Everyone* knows there’s no magic formula for writing a book that’s destined to become a bestseller. (Did you notice I didn’t write “there’s no magic formula for writing a bestseller“? I did that on purpose. Pause for a moment to think about why I did that.) But that doesn’t stop you from trying to find such a formula – or at least discover a few tricks that can improve your chances of such success.
So you reverse-engineer the bestsellers. You study the themes, the characters, the pacing, the writing style. You examine the publishing processes, the marketing tricks. You take everything apart and look for pieces that might fit your novel. You puzzle and ponder until you’re cross-eyed and confused and in the meanwhile, neglect the one thing that has the best chance of setting you apart from the crowd: finding and developing your unique writing voice. (How? By writing. A lot.)
But let’s say you’ve done that. You’ve refined your voice and improved your craft and as a result, you’ve written a good book.
I’m going to have to stop you right here. Because I know what’s coming next. You’re about to compare your novel with a best seller. You’re going to employ some common writer’s (il)logic and whine, “If [insert name of current bestseller here] can sell a ton of books, mine ought to sell even more. Because my novel is actually good.”
I have some news for you: There is no good.
The word is meaningless in this conversation. Here’s why:
1) Good is relative. What you call “good” I might call “bad.” Neither of us would be wrong except according to the other.
2) Good is not a quantifiable measure of anything. (See above.) Therefore, there is no direct correlation between “good” and “sales.”
So what makes a novel a best seller if it’s not how “good” it is?
I’m not talking about the “it’s who you know” or “how many you know” kinds of connection, though admittedly, those continue to play a role whether you’re self-publishing or pursuing traditional publishing. As a bonus, here’s the entirety of my post on that topic: Networking and social media are good for you.
I’m talking about the connection a book makes with its readers.
A book doesn’t have to be good (or well-written or brilliant or whatever other phrase you like to overuse) to connect with readers. It just has to make them feel something they want to feel. Hope. Or excitement. Or wonder. Or surprise. Or fear. Or comfort. Or even dismay.
An intriguing plot can do that. So can a clever twist on a tired, old plot. Or, for that matter, a tired, old plot.
Compelling characters – whether superhero or everyman, do-gooder or do-badder – can do it, too.
Sometimes beautiful prose does it. Often, plain and simple does it.
Connection sells books. Readers call many of the books they connect with “good,” but let’s not forget all those “bad” books readers happily devour, too. (We call them guilty pleasures to minimize embarrassment.)
There are other factors, of course. Like simple curiosity 0r our strange cultural fear of being left out. Book buyers are happy lemmings.
The bottom line, though, is this: if a book connects with enough people, it will sell a lot of copies.
I opened this post with a claim that there is no magic formula. We’re at the end of the post and that’s still true. There’s no easy way to craft connection, nor would I encourage you to attempt it.
Every story has the potential to connect with a lot of people or a few. But if a novel doesn’t connect with one person in particular (I’m talking about you, the writer), chances are far greater for the latter than the former. So the simple lesson here is this: Write a novel that makes you feel something you want to feel. Then pray lots of other people want to feel that, too.
So what about writing well? Is that still important?
Well, that’s kind of up to you, isn’t it. I’ll take a wild guess though.
*By “Everyone” I mean all writers who are smart enough to know that people who guarantee they can make you into a bestselling author are just trying to take your money.