Tuesday, February 09, 2010
The Best Next Bestselling Book
As you no doubt know, I am a struggling author.
Not "struggling" in the sense of struggling to write something. Writing is easy. Writing is as easy as falling off a chair. Easier, in fact, if you consider that I've written tons and tons of stuff, and I've only fallen off a chair perhaps twice in my life.
In fact, I bet that if I were to try, right now, to fall off my chair, it would be difficult to do. I'd have to edge forward and sit awkwardly and probably give myself a push or nudge of some sort, and even then it'd be more of a momentary inconvenience than an actual fall. And yet, I'm able to write about falling off my chair (or not doing so, as the case may be) with great ease, as I just did.
Writing is a piece of cake, and good writing doubly so. All it takes is ideas, and the willingness to write them down. That's why I have so little patience with writers who complain about writing, or how hard it is to write, or what torture writing is for them. If it's so hard, don't do it! I want to say -- and I especially want to say that because if writing is hard for you, then imagine how hard it is for us readers to read it. I can't think of a single good thing I've read by an author who described writing as hard or torturous or difficult or hellish or any other synonym of that sort; most authors who complain about how tough writing is make reading their work even tougher, a slog through a morass of stilted characters, ponderous symbolism and plots that can scarcely be described as such. Whereas the writers I do enjoy, writers who are good at what they do, seem to enjoy writing, making their writing more enjoyable.
If writing is so easy, you may be asking me, then why aren't you a published author? Why are you struggling? And to you, I say: I can't hear you when you talk to your computer screen. Why not just leave a comment or email me, instead?
But it's a fair question: If writing is so easy, why haven't I been published? The answer to that question is twofold:
First, I have. I've had short stories published and I've even independently published a book. But I know that's not what you meant. You meant Why haven't you been published like John Grisham, or Dan Brown, or Stephanie Meyers, has been published? Why aren't your books all over bookstores in stacks and stacks and stacks, with author signings and stuff like that, and why aren't you living the good life in Hawaii and why are you instead sitting at your desk at your "job," where you're supposed to be "working," but are instead blogging about writing, if writing is so easy?
All of which brings me to the second fold of that twofold answer, which is this:
Publishing is hard.
Anyone can write, and almost anyone can write well. It's getting well-known, reputable publishers to take your stuff, and put it into a hardcover book, and ship it to the shelves of Barnes & Noble (the bookstore with a surfeit of fancy-seeming e's, so you know it's highbrow) and set up author sighings and get Stephen King to blurb your book and sell the movie rights for a gazillion dollars before the book is even written, all that kind of stuff, that's hard.
Or it was, until now.
Because I have discovered the secrets to creating a best-selling book, a book that will be irresistible to agents and publishers and movie producers and book stores and critics and intellectual talk-show hosts on NPR, a book that can't miss because it will have all the elements of a blockbuster best-seller. The book I will write -- and the book you will write, if you follow these instructions -- will have everything it needs to be beloved by all of those groups, guaranteeing it best-seller status and making you millions, plus spawning a whole line of books and tie-ins and movies and otherwise creating an entire industry based on you.
And, um, your writing, but that's secondary.
Also, note that I did not include, in the group of people to whom your book will be irresistible, readers. (You can go back and check, if you want; I didn't include them.) That's because readers are secondary. You don't want book readers. You want book buyers. There's a difference. Readers will expect a book that can be read, and enjoyed, and thought about. Readers will demand quality, and quality is not what you're going to deliver.
No, you want buyers, and buyers are a different sort of person altogether. There's not many readers out there in the world, but there are billions of buyers, people who will buy a book for any number of reasons: because it got good reviews, because the author died, because Kristin Stewart was cast in the lead for the movie about the book, because CNN mentioned it and it sounded inspirational so they thought they should buy it, because Oprah mentioned it and it sounded inspirational so they thought they should buy it... or because they needed a gift for someone.
None of those people are, necesssarily, readers. Oh, they may read your book -- or most of it, or they'll skim it -- but they're not reading it, not really. They're buying it for the same reason people buy cars or drink Starbucks' coffee or get married: Because they're supposed to do so.
