Writing a bestseller : What I learned while training with James Patterson, Dan Brown, and Malcom Gladwell
I took 18 months to finalize my manuscript. What began as a practical guide of about 200 pages has, over time, turned into a non-fiction thriller, practically a 520-page coming-of-age novel.
You can’t imagine the strength I needed to complete this task. This is probably the most difficult challenge I’ve faced so far, from finding the ideal tone and style to sending the file to my publisher.
It is also, however, a real feather in my cap. It’s exhilarating. As a matter of fact, I must admit that I have already started writing another book… and this time, it’ll be a lot easier.
Because I addressed all the questions that came up during my writing: style, plot, research, inspiration… I had nothing but questions on every page.
To overcome these obstacles, I read dozens of books and followed masterclasses of the greatest writers of our time…Gradually, the pieces of the puzzle were put in place.
Each author has their tips. However, some literary techniques are universal. Once you know them, the creative process is much smoother, your goals are clearer, and you work effectively.
I want to share these techniques with you.
Note: This guest article was written by Sébastien Night, founder of the ”Mouvement des Entrepreneurs Libres”, and author of the book “Profession Entrepreneur libre: le guide pratique pour gagner votre liberté en vous mettant à votre compte’’.
The success of a bestselling author isn’t due to luck
Creating a bestseller is not limited to a few lucky people… You can do it as well!
I would first like to bring to your attention the figures for the book industry in France. They are indicative of the difficulty for authors to find a spot on the bestseller list.
In 2017, the top 11,015 titles accounted for 66.8% of sales. During this period, 775,170 titles were available. In other words, the remaining 764,155 titles (98.5% of the catalog) accounted for only one-third of sales. This amounts to selling a few copies per book. Moreover, the average print run of a book (which also includes the huge number of runs for successful authors) is 5,341 copies per title. And this figure is constantly decreasing.
The authors of these 764,155 titles aren’t necessarily bad. And some of these authors earn a good living. Yet, they have failed to compete with the powerhouses of literature.
Do you think they just had bad luck?
After these 18 months spent studying the literary market, I can now tell you:
A bestselling author does not owe his/her success to luck!
Only books with this essential quality have the makings of a bestseller
After graduation, most adults read for an escape, or to improve their lives and skills. One of the tips for creating a bestseller is to provide readers with this escape AND at the same time provide concrete solutions. This explains the growing success of non-fiction books.
To be popular, a non-fiction book must provide the tools to evolve, develop an expertise, change one’s personal or professional life.
If your manuscript brings this to your audience, it already fulfills the essential prerequisite to its success. This is a “good” book. However, to get into the “best-seller” category, it’s not enough!
The recipe for success of a bestseller finally revealed
I wanted to do a practical book about entrepreneurship. However, I didn’t want it to address the traditional readers of this type of literature, which is made up of entrepreneurs who are already convinced.
I wanted to address the many Franco phones who dream of starting a business, without ever daring to take action (37% of the population according to a recent INSEE study!). My goal is to give them the confidence and tools they need to get started.
Unfortunately, these people aren’t interested in business books. How can I reach them? How can I motivate them to buy the book, and even more difficult, to captivate them until the end (knowing that it is now a 520-page “whopper”)?
So, I turned to the best novel and non-fiction writers in the world. I took 8 master classes on creative writing, and in particular, those of James Patterson, Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Brown. In addition to that, I read no less than 17 books on the subject, especially for writing a bestseller.
And here are the key elements of creating a bestseller:
The art of aiming at the right target
If you miss your target, all the hours of hard work spent on your story will have been for nothing.
A good story, whether fictional or real-life, will not succeed if it doesn’t address its target audience.
James Patterson is the world’s greatest bestseller, but he’s not only a writer. Before devoting himself exclusively to writing, he made a career in an American advertising agency.
So, what is the link between marketing and creative writing?
It’s very simple. When he creates his novel, James Patterson uses the avatar technique. Here is the definition of avatar that I give in chapter 30 of Profession: entrepreneur libre, it is:
“The detailed and idealized description of the customer to whom all the marketing efforts of a company are directed. No actual customer matches 100% the avatar, but each customer has enough of the avatar’s characteristics to think that the products and services offered are specifically tailored to their needs.”
Therefore, he writes taking into account his primary audience. And it is based on figures from his sales, or on his commercial aspirations. For example, when he wanted to compete with John Grisham on the East Coast of the United States, Patterson set his next novel in San Francisco.
The best way to capture someone’s interest is to talk to them about them. Man, woman, old, young, rich, poor, city dweller or country dweller… the characters and the place of action are decisive in attracting the attention of your target audience.
Reaching out to one’s audience is one thing, but knowing how to talk to them is quite another!
The reader is the only recipient of a manuscript
I knew my target readership before writing my book. However, I didn’t know how to communicate with them.
The voice whispering in the reader’s ear
In his master class, Malcolm Gladwell stresses the importance of adapting one’s voice to their audience, and to the subject.
No matter whom you’re speaking to, you use a different language when talking about sports or when talking about entrepreneurship. Sports are fascinating because the fans experience them intensely. You can indulge in an uninhibited vocabulary that is subjective or emotional, which, if it were used in another context, would be shocking. Whereas business vocabulary is much more polished: stirring up the reader’s emotions is much more complex.
Copy or create one’s own style?
During the first months of writing my book, I faced a major challenge. Like a Dale Carnegie or Napoleon Hill, I wanted to write a classic, one of those manuscripts that will still be talked about 30, 50 or 100 years later.
