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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If someone really could figure out what makes a bestseller a bestseller, I suspect that person would write a few of them and make a bunch of money. It hasn't ever happened, and it never will happen, because there's no surefire way to predict what is going to sell big.

Not everyone wants to write that sort of book.  Most of us write what we like and enjoy.  Anything else holds no attractions other than money.

What sort of book? That's the point. There is no "that sort of book." Bestsellers come in all shapes and sizes.

There are no guarantees for bestsellerdom, agreed, but I'll bet we could all agree on a list one could implement in a novel to maximize the chances of topping the NY Times best seller list.

Exactly the point.  There are common denominators.  To mention just a couple: short paragraphs and short sentences.  Simple vocabulary.  Hook on the first page.  A lot of bodies.  Preferably 2 protagonists/heroes, both young, one male and one female, with sexual tension between them.  A twist at the end.  A major event involving a violent confrontation at the end.

Villains with inhuman qualities. 

To this can be added various elements from different genres.

There are no guarantees for bestsellerdom, agreed, but I'll bet we could all agree on a list one could implement in a novel to maximize the chances of topping the NY Times best seller list.

Let's hear it.

In no particular order:

Maverick heroes (from Hall's study of best sellers on steroids)

A hIgh concept (Hall)

High stakes (Hall)

Frequent suspense (Hall)

Hot sex (Hall)

An insider look at worlds most readers aren't privy to (Hall)

Hot button issues (Hall)

Fractured families (Hall)

Lots of death (Ingrid)

Short paragraphs (Ingrid)

Short sentences (Ingrid)

Simple vocabulary (Ingrid)

Inhuman villains (Ingrid)

And that list is just food for thought on how one might maximize one's chances of making the bestseller lists. It's possible, of course, to become a best seller without adhering to a single one of these items.

I don't believe there is a "cookie cutter" formula for best sellerdom, but on the other hand the novel is a formula itself, and I think Aristotle described that formula rather well a long time ago when he was discussing Greek tragedy. You're not going to sell a book at all, most likely, without (in order) exposition, development and denouement.

Exactly the point.  There are common denominators.

Read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and then get back to me.

Read anything by Michael Connelly, and then get back to me.

Read anything by Laura Lippman, and then get back to me.

Read anything by Stephen King, and then get back to me.

Read anything by Thomas Harris, and then get back to me.

Read anything by Dennis Lehane, and then get back to me.

I could go on and on.

There are common denominators in all fiction, of course. It's pretty hard to have a story without some sort of conflict, for example. You pretty much have to have a protagonist with goals, and obstacles that get in the way of achieving those goals. But there simply is not some sort of cookie cutter formula used by all or even most bestselling authors. If there were, it would be pretty easy to become one, and we all know that it ain't.

As the editor of a lot of bestselling books, Jude, I have to agree with you. Bestsellers come in all shapes and sizes -- their only common denominator is that a lot of people wanted to buy them. I'm looking at next Sunday's Times list now. Gillian Flynn nestles next to Barbara Kingsolver. Clive Cussler keeps company with Louise Erdrich. What's the "formula" there?

Ian McEwan and Danielle Steel? Lee Child and Alice Munro? Junot Diaz and Justin Cronin? Tom Wolfe and Lee Child? What's the "formula" there?

And if you want to take only genre fiction, the examples you gave are good ones. Connelly is not Lippman is not King is not Lehane. Grisham is not Evanovich is not Baldacci is not Follett.

As far as I am concerned, Evanovich is formula.  So is Danielle Steele.  Lee Child is a tad better, but he, too, follows a formula. I don't read the rest.

You're right, they're all formulas. Lee Child? How about Julia Child? She had a formula too. Once you get it down (& it doesn't matter if you're doing magazine articles, gardening books, action-adventure whatever)you can do it over & over again. Clive Cussler, James Patterson et al can do their books in their sleep. Good editing helps too. You think John Grisham went from being a successful lawyer to a best selling author all by himself? Of course not. When the big publishing houses think or know you can make them money then they promote you, simple as that & there's nothing wrong with that either. I saw CSI UK on BBC America, same as show here in US, same formula, identical. It's a tough game, not for the faint of heart.


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