I recently had lunch with a very successful writer friend, who has been delighted to find his last four 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 lunch.
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 point.
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 your story.
Cut exposition to an absolute minimum.
Simplify your 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 his proposed tips 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 Patterson.
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 Times Bestseller List the goal of every writer?
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 their books end up on the remainder table at Barnes & Noble 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 which 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 list.
So what was my goal when I started writing my current work in progress?
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, the 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 my goal.
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?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Novelist, screenwriter, and television personality, Paul Bishop spent 35 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, where he was twice honored as Detective of the Year. He continues to work privately as an expert in deception and interrogation. His fifteen novels include five in his LAPD Homicide Detective Fey Croaker series. His latest novel, LIE CATCHERS, begins a new series featuring LAPD interrogators Ray Pagan and Calamity Jane Randall.
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