I have read fairly widely in the thriller genre, mostly bestsellers, and one thing I've noticed is a wide disparity in the quality of the prose. Writers like Nelson DeMille and Gillian Flynn are fine wordsmiths, in my opinion, while a couple of NYT bestsellers who come to mind couldn't write their ways out of paper bags. Starting every third or fourth sentence with a dependent clause, for example, is not only bad form, it's just plain annoying. Of course, as I noted in my previous discussion, this is only my opinion, but it does seem that quality prose is in no way, shape, or form, a prerequisite to bestsellerdom.


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This is a comment on Jude's post.  All of these have come up the hard way.  Well, I don't know Harris.  All of them have also started years ago when publishers still promoted and marketed their authors.  These are not the ones I was talking about. Or you were talking about.  I think you mentioned Dan Brown.?  Besides, I rather think that their sales numbers don't compare well with, say, Fifty Shades of Gray.

As the editor of a lot of bestselling books, Jude, I have to agree with you.

Thanks so much for chiming in, Neil. There seems to be so many misconceptions around here about why some books sell the way they do. It's nice to hear from an industry pro who knows what he's talking about.

You the man.

Trad. publishing is in an upheaval.  They are no longer what they were, and God only knows where they are headed.

Maverick heroes...

While I agree that many books share some or all of the attributes outlined by Mr. Hall, the list still doesn't constitute any sort of recipe for success. You can list all the chemicals that make up the human body, too, but when you mix everything together (Just add water!) you're not going to have anything that remotely resembles a person. You'll have a big mess, which is what you'll have if you try to follow any sort of formula for writing a novel.

Neil Nyren said it best: "Bestsellers come in all shapes and sizes -- their only common denominator is that a lot of people wanted to buy them."

Well I'd love for Neil to tell us what criteria he does in fact use to decide which books to pursue. Or what criteria the sales and marketing people use.

I don't consult sales and marketing people before I buy a novel -- it's an editorial decision, and there's usually at most only a couple of other people involved.

My criteria varies, depending on whether it's fiction or nonfiction, genre or non-genre, but since this is Crimespace, I'll stick to crime fiction, and in particular first fiction -- a brand-new writer: no history, just the book sitting in front of me.

First, there are the givens -- when a manuscript crosses my desk, I'm looking for good plot, good characters, and, in answer to the title of this discussion, yes, good writing. After that, there are three things:

I want a story that I haven't read a million times before (by this point in my career, I mean that almost literally). But if it is something that's familiar, it needs to be done so damn well that it's irresistible.

I want to feel that the author is in control of his book from the very first page -- if the reader senses that he's in good hands, he'll sit back and let the author take him wherever the author wants. If it feels wobbly, you've lost him. And he's got to sustain it all the way through -- there are plenty of times that I've gotten to a certain point in the book and I start a mental chant: "Don't screw it up, don't screw it up, don't screw it up." The chant doesn't always work, though.

And the third thing is kind of nebulous (and thus frustrating for writers to hear, I know), and I suspect the substance of it is different for every individual editor -- I want...something extra. Something that separates it from the crowd. For me in particular, it's often a certain kind of intensity that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, my pulse race faster. That's when I start getting really serious about a book.

These aren't hard and fast rules -- as with pretty much everything else about publishing, there are always exceptions. And I'm not speaking for all the other editors out there -- we all have different tastes, different interests, different ways of approaching a book. Another reason you can't produce a magic formula!

Whoops! I added my last post before seeing this, Neil. But what you've said here seems to be very much consistent with the 2007 Murderati interview. Thanks again for your insights!

Thanks for sharing, Neil.

Well I'd love for Neil to tell us what criteria he does in fact use to decide which books to pursue. Or what criteria the sales and marketing people use.

Neil addresses that question first-thing in this 2007 interview on the Murderati blog, and I doubt his position has changed much since then:


I would only add what I've said here many times before, that taste is altogether subjective. Neil might get excited about a manuscript that twenty other editors have rejected, and Neil might pass on one that becomes the next Da Vinci Code. That's why agents submit to a lot of different houses and imprints, to give a book the best possible odds of finding a home. If there were some sort of surefire formula for commercial success, we could just pick the publisher we want and submit the manuscript and call it a day.


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