"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: March 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Oh, to Write a Bestseller!

Rob Parnell

It's every writer's dream.

To write something that sells millions and pretty much guarantees you a place in history. Now that's sweet - the idea of it anyway.

Of course, you have to remember it's every publisher's dream too.

I read a publisher's blog recently that said that even in the US, it was rare for any author to sell more than a few hundred of their own books - and only then if they were lucky.

I know that mainstream publishers with worldwide distribution often have trouble selling the first print run of what they call their 'B List' authors - a title which pretty much covers the majority of us!

That's the reality. For every bestselling author that sells millions of copies of their book, there are perhaps a thousand, more likely ten thousand other authors who get by selling barely enough of their books to justify their publishing deals.

Many career writers who receive (often small) advances on their work usually don't start making money for their publishers until their third or fourth book - after slowly picking up a fan base and perhaps some critical acclaim.

Fact is, the bestsellers pay for the rest of us.

Without the likes of Twilight, Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code, there simply wouldn't be a publishing industry, which would no doubt collapse overnight if it had to survive on literary merit alone.

I guess there's always cookbooks and celebrity biogs to fill the shelves. Apart from the bestsellers, sadly, that's where the real money is. And, so publishers believe, in their list of already signed authors - who are writing what? Probably not bestsellers.

So don't be disheartened by your next rejection. When they say "your book is not quite right for our list," what they mean is they already have a thousand other 'ordinary' books to try out first.

Publishers basically hunt and peck on the principle that they really just never know which one will surprise them - and become a runaway success.

The reality is that bestsellers have a habit of surprising everyone: their authors, the media and the publishing companies too.

It's been said often that publishers are pretty bad at spotting bestsellers. You only have to look at the number of them that have been rejected many times before they were finally published - and usually by some small house that has no idea what they've got their hands on!

If anyone has an inkling of what a bestselling book looks like, it must surely be us writers. After all, it's we that write them.

It should therefore be in our own interest to know what a potential bestseller looks like.

In the movie business there's a whole industry built around teaching writers how to write effective blockbuster movies - to a kind of formula.

(Okay, if you don't like the word formula, think of it as a set of conventions that are necessary to make a movie work for a large audience.)

The sheer size of the film industry and the lure of the millions to be made with a movie has effectively necessitated the need to teach writers how to do it 'properly'.

Why, I wonder, is there no similar resource for novel writers?

I mean, it's not as if you need to be a great literary talent to write bestsellers. As Ken Follett says, it's enough to be literate - that is, to be able to string a few sentences together.

Bestseller writers are routinely criticized for their lack of literary finesse - but surely that's to miss the point.

It's the story that makes a bestseller. The story, the characters, the setting - and the big idea.

Isn't it about time somebody instructed ambitious writers on the fundamentals of writing potential bestsellers?

I think so. That's why I put together my latest writing course. To teach novelists the basic conventions contained within all bestsellers. And if you think there's no rhyme or reason to these things, you'd be wrong.

There are glaring similarities between all bestselling novels - but as writers, we often can't see the forest for the trees. We get so involved in the writing process, we fail to see the big picture.

And the reality is that you really can plan, create and manufacture a potential bestseller. (Assuming you are literate of course.)

There are conventions that always work. There are indeed templates - just like you'd use to write a screenplay - that a writer can use to hang their own novel on - and make their story look and feel and read like a bestseller.

I think sometimes the whole publishing industry is a little too precious about writing. Because they can't do it themselves - let's face it, they'll always need us - they attach a misguided mystique and significance to what they regard as 'good' writing that clearly doesn't lend itself to finding bestsellers.

It's my ultimate mission to change that perspective - even if I have to create a publishing company to do it!

In the mean time, I want us writers to show them our own potential bestsellers - and let them work it out for themselves!

Go here to find out more about my latest writing course:

Keep Writing!

Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What's That Knocking Sound?

Rob Parnell

We've been busy these last couple of weeks going through staff applications and we've just started conducting interviews.

It's fascinating to view so many different people and gain some appreciation and insight for their very different lives, hopes and dreams.

As a writer, coming into contact with new people obviously fires my imagination and makes me think of characters I may not have considered - or imagined - before.

Be that as it may... (one of those strange cliches that doesn't appear to say what you think it means.)

It's also interesting to me because the whole experience of expanding my horizons has made me re-evaluate where I want to take my writing business in the future.

The other night I couldn't sleep. I was thinking about what I would do if I had a huge staff of helpers, consultants and writers. What would be possible? Just what could I achieve, I thought, if I had a large corporation of people to run, occupy and motivate?

Instead of just trucking along with a few websites and an off line writing school, what else could I do?

It was a liberating moment - even exhilarating to think of all the wonderful things that might be possible given the resources.

I realized there were no end of possibilities. I could write hundreds of books, publish them all, get them into shops and spend a fortune or promotion and marketing...

