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.
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.
"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."
"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?
"And they represent escapism - so no, you wouldn't typically get a Darren or a Tracy as a main character."
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."
Trevor Lockwood of authors.co.uk, 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."