And I realized that only my usual audience – entrepreneurs – read these types of business books.
While I intended Profession : entrepreneur libre for my wife, Cécile, for my sister, Carine and her partner, Thierry, for my friend, Morgane…and for the other 19 million French people convinced that they will create a business one day… but never do, because they lack confidence in themselves and the tools to take the leap. Through this book, I wanted to give them the means to achieve this goal.
So, a slight problem: This audience never reads “Business” books.
Therefore, I returned to my bookshelves in search of a model to follow: a non-fiction book so captivating that even the most reluctant readers cannot help but flip the pages.
But no model was suitable for my project: too boring, too factual, too documentary… Therefore, I turned to fiction writers.
And I created a new style.
My mistake was having wasted lot of time trying to copy a style. This is such a bad idea.
Instead, try to offer your readers something innovative, which will make a longer lasting impression on them. This is the case of Malcolm Gladwell, who manages to use the techniques of thrillers in non-fiction books.
The story has to grab the audience and take hold of them until the very last line
The nightmare to avoid: when a reader starts with passion and ends with a yawn!
One of the benefits of practical manuals and other non-fiction books is that no one is expecting from you a plot which motivates your reader to flip the pages. Your audience is, in theory, already acquired: they seek information on a subject; you offer to provide it. If the tacit agreement between you and the reader is fulfilled; that is to say, that your work is interesting and relevant, the gamble has paid off.
But how do you keep the reader’s attention until the end of a story?
I basically used 2 techniques. The first is proposed by James Patterson, while the second is used by Malcolm Gladwell:
- Delete all the passages that most readers skim through. One technique that the greatest marketers use to improve a sales text consists of deleting the first two paragraphs, or even the entire first page. It works every time! Whether it’s a book, a chapter, or a foreword, the author always tends to go around in circles before getting to the heart of the subject. Therefore, I “cut to the chase”, and divided my book into a hundred chapters of 3 pages on average, rather than 10 endless chapters, each beginning with a long preamble.
- Surprise your audience. By refuting widely shared opinions, raising questions that you don’t immediately resolve, you force your readers to flip the pages in order to discover your reasoning, or the answer to the questions raised.
Research is a necessary evil for writing a bestseller
- Write about a subject in which you are an expert…
- Or, if you’re not an expert in any subject, write about one that you want to learn about!
This is, in essence, the advice of Dan Brown. Of course, this second method requires a lot of research, without which your credibility will be quickly attacked by your most attentive readers.
Even knowing your subject, time devoted to research, practice, experimentation and documentation is inevitable. Moreover, this is what slowed down my work the most. To give you an idea: the days when I worked without an Internet connection (at the University Library of Nantes, or in the countryside in Lascaux), I wrote between 15 and 22 words per minute. When I had access to the Internet…only 7 to 10 words per minute.
Who hasn’t done a Google search only to find themselves, an hour later, still busy reading articles that are certainly captivating but totally off-topic to the original query?
You have to find a subtle balance between the need to gather material and the need for concentration in writing a book. Only concentration allows you to enter completely into your story…and to make it a story worthy of a bestseller.
Lack of inspiration is no excuse
“Don’t sit and think,” Oh, I don’t feel like it today. Not today, tomorrow.” Find the desire! Do it! Force yourself!”
This remark from James Patterson, I myself experienced, reviewing my “logbook” once the manuscript was finished. And the conclusions are amazing!
Some days, the desire to write isn’t there. Lack of motivation, inspiration, my entire being aspired to do something else. The exercise was grueling, almost painful, but even those days (which in my journal mention references to “torture”, “unusually slow”, or “zero morale”), I managed to write 9 to 10 words per minute.
And the good days, when I was driven by inspiration, when the words filled up the pages themselves, these days where my journal indicates that I would finish writing fresh as a daisy and proud of the work done, my rate reached…10 to 11 words per minute!
In other words, my state of mind had almost no impact on my rate of writing.
Inspired or not, finishing your book only depends on the time you are willing to sacrifice to it… and not on the invocation of the Muse. By removing sources of distraction and making yourself sit in front of the screen until you have put the last line, you will finish it.
Provided that it’s possible to finish it…
“Art is never finished, only abandoned”
This quote, often attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, was mentioned by several authors in the courses I took.
I didn’t understand it until only recently. Specifically, during the moment I had to send off my manuscript. In fact, I had finalized it 3 weeks earlier. And since that moment, I did some editing, touching up, fine-tuning… Believe me, if I had not had the strength to send it to the publisher at that very moment, I probably would never have sent it. I was still contemplating hundreds of improvements… that could have kept me busy for a long time.
A creative work is never finished. Perfection is never achieved. You have to know when to stop, let go, and let your manuscript fly on its own.
Don’t sit there and envy the success of others
James Patterson, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Brown, etc. These authors no longer fear the competition, and they allow you to enjoy their best-selling author experience. What they did, you can do as well.
They weren’t given a golden opportunity (James Patterson’s first novel was rejected by 31 publishers) or special favors restricted to the very wealthy (Dan Brown held 2 teaching jobs at the same time before leaving the Da Vinci Code).
If you want to write a bestseller, don’t be afraid to get started and face criticism! Find your audience, your voice, your style… and work tirelessly using the techniques provided by the most famous authors of your generation in order to write a bestseller.
Let me finish with a quote from Dan Brown, which I think is appropriate:
“Men go to far greater lengths to avoid what they fear than to obtain what they desire.”
Don’t be one of them!