bestseller is written this way, there are a number of writers,
employing this style of storytelling, who are regular names on the bestseller list – starting with James
Okay! Okay! Stop throwing things at me. Whether you’re a fan
of James Patterson (readers) or a hater (a lot of less successful writers – go
on, admit it), Patterson’s books employ all of the points in the above list and
regularly steal spots on the New York
Times Bestseller List (for weeks and weeks) from the rest of us toiling
honestly to pound out stories. Love him or hate him, Patterson (and his brand)
sells books – a lot of books – and so do a number of other bestselling writers who have mastered the above skills.
However, I meant what I said above. Writing simply, as described, is not easy. Back home, I took a sharp look at my work in
process and thought long and hard about those simple rules. I abided by some of them. Others, not so much. Did
this mean I wasn’t writing a bestseller?
W. Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules
for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Being a
professional writer brings with it a responsibility to not just take a harsh
look at the content of your own work, but also have a realistic view of what
you are expecting your work to accomplish.
My question should not have been, did this mean I wasn’t writing a bestseller? What I needed to ask
myself is, was I writing the type of book
I’d set out to write? Was my goal to write a bestseller, or the type
of book that ends up on the bestseller
list? Or was I writing a book with another goal?
What do you mean
another goal? Isn’t getting on the New York Time Bestseller List the goal of
No, I don’t think it is.
Through the machinations of publishing, my friend had
fortunately found himself writing a book expected
by the publisher to end up on the bestseller
list. Might his book have been different, better, worse, if that had not
been the end goal from page one?
Any writer who has had published stories kicked around knows
there is a lot more that goes into getting on the bestseller list than just writing a good story – often things
beyond the writer’s control. My friend had written many, many, other published
books that had sold well, but hadn’t cracked the bestseller list. Were they not as good as the ones that made the bestseller list? Silly question. Of
course they were. But they were different, not containing the hard earned
simplicity lessons, he’d skillfully (sometimes under duress) learned to apply
to those books that did make the bestseller
So what was my goal when I started writing my current work
Sure, I had a story I wanted to tell, a story I thought was
worth telling, with characters who had resonance for me – but what was my goal?
The New York Times Bestseller List?
Actually, that thought never occurred to me.
I just wanted to write the best book I could write right now…
And there’s the key for me. Maybe one day the planets will
align and a novel I write will somehow end up on the New York Times Bestseller List or make it into the Thursday book
listings in USA Today…But that’s not
If I write the best book I
can, tell my story the best way I
can, with passion and commitment, then I’ve achieved my goal. I just need to
keep putting words on paper. I need to keep learning, keep considering the
guidance of my fellow writers and take from it what helps me be a better writer,
helps me tell my stories better…and let the bestseller
lists take care of themselves.
What’s your goal?