Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point

In Depth

On Air

Low Graphics

Tuesday, July 6, 1999 Published at 07:29 GMT 08:29 UK


Could you write a bestseller?

The teachers say anyone can learn to write

Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather because his debts had stacked up to $20,000.

With a wife and five children to provide for, the novelist, who died at the weekend, realised he would have to generate some serious cash - and decided to surrender some of his ideals.

He studied the form of bestsellers, took a close look at the dynamics involved in keeping readers glued to the page, and decided to package his ideas in a commercially attractive formula.

It paid off - and the promise of riches in return for ripping yarns encourages thousands of people every year to attend classes and buy books imparting the art of storytelling.

Click here to contribute your own creative writing talents to BBC News Online's interactive short story.

So, is the old maxim - that everyone has a book in them - true? Opinion is divided.

Yes, say the teachers and "how-to" book writers - given a few pointers on constructing a plot, almost anyone who could string a sentence together could bash out a book.

But a bestselling book, they concede, would require some degree of artistry and talent.

[ image: Some sniff at Stephen King - but many more love his stories]
Some sniff at Stephen King - but many more love his stories
"A successful writer needs to be able to tap into human psyche - to observe the human condition in a way that makes their characters and their actions likeable and believable," said Julia Bell, lecturer in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

Assistant editor at Mills and Boon, Bryony Green: "Happy endings are a convention"
"But to create a book which will sell well requires page turning power. You need a good, galloping plot which will make readers want to keep reading - the un-put-downable factor.

"There is definitely a formula to writing a book which will enjoy commercial success, and obviously that various according to the genre.

"There is a certain amount of snobbery surrounding books by the likes of Stephen King, but he is a very good storyteller and his work is very much enjoyed."

[ image:  ]
She added that publishers currently appear to have a bias towards "hot young Brit Lit things" - authors in their early to mid twenties with a yarn spun in a city, preferably London.

"There is a bias away from the regions, but that is the publisher's loss. We are about to publish our own magazine, which will be like Granta with knobs on, which will provide space for some of our most talented students."

Readers are also enthralled by a book's ability to give them a glimpse into unknown worlds.

John Grisham lifted the lid on litigation, Thomas Harris made psychological profiling a household term, and Colin Dexter offered views of Oxford and policing to the wider world.

Would Jilly Cooper's successful formula work if her Felicities and Dariuses worked at the Co-op instead of at the polo stables?

Or would Joan Collins pack a Joan off to a champagne-swilling party where she is to encounter Mason, oil magnate, snappy dresser and all-round heart breaker?

Trevor Lockwood, of "Email is one of the strongest weapons in the arsenal of a writer"
"There's an element of fantasy to those kind of novels," said Ms Bell. "They need to be easy to read, because typically they're going to be read on a long journey or on the beach.

"And they represent escapism - so no, you wouldn't typically get a Darren or a Tracy as a main character."

[ image: Romance readers want to think the heroine could be them ...]
Romance readers want to think the heroine could be them ...
But purveyors of such literary treats are at pains to say there isn't a rigid formula - merely themes that are popular with readers.

Assistant editor of Harlequin Mills and Boon, Bryony Green, told BBC News Online that while their romance books are driven by the market, their creation involves a high degree of skill.

She said: "Because our books are relatively short, 50-55,000 words, a relationship has to be powerfully conveyed to the reader in a short space of time, and that takes skill.

"You cannot just decide that you can write a romance novel, you have to really understand and empathise with the characters.

"The characters are everything in romance. Our readers want to feel the conflict and want to feel good when the conflict is finally resolved. A happy ending is a convention of the genre."

Mills and Boon editors receive more than 5,000 unsolicited manuscripts from people every year who fancy themselves as the next Barbara Cartland. Although they read them all, they count themselves lucky if even one makes the grade.

"It is tough," said Ms Green, "We would never discourage people from writing, we are always looking for new writers - but you have to be prepared for criticism and disappointment."

[ image:  ]
Some writers' organisations feel that established publishers have been holding all the cards for too long.

Trevor Lockwood of, an Internet resource for writers, said online publishing offers everybody the opportunity to publish.

He said: "There is a misconception that successful authorship means profitable authorship - and publishers won't look at something they don't think will make money.

"People write and publish for all kinds of reasons, and those reasons do not have to include making money.

"We also give advice to people who want to do short-run publications of their own books. You can publish 100 novels for less than the price of a holiday in Majorca, and use them as an advertisement for coming work - or sell them, or just have them and keep them."

Click here to contribute your own creative writing talents to BBC News Online's interactive short story.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

UK Contents

Northern Ireland

Relevant Stories

03 Jul 99 | Americas
Godfather creator dies

Internet Links

University of East Anglia department of creative writing

Mario Puzo

Personal Passions: create a personalised romance online

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

Next steps for peace

Blairs' surprise over baby

Bowled over by Lord's

Beef row 'compromise' under fire

Hamilton 'would sell mother'

Industry misses new trains target

From Sport
Quins fightback shocks Cardiff

From Business
Vodafone takeover battle heats up

IRA ceasefire challenge rejected

Thousands celebrate Asian culture

From Sport
Christie could get two-year ban

From Entertainment
Colleagues remember Compo

Mother pleads for baby's return

Toys withdrawn in E.coli health scare

From Health
Nurses role set to expand

Israeli PM's plane in accident

More lottery cash for grassroots

Pro-lifers plan shock launch

Double killer gets life

From Health
Cold 'cure' comes one step closer

From UK Politics
Straw on trial over jury reform

Tatchell calls for rights probe into Mugabe

Ex-spy stays out in the cold

From UK Politics
Blair warns Livingstone

From Health
Smear equipment `misses cancers'

From Entertainment
Boyzone star gets in Christmas spirit

Fake bubbly warning

Murder jury hears dead girl's diary

From UK Politics
Germ warfare fiasco revealed

Blair babe triggers tabloid frenzy

Tourists shot by mistake

A new look for News Online