Sunday, April 14, 2013

Two Axioms about Writing Bestsellers

When interviewed, successful novelists often say that the best thing beginning writers can do to enhance their craft is to read the classics, other good literature, and the genre for which the aspiring author wants to write.
         It’s only by doing the latter that a writer knows how that genre is being written today and what appeals to modern-day readers.
         Many nineteenth-century writings are now considered classics. But when contemporary readers try to read the long descriptions and philosophical musings in these novels, they close the books—unread. Today, many busy readers have neither the time nor the patience for that type of writing.

George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), author of Middlemarsh,
which some critics consider the finest novel in the English language.

         So many aspiring writers read more contemporary novels to find out how to be successful today. For example, the prolific James Patterson, a best-selling author of thrillers, writes in short chapters. A number of successful novelists now emulate him in their writing style.
         I’ve read that readers today want shorter books and shorter chapters because they often have time to read only a few pages before having to do some other task. So Patterson and other writers who want to copy his success insist that aspiring mystery authors keep their chapters short, shift from scene to scene, and keep the action moving relentlessly.

James Patterson who’s written innumerable bestselling novels since the 1970s.

 Some readers have the notion that all published novelists become wealthy. These readers peruse articles that mention the advance a novelist got and the number of books a writer sells and believe that they, too, can become a multimillionaire by writing a bestseller. And that’s true. They can.
 But writing that bestseller, finding an agent, and getting a contract isn’t easy. And the truth is that few novels win the interest of enough readers to become bestsellers. Bestselling is always iffy.
Frustrated, these aspiring novelists do more homework and discover what type of fiction is being written today and is most often bought by readers. Their axiom becomes: Write what’s bringing in the big bucks! According to an article in the ProActive Writer Blog,

. . . of the people who buy at least one book at year, 8 out of 10 buy a fiction book . . . [but] out of the same group of people, 8 out of 10 will also buy a non-fiction book . . . Of the people buying at least one fiction book a year, just under half (48%) buy what is classed as Mystery, Thriller and Crime. . . . The second most popular book genre was Science Fiction with 26% of readers buying Sci Fi books, ‘Literature’ was close on its heels with 24% and Romance is worthy of a mention with 21% of the market.

         Now why am I writing about this today? I’d like to share with you my own first attempts at writing and getting published. When I became a freelance editor and curriculum developer in 1984, I spent the first hour of each day writing. At that time, romances were among the biggest sellers.

Nora Roberts' career began with romances.
After becoming a bestselling novelist,
she has gone on to writing women’s fiction and mysteries.

         For ten years, while in a deep depression, I’d read Harlequin romances because they ended happily with no concerns about the social issues that so worried me. These romances put me to sleep at night. In a way they kept me from throwing in the towel on life.
         So when I finally yielded to my lifelong desire to write, I bought into the axiom to write what’s bringing in the money: I picked romances as my genre. I thought I could establish a reputation with romances and then move on to historical fiction.
         I wrote two manuscripts; sent them, one by one, to Harlequin; and received two rejection letters. And why wouldn’t those stories be rejected?  I was forty-eight years old, had seldom dated, had never been in love (although I loved many people), and what I knew about sex could be etched on the edge of the left wingtip of an unemployed bee.  
         I’d read romances, but I knew nothing about the subject matter. In my craving to be published, I’d picked a popular genre to which I could bring no life experience. I finally did get published, but only when Dulcy, the cat with whom I lived for seventeen and a half years gave me our story. The one we had lived together.
         So for me another axiom proved true: Write what you know, not what’s popular. I’ll share more about all this with you in future postings.

PS: The article quoted above is quite short and worth reading for all of you who have some interest in writers and what they write.

The three photographs/drawings of novelists are from Wikipedia.


  1. I've never read anything by James Patterson or Nora Roberts, other than a letter to the newspaper that Nora Roberts wrote. Nora and I lived in the same county. When she went to the mall to have her grandchild's photo taken with Santa, she was incensed because they were having a humane society fundraiser and taking photos of dogs and cats with Santa. She was so angry that she sent a nasty letter to the newspaper about schlepping all the way to the mall and not getting that all-important photo. No one had any sympathy for Nora. We received a lot of letters saying that Nora could afford to have her grandchild's photo taken someplace else and she had no reason to complain about a fundraiser. Anyway, now that I've told my Nora Roberts story, I say bring on the classics.


  2. I admit to being a moderate fan of James Patterson, but I'm an EVEN BIGGER fan of Dee Ready!!

  3. I have never read a romance novel in my life, but I do enjoy a good mystery, preferably of the British kind and a good police procedural from Sweden. If you are Scottish and live in a castle, you could get away with writing a book called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a book I just finished. It was quirky and ever so British,and lots of fun.

  4. I have felt frustration at the rapidly decreasing attention span of each successive generation, which makes it a rarity for them to sit through any book that might be written with sentences longer than ten words or so and chapters longer than ten- twelve pages.

    What you write about is true. We should write what we know, and that's why Dulcy's book is such a success, because it's written from a true heart. I enjoyed this engaging post~

  5. It does seem like the general reading public today doesn't gravitate to long, slower paced books like they used to. But they are still reading, thank God! And it seems still that if somebody writes what they know from the heart and doesn't think about what is popular...sometimes those books just leap out at people, regardless. And there are very good writers who write in the various genres, too. Times change. Writing changes along with it, I guess.

  6. I read from most (but not all) genres, and get so much pleasure, education, entertainment from my reading. Writing seems to me (from my perspective as a reader, not a writer) to be another area where people are looking for short cuts. And I don't believe that success comes that way.
    I know just how much hard work you devote to your work and firmly believe that you will be rewarded for it. And have everthing crossed that those rewards appear sooner rather than later.

  7. I LOVE Fishducky's comment. That made me smile :)

    I think it's very good advice to write what we know. But I bet your romance novels were wonderful. I'm sure that after reading so many yourself, you gained a knack for writing them.

  8. Dee, I'm sure you're right to say we should write what we know and not what we don't. IO also think we should write the way we can and not the way we can't. We have to find our own voice, the style that works for us and conveys what we want to say and I don't think we'll get anywhere by trying to write with someone else's voice. Be true to yourself, Dee, even as you seek to improve your writing as we all should.

  9. I know what you mean about James Patterson's style: quick and short blasts of text. I read many of his novels, as well as Stephen King. I like thriller mysteries. Lorna