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Learn From Others' Mistakes: What Non-Best-Selling Writers Can Teach You

Even fiction enthusiasts may not have heard of David Armstrong. He wrote five or six novels, which were not selling big. Later, he wrote perhaps his best work, How Not to Write a Novel I happened to read this book some time back. There is nothing great to speak about this book or any of his novels. I also happened to read one of his novels, Small Vices (out of print), but didn’t finish it.

How Not to Write a Novel is a book that lifts your misconceptions on the glamour of getting published. It tells you, for each Stephen King, there are hundreds of thousands of David Armstrongs. Writing is not a lucrative business to most.

One touching line from this book that sticks on my mind is: “My son told me