How To Write A Bestseller (maybe)


There are three rules for writing a novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

W. Somerset Maugham. 

I could probably write a trilogy full of writing rules, do’s and don’t’s, tips and no-no’s when it comes to writing a best-selling novel.  Naturally, there are general rules like, a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end; a character arc and plot that creates tension, conflict and finally, resolution.  But I’m talking about the endless advice/warnings that appear on the submission pages of literary agents and publishers alike, like lists of prerequisites to get into the cool best-selling gang.  Essentially, a formula.

This really came to my attention last week as I was reading Life of Pi (I know, way behind the curve).  What can I say?  I like to do things in my own time.  Anyway, I’m being lulled along with lush descriptions of a zoo in India and a boy’s curiosity for religion when it dawns on me… why isn’t he on the boat with the tiger yet?  (I’ve seen the trailer).  It is only around the Chapter 30 mark that they even begin to discuss the trip overseas.  I couldn’t help thinking to myself about all the times I’ve heard agents cry, “If it hasn’t happened in the first three chapters, forget it.”  So who signed this book on the basis of it’s first three chapters?  Obviously someone a little more open-minded and less stringent when it comes to the best-selling formula.  Someone patient enough to let the story unfold.  Or perhaps it was the synopsis “Boy and bengal tiger in boat” that did it.

It’s a great story and an enjoyable read, but it doesn’t fit the formula that so many editors and agents insist we strive for.  Not only do you have to grab your reader in the first three chapters, you’ve got to snatch them at the first line.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good opening line, but I’m beginning to think that a lot of commercial fiction is churned out according to these formulas, making for a fantastic beginning and an anti-climactic, disappointing middle and end.

I enjoy books that stay with me… for days I was on the Pacific ocean with Pi, his thoughts and experiences lingering in my mind.  But how many times have we bought into over-hyped, formulaic novels that leave you feeling as though you’ve been duped?  Then I have to try and pawn them off on someone else because I literally don’t want them in my house!

So my point is this; don’t fret if your book doesn’t fit the mould for best-sellers.  Often, people don’t know what they want until they get it and no-one can really predict what readers will enjoy.  The best advice is to write the kind of book you would like to read, then at least you know you’re being true to yourself instead of pandering to the masses.  And like Mr. Maugham said, there are rules, but damned if anyone knows what they are!

Just so no-one can accuse me of throwing the baby out with the bath water, here are some interesting insights from prize-winning authors you might enjoy:

Roddy Doyle

Restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don’t go near the online bookies – unless it’s research.

Keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.

Anne Enright

The first 12 years are the worst.

Only bad writers think that their work is really good.

Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity.

Richard Ford

Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.

Don’t have children.

Don’t read your reviews.

Don’t take any shit if you can ­possibly help it.