Writing Your Bestseller

Bernard Cornwell

BERNARD CORNWELL gives insights into the machinery of the bestseller.

It is, I know, as unseemly as it is ungracious to gloat, but I was fascinated to see, in the October 1997 edition of Solander, a plea from a literary agency for manuscripts that are page-turners (not an exact quote), the same agency which, nineteen years ago, returned Sharpe’s Eagle with a curt note saying that they could not be bothered to read it because the British public were not interested in stories about the army. Ho ho.

That unseemly gloat out of the way, I want to compliment Richard Lee on compiling the list of agents and publishers which appeared in that issue of Solander. I wish I had possessed such a list nineteen years ago. The first hurdle of any new writer (other than writing the book, of course) is getting a manuscript onto a real person’s desk instead of onto the slush pile, and the Solander list will make that task much easier, though I did wonder how many of the listed agencies charged a reading fee. I dislike reading fees. I know that many agents hate reading the vast number of manuscripts that come their way, but it’s their job, damn it, and making the writer pay them to do it is cheap. My agent does not charge, but neither is he on Solander‘s list, probably because he prefers to spend time fishing rather than agenting, so I suppose I had better not give his name. Perhaps, in future, if the list is updated, we could be told which agents charge reading fees and which do not.

But what really struck me about the list were the comments from the publishers, nearly all of whom pleaded for ‘page-turners’ or ‘best-sellers’ or ‘originality’, and no doubt they do want all of those things, but what are they? For a first novelist, sitting at home and writing into the terrible void, it is an acute question, and I had better say right away that I do not think I can provide the answer, but hope at least to put down some markers. The cop-out response is to offer the American judge’s definition of pornography; we may not be able to define it, but we know it when we see it, but that is simply not true of manuscripts. Think how many publishers turned down Day of the Jackal? Or, more recently, Dava Sobel’s Longitude? We might produce the most sparkling, page-turning, original manuscript, and it can still get turned down (luckily for some of us the opposite is also true).

There are clues in the publishers’ comments. ‘An original voice’, one says, while another asks for ‘drive’, which I suppose means enthusiasm, and if you are not enthusiastic about your book then it will show. Writing is not supposed to be a labour, but a joy. I do not speak here of literature, about which I know nothing, but the business of writing readable stories, and to the best of my knowledge no-one is forced into doing that. We do it because we think it is better than working, and because it is enjoyable, and though the production of a first (and second, or twentieth) manuscript can be a very hard labour, it must not show in the finished product. Writing is fun, honest!

Which means you have to get past the horrid stage of not enjoying it, and that is usually caused by a lack of confidence. Is the stuff we’re producing up to snuff? Is the style all right?

Style seems to be a stumbling block for many first novelists, and the only advice I can give is to tell you how I overcame it. Which is not to claim that I have a fine style, only that I no longer worry about it. But when I was writing Sharpe’s Eagle I spent hours reading and re-reading the typescript, and every time I got hopelessly depressed thinking that it was no bloody good because the style was so clumsy, and so finally I tried an experiment. I typed out three pages of a Hornblower novel, substituting Sharpe’s name for Hornblower’s, and then I put the pages into a drawer. After three days I read those three pages (which looked exactly like my own typescript) and, to my relief, discovered that I was just as critical of Forester’s style as I was of my own. But he was published. More, he was successful, so clearly I was being too critical. The experience freed me of that worry. Try it yourself. Reproduce three pages of a Sharpe novel on your own typewriter or word-processor, then come back to it and see just what rubbish can get published!

Later on, when I had written two or three books, I learned that style is something that can be applied at the later stages of writing. The most important thing, the all important thing, is to get the story right. Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story. It is story, story, story. That is your business. Your job is not to educate readers on the finer points of Elizabethan diplomacy or Napoleonic warfare, your job is to divert and amuse people who have had a hard day at work. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story. Once the story is right, everything else will follow. Rewriting is falling off a log, the hard work is getting the story. I have just finished a 12,000 word story for the Daily Mail‘s Christmas editions. It took eight days to get the story right and three hours to rewrite the whole thing, and that rewrite included a brand new villain. But once the story was right the piece could take all sorts of pummelling because the story was strong enough.
Kurt Vonnegut once gave a splendid piece of advice. Every good story, he said, begins with a question. Harry meets Anne and wants to marry her. There’s the question already, will he succeed? But Harry is already married to Katharine, so there is your plot. Simple, isn’t it?