How do they know they're supposed to buy your book? Because they were told to do that by the publishing industry -- by Oprah and Barnes & Noble and the New York Times Book Review and by CNN and by their neighbor and by the fact that your book just got made into a major movie starring a major star. All of those things add up to I've got to buy this book, and that adds up to best seller. Once the publishing industry -- which encompasses all those different groups and people and more -- realizes that it has a best seller on its hands, it gears up the publicity machine, and the publicity machine guarantees that you will have a best seller by making people buy the book that publishers agreed was a best seller.
Does that sound circular? It should, because it is. Advertisers, publishers, and Hollywood long ago realized that they can create demand for something by simply creating demand for it. Hollywood executives know, almost to a science, how many people will come to see a movie based on how many ads they run in the weeks before the movie opens; they can create a big opening by pushing money into ads that will get people to the movie theater on opening night.
Best selling books work the same way: Ubiquity creates demand, in this case, and when a best seller lands in the hands of a publisher, the publisher gets the machine going and generates the ubiquity that the best seller needs to become a best seller, a process that rarely depends on literary quality or readers, and all-too-often depends on marketing.
Put more simply: If for months all you ever hear about is The Lost Symbol, you'll likely buy The Lost Symbol.
The trick for writers who want to do more than write -- who want a best seller, or, more accurately, a Best Seller -- is to identify how to create a best seller, how to piece together those elements that will tell publishers, agents, Oprah, everyone, this book is a Best Seller.
And I know how to do that.
And how to do it so well that you will write The Best Best Seller of all time, a book that will be like the literary equivalent "Avatar Starring Jack and Rose This Time Only They're On A Plantation And Also They Have McDonald's Cheeseburgers and also zombies are Involved " a book that will so blow the publishing industry off its feet that they will do anything to publish you.
I know this because I'm not just a writer, and not just a reader, but I'm a thinker, and I follow what people are doing and think about it and analyze it and after doing that for a while now I've identified those elements that a blockbuster needs, that a Best Seller needs, by looking at various books that have become Best Sellers and figuring out what it was those books had that appealed -- not to readers, remember, but to the publishing industry. Remember, if you want to write a best seller, you've got to sell it to publishers, who will then guarantee that people buy it.
Reading is not required.
This is, like uranium or the exact method of how they get frosting into the Twinkie, a big secret, but I'm not like the people who hold those secrets. I'm not going to hoard this all to myself like some Frozen Ted Williams Head or something. Nope. I'm going to share the secret with you, so that you can write your own Best Seller, because I not only like to write, but I like to share, and I like to dream of a time when we all can have been, at least for a period of time, the Best Selling Author.
And also because, let's face it, there's more than enough room at the top. There's no end to the money people will throw at something which they're told to throw money at. To date, Beverly Hills Chihuahua has made $145,824,897. If the world was able to spend $145 million on a movie about talking Chihuahuas, the world has plenty of money to buy all our Best Sellers. So I don't mind if you take my tips and write your own Best Seller; I'll just see you at the top of the Best Seller list, and at the author signings at Borders, and we'll nod and smile and share a little secret as we sign our names a couple hundred times before getting on board a private jet and flying back to our estates in Hawaii.
Let's get down to it.
First of all, you're going to need it to be set in the American South. Or maybe Ireland, but the South is preferable. (Or, it has to at least sound like it's set in the South.)
Setting your book in the American South (or, if you must, Ireland) gives you access to the literary elements that are required to gain the approval of book critics and teachers, namely, picturesque descriptions of poverty, geographic features, and minorities. Without those things, you will not be able to get even a single critic or teacher on your side -- and if critics and teachers aren't on your side, you'll be lacking in a key element of any major work of literature, the ability to guilt-trip people into reading it.
Guilt-tripping is a major part of the Best Seller machine, generating the initial impulse in many people to buy the book because they feel they have to. It's the same force that makes us go visit our parents for Thanksgiving even though we'd rather sit around in our boxers watching Arrested Development, and any force powerful enough to make you put on pants and turn off the TV can get you to shell out $19.95 for a book.
