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How to Write a Bestselling Novel

Discussion in 'Café Life' started by Paul Whybrow, Sep 23, 2017.

  1. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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    From today's Guardian newspaper, an article on bestselling novels, which references The Bestseller Code, written by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers.

    Want to write a bestselling novel? Use an algorithm

    I read the Bestseller Code, which, offhand, has to be one of the most tedious books I've laboured through—it's great as a bedtime book to send you to sleep!

    Their findings are revealing, but it is a very analytical way of looking at writing, concentrating entirely on the metadata. It completely ignores such factors as who wrote the novel, and how that affected sales: readers are loyal to authors they like, used to their style of writing and plotting, so will buy them again.

    The main thing I took away from the Bestseller Code was to do with the rhythm of the story, the highs and lows mentioned in the Guardian article. Also, about the importance of making your protagonists likeable, giving them a humanity that readers can relate to...the same thing goes for any baddies in your story, the antagonists who may be suffering from frustration and pain. A surprising find that Archer and Jockers made was that readers favour stories that use lots of contractions, fitting in with a style of writing that's colloquial. It's easier for me to write I've rather than I have in dialogue, but I've started to do so more when using my authorial voice.

    Another site of interest to do with writing a successful book is the Bestseller Experiment, in which Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux are currently trying to game the system to create a bestselling novel:

    The Bestseller Experiment: can you deliberately write a blockbuster book?

    Could you write a Bestseller?

    The worrying drawback to all of these formulas on how to write a book that millions will want to read is that pretty soon every novel will sound the same! This may well fit in with what's successful in other areas of life, such as processed food and scripted 'reality' TV, but it doesn't say much about artistic integrity.

    [​IMG]
     
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  2. Katie-Ellen Hazeldine

    Katie-Ellen Hazeldine Venerated Member Founding Member

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    It's Frankensteinian garbage.
     
  3. Matnov

    Matnov Well-Known Member

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    I guess that all novels, with some notable exceptions, have to stick with a basic formula even if it is just a beginning, a middle and an end and I suspect that these 'how to' guides will be churned out in one form or the other for as long as people read and write books. Never quite saw the attraction in any kind of 'paint by numbers' formula but it works for some people and since nobody forces anybody to buy books, then best of British to them. I must confess that there have been several series of novels which do have a formulaic approach to them that I will still avidly read the one after the others and look forward to the next installment, even though I am aware of what is going on.

    For me they almost represent a comfort food sort of reading and there is always a place for a bloody good old fashioned blood and guts adventure novel, with all the usual cliches thrown in for good measure, as part of my own reading schedules. For me they are the Saveloy of the literary world. Yes, you know they are not good for you and that it is perhaps for the best that you remain ignorant of what goes into making them but sometimes nothing quite hits the spot, especially when liberally dosed in salt and vinegar along with a large portion of chips and a can of fizzy pop to wash it all down.
     
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2017
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  4. Luciferette

    Luciferette Active Member

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    I've followed The Besteseller Experiment from the off, and it's great. Really funny and they've had some great interviews -- Joanne Harris was brilliant.
    When it comes to a formula...I don't think one exists. I wonder if anybody's tried to write and sell a novel from a spreadsheet? I suppose the nearest thing is Lee Child. I mean, he even chose his pen name from a formula! Apparently he analysed a stack of blockbusters then created a template for the Reacher series; it worked, I guess, but the point is he had talent in the first place, and put a lot of graft in.
    If it was that easy, surely everyone would be a bestseller by now?
     
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  5. Howard

    Howard Active Member

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    OK, probably an unpopular opinion...but I am more than certain that these books are correct. I think that a "best-seller" (the hell does that term actually mean?) can be deliberately constructed, and that this truth is a sad indictment of the publishing industry.
    If you listen to publishers rattling out what it is they want and what it is they look for, it is all formulaic. The actual quality of the story, the actual talent of the writer, play no part whatsoever in the equation.
    Books have to have a catchy first chapter, written in nice, short sentences for the masses to consume. The plot has to be interesting, but not complex. The characters have to display a required amount of basic human tropes to make them attach to a broad mix of people. Chapters must all be cliff hangers . Heroes must win out, but only after the appropriate number of failures and correct amount of introspection.

    Point is, I think you could take an average of fiction novels out there and distil it to a formula and then feed previously used but lightly twisted plot into it and produce another book that does exactly what all the rest did. And that, right there, is every publishers dream. Looks, smells and reads like the other books on their shelves but is sufficiently different from them that they can peddle it once more.

    The ability of the writer is no longer a consideration. The quality, depth and originality of the story is no longer a consideration. All that matters is how far a new novel strays from the mean of the novels before it.