And if your opening question is right, then the pursuit of the answer will propel the reader through the book. More important, it will propel the writer through the book. I know there are differences of opinion here, but I can only speak for myself and I rarely know how a book will end when I begin it, and even when I think I know, I usually turn out to be wrong. How can you know? Every story is new, and if it is untold, how do you know the ending? You write to discover what will happen, and it is the excitement of that discovery that should give a manuscript its enthusiasm.

And once you have your story, you must keep it moving. If I could have my life over again I would rewrite the first third of The Winter King to compress the story, because when I wrote it I was too busy creating a world when I should have been keeping the characters busy. But how do you know when you’re losing pace? How do you know if one scene is too long, or whether a discursive explanation is appropriate in a particular chapter? In time it does become instinctive. And so it should, but a first novelist may well not have those instincts. In which case there is only one thing to do, something which I know a lot of professional writers did when they began, and something which rarely seems to be recommended.

Suppose you decided to build a better mousetrap. You would begin, surely, by taking apart the existing mousetraps to see how they worked. You must do the same. When I wrote Sharpe’s Eagle, never having written a book before, I began by disassembling three other books. Two were Hornblowers, and I forget which the third was, but I had enjoyed them all. So I read them again, but this time I made enormous coloured charts which showed what was happening paragraph by paragraph through the three books. How much was action? And where was the action in the overall plan of the book? How much dialogue? How much flashback (I hate flashback)? How much background information? Where did the writer place it? I already knew what I liked in the books, and I was determined to provide more of that in my book, and I knew what I disliked, and wanted to use less of that, but the three big charts (sadly I’ve lost them) were my blueprints. It was not plagiarism, but it was imitation. I learned to start with a fairly frenetic scene, and to keep that pace going before I slowed it down to provide necessary information. I learned, if you like, the structure of a best-seller, and then I imposed that structure on what I was writing. These days I do not think about it any more (I should have done with The Winter King), but in the first three or four years those analyses were priceless.

Your book must have an original voice. But it will, won’t it? Because there’s only one of you, but unless you are in the posterity stakes of high-class literature, you will be producing a book that is within a recognisable genre, and you will hugely improve your chances of success if you take the time to study already successful works in the same genre. Why not learn from successful authors? Disassemble their books, then set out to do better. If you worry that the long scene in your chapter four is much too long, then see how other writers tackled similar scenes at a comparable stage of their book. The answers to a lot of first novelists’ questions are already on their bookshelves, but you have to dig them out.

Nothing, I suppose, can guarantee success. It seems to me that there is a great deal of luck in the whole process. I was lucky in meeting my agent (his first words to me were ‘it must be a f—ing awful book’), and I was lucky in finding a publisher who understood that runaway best-sellers are rarely first novels (some are), but that if she coaxed and nagged and edited me through the first four or five then the series might be a success, and I was lucky in having a wife who was prepared to keep the wolf from the door while I wrote those first books. I am also hugely lucky, nineteen years later, in having the same agent, publisher and wife. So luck is important, and the publishing business is capricious, and the world is unfair, but if you understand that your job is not to be an historian, but to be a storyteller, and if you take the trouble to find out how stories are told, you can hugely improve your luck.

Lastly, and only because it deals with a question that Richard Lee raised in the introduction to his list, I would strongly advise any first novelist to go to an agent before a publisher. Prove me wrong, please, and again I am speaking from my own experience, but unless you understand contracts, and unless you have a gold-plated contact in a publishing house, I would find an agent. Agents know which editors are looking out for particular books and, better still, they often have more time to nurture a new writer than a publisher might have. Either way, get your book onto a real person’s desk, but write it first, and write it with joy and excitement and enthusiasm because, believe me, there is no job on earth quite so enjoyable as the one that I now have.

(c) Bernard Cornwell, 1997

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 3, Spring 1998.

Posted by Sarah Johnson

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