Your book will be guilt-tripped into people, though, only through educators and critics, who will either force students to read it so they learn about a way of life other than their own (the educators) or will tell readers they must read this to learn about a way of life other than their own (the critics.)(Interestingly, even students and book review readers who live in the American South [or Ireland, if you must] will be forced to read your book for the exact same reason.)
Educators and critics will do that only if it actually describes a way of life other than your own, and the only way of life "other than your own" is, in a word, the way of life that exists only in the literary version of the American South (or Ireland, etc.)(Interestingly, this version of life does not exist in the real American South [or... you get the point].)
Think about it: Have you ever seen any book about, say, Minnesota described as "an intimate look at a culture that exists in the very midst of our own world but which is unique to its own time and place and antebellum rhythms?" Of course you haven't. The only books about Minnesota, ever, were Garrison Keillor's Wobegon stories, and they weren't described that way, at all. But that description (which I just made up on the spot) could apply to every single book ever written and set in the American South, from Grisham's A Time To Kill to The Help (or, as that latter was previously titled The Book That Wouldn't Have Gotten Published If Precious Hadn't Gotten Made Into A Movie.)
The American South generates the kind of veneration among teachers and critics that past generations reserved for tales of Atlantis: The American South is fondly pictured as a quaint, racist-but-not-really-except-for-an-unfortunate-few, dusty, warm, slow-paced, funny-talkin' place populated by overweight elderly woman, go-getting young men in shirtsleeves, wise-but-flawed middle-aged enterpreneurs, and Scarlett O'Hara. It combines mysticism with history with memories of taking a vacation to Florida when you were a kid, an agreeably musty scent like opening up the summer clothes in May.
Not only that, but by setting your book in the south, you can take advantage of the remarkable landscapes of the south, landscapes that have literary symbolism written all over them: Swamps, and kudzu...New Orleans' graveyards...The Gulf Coast... the Mississippi River (which starts in the north and runs the length of the country, but which is seen as a Southern thing, nonetheless.
I recommend, then, setting your Best Seller in the South -- don't name the era or a particular place. Just say the South and it can be anywhere. Then open with a catchy, quirky, memorable viewpoint of a geographic feature. That's a very Southernly thing to do.
I've already got mine, and I'll show you what I mean. My Next Best Selling Book is titled The Year The River Jumped Back. It opens this way:
In 1932, the river jumped its course and began flowing around a new bend, away from the front of the old bar and general store that had been a gathering point for fathers and sons, and sometimes mothers looking for sons and wives looking for fathers, for over 50 years. After the river jumped, the old bar -- called The Riverfront Bar by everyone, or sometimes just Riverfront-- wasn't in front of the river no more, but that never changed what it was called. Things take a long time to change around here. That river, the Kenahogee, took two millennia to change its course, and it might take two more millennia for people to stop calling the Riverfront by its old name, given how things work here.
Tell me you wouldn't go on reading that, and tell me that book wouldn't be featured on the front of the New York Times Review of Books.
Once you've got your setting, the next step is... don't say plot. No plot is necessary. No, the next step is making it a true story, of sorts.
People love true stories, but it can't just be any old true story. People, people who buy things -- your intended audience, remember -- don't want true stories like their lives. They already live their lives; why would they want to read about them? And, more importantly for your purposes, why would anyone want to talk about plain old ordinary lives? Remember: Your goal isn't to get people to read your book; it's to get people to buy your book and that means getting people, first, to talk about your book.
How many people do you see, in a given day, talking about ordinary humdrum workaday lives? Nobody. (Except maybe me, but I spice it up with pictures of Hunks on Saturdays and cheerleaders on Sundays.) And if you write your Best Seller about your ordinary life, nobody will talk about that, either. So when you send your Best Seller, set in the American South, to an agent or publisher or those guys who run Dreamworks films, they'll look at it, see it's about an ordinary life, and know for sure that Robin will not be talking about that on in the mornings on CNN HLN Robin & Company (motto: No word is too short for us to abbreviate.)