    All this is not to say that good writers with new ideas do not get through, but they are no longer the rule (and flatly, are becoming an endangered species).

    Also, none of this is to deny that there is a correct (or at least better) way to write and present stories, but I fear that the market has been dumbed down too far.
     
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2017
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  6. Katie-Ellen Hazeldine

    Katie-Ellen Hazeldine Venerated Member Founding Member

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    There's a basic formula, or there would be no such thing as the novel form; and it's only 2-3 centuries old. But junk food is a good analogy, and you might be in the mood for it, sometimes, but you know that's what it is. I've been dropping in on that experiment; and I'll eat my hat (so long as it's made out of chocolate) if I find myself itching for any other reason than idle curiosity, to actually purchase the book they have produced in this spirit and by this method. Life's too short.
     
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  7. Howard

    Howard Active Member

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    Exactly. They are awful novels but they are also 99% of the novels on shelves.
    I'm all for pulp fiction, but the average novel now is just recycled, cookie cutter garbage.
     
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  8. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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    I agree with you, Matnov, and have previously commented that reading can be like eating food: some of what we consume is nourishing, while some books pander to a craving that leaves you feeling slightly nauseated for having indulged.

    I'm as guilty as the next avid reader, for occasionally giving in to temptation, though I do have my limits. For instance, I doubt that I'll ever read another James Patterson novel. After admiring his Alex Cross stories, I became increasingly puzzled, then annoyed at the lazy 'collaborations' he made with relatively unknown authors. The last of these, that I tried to read, was so sketchy that I gave up on it, mystified as to how it had ever been approved for publication—and depressed that such trash is successful.

    Even in my flash fiction and short stories, I try to make the reader think. I agree with what Doris Lessing said:

    I think a writer's job is to provoke questions. I like to think that if someone's read a book of mine, they've had—I don't know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way, perhaps.
     
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  9. Katie-Ellen Hazeldine

    Katie-Ellen Hazeldine Venerated Member Founding Member

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    Doris Lessing. A mighty writer.
     
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  10. Binley

    Binley Fledgling - be nice to me!

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    Gullible, aspiring writers put away your wallets and literature snobs lay down the pitchforks, because this “bestseller-ometer” isn’t an oracle or a threat– it just makes very obvious predictions. Although Archer and Lockers can market the algorithm with cute names and numbers, the computer formula isn’t a magic sorting hat for bestsellers, and it won’t make you a bestselling author. Why? Because we already knew, with our human brains, everything the algorithm predicted. According to their (not bestselling) book, The Bestseller Code, readers preferred dynamic plotlines with “emotional highs and lows”, colloquial diction using lots of contractions and active verbs, and most importantly (and obviously), “human closeness”. Jia Tolentino, writer at The New Yorker and author of the article “‘The Bestseller Code’ Tells Us What We Already Know,” believes the data is “much less subtle than Archer and Jockers seem to think… after half a page of dramatic buildup, they identify the topic most predictive of a bestseller: ‘human closeness and human connection’”. The code continues by identifying reader preference for “shorter, cleaner sentences, with unneeded words” and few exclamation marks– redundant conclusions for any mainstream reader/writer. The algorithm can plot graphs and count nouns and commas (like any word processor), but the program ultimately “ends up confirming the uncontested tenets of craft and style” we already knew.

    But that’s not all– “among the features the algorithm touted as being most essential to the success of the novel is that its three-to-four central themes occupy about 30% of its entirety” (“What Makes a Bestseller? Two SMP Authors Say They Know the Formula”, Jim Milliot). You might ask, “but wait, what should my bestseller be about?” Fear not, the “bestseller-ometer” identifies a nifty list of popular topics to integrate into your novel. For example, just somehow incorporate “lawyers and the law”, sprinkle in some “dog” (but not cat, never cat, the algorithm hates cats), and the obligatory “human closeness”, and voila, bestseller! … Of a lawyer… dog… defending his human… defendant in a court of law… and falling in love? Bestseller! Other notable novels such as Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James tested an impressive 90% success rate with their three-theme plotline of “modern technology, jobs and the workplace, and human closeness” (Algorithms Could Save Book Publishing– But Ruin Novels), Susanne Althoff). The irony being, of course, that none of those things have anything to do with the actual plot of Fifty Shades.

