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Recipe for a Bestseller

Umberto Eco, one of my favourite authors died 20 February 2016. In his memory, I would like to use one of his quotes for our lesson today: “Usually the recipe for a bestseller is to give people what they want. My challenge is and was: Give them what they do not expect. Be severe with them. The world of media is full of easy answers, wash-and-wear philosophies, instant ecstasies, what-me-worry Epiphanies. Probably readers want a little more.”

Knowing what your readers want, on the level of significance in your writing process, teams up with knowing your subject and having the ability to put it across to the readers in a way that will, following Charles Reade's advice in his "Recipe for a bestseller": "Make 'em laugh; make 'em cry; make 'em wait."

Given that you write for people, you need to know what they want and you need to know how to play with that want. You need to know who will want to read your book and why. Gone are the days of just writing and hoping that enough people will buy your book for you to make a living out of it. The same applies to online writing. People have too much reading material and too little time for it; people turn to listening to podcasts, or watching films instead.

Then there is the angle of the "bestseller" - what is one of those? We know it only in the context of metrics such as beating a certain number of other books on a hierarchy level of readers' interest, sales levels and critics' reviews.

But let me give you another angle to consider. Unlike in an exam of English, where you would have to address the required questions in a manner imposed by your rubric for marking, in your writing you would not only need to know what the readers expect of you - but you would need to be able to put that in your writing AND to stretch it so as to add something they don't expect, something magical that will gift them the pleasure of reflection on reading it.

Once you've conquered that territory in your readers' minds, the next step will be to seed a wish for more of the same in their hearts, i.e. a desire to read more of your writing, like a collection of your stories. Create addictions.

How would you do this, you will ask. Well my friends, that depends on your recipe. The simple ones require simple results, the more complex ones cry out loud for intricate ways of achieving the same result - a wish for more. Writing jokes is different to writing stories for children, to love poems and plays for the radio. However, each will have the same ingredients: your voice, character development, pace and plot and the dialogue.

Once you have these in place, it is a 'simple' matter of writing and writing, followed by re-writing. After which comes more re-writing until not you, but your readers will let you know that yours is a bestseller indeed. Until then... we all learn, my friends. By doing. That is... by writing.

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