I could sell franchises, fund charities, give grants to artists, make movies and TV series. I could set up writing schools in every town in the world. I could feed the starving, terraform Mars...

Heady stuff indeed.

And I realized later that this was a lesson too.

That we're often restricted by our own limited world view. And that in order to grow we sometimes need to not only use our imaginations but also to begin taking some action.

I remember reading in The Secret that we should imagine our goals as though they'd already happened. But, try as I might, I never felt I was more than kidding myself - that I was merely play-acting and couldn't really grasp any real sense of having something I didn't actually possess.

Maybe my goals were too large, or too nebulous. I don't know.

Law of Attraction gurus, Esther and Jerry Hicks say the same - that if you visualize your goals and wants as manifest - that is, already existing, then somehow the emotional connection to your desire magnetically draws you towards your results.

All very good in theory. But personally I never liked the implication that if you don't pull off this magic trick of 'experiencing what you don't have', then success is never going to happen to you.

Sounds like a self help guru's cop out to me: The by now old "You attract failure because that is what you want" argument.

I guess I find visualization hard - and I think this goes for many - because I/we know what real success and achievement feels like.

Those moments in our lives when we're amazed at ourselves and are elated are so deeply etched on us that 'faking' them seems counter-intuitive.

I will never forget how fabulous I felt when I got my first advance of money for a screenplay. That feeling of overwhelming joy and fulfillment stayed with me for at least a couple of months. There's no way I could fake that!

I think what I'm trying to say is that if you want to achieve something special or important to you, like writing a book for instance, you need to take the actual steps necessary. That is, begin the journey.

Don't spend lots of time thinking. Spend more time doing.

Take action.

Anthony Robbins once said that opportunity does not come knocking at your door.

No, it often comes crashing through your house.

But many times we don't actually like the mess that opportunity makes and we tend to brush it away before we get too involved.

Don't be afraid to open your mind to new possibilities.

In your fiction - and in your life.

Keep Writing!

Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

Thursday, March 11, 2010

There's Always a Book Inside of You

Rob Parnell

Do you ever have those days when you don't know what to write about? And worse, do those days turn into weeks and months, even years?

You're not alone. I know this for a fact because people email me and send me letters about it all the time.

According to most surveys, 80% of people feel they have a writer inside, someone who could - and thinks they should - write a book at some point in their lives. That's a huge statistic.

So huge that it's the kind of percentage that would have marketers foaming at the mouth! But experience shows that only around 5% actually get around to any kind of serious writing in their lifetimes - and only around 1% of that 5% end up getting paid to do it.

That's why, in marketing terms, writing remains a niche - one of those nebulous terms that means 'so specialized' as to be largely irrelevant to modern demographics.

Clearly that doesn't quash the urge to write for most of us. But this issue of "I want to write but I can't think what to write about" remains for many a point of frustration for much of their lives.

My feeling is that is usually caused by having too high expectations of ourselves.

We tend to think that our words and sentences should be good and wonderful the moment we put them down on paper. The beginner can feel immense distress after writing a paragraph and realizing it's either awful, or nothing like the thought they wanted to transfer.

We should take comfort in the fact that this phenomenon is as true for seasoned writers as it is for the beginner!

Removing the barrier between our thoughts and their expression is something a writer may take a lifetime to learn - and never quite thoroughly master.

I think it was Evelyn Waugh who said that he found writing in his old age much harder than in his youth because the more he tried to get down precisely what he meant, the more laborious the process seemed to become. A few throw away lines that may have sufficed as a younger man became pages of exposition that delved further and deeper into delicate nuances that seemed almost impossible for him to capture.

Churchill expressed the same concerns as he aged - and his works became longer and denser.

One of my intentions with The Easy Way to Write is to short circuit this dilemma.

Because I believe that our subconscious minds have a much better grasp on writing, story, theme, structure and style than our conscious, rational minds.

This is one of the reasons why thinking too much doesn't seem to help us write. Thinking is thinking.

But writing is writing. And the only way to solve a writing problem - a block or a lack of ideas - is to write.

I've noticed this over and again. That if you switch off your inner critic somehow - ignore it, or deliberately suppress it - and just write the first thing that comes into your head, then the subconscious somehow kicks in and takes over.

And this is not just the case for short pieces. I've also noticed that if you write every day, the subconscious can actually guide you through an entire novel. I used to marvel at how my brain could even begin to hold a 150,000 word opus in mind all at the same time - until I realized it can't, and doesn't.

It's the subconscious that does this job. It holds the novel in a hidden databank. And if you're true to yourself - and have an objective moral compass - then your storylines tend to surface naturally.

Writing professors will often tell you about their favorite novelists who've managed to weave profound themes into their work - and still created superb prose to house them.

But this is to misunderstand the process a writer uses.

