We recently came across How Not To Write a Bestseller by Walter Ellis, available to e-bookers for a princely £2.99. The book made us laugh and it has some tough and honest points to make. So here’s how the book opens and (further on down in ‘Back Story’) a chunk from the book itself. Do have a read – I promise you that almost everyone except stilletto-bearded publishers will enjoy what follows. For our advice on navigating the agents & publishing process, try this or this on agents and this on publishing.
The publisher barely looked up from his computer screen as the author walked in to his office. “Take a seat,” was all he said, indicating an upright chair set some four feet back from his mahogany desk with its gold-tooled leather top. For important visitors there were two antique leather armchairs. This morning these had been placed against the far wall either side of an octagonal 1930s coffee table. The writer said nothing. Instead, placing a canvas bag on the floor next to him, he sat staring at his feet. He looked to be lost in thought.
It was the publisher, George Farquharson, running a ruminative hand down his stiletto beard, who broke the ensuing silence. “So … Michael. What are you up to these days?” His voice was rich and orotund.
“Well, I …”
“It’s a living.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Farquharson pushed a button on his intercom with a slender finger on which his gaze briefly lingered as if something about it displeased him. “Angela,” he said. “I’m going to need a pot of tea and some Hob-Nobs.”
He reached for a Kindle next to his blotter and flicked it on with his thumb. “Remind me again,” he said. “What was your book called?”
Curtis breathed in.
“No need,” the publisher said, stretching out his hand, like a policeman halting traffic. “Think I’ve got it. Alec’s Retreat. That the one?”
“Sounds like it.”
“Okay. Let’s take a look. Smart, is he … this Alec?”
“You tell me.”
In response, Farquharson – Fuckoffson to his junior colleagues – reached into a drawer and extracted a pair of brass nail-clippers, which he used, while reading, to trim the errant nail on his left index finger. The clipping flew across the room and landed in Curtis’s lap, from which the writer brushed it onto the floor with the back of his hand. For a moment, the two men’s eyes met. The publisher opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, but seemed to think better of it.
A minute went by, during which neither man spoke, until Farquharson leaned back in his chair, tilting his head upwards so that his apparent focus was on the classic moulding that ran along the top edge of the wall where it joined the ceiling. “This just isn’t working,” he said. “Your opening paragraph should leap off the screen. Yours just lies there like it’s had a hard day and would rather have a couple of drinks and an early night. And the next two paragraphs are no better. Two middle-aged men talking. We don’t know who they are – or what they’re on about. It’s like something out of Beckett. How do you expect to sustain the reader’s interest with tired old stuff like this?”
Curtis could feel his heart thumping in his chest. As he struggled to summon a response, the door opened and Angela, the publisher’s PA, came in, wearing a pencil skirt and a pale yellow blouse that did little to conceal what the Daily Mail would have called her “charms”. She was carrying a tray on which were a silver teapot, a single china cup and saucer and a plate of biscuits.
She placed the tray on the desk next to the publisher.
“Will there be anything else?” she asked.
The publisher smirked. “Not for the moment,” he replied. “But I’ll need you as soon as Michael here has gone. We shouldn’t be more than a couple of minutes. Oh, and check with the Ivy, would you. Make sure it’s my usual table. You know what our guest is like.”
“Of course.” The PA nodded and withdrew.
“Now, then,” the publisher resumed, pouring himself a cup of what the aroma suggested was Earl Grey. “What are we going to do with you, Michael? Tell me – how long have you been writing fiction?”
And how many of your novels have we published here at Random Choice?”
“Two. What about sales? How many copies do you reckon you’ve sold – combined?”
“Not as many as I’d have liked.”
Farquharson glanced down at a sheet of paper in front of him. “Eleven hundred and forty three.”
“Is that right?”
“So you must have been hoping, third time lucky.”
“Well, maybe if you were to give me some promotion, I … “
The publisher cut him off. “Not going to happen. I’m sorry to say it, but we’re cancelling your contract. You can keep the one third of the advance that’s already been paid, but that’s an end to it. The plain truth of the matter is, contemporary fiction has to be just that – contemporary. Books like yours are the literary equivalent of a Morris Marina.”
