How to write a bestseller

By Kathryn Lilley

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

– W. Somerset Maugham
Bestseller. That’s why we’re all in the blogosphere, isn’t it? We all want to write (or read) a bestseller, we writer-reader-bloggers.

This blog is gifted with multiple bestselling (and modest) authors. Clare, for example, recently hit the IMBA Bestseller list with two of her books at the same time.

But I think everyone wants to learn the secret for vaulting onto the New York Times or USA Today bestseller’s list, and then stick there like Krazy Glue.

So today I set off on a hunt for the magic formula for writing a best seller. Is there one? What exactly does it take to write a breakout novel?

In his excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass says to write a “breakout” book, you have to open up your story. Make it bigger. Give it higher stakes, a larger theme, one that impacts many more people than you’d find in, say, the population of Cabot Cove. So, I’m assuming that with a few exceptions, most cozy mysteries are not going to be bestsellers. If you do have a “small,” domestic family drama in your story, Maass says, you must find a way to amp up the stakes. Think Grapes of Wrath. It’s a family drama, but man, talk about major stakes.

I ran across an interesting article about how not to write a best seller in the New York Sun, which stated that positive reviews in major review outlets don’t guarantee best sellerdom. The author said that catchy titles do seem to be a plus, however.

Interestingly, I found one reviewer in a British newspaper, The Guardian, who advised would-be best seller writers to avoid putting too much originality and sex into their work. That doesn’t sound right to me, but I don’t know. Is that a British thing? Here’s the article.

As I continued my web browsing, I found an article by Cliff Pickover called How to create an instant bestselling novel. It’s worth reading for the “Bestseller Plan” (You have to scroll down to see it). Pickover’s Bestseller plan refers to a NYT article called How to Manufacture a Best Seller by Michael Maxen. I couldn’t find Maxen’s original article at the NYT site (although I did find some crabby Letters to the Editor from authors who resented the article. Maxen must have skewered their books.). I did follow the link that claims to summarize the major points of Maxen’s article. That article offers up an actual 10-step formula for how to write a best-seller, by God. Generally, it seems to involve creating a hero-expert, a villain-expert, and a team of experts. When the action flags, you’re supposed to kill someone. See what you think.

I also read “Lester Dent’s magical recipe for writing a best seller.” It’s sort of interesting. It seems oriented more toward selling than best selling, though, and calls writers “pulpateers.” I loved his tip about how to fake local color and fool editors about murder weapons, though. That’s the kind of thing that most writers will never confess they do.

So I wish I could tell you I found the absolute formula for writing a best seller. Actually I’d like to hear from you. What do you think makes a book leap to the top of the NYT list? Is there a formula, or a secret? Do you think that to become a best seller, you simply write an excellent story, and accept the rest as a crapshoot? Or do you think that it is all a big fix–that publishers mostly decide who will become the Next Big Thing, by promoting certain books?


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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.
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