The Holy Grail to Writing a Bestseller

I told the story I wanted to tell. I told a pure story.

It was a commercial flop.

I’ve learned a lot from the experience, of which I share with you (to quote the Fugees!).

Perhaps ‘flop’ is too strong a word. But no bestseller was it. In this article I will share with you the closest you will ever get to a holy grail to writing a bestseller.

Below are the GoodRead ratings. 25% rated it 5* while 18% rated it 1*. Without reading a page, one can infer from these statistics, this book was controversial (or a ‘Marmite’ book as one reader described it):

 

Writing

“Poor writing and uninteresting characters.”
“It was so incredible well-written through the whole book”
“the writing was great”
“I adored the writing style…”

 

Characters

“None of the characters have a spark to them”
“really found the characters likeable…compelling”
“Nope. Really bad. Stupid characters…and I did not care about anybody or anything”
“I adored the…descriptive way the personalities of the characters were played out, drawing me into the life of Felicite…”

 Story

“…the plot. It had none.”
“gripping tale of second chances”
“This is a very exciting story.”
“This book caught me so much from page one”
“I literally couldn’t get past the 3rd page!”

 

My first book polarised. It delighted, it offended. It was beautifully written and terribly written. It was exciting…and boring. The plot was gripping…and non-existent. The characters were compelling…and stupid.

You get the point. It was simultaneously the best and worst book ever written. Nuance was the biggest loser.

The reality was it was neither.

The question discerning authors who aspire to hit the New York Times bestseller list need to ask is: why? What did I do to evoke visceral hatred and unabashed praise in equal measure? What could I change to reduce the 1*s while retaining the 5*s?

With apologies for self-aggrandisement, my book offers a perfect insight into writing, book publishing and sales. We need to dip into all three to arrive at the holy grail. Let’s analyse what I did right, and what I did “wrong”.

 

What do readers want?

Strong voice, original story, fresh characters? That’s what you hear bandied around. Readers want to read something fresh, original and quirky, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not true. But neither is it false. If you can locate that hallowed territory of the midlands – then you’re 90% the way there.

There is an unspoken contract between an author and the reader. ‘Give me eight hours of your life – ditch the iPad, TV, gym, friends – and come with me instead,’ is the author’s proposition. In return I’ll recompense you with 8 hours of unadulterated pleasure. If the author fails to deliver – he’s violated the unspoken contract. You, the author, have wasted 8 hours of the reader’s life…and taken their money for the privilege.

Why do we have book genres? The genre is what broadcasts in one word the basic outline of the story. It’s the same as watching a movie on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Imagine the title is listed in the Romance section yet when you watch it, you find a Rambo-style movie? You’re going to be (to use that great Americanism) majorly pissed.

By telling the reader: this is a Romance, you are effectively telling the reader what the basic outline is. There has to be a man and women. There has to be some barrier to their getting together. They overcome this and…the magic of the first kiss! They get together. All is going well. There has to be some tension that precipitates a break up. The (usually) man has to sacrifice something dear in order to prove his devotion to her and thus she accepts him back and they live happily ever after.

If you write a romance and it does not conform to these broad conventions – you will have betrayed the unspoken contract. The reader will be angry. ‘This isn’t what I invested my time and money for!’

In summary – in writing a book – it’s good to have a somewhat fresh voice. It’s good to push the boat out…but only so far. Test the boundaries, bend them, violate them, but always return to the hallowed land in the end.

That is what readers actually want. It is time-tried and tested for at least the last two centuries. Every story has to conform to the overarching structure, be it a thriller, romance, mystery or western. Each genre and sub-genre will have its structure which you violate at your peril. Tell an original story that you want to tell which does not conform to these structures and readers will abandon you in their droves.

Jack Nicholson put it best when he cried, “You can’t handle the truth!”

I violated it and was punished. The one-star angry reviewers hid behind every excuse under the sun to justify their lowest rating, except their honest reason – I told them it was a romance – then flooded the second half with explicit erotica. I invited them onto the plane telling them it was bound for New York, only to deliver them to San Francisco! Of course, it’s distinctly unfashionable to admit you were offended in the liberal-inclined book-reading crowd of provactive thinking and pushing boundaries, so they hid behind excuses. But the fact they were at pains to state they were NOT offended was a dead give-away.

 

The problem with my book

So what was wrong with my book? It was a cross-genre Erotic Romance. It failed to satisfy both. Those seeking erotica found the first half (the traditional romance part) slow and boring. They adored the racy erotic second half. Verdict: too slow-paced. But once it got going, it was amazing. 3.5/5. Excise the slow-moving first half, get straight into the racy action and you’ve got a 5* classic. (Apparently, I write amazing sex-scenes – which is heart-warming given my distinctly missionary-position, once-a-week sex-life!)

To the romance crowd, the first half was beautiful. The second half was filthy, vulgar “abuse”, “misogyny”, “do not pollute your minds…” etc etc. There were a fair few DNFs (did not finish). I recall one fan emailed me after one day saying she was racing through, loving ever bit of it. Then I didn’t hear from her for two weeks. When I messaged asking how she was getting on, she replied with one word, “shocking”.

 

Getting published

Tell the story you want to tell, not what you think will sell is misleading. You simply cannot have your cake and eat it. I commenced my novel by ignoring all conventional wisdom and told the story I wanted to tell. I ditched commercial mass-market considerations and I got what I set out to achieve – I remained true to my voice and story. I told the story I wanted to tell. But it failed to sell.

If you want to produce a mass-market bestseller, tell the story that the readership expects but bend the rules – here’s the critical word – a little. Not a lot. Like a plastic ruler, bend it, push it to the limit – but make sure it doesn’t snap. Telling a compelling story that obeys the genre’s conventions that also occupies that narrow zone is difficult. Few can.

The simple, inescapable formula is:

  • Stick to the conventions of your genre;
  • Stick to the conventions of your genre;
  • Stick to the conventions of your genre…
  • Then bend them,

That is what readers and agents actually mean by “fresh” voice and story.

Before you unsheathe your quiver and take the first stroke, settle your objective. Is this a mass-market work for pecuniary gain or is this a personal project to tell your own story, regardless of publication or sales. That was my mistake. I wanted to tell the story I wanted to tell AND I wanted it to be a bestseller.

Settling that question, my dear friends, is the hardest dilemma you will ever face in your life as a writer. Go commercial and compromise the “purity” of the story? Or tell a “pure” story and scrap the commercial. The stars seldom align.

You can’t have your cake and eat it.

Bon courage, best of luck.

 

Seb King

I have written my first thriller and am trying to get it published. Beta readers adore it…let’s see if a LA picks it up.

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2 thoughts on “The Holy Grail to Writing a Bestseller

  1. My manuscript is too “taboo” or “unapologetically offensive” to get any publishers interested. The few people who’ve read it loved it but did say that the content was very extreme and my purple prose style diminishes the plot. What can I say? I’m a Nabokov fan!

    Like

  2. This is recognisabl. Offer something different from the accepted conventions and tropes of a genre and it seems hard for people to ‘understand’. Plus difficult to market…

    Like

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