Curtis bunched his fists. “What do you mean, ‘books like mine’? You’ve hardly looked at it. You’ve had it for four months and you’ve only read the first hundred words.”
The publisher smiled serenely as if this were all so … inevitable. “All I need, I’m afraid. I’ve been in this business 33 years and I can tell a stinker from the word go. Now, if you don’t mind, I have important … “
But it was Farquharson’s turn to be cut off. In fact, it was his head that was cut off. Reaching into the canvas bag at his feet, Curtis whipped out a heavy-duty slaughterhouse cleaver, advanced on his tormentor and decapitated him with a single stroke. The torso splayed forward onto the desktop, twitched indignantly and lay still. Curtis waited until his heart rate had returned to something like normal before picking up the cup of Earl Grey and raising it to his lips. Just as he expected, it was perfect. On a whim, he rolled the head into a wastebasket next to the desk, where it settled on top of a discarded manuscript, the expression in the eyes registering disappointment, he thought, or possibly disapproval, rather than shock. Then he stepped back to avoid the puddle of blood that was spreading towards him and made his way to the door.
Pausing in the outer office, he told Angela that Farquharson needed her and could she please bring a cloth. “Been a bit of a spill.”
She looked up, a half-smile on her painted lips. “Useful meeting, was it? I know how much he was looking forward to seeing you.”
“Oh yes,” Curtis assured her. “It certainly took a weight off his shoulders.”
There is a story behind every work of fiction. Novels do not “emerge” fully formed, like the Goddess Athena from the head of Zeus. They are eked out word by word, page by page and chapter by chapter, moved along by an idea that keeps evolving, populated by characters who, just as in real life, frequently talk rubbish and forget what they’re supposed to be doing. The process is exhausting and frustrating at least as often as it is exhilarating, with no guarantee that the result will be published or, if it is, that readers will give a damn.
It’s driven me mad, but as a result I’m too crazy to give it up. More than that, I’m ready to drag you into the madhouse with me
Where to start?
First, do not believe those who tell you that successful novelists are born, not made; that natural storytellers need only sit down at their computer for the plot, protagonists and dialogue to flow from their fingers. You can learn. You can get better. Stick with it. But equally, do not deceive yourself that you can attend a two-week summer school, or a weekend workshop in Soho, or plough your way through How to Write the Breakout Novel and then, after conscientiously applying the formula, skip to a frantic Friday afternoon auction that links publishing houses in London, New York and Sydney.
If you are a hobbyist, or a teacher, you may very well enjoy the many books that purport to invest you in the art of writing. You will learn about ratcheting up tension (a how-to favourite) and building conflict (ditto). You will discover, from every possible perspective, what you need to know about presenting a single, coherent point of view (POV). The way I see it, there’s nothing wrong with that. But analysis is one thing. Talent, hard work and the ability to look and listen are something else. It’s like learning to speak French by ploughing your way through an old Linguaphone tape. If you stick at it for three months, you can order a meal in a restaurant and ask directions to the railway station. You can say it’s looking foggy today and wish the barman a good evening or goodnight (depending). But you still can’t understand a word François Hollande is saying (not that you are alone in that) or turn off the sub-titles on La Grande Illusion. That only comes from sitting down with the French over many years and learning hand gestures.
Here’s what the American novelist Dean Koontz, author of 14 number one bestsellers, has to say:
When reading how-to tips from any writer, always remember that what technique or attitude works for him or her might be so alien to your creative nature that to adopt it unthinkingly will do you no good and might hamstring you. While grammar, syntax, and craft can be taught, writing fiction is – or should be – such an intensely personal enterprise that the story and its meaning comes from a place deep inside yourself and involves approaches that are unique to you. Take advice, yes, but think it through thoroughly and be sure it works for you.
Listen to the man. The truth about bestsellers, as William Goldman once said about the movie industry, is that nobody knows anything. The book business is a lottery within a competition inside of a mystery. The only time you’ll know for sure that you’ve made it is when your book gets published, the good reviews roll in and the cheque arrives in the post. When that happens, uncork the champagne. Until then, don’t give up the day job.