Instead, what you have to do is take an unusual thing to do and pass it off as a real life thing to do, even though nobody would ever, in their lives, do that unusual thing. That makes your Best Seller the literary equivalent of reality TV, and you know how popular reality TV is. We love that stuff. We eat it up. We watch every show about bachelors, hoarders, playboy models, and survivors that we can. We would watch Hoarders vs. Playboy Models Survive Bachelor Island if they put it on, and that might just be the leading show for NBC next year.
You need, then, a fake-reality real life experience, something really weird (but not too really weird, because, remember, we need people to talk about this, not barf or become embarrassed when they read about this.) You could, for example, read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, or spend one year cooking Julia Childs' recipes and the next year chopping up meat (while hiding from your readers the affair you had because you really want to be played by Amy Adams in the movie, instead of being played by Glenn Close), or you could drive across the country while listening to nothing but CDs you bought at random, or you could spend a year trying to make the pro golf tour, or ...
Well, you couldn't do any of those things, because they've already been done. In fact, it might seem as though every unusual thing that could be done has been done: It seems that every person who wanted to travel around the world while miserable about marriage, and then travel around the world savoring the irony of falling in love and getting married during the time she was traveling around the world being miserable about marriage, has done so, or that every person who wanted to make some sort of stupid point about eating McDonald's all the time has done so, which could seem discouraging, but don't let it get you down. There are still tons of fake experiences to really have and then to write about in a matter-of-fact tone.
Here's a few suggestions:
Writing to Ace: My letters to Ace Frehley, and the songs I wrote about the lack of response.
Bare Foot, Bare Soul: The year I decided to go shoeless.
I-Haul: One Man's Attempt To Live In A Rental Van For An Entire Year.
Keep in mind, that a year is a good length of time to do something for. Doing it for less than a year seems to lack some commitment. Who wants to read 6.3 Months Of Pancakes: My Mornings At Denny's, And What I Learned? But do something weird for more than a year, and you're probably the Unabomber.
You could, if you want, even go meta and really take it to the next level, as I will in my memoir "99% Perspiration: The Year I Spent Trying To Think Of Things To Do For A Year."
But I won't write that until I finish my first Next Best Seller. So in The Year The River Jumped Back (see how I got that year in there?), I'll have a real-life experience to write about the year I spent in the town where the river jumped:
I first arrived at The Riverfront on June 3, and I'd have known it was June even if I hadn't had a calendar packed in the back of the van I'd been left in my uncle's will. He wasn't really my uncle, anymore than the Riverfront still sat the front of the River, but he was a nice old man and I'd spent a lot of time chatting with him here and there when we'd bumped into each other, me in my waiter's apron at the coffee house, him carrying a book to read, both of us arriving each morning, at 8:30 a.m. to begin our morning's tasks: I would serve coffee to stuck up college students from the East Coast; he would read, usually something by one of the lesser-known sixties authors, authors whose work had just come into vogue recently and would pass out of vogue before anyone caught on to the fact that they were supposed to be reading that stuff.
Uncle Ed, as I thought of him (but never called him, to his face) had left me the van, and had left me $100,000, and had left me a note. "Go and write," it said, in his spidery handwriting. "Go and write your book and get away from these college kids that are holding you back." And he'd also left me a key, and a promise: "The key is to my old house. The house is yours, too, if you get that book published in a year."
The house sat next to the Riverfront, which was no longer on the river.
Damn, I've got goosebumps now. I bet you do, too.
With your Thing For A Year, and The South, you'll also need to recast an old classic. You've heard that old saying about how there are only seven different storylines? (Sure, you have.) It's true, but true in a sense that people don't often understand. In reality, there are only seven different stories, stories that have always existed and will always exist and are simply recast and retold, sometimes obviously so and sometimes less obviously so.
