Monday Motivation: Here’s how to write a bestseller

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

How do you write a best-seller? Shouldn’t be difficult. Bestsellers, after all, aren’t vaunted works of literary magnificence. For the most part, they’re just fast-paced stories, chockablock with cliffhangers, taut with suspense, and at their heart is a protagonist who’s willing to risk everything to get what she wants.

Clearly, though, it’s not as easy as it seems. But there is a useful case history we can study. It’s the story of Robin Cook, who burst onto the bestseller lists with his second novel, Coma, in 1977.

Cook was – and is – a physician. His medical practice didn’t give him the satisfaction he craved, so he wrote his first book based on his experiences working, as a medic, on submarines in the US Navy. That didn’t sell as well as he’d hoped, so he decided to do a little research before he wrote his next.

He started off by reading two hundred novels that had made it to the New York Times bestseller lists. He concentrated on debut novels – stories written by writers previously unknown – and he looked for the techniques they used to write their page-turners.

The books that he would later claim influenced him most profoundly were Jaws, Seven Days in May, and Eric Ambler’s thrillers.

How did they create suspense? What sort of characters made their appearances in these books? What genre was most likely to succeed?

“I studied how the reader was manipulated by the writer,” he said in an interview a year or two later. “I came up with a list of techniques that I wrote down on index cards.”

He decided that mystery-thrillers would give him his best chance of success.

And his subject matter? Well, that was determined by the field that he’d spent ten years studying: medical science. But he took as his specific medical topic the issue of organ transplant which, in the mid-seventies increasingly featured in headlines and news and magazine articles.

He dashed off seventy-five pages of his medical thriller, then sought a publisher. Little-Brown came to the party, advanced him $10 000 and, six weeks later he delivered the balance of Coma to them. Success was almost instantaneous. Even before the hardback had emerged from the printers, the paperback rights had been sold for $800 000 and film producers were sniffing around.

Fiddlesticks, huh?

Well, naturally not. But it does demonstrate something. Writing popular fiction isn’t easy – but there are ways to get the basic hang of it. And there are lots of examples of successful books written by people who previously hadn’t written successful books – and in many cases hadn’t written any books at all.

It helps to have mastered a discipline that provides you with endless material. It was Cook’s good fortune that medicine, and, more specifically, hospitals, are such fecund sources of life-and-death tales.

He himself put his finger on one element of the magic available to him: “You can write about great white sharks or haunted houses,” he said, “and you can say I’m not going into the ocean or I’m not going in haunted houses, but you can’t say you’re not going to go into a hospital.”

Happy writing,


Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Why you need to trust your reader

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