How to Write a Bestseller

I just finished reading a book that purports to share the secrets of writing a bestselling novel, and I found it fascinating. The BestSeller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel is by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers, and what it uses is text mining to uncover the shared elements of bestsellers.  As I understand it, text mining (in this instance) is essentially programming a computer to look for commonly shared elements of bestsellers.  The predictive algorithm the authors devised was proven to be right 80% of the time. Densely written, though also humorous in places, and a bit much to plow through (I would have really liked bullet point summaries at the end of each chapter), but thought-provoking.

Maybe you don’t have any desire to write a bestselling novel or memoir, which is fine. But some of these ideas might help you dream up kick-ass characters and write stronger prose. Take these ideas or leave them.  Some of them resonated with me while others kinda had me scratching my head. And remember, the points I mention are my interpretation of what I read. What jumped out and lands in my brain might be quite different for you.  I’ll go through each one:

Theme or topic

–The most prevalent topics of bestsellers were human closeness (i.e. love) and intimate conversation. Wait for it–it was actually these topics that predominated in Fifty Shades of Gray.  Not sex.  I swear to you this is what the book said.

–Bestsellers tended to stick to 2-3 main topics, while less successful books had more.

–Another particularly big topic was medical, as in characters suddenly having to go to the hospital which then results in human closeness as loved ones gather around. (My interpretation.)  This also goes along with what we’ll learn about cycles of emotion under plot.

Plot

–Far and away the most successful plot lines were those which featured a rhythmic beat of highs and lows. Lots of peaks and valleys of emotion. The book features many charts which showcase this.

–A clear three-act structure is most successful

Style

–The book tells the story of how J.K. Rowling was outed as Robert Galbraith, mystery writer. She changed her name, gender, genre, audience and plot. But she couldn’t change her stylistic blueprint and the computer found her out.

–Bestsellers use the word “the” more. I’m just reporting the news, folks.  At first I thought this was silly, but then I wondered if it might be because of more specificity? And, as we know, the devil is in the details.

–The first sentences of bestsellers start with action or definite thought. And they just about always contain conflict of some sort.

–An understanding of everyday knowledge is essential if you want to write a bestseller.

Character

–Bestsellers feature strong characters with agency.  “They have some version of power, motivation, drive.”

–Characters in bestsellers do things! They express their needs and they have lots of them. (Need was the verb most linked to a likelihood to be a bestseller.) They also want things and they make their wants clear.

–“Readers want someone to be not to seem.”

–“Hesitation doesn’t keep the pages turning.”

–Characters in bestsellers have something magnetic that makes them stand out. They are gifted in some way, or they’ve done things others haven’t.

Fascinating, no?  The book goes into all these aspects in depth and is worth a read if you are so inclined to like dissecting things.  I’m not sure it’s possible or even desirable to plug in all these variables and come up with a bestselling novel.  But reading these ideas made me realize that sometimes my characters tend toward the passive and that I need to make them stronger.  I love the idea that the topics of human closeness and intimate conversation come up tops–those fit right into my genres of women’s fiction and romance.  I love writing stuff like that, and now I know there’s no reason to hold back on it.  The book has also encouraged me to go for more distinctive highs and lows of emotion.

What do you think of all this? Do you think it is possible to plug in a set of variables and come up with a bestseller? Or is the whole thing a really bad idea?

PS. There’s a book club dedicated to reading the top 100 books picked by this computer model. You can find out about it here.

PPS. I’ve actually got some room on my coaching roster at the moment.  Want to make 2017 the year you actually write that book? Maybe you’d like to finish the novel you’re working on and get it published? Or perhaps you just want to start a satisfying personal writing practice. I can guide you through any of these and more. I’m revamping my coaching page and packages, so if you’re interested, just pop me an email at charlotte@charlotterainsdixon.com. Put Coaching in the subject line so the email doesn’t get buried!

This Series on Writing Fast Will Blow Your Creative Mind–and Inspire You

This morning, thanks to Karen Woodward, I was introduced to a series on ghostwriting a novel in 10 days by Dean Wesley Smith.

Yes, I said 10 days.  As in, writing a full, complete novel in 10 days.

Dean Wesley Smith is ghosting a novel contracted by a major publisher for an author who is a bestseller and whose name would be recognizable to all of us.  (Yes, the world of ghostwriting is sometimes a shady place.)

He's set himself the goal of finishing the novel in 10 days, and along the way, he is documenting his progress with regular updates to his blog.  It's really worth reading.  Here are the posts so far:

Day one.

Day two.

And you might want to read this one as well:

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Writing Fast.

When Smith says he writes fast, he means it–he gets up, gets to the computer (he uses two–one with no internet access and thus no temptations) and gets to work.  It appears that he writes in bursts, knocking off a 1000 words or so before taking a break to eat or answer email (at the second computer) or what have you. And then he rinses and repeats, on and on throughout the day.

But here's the deal: he's writing.  Not endlessly revising, not thinking about writing, not wondering if his work is any good (confidence is not this man's problem), but writing. 

I think we can all learn a lesson from this.  I know reading his posts  inspired me and afterwards, I polished off the first draft of a short story I'd been agonizing over.  I'm sure I spend way too much time pondering deep thoughts and not actually writing. Even if we don't want to emulate every aspect of his practice, we can learn from parts of it.

Oh yeah, and guess what?  He starts out with no idea where he's going.  And he doesn't rewrite.  This draft will be it.

Freakin' incredible.

Here are things I noted/wondered about as I read:

–When does he take a shower?

–When does he exercise?

–He has a wife to cook for him.  Or someone.  Dinner magically appears.

–He probaby has a house cleaner as well.  There's no attention paid to such mundane matters.

–He's able to set his own schedule (stay up until wee hours of the morning, sleep until 1 PM).

But even with all that being said, his accomplishment is amazing.

What do you think?  Does this appeal to you or do you think he's a hack (he's got a gazillion novels to his credit)?  Do you write slow or fast?  I'd love it if you left a comment.