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.

    • And yes another point is to write from heart! And reading a lot would also help get inspired to write better.

      And family support and motivation to succeed in your attempts.

    • I attended a class at the University of Iowa concerning the literary short story–which is what is generally published in journals. There are so many people sending in their work, that the chances of getting published are very low. If you want to write fiction, write short stories for the practice. Not for the encouragement, because it will be hard to get that. 20 years ago major magazines published short stories and the market was wide open. There is Glimmer Train now and other very small publications.
      Maybe contributors can share other suggestions.

    • Bonnee says:

      I think that short stories is a great way to start off! 🙂 They’re fun, and you can try so many things with them, and then as you said: contests, cash prizes, e-famous, anthologies. A great idea for beginners.

    • Chihuahua0 says:

      Was the e-mail really worded that way? It seems like a sign of a very young aspiring writer that needs just a point toward the right direction.

      Perhaps I should look into short story contests a little. The problem is finding them, but I can aim locally first, and then build up from there.

      • Alas, the email was written just like that, except that I tidied it up! I suspect that Jed was very young and, as a father, I was truly tempted to reply with a note of warm encouragement. But the best advice I could give him would be to enrol in a creative writing course or group. Then he’d gain continuous feedback from his peers – the best encouragement of all.

    • Good point about the reality check. I teach fiction writing so I have had to offer what advice I could to many students just like Jed. Submitting to contests is a great idea. BUT… it’s a rare contest that doesn’t charge an entry or a reading fee of some sort. If you submit work to a significant number of contests you’re in effect paying for the chance to be published. A mentor of mine once pointed out that submitting to a publication has potentially better odds of success and doesn’t cost you anything!

    • Karen says:

      Interesting. I’ve just decided to do exactly this. I write a lot of non fiction, but my goal is the same as many writers – to get my novel published. I know I can write fiction. I’ve had short stories published and won a prize in a short story contest, but fiction tends to fall by the wayside in favour of the regular paychecks I can generate with non fiction. Short story contests are a great way to encourage yourself to write fiction so I’ve been drawing up a list to enter. I’m hoping that this will also inspire me to work on my novel which is at the ‘outline and 2 chapters’ stage and has been for too long now 🙁 I really like the idea of exploring a different technique with each new story. Learning while you earn, indeed. Thanks for the extra inspiration.

    • Pretty good list. Not the most “motivational” piece that most of us tend to look for….. but it’s honest.

      Sometimes you need a good mix of inspirational uplifting and some hard-hitting reality.

      This will definitely weed out the “trying to make a quick buck” crowd. There are so many courses out there that teach you how to use writing to make tons of money overnight.

      Very few come of with the honesty of the actual work that is needed and doesn’t try to paint the picture of it being a cake walk.

      There are few I subscribe to and would recommend as highly as I do the Ebook mastery course but they are out there.

      Names like Corbett Bar, Danny Iny and Jon Morrow come to mind as other mentors to follow as well.

      The main idea…. if you are passionate about what you do then the work becomes its own reward and the fame and fortune is a sweet little bonus

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