Monday, April 11, 2005

How to Write a Best-selling Novel

As a long-time acquisitions editor for a major fiction-publishing house, I'm often asked, "Jim, how can I get my novel published?" I always tell those who are clever enough to ask that question that they have indeed taken the first step to greatness and immortality by contacting me, the star-making editor of such best-selling works as, "Freemasonuvabitch," "Blown by a Ya Ya," and "Urinal Cake and Eat it Too: A Novel."

I constantly receive manuscripts "over the transom" (so named because the manuscripts frequently come crashing through my plate glass window, attached to bricks) that could have been great if not for a few critical mistakes. Such manuscripts not only will never get published, but will become the subject of sarcastic derision later that night at the bar where I go to get loaded and unwind with my fellow editors. Sometimes I'll even take the manuscripts along and read passages aloud for the amusement of other revelers, while rolling my eyes and pantomiming masturbation.

But don't let that discourage you! Even the greats have been jacked off in taverns. If you're not willing to take a risk, you're not going to be published, period. So here is my advice on what to do -- and not do -- if you want to write a best-selling novel:

First of all, never write about requited love. Save that shit for your online chat sessions. Readers do not want to spend their time with a novel in which people fall in love and live happily ever after. If you must have a character fall in love, make sure the significant other falls on the electrified third rail by chapter three or your manuscript will never make it past my desk. Ask yourself this: are your housewives desperate enough?

Another common mistake I see is WAY too much tranquility. Sure, your 200,000-word philosophical treatise on western mysticism brought me inner peace and strength, but if a plane doesn't crash into a building in the next five pages, my head is going to fucking explode! You know what else is good? Poison. No, wait! Plague!

Here's something else that's sure to bring everybody down: happiness. If I had a nickel for every time some manuscript's character got what he wanted, I could afford a solid gold toilet to puke in. It's really not that hard, people! The little girl with the cute dog? Give her a disease and kill the puppy. Jesus! Do I have to think of everything?

So to sum up: no love, no peace, no happiness. Also, go easy on the fat people. Trust me, nobody wants to picture that. Unless they're jolly, clumsy, ruggedly handsome middle aged men.

Other themes to avoid: hope, charity, fortitude, justice, prudence, humility, kindness and temperance. Buzzkills all.

Those are a few hints about what not to include in your novel. So, what should you write about?

You can never go wrong with explosions. I can't stress this enough. Nobody ever got a rejection letter by blowing up too many things. I can't tell you how many times I've written in the margins, "an explosion would work well here," or "let's blast the nunnery to kingdom come." Particularly expedient are explosions on water; say a yacht or two lonely fishermen out on a tranquil (but not tranquil for too long!) lake.

Consider making Satan your main character. The devil is very in right now.

If you're going to write a morality play in which a character achieves redemption through an undying passion for the truth, make sure the lawyer has a really cool car and fucks in it a lot.

Not sure whether to make your hijacker Arab or not? Make him Arab.

That ruggedly handsome fat guy would be good to stab, 23... no, 44 times. Hey, you know what might work? A sword. Impale him with a sword.

Here's a tip: I won't immediately reject any novel with a scene involving hot college chicks having a soapsuds fight in the dorm showers.

If you decide to kill off a sympathetic character, do it in a way that is needlessly random. One good technique is to have a bullet go through a good guy, only to kill a really good guy.

A passage in which a game of "paper, rock, scissors" determines whether a baby lives or dies would be worth considering.

If you follow those tried-and-true methods, you'll be sure to write a best seller.

To close, I'd like to debunk a few common misconceptions.

First, many writing instructors or publishing "experts" will tell you to write from the heart. Quite frankly, this is a terrible idea. If you want to get anywhere in this world, you'll be much better off writing from the spleen. In a pinch, it's also quite effective to write from the pancreas. But avoid the heart at all costs.

My final bit of wisdom is to ignore those who tell you to "write what you know." That might work for some people, but not you. It would be much better to write what I know. But that's probably beyond your reach. Instead, my advice is to write what John Grisham knows. And don't forget to blow a lot of shit to smithereens! Ka-blammy!