We, as human beings, exist on those seven different stories because we, as human beings, don't really crave variety. We say we want variety, and new things, but we don't mean that, anymore than women mean it when they say they're looking for a guy with a good sense of humor. If we really wanted variety and new things, would 87% of TV shows be a version of Law & Order? (That stat brought to you by my site, Statistics That Sound About Right)
What humans mean, when we say we want variety and new things, is this: we want the same old things, but with slightly different sauce. We want Lady Gaga, who is just Madonna done all over again. We want John Grisham to keep writing the same exact book, over and over. We want Tom Cruise to keep playing Tom Cruise in movies, regardless of what the plot of the movie is. That's why Top Gun, Risky Business, Jerry Maguire, Rain Man, and the Mission: Impossible movies were hits while Valkyrie and The Last Samurai weren't: Nobody wants to see Tom Cruise The Nazi, as varied and new as that is. And that's why Taco Bell survives: every single thing that Taco Bell sells is identical to every single other thing that Taco Bell sells; it's just rearranged to look different.
As Taco Bell shows us, things don't have to be new or good to survive. They just have to seem new, kind of. Madonna's pointy bra has morphed into Lady Gaga's pointy hat, and we're fine with that because it seems new but isn't, so we feel challenged when we're not.
That new-but-not-really explains the success of the zombies-plus-things genre of books (books that themselves show that I'm right about buyers vs. readers; has anyone ever read Pride & Prejudice & Zombies? Has anyone ever even bought that book in anything but an ironic way?), and new-but-not-really is the driving force behind pretty much every book you'll hear about, ever. The Lost Symbol? It's The Da Vinci code, all over again, which was nothing more than Raiders of the Lost Ark in book form, which movie was itself just an updating of the Errol Flynn serials. If you trace that back far enough, I bet you'll find illuminated books created by monks in which the illuminated text hypothesizes about a vast conspiracy among the druids.
In recent months, updated versions of Anna Karenina and Hamlet have hit the best-seller lists, placing those characters into New York or a dog farm (and, no, it doesn't matter which is which.) Even Dave Eggers got into the act, writing The Wild Things, an updated version of Where The Wild Things Are, a book that's loosely based on that book, and also loosely based on the movie that itself was based on the book. It's new... but not really.
You won't want to pick an old story that's already been reworked for your Best Seller; the key is to find an old story that's beloved by critics and educators (the people who will get the symbolism and guilt others into getting it, too) but also somewhat well-known by the general public, as well. The general public -- the buyers -- must vaguely recall what it is you're basing your storyline on, ideally from their own school days, because they will then feel, first, guilty, buying your book because they never read the original in the olden days, and second, smart -- they'll feel like the act of buying your book makes them educated, because they bought a book that was based on... Something Important.
Shakespeare is always a good based-on source, especially because you can have it both ways: You can base it on a well-known Shakespeare play, and any details you get wrong you'll simply say you "changed to reflect modern sensibilities," whereas, if you choose a lesser-known Shakespearean play, like The Merchant of Venice, nobody will have ever read it so they won't be able to refute your claims to have read it.
For myself, though, I like to go one better. Remember my metamemoir? Why not apply that thinking to what you base your book on, and get extra-extra credit? Consider this blurb that will appear on the back of the book jacket for The Year The River Jumped Back.
In The Year The River Jumped Back, the author recounts a year he spent in the antebellum confines of a small southern town ravaged by poverty and the loss of industry. Tasked by an unknown mentor to write a best seller book, and given the means to do that, Mr. Pagel sets out to try to live up to the dying directives his "uncle" gave him, but in doing so, ends up recreating an experience that hearkens back to and recreates Leopold Bloom's day in James Joyce's Ulysses, a day that, in Pagel's hands, and minds, stretches beyond the confines of 24 hours to overshadow his entire year spent on the banks of a river that was no longer there... until it came back.
See? See? I've got my book set in the South -- but I've managed to pull in Ireland, and have my book recreate and update and modernize Ulysses, a book that everyone agrees is genius even though nobody has ever actually read it.
I'm telling you, I will be amazed if The Year The River Jumped Back isn't on the Best Seller lists before I finish this post.
Finally, you'll need one last little hook or gimmick. This is the part of the book-publishing process that lands your book on local news shows and people's blogs and the front page of MSN, with lead-ins like "Group Think: A New Novel Examines The Dot Com Bust From The Perspective Of An Entire Company" Or perhaps it'll be an article about the clever way you hid a novel in an auction catalog. You know what I'm talking about: this is the part of the book that makes your book more than a (boring, old, stuffy) book, and instead makes it into a thing. And people love things.
For your Best Seller, you could go with a literary gimmick, like changing the perspective in which you write. Don't like first or third person, those old warhorses of literature? Sure, they were good enough for Hemingway, but, then, he wrote about fishing, so what does he know? Instead, you could try second person. Or write from a group perspective, as Joshua Ferris did in his book Then We Came To The End. (Ferris is a master of the literary gimmick; that trick, which caused me to not read his book, was just the first. In the latest, Ferris has written a book that critics are vying to find a meaning in-- ultimately finding meaning in the fact that there is no meaning at all in it.)(That's very Seinfeldian -- but with a twist.) Or you've got to title your book something ironic, like Winner of the National Book Award.
But those kinds of things don't always sell to the general public, the buyers. No, people don't necessarily want literary technique, so put away the plans to write a novel in the 5th person (a perspective I invented and patented.) You've got to have more of a gimmick, like 3D or actual recipes that really work, or some such. Pop-ups and donating the proceeds to charity are big these days, too, and if you time it just right you could get your book released just around the time of the next natural disaster. (It's probably too late for Haiti tie-ins.)
In my case, I've already got my gimmick, and it's a doozy. Ready for it? Let me give you the last paragraph of The Year The River Jumped Back. (Like John Irving, I've got my last line written before I begin to write the first line... although that makes my last line, technically, my first line, which means I haven't written the last line yet, which means...oh, never mind.)
Here's the last paragraph of my upcoming Best Seller, The Year The River Jumped Back:
In some ways, over the year, Dan had reminded me of Uncle Ed. Sometimes, the way he'd sat quietly looking over at the now-dry river bed, the place where the river had never been until it jumped, and then where it had sat until it jumped back, the way he stared at the old-new river bed, made me think of how Uncle Ed had used to sit, near the end of his morning, and look wistfully out the window at the kids walking by. He'd see those kids walking to class, or to skip class on nice days, and he'd watch them motionlessly except for his eyes, which tracked each new figure or group as it went by, his eyes seeming to want to be young like them again and glad, at the same time, that he wasn't.
Dan looked at the river bed that way, sometimes, like he wanted the water flowing over it the way it had all his life, the river jumping on the day he was born, but at the same time he was glad that the river was back where it belonged, even if the river jumping back seemed to say something about Dan's time here.
But when Dan played his harmonica, he didn't look like Uncle Ed at all. When Dan played his harmonica, and I strummed along on my guitar, and we'd alternate verses, singing old Delta Blues songs, me singing while he played and him singing while I played, Dan didn't look like Uncle Ed in the slightest. He looked like himself, and I reflected, as I strummed along on my guitar, in the still-humid night in front of the river, on the meaning of that: About how it is only at certain times that we look like ourselves, and those times are only when we are being true to our own souls.
Dan was true to his own soul when he played that old harmonica, the one his daddy had picked up from the newly-revealed river bed on the way to the hospital where Dan was being born, and maybe only then. And each time I saw him play, I wondered, as I looked at him, when I'd find out how to be true to my own soul.
I mailed the first author's copy of this book to Dan, when it came out. I wrote in it, Dan, now you have a reason to learn to read, but it got sent back to me. There was a note with it, and the note read: Dan has passed on, a few months ago. But he wanted you to have this, and he said to tell you that now you have a reason to learn to play.
The book that was sent back to me had Dan's harmonica in the package.
Are you crying yet? You will be when I tell you that each copy of The Year The River Jumped Back comes with an actual harmonica, and some music to play the songs Dan and I played, sitting there by the banks of that river.
Seriously. Goose bumps. Look at me.
You follow my directions, you'll write your own Best Next Bestselling Book. I'd tell you to make sure to go buy mine when it comes out, but the truth is, you'll buy it whether or not I tell you to. You'll have no say in the matter.
UPDATE: Click here to read how this system worked perfectly to create a best seller book -- just 10 days after I posted it. I'm serious!