WHAT IS the secret to writing a successful book? Well, first we have to define successful. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say it’s a book that gets you an agent, a major publishing contract, remarkable sales, and ultimately a lifelong career as an author.
Is there a formula for success in the publishing world? Nooo. Of course not. That’s silly. It’s common knowledge that there’s no formula. Right?
I’m going to play devil’s advocate and ask: how can any of us truly know? It’s certainly possible that the most successful authors in the world are those lucky or diligent few who’ve figured out the secret. If this is the case, those famous authors are not going to share the secret with us, so we’ll just have to work it out for ourselves.
Shucks. We’ve gotten nowhere. Let’s start with a simple, optimistic formula:
great idea + a lot of really hard work = successful book
Great idea? Sounds great to me. I’ll accept those terms in a heartbeat. Heck, with this equation, you can just take two popular but different books in your favorite genres, mash the plots together, and, as long as you’re a capable writer, whip up the next big bestseller in no time. And hey, you’ve got comp titles! You’ll hook an agent just like that, and before you know it, readers will be stampeding to the bookstore.
Wait. This can’t be right. I know for a fact that there are lots of competent, hard-working writers out there. I’ve encountered plenty, and I guarantee if this formula worked, writers would be producing bestsellers left and right.
Writing for the market does not a bookstore stampede make. Hmm. Guess we’ll have to scrap the optimistic formula. How about something a little more rigid?
the right idea + perfect execution = successful book
Read that again and think about it for a moment. The right idea, executed perfectly. That sounds right, right?
An instant problem emerges: what the hell does the right idea even mean? I’ve had plenty of oh my god ideas, I love this ideas, and even some this . . . this is going to be the one ideas, but the right idea? What is that?
One thing’s for sure. Even if you incidentally have the right idea, you don’t know you have it, so you’re still left with no choice but to just write your book, query agents, and wait and see with the rest of us. It’s not the right idea until the agent, the publisher, and reading public deem it so.
Welp, looks like they’re right. There is no formula for success. That sucks.
Still, the right idea bumping up against perfect execution sure does sound close to the truth, doesn’t it?
How about this? No formula. Just a conceptualization:
The right idea is one that inspires in you its perfect execution.
Maybe any idea can be the right idea. Maybe the right idea is a feeling deep inside that compels you to tell a particular story. In the end that energy has to radiate off the page and hypnotize the reader, so you won’t know until it’s already happened, but maybe, if you feel a burning passion for the work, it means you’re on the right track. And maybe, just maybe, it means this is the one after all.
Great ideas just sort of happen to us. Inspiration, too, seems to emerge from the ether. You’re in a field on an overcast day and suddenly the clouds part in the perfect place and you’re bathed in bright, warm sunlight. In the countless and untold catalog of unpublished novels, and all the novels yet to be, some are or will be written with that energy, that inspiration, that perfect execution. Maybe your book has it. Did you feel passionate when you wrote it? Do you feel it still? If not, maybe an epiphany and heavy revisions are on the horizon.
Or maybe you’ll write a new story, only this time it feels different. This time it excites you and makes you nervous in a brand new way.
Now you’re obsessed and you can’t stop. You can’t even think about anything else. You dedicate every spare moment to your manuscript until in a maddened frenzy it’s complete.
When you read it in the subsequent calm, you know. This one feels right. It feels perfect. It’s exactly what a story is supposed to be. They’re all gonna love–
You hear a rumble in the distance.