What’s the Secret to Writing a Bestseller? Hint: There Isn’t One.

From Crime Reads:

For a number of years, I taught an intensive, week-long course at the University of Toronto called How To Write A Bestseller. Each year brought a dozen eager, would-be authors to my class, hoping to learn the secrets to writing a book that would make its way to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list.

Everyone thinks they have a book in them. The truth is that most people don’t. The truth is that even those who do have a book lurking somewhere inside them will not write a book that more than a handful of people will want to read or pay money to buy. And the hardest truth of all is that no one—and I mean no one, not your editor, not the publisher, not the critics—has any idea what makes one book sell millions of copies while other, often better, books do not.

Nobody becomes a writer to make money. The sad fact is that approximately five thousand books are published every month in North America and most writers make less than ten thousand dollars a year, so you shouldn’t even be thinking of money. The odds are stacked against you, so you really need to love what you do. You need to be comfortable, even look forward to, spending hours every day—I recommend at least four—alone in a room with nothing but your computer and your imagination.

To be a writer, it helps to have four things: an imagination, interesting life experience, discipline, and talent. Unfortunately, you can’t teach any of these things. But even having all four is no guarantee of success. Without an imagination, discipline is a waste of time. Without the discipline to sit down every day and write, your imagination won’t get you very far. Without the talent to use your own life experiences to create characters a reader can identify with, those life experiences won’t be of interest to anyone but your immediate family.

And sometimes, not even them.

This isn’t to suggest that certain things can’t be taught. You can teach structure; you can teach certain basic techniques; you can teach grammar, how to be a more active listener, how to train your eye to be more observant.

You can’t teach imagination. You can’t teach talent. I can’t give you an interesting life to draw from. You have to develop discipline on your own.

So, what pearls of wisdom did I dispense in the course of those thirty hours?

First: read, read, read.

The more you read the better. Especially kind of book you plan to write. Find the best example of the genre you can. As someone once said, “Bad writing is contagious.” (Although bad writing never stopped a book from being a bestseller!) Read critically. Try to analyze what you read. Did you like it? Why did you like it? What made you want to keep turning the pages? What made the characters successful or not? Did you find your interest waning, and if so, when and why?

Decide on the story you want to tell. Then decide whose story is it. Is the story best-served by a single narrator or multiple points of view? Should I tell the story in the first person or the third? What about third-person singular?

Once you’ve figured out your basic plot and main characters, you should be prepared to sum your book up in a couple of sentences, twenty-five words or less. Think of it as the hopefully intriguing one-line description you will see beside your book when it makes the New York Times list.

The point of this exercise is to get you to understand what your book is about. If you can’t sum it up in a couple of sentences, then trust me, you don’t know what your book is about, and if you don’t know, your reader certainly won’t be able to figure it out. For example, I would sum up Cul-de-Sac like this: A shooting disrupts the lives of five families living on a small, dead-end street in Florida. There’s a lot more to the story, of course, but that’s it in a nutshell.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads