How to Write a Bestseller

November 13, 2018 § 18 Comments


Nice to meet you, sir. Thanks for coming to our writing circle. OK, everyone, let’s say what we’re working on for the next hour.

Sir, you don’t have to tell us the whole story. It’s enough to say “novel” or “memoir” or “blog post” and how many words or what goal you’re—

Fiction or nonfiction? Well, what’s your book about? There’s computers? And you’re creating a character like you… That’s fiction. No, it doesn’t matter if it’s set in the real world, as soon as you start making stuff up, it’s fiction. I mean, unless you’re writing memoir and being honest about fuzzy memories. But I’ve never seen a bookstore shelf labeled “Fiction but Also Nonfiction.”

Sure, I can give you a couple tips. Let’s just get everyone else started and—

Yes, planning a story is hard. You might find this website useful, it breaks down a traditional three-act structure, using The Hunger Games.

Oh, you’re an engineer so you think differently. You don’t understand the “theory” of writing. Well, I wouldn’t really call this a “theory,” it’s more that certain dramatic structures show up in most stories, based on human archetypes. So if you’re writing nonfiction, you might look for events that tie into a traditional dramatic structure, and if you’re writing a novel, you get to make those events up, and the structure is a guide and can help with ideas.

Well I guess I could explain it differently—what’s that?

You want to write a bestseller.

You need to know how to write a bestseller because if you’re going to put your time in, you want it to be worthwhile.

Hang on while I take a couple of very deep breaths with my eyes closed.

You’re still here?

No, following this structure won’t guarantee you a bestseller. It’s a tool. Like when you write code, you can’t guarantee the end-users will love the product, but you can use your knowledge of how users have interacted with previous apps to build the next one.

There’s no magic button. If there was a formula for bestsellers, publishers would only accept books that would be big hits and writers would write them every time.

Oh goodness, that coffee just went right in your lap! I hope I haven’t boiled anything. Just keep writing, everyone!

Yes, that management book was a bestseller, and he did write it quickly. Did you know he’s a public speaker who does events for thousands of people, and has been writing a very popular blog for years? Some authors have what we call a “platform,” but that’s only for nonfiction. Well, and Fifty Shades of Grey. That had a huge internet following that grew over several years. But that book hit a very specific niche. No, E. L. James didn’t think “I’m going to write a bestseller.” She wrote what she loved.

Oops, was that your ankle bone? Sorry, just a reflex.

Yes, I’m sure you could choose to love something that would be popular, but there’s no guarantee you’d pick the right thing. Books you see on shelves were started at least two years ago. It takes a long time to finish a book, get an agent, and get a publisher.

Sure, you can publish it yourself, but marketing and building platform is a full-time job.

Good work moving your hand, sir, you’re fast! Just keep writing, everyone, while I pry this fork out of the table.

We’re here because we love to write. Some hope to sell our books, some of us write for our own pleasure. I’m sure we’d all love to write a bestseller, but that’s not why we’re writing. I mean, fame and money are great goals, but writing a book is probably one of the hardest ways to get there. By the time you count up all the hours, it’s not even that much money.

Yes, a “How to Write a Bestseller” workshop would be very popular. I’m sure I could charge lots of money for it. But I’d rather spend that time writing, and teaching something a little more realistic. Maybe “How to Write What You Love and Share It.”

I guess that wouldn’t be very exciting for someone who wants to write a bestseller. You want a workshop with a breakdown of a specific bestselling book’s dramatic structure. That would help you. Something exactly like that website I recommended 45 minutes ago.

OK everyone, I’ll just pick up my table and sweep up the broken glass, and let’s check in on how that hour went!

 

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Allison K Williams enjoys writing, teaching, and whatever the opposite of mansplaining is. She’s Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and will be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica in May 2019.

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