    Additionally, Archer and Jockers fail to fully acknowledge the external contributing factors of bestsellerdom, such as “influence of reviews, splashy covers, big-name blurbs, and marketing budgets”. Contrary to The Bestseller Code, Fifty Shades primarily attributes its success to its origin as Twilight fan fiction– not a bestselling formula. Twilight enthusiasts desirous of a lot more raunch (and flogging) took to James’ online serial “originally published under the title ‘Masters of the Universe’, eventually ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ which James self-published through a small former writers community” before its commercial success (“‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ started out as ‘Twilight’ fan fiction before becoming an international phenomenon”, Natasha Bertrand). Fifty Shades didn’t skyrocket to record-breaking popularity from its “bestseller qualities” alone, it initially found fame in the online Twilight fandom before literary agents, and the world, took notice.

    Are Archers and Jockers peddling common sense as the formula for success? Yes. Is the algorithm’s “bestseller” score dependent on arbitrary specifications and Frankensteining random themes? Absolutely. So is the “bestseller-ometer” worth the hype or condemnation? Not really… Maybe when it becomes A.I.
     
  11. Howard

    Howard Active Member

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    @Binley On a site like this, you make the above your first post?
    So, what are you selling, and how can I unsubscribe?
     
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  12. Carol Rose

    Carol Rose Venerated Member Founding Member

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    Hi @Binley. Welcome to the Colony. :) Why not start a new thread, introducing yourself? Tell us what you write, what you like to read, what your writing goals are.
     
  13. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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    You've made some telling observations about the warped perspective that statisticians have in analysing what makes something successful. In my working life, I've hovered around skilled professional who specialised in tackling things from a point of view that had me wondering if they were from a different human sub-species. These weirdos included actors, musicians, scientists, accountants, auditors, statisticians, astronomists, inventors, policemen, career criminals, social workers and the geekiest of computer nerds—who spoke to each other in strings of code.

    Everyone sees a subject in a different way—though writers are the sanest and wisest of folk! :D

    I read The Bestseller Code with a mix of exasperation and annoyance, mainly as it completely ignored the humanity, the personal likes and dislikes of readers. Had Archer and Jockers analysed what was the most successful car in a crowded parking lot, they'd have come up with all sorts of irrelevant bumph about whether door handles that were chromed or painted were more popular and did calling a car by an animal's name make it a sales success? They would have been blind to such factors as loyalty to a brand, the colour, price and was the driver's seat comfortable. Readers favour books for similar reasons—they've read the author before and liked them, the cover design is attractive, it's affordable and the story is easy to read.

    While ploughing through The Bestseller Code, searching for any useful nuggets of information, I was reminded of a story told by a literary agent who'd rejected a manuscript from a debut author. The writer contacted him with a bewildered and angry complaint, that the literary agent had missed out on a masterpiece, for he'd analysed the essential plot elements of the 100 best-selling novels in the last year and included them all in his novel!
     
  14. Robinne Weiss

    Robinne Weiss Venerated Member

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    "Publishers want something new, exciting, original, and exactly like what they published yesterday."

    That was the general consensus among the internationally successful writers at the workshop I attended this past weekend. All of them were writing to a sort of 'formula', but that didn't mean that every one of their books was equally successful. As @Paul Whybrow points out, there are tons of other factors at play--for one, a book tanked because the publisher gave it a misleading cover (it promised one thing and delivered another), for another a book tanked because it was released at the wrong time of year (when no one was buying books).

    I think it's fine to consider the formulae that have worked for authors in the past, but we all need to write our stories. We can't write someone else's story simply because it's what we think we ought to write--that story will fall flat, because it won't have the passion of the author behind it.
     
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  15. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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    [​IMG]
     
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  16. Amber

    Amber Member

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  17. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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    Whenever monkeys get involved with theories there's trouble....if a monkey ever intruded into my writing, well, I'd have to spank it! :p

    I was reminded of Carol Ann Duffy's poem Mrs Darwin, which appeared in her 1999 collection The World's Wife in which she shows the real source of inspiration for famous men came from their wives.

    7 April 1852
    Went to the Zoo.
    I said to Him—
    Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

    [​IMG]
     
  18. Luciferette

    Luciferette Active Member

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    Where has @Binley gone?! No intro, one super-long post, then...gone. How strange.
     
  19. Carol Rose

    Carol Rose Venerated Member Founding Member

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    Happens quite a bit on here, actually. People decide this place isn't for them, isn't what they thought it would be, don't understand what it is or how to use it, etc. *shrugs* It's not for everyone.
     
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  20. Luciferette

    Luciferette Active Member

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    Just seems odd that they obviously put a lot of thought and effort into that post, and it's a very active thread yet they've not come back. Anyway @brinley, if you're still around it would be nice to know what you're writing etc -- I'm always interested in what others are working on (ie nosey lol) :)
     
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