How To Write a Best Seller

Become a winner

Tell me, how should I have answered this email?

‘Dear Sir or Mdm
I dremed of being writer since I was litle. I have a realy good story it realy hapened! I need incorrigment. No money just dreme. Will you show me to write my story? Jed’

Was I a coward for not replying? Yes, I was a coward. But how could I have told him the truth? That his chances of writing a publishable story were zero, short of a miracle? It would have been too cruel. Yet surely I could have sent him some words of encouragement? No! But why?

A mid-list author I know well receives emails like that every week. At one time, she replied encouragingly to them all. It opened the floodgates. One crank even turned up, unannounced, on her doorstep.

Yet all of us felt the same as Jed when starting out. We were literate. We had a great story in us. We knew it. It would take us just a few weeks to learn the tricks of creative writing, given encouragement…

An Olympic medal winner, 29 years old, revealed how she had gained her gold. “All it needed was four hours of practice,” she told an interviewer. “Every day, in sickness and health, for 20 years.” Why should creative writing be different?

Author Joanne Harris was once acclaimed for her ‘overnight’ success. Overnight? She had to write and discard five novels before she hit lucky with Chocolat. That took her 15 years. Melville waited 70 years to receive his first decent review for Moby Dick. Lord of the Flies was rejected by twenty publishers across several years. And so it goes.

What’s the answer?

1. Prepare for a long apprenticeship

That’s what I tell my creative writing students at the university where I teach, although none of them want to hear it.

True, you could scamp out a novel in a month, marry a publisher, see your work in print in no time and ride the Amazon Bestseller list within the week. Especially if it’s an ebook. It happens. And people do get struck by lightning three times in a single day. Just don’t count on it.

In the medieval craft guilds, it took an apprentice seven years to become a ‘master’, licensed to set up his own shop. Around 90% dropped out en route. Some married, some died and some became journeymen – hacks for hire. Plan to spend at least seven years to learn your craft, I tell my class, although you might find hack work before then. (For example, you could teach creative writing.)

It’s a miracle that my entire class doesn’t drop out immediately.

2. Earn a good income while you learn – with short stories

Meanwhile, I say, hone your craft skills and make a cash income by writing short stories. Regard each one as a five finger exercise. Explore a different craft technique every time. True, the paying market for short stories is not what it was but there are still enough publishers, off and online, to bring you money while you learn.

An even easier route is to enter short story contests. Of course, I have an interest in saying that as I run a story contest but it’s true. Once your work reaches a standard, and you enter contests systematically, you can be certain of a sideline income.

Look for contests that have been going for some while (they’re reputable) and that offer major cash prizes for an affordable entry fee. Do the math. Could 50 stories entered per year at a total investment of $800, a win rate of 1:5 and an average win of $500 net you a profit of $4200? Suppose you won two in every five contests you entered? Or more?

As you begin to win contests predictably, and your win rate improves, you’ll gain more than money. You’ll acquire the skills to complete a successful novel.

3. Contests offer you fun while you learn

There are other rewards, of course. When you’re a regular contest winner, your stories will be showcased on several contest sites. (A reputable contest will publish the winning stories, if only to flaunt the standard of its entries.) You’re now entitled to call yourself an author.

Promote yourself at conferences and local groups and you might be paid $100+ for two hours work – and earn twice that again by selling your anthologies at the back of the room. You might even go the giddy route of self-publishing and social network your way to fame, if not fortune.

Maybe you’ll never write a best seller but (I ask my students) will you need to? At that point, you won’t need to harass authors with emails: “I have a dream. Will you help me?” You’ll have achieved your dream. You’ll be an author. And folk will be sending those emails to you.

About the author:
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. His free course in winning story competitions for profit can be found here.

About the author

John Yeoman

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He was a successful commercial author for 42 years and was a regular, much-loved contributor to WTD. He died unexpectedly in 2016.