french bookshop 1940

I think I’d rather have people find a cure for cancer, or figure out if Mars will be inhabitable one day for our species … but some are spending considerable effort, and time, to produce books like The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers.

This book appeared six months ago and I’m just getting to it: I’ve been spending some summer free time reading issues of the TLS that have been piling up since January.  (It’s the literary equivalent of binge-watching shows on Netflix, I guess.)

Daisy Hilyard’s TLS review of this code book – along with a few other books about the craft of writing – caused me to draw a few conclusions:

  1. Big sellers use the word “thing” (the code book applied some kind of algorithm to figure this out)
  2. Intimacy sells but explicit sex doesn’t
  3. Create appealing, pro-active characters
  4. Writing a book is hard

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time with going into detail about what the review says (Hilyard does a great job of balancing this code book against some others which seem much more worthwhile, like DBC Pierre’s Release the Bats; check out her review here for yourself).

Instead, I’ll just say that as I near the finish line of my novel for the fifth or sixth time, I’m doing this because I love, truly love, to write. I love the unexpected direction that my narrative has taken, and I can’t imagine applying a formula or crunching the number of times I’m using the word “thing.”

I don’t think we can really be so quantitative about these things, and any book that offers to tell us “this is how it’s done” offers us a hindsight view: the minute something new comes along that is totally different, that book’s argument collapses.

We write because we want to communicate with others and ourselves–and I’ve been lucky in this blogosphere to encounter some wonderful folks, my good friends–and the creation of a bestseller shouldn’t be the principle that guides you.

It will turn the whole process into a painful exercise instead of a joyful one, and you’d be better off doing something else instead.  Cure cancer, or look for life on Mars.

Onwards, my beloved friends.


  1. Good one, Nick! I’m dropping by from…roll of drums…Ireland! A thought occurred to me from the moment we stepped into a taxi at the airport: the Irish can sure talk! Not rubbish talk, but articulate, floating, consequential and story telling talk. I guess that if a few wrote as they talk (and there are excellent examples in print), the greatest literary discovery would not be life on Mars, but how to distill some of that skill into glass bottles and ship a few to wannabe writers. Problem solved for both the Irish economy and those buying “codes” that claim to crack the art of writing!!!

  2. I agree with you OG&B … the Irish are definitely masters of the higher conversation (Scottish too, or maybe it’s just the accent). You can’t really learn anything about writing from a book that promises the code: you learn about it from just writing … and listening the way a writer listens (the way you did at the airport). Hope your summer is going great!

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