How to get on the NYT Bestseller List?

27Mar11
Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of Random House (better know to the people of my generation as one of the panelists on What’s My Line?) told this story in his 1956 book, The Life of the Party: A New Collection of Stories and Anecdotes (now available on eBay for $1.99)
Rumor is that a pedestrian on Fifty-seventh Street, Manhattan, stopped Jascha Heifetz and inquired, “Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Yes,” said Heifetz. “Practice!”
(The joke is also referenced in Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds when Brad Pitt‘s character Aldo says “You know how you get to Carnegie Hall, don’t ya? Practice”.) 

Clearly, Heifitz’s invocation is well-applied not just to music, but practically every skill acquired by mankind.
So how does an aspiring novelist practice? Food fights have started over less controversial questions.
Well, of course, you must write! But what good is writing all the time if you don’t know what you’re doing? You have to know what you’re doing. How do you learn what you’re doing? Some insist you must go to school and acquire a Masters in Fine Arts. Catcalls and brickbats ensue.
Here’s a suggestion that I learned from James N. Frey, in his superb how-to book, How To Write a Damn Good Novel. [N.B. Frey is one of dozens of successful novelists who’ve shared their ideas, methods and suggestions. An aspiring novelist who doesn’t read these – at least some of them – isn’t, in my opinion, serious about becoming a successful writer.]
Besides being a multi-published novelist, Frey has taught creative writing at a number of institutions for two decades. He was Teacher of the Year at UCLA Berkeley in 1994. His methods of teaching are alluded to repeatedly in his books, which are universally praised. Bottom line, a good guy to listen to.
Frey has his students select a work of fiction by their favorite author. They then select 2-3 pages from the book that they find particularly excellent, and then copy it. Word for word.
Here’s what Frey says about it:
You will not only get a feel for how good stylists use words, you will feel the timing and the rhythm of their prose and the snap, crackle and pop of their dialogue.
The next day, write a few pages imitating the style. If the scene you typed out is an outdoor scene with a lot of action, write the same sort of scene, trying your best to imitate style.
Do this with other authors you admire, regularly. Here’s what he says the result is:
By doing these exercises, you’ll soon discover that your own, individual, distinctive styles will emerge, styles suited to your personality and to the particular story you are writing, styles unlike any of the styles you’ve been imitating.
We all have favorite authors. They all have their own style and methods. Very few of them are similar. We aspire to write like our favorites, or at least to learn how it is and why it is that these authors succeed in their craft. We can do that by sitting in a classroom and deconstructing sentences, examining their syntax, etc. Like MFA students do, maybe. I’d just as soon jump into the polar bear pit at the zoo.
But here is an exercise where, Frey assures us, we can see measurable results, and rather quickly:
Doing the following exercise a half-hour to an hour a day has made some of the worst prose-writing students in my classes into some of the best… in a few months – or less. Often the improvement is very rapid and the degree of improvement is astonishing.
A final word about reading.
You cannot become a better novelist without reading novels. Not just a few, but dozens. Hundreds. Maybe the exercise above reduces the number of Leonard novels from 15 to 10, but if you want to write mysteries like Elmore Leonard, you have to read everything Elmore Leonard has ever written. Otherwise, you’ll probably end up sounding like an amateur who’s copying Elmore Leonard.
Until about 7 years ago, I didn’t read that many novels – maybe 5-8 per year. Now I read 5-8 per month.
That’s practice.
Practice, practice, practice!
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5 Responses to “How to get on the NYT Bestseller List?”

  1. Bennett Cerf! When I’m not feeling well and in need of some comfort television, I watch clips of the “mystery challenger” section of What’s My Line on youtube. There’s nothing like the sophisticated cocktail party atmosphere of that show on today’s television — or anywhere else. I have a bit of a crush on Cerf in particular.

  2. 2 Pete

    I watched that show religiously as a child. I used to feign illness sometimes to watch the game show line-up.

    I didn’t have any idea Cerf was the founder of Random House until I was researching this piece.

  3. Guess I’ll put your blog link on my blog.


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