I've yet to see a writer interviewed who will say they had all their themes - even subject matter - worked out before they started writing. This is not how it works. Themes, indeed stories, characters and plots are subconscious manifestations of the writer's mindset and attitudes that come through the work, rather than being deliberately planned and executed to any formula.

At best, writing is a mysterious process that defies explanation.

But this is good. It means that all of us can do it - if we let go of any preconceptions or expectations of our abilities.

Let go, and write.

Don't think, and write.

That is, to me, the easy way to write.

Thanks for reading.

Keep Writing!

Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

Thursday, March 4, 2010

On Best Sellers

Rob Parnell

The biggest selling book of all time is of course The Bible. Hardly surprising given its place and significance in our history. But, strictly speaking, the Bible doesn't count for our purposes because it's not supposed to be fiction (though some might disagree.)

I want to restrict my study of the bestseller to fiction - because to me, any book about things that aren't obviously real, would have to pretty powerful to inspire millions of people to buy it.


Would it surprise you then to discover that the most verifiable bestselling novel, ever, is in fact Charles Dickens "A Tale of Two Cities"?

Surprised the hell out of me. Yep, apparently we've consumed over 200 million copies of this saga about the French Revolution and its affect on English mores.

After that, we're on more familiar ground with "Lord of the Rings" at around 150 million - and apparently this figure isn't skewed by the book often being sold as three books - they're still only counted as one.

The redoubtable Agatha Christie comes in third with "And Then There Were None', which in pre PC times was called "Ten Little Niggers" - a cracking good read with a brilliant twist, written in 1939.

Here we get the glimmerings of one of my first conclusions about writing bestsellers. That from the first three entries what's clear is that so called 'literary' writing is not always what counts. It's emphatically the story that is more important.

This is especially apparent when we look at number five in the list. (The Hobbit is at number four - but clearly Tolkien had the advantage of writing number two.) The fifth bestselling novel of all time is in fact "She" by Rider Haggard.

What? I hear you gasp.

Again here we see another indication that story is king.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince" weighs in next, for reasons not immediately obvious. I mean, it's a cute story about kingship and aliens but 80 million copies? Must have been a slow news day.

Next, at number seven, we're at least not so flummoxed by the news that "The Da Vinci Code" has earned its place in the top ten bestsellers of all time.

I can already hear that rumbling out there. You're wondering about young Harry, aren't you? Patience, please.

Number eight reveals our twentieth century obsession with all things warped with "Catcher in the Rye" - the book that arguably spawned a handful of psychopaths - and to this day I still find impenetrable. I'm often struck by the thought that it really must be about something, though I'm still not quite sure what. Maybe that's its adolescent appeal. (I prefer the more familiar ground of Camus' "The Outsider".)

Number Nine - and one my favorites: "The Alchemist" by Portuguese visionary Paulo Coelho. At least here a profound message is disguised as a great piece of deceptively simple writing.

And what about number ten?

Don't hold your breath, you'll be disappointed to learn - perhaps even disgruntled to know - that "Heidi's Years of Wandering and Learning" by the less than familiar Johanna Spyri takes that coveted spot.

Well, knock me down with a fevver, as they say in London.

It was at this point in my research that I decided that perhaps the focus of my newest writing course should be on modern bestsellers - because I'm not sure there's much to gleaned from all of us running out to recreate Heidi-esque novels. But perhaps we shouldn't be overly dismissive either. There are indeed elements in "Heidi" that are duplicated in all bestselling novels - but you'll have to wait for my latest course to discover them.

So, I can feel that tug on my arm again...

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" comes in at number seventeen, believe it or not - after such evergreen classics as "Anne of Green Gables", "Black Beauty", "The Name of the Rose", "Charlotte's Web" and the other Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit."

I think what's interesting about these bestsellers is that they're probably not the books you were expecting to see.

I mean, where's "The Godfather" or "Jaws" or "Jurassic Park"?

Top ten movie lists tend to feature the most recent films simply because more people exist to go and see movies nowadays - and gross numbers are what count.

But this does not always seem to be the case with novels.

Each new generation still finds entertainment in the well worn classics it seems - but that doesn't explain why so many classics aren't featured in the bestselling novels list.

Of course most so called bestseller lists produced by book retailers and publishers are often self serving. They list the books they want you to buy - and will often feature books they think people should buy, but don't (not in large numbers anyway.)

I will shy away from conclusions at this point.

Think of the above as a preamble to a major discussion on the content, format and structure of bestsellers, which I intend to release soon, entitled, "Rob Parnell's Anatomy of the Modern Fiction Bestseller."

I'm sure it will shed much needed light for you on the issue of what makes a novel a bestseller - and the fact that duplicating it is well within your grasp as a writer may surprise you too.

Look out for my latest course (my first in over a year) in an inbox near you.

Thanks for reading.

Keep Writing!
Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

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