Writing a Book is Like Riding a Bike: You Shouldn't Do Either

And other answers to unsolicited questions.

Image: Cory Doctorow

“I’m having a lot of trouble writing my book. What should I do?” — Writer’s Block Walter

I used to host author events at many bookstores in Boston. I’ve met hundreds of authors, some very famous, others only author-famous. If I learned anything from listening to all of them read from their books and answer questions from an audience it’s that there is no magic secret formula to writing books other than just typing and typing. Most audiences want to glean something about the writing process from these authors, as if that will give them some kind of blueprint into writing their own awesome book. But it doesn’t matter. Some people wrote at the crack of dawn, some wrote at night. Some did heroin. Some suffered over every individual line until they got it just right. Others just typed and let the editors sort it all out. There is no one way to write something other people would like to read. So what are you so worried about?

Lots of authors worry that if they don’t write ten books by the time they’re thirty they won’t win the Nobel Prize or something. But, really, one good book is pretty good. To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s a cool book. Wouldn’t you have wanted to write that and not Go Set a Watchman? I am trying to think of authors who have written more than one good book. Raymond Chandler? I’m sure there are some. Most authors write one good book and then a bunch of books that are only kind of good and remind you how much you enjoyed that one good book. This is why authors drink. Because no one has that many ideas to write books about. And being an author is a lonely thing. And writing is a miserable profession, in general. So much rejection. So few people actually read books. But, too late, you decided to become an author and now you’re stuck with it.

In my experience, most people just pretend to have read lots of books. They get like a hundred pages in and then there’s a football game on and hey where did that book go? Books are great for plane rides. I read The Godfather on a plane. That is an awesome book. Mario Puzo wrote like twenty more books. I did not like those. There was a football game on and hey where did that book go? Would I have liked The Godfather as much if there hadn’t been a movie of it? Maybe not. So the first thing you should do when writing a book is make sure they are going to make a movie out of it.

Some authors want to write bestsellers and some want to write deep and meaningful literature. I have different advice to those different kind of writers.

Bestseller Wannabes

I’d argue that writing page-turners is harder than writing deep and meaningful stuff. The pay-off for writing bestsellers is way better. Movies, fame, glory, money. That kind of stuff. But even Stephen King wants to be taken seriously. Why? I don’t know, that guy has written some awesome stuff. Who cares whether literary critics like what you do or not? Nobody likes literary critics all that much. They’re just failed writers who are only happy when they’re taking a hammer to other people’s work. Sometimes they do write amusing take-downs of other writers, but no one really reads literary criticism. If you’re worried about what people will think of you, if you worry about your literary legacy, just do what James Patterson did. He wrote a bunch of books and made a lot of money and then gave some of that money to booksellers and independent bookstores. I think you should buy all of that guy’s books and read them a million times.

How do you write a bestseller? It’s easy. Read a bunch of bestsellers and steal most of their good ideas. Unreliable female narrators are very hot right now thanks to Gone Girl and The Girl on a Train. I read Gone Girl in like a week. I hated both main characters and hoped something bad would happen to them both. I liked the Ben Affleck movie even better because I like watching Ben Affleck suffer, I’m more of a Matt Damon guy. The Girl on a Train I have had trouble getting through, but maybe I will give it another chance. So far I don’t like the girl or the train.

But if you could get your book to pop up on amazon on the “Customer Who Bought This Item Also Bought” bar that shows up on the middle of their page, you’re golden. It doesn’t even have to be that great. I can’t write believable female characters because women in general are much smarter than me. What the worst that would happen if you wrote The Girl Who Was Gone on the Train? Some kind of murder happens on a train with a girl who you can’t really believe because she’s always lying. Maybe make it a plane. Murders on planes are more fun.

Being derivative is your best friend when you’re writing bestsellers. The more it reminds readers of something they’ve already read the better. The better the chance they will buy your next book. And watch your HBO series. And marry you and stuff. Writers of bestsellers are always under a huge amount of pressure to write more, write faster, come up with even better ideas. But the old ideas are the best. My radio co-host Bronwyn turned me onto Plotto. All you have to do is flip around and you can create your very own plot in seconds. It’s coming out in paperback in November. Just in time for Write a Novel Quickly Month, in which all of your friends try to crank out a novel.

The other key to writing bestsellers is to have all kinds of plot twists that make people so crazy they just have to keep reading, getting no sleep, until your book is finished. Every chapter should end like this, someone’s head suddenly falls off. Or instead of their lover being in bed when they come back from the bathroom it’s a sheep. It doesn’t matter how wildly improbable these twists are. People will have to keep reading. Because a sheep? If you can follow these easy directions say hi to Ben Affleck for me.

Literary GeniusType Writers

No wonder you’re having trouble with your book. It’s supposed to be filled with all beauty and knowledge in the universe. Are you filled with all beauty and knowledge in the universe? Then what do you need my advice for? Most deep books are just about adultery. I don’t know why. So go have an affair, maybe that will make you feel better.

Jim Behrle lives in Jersey City, NJ and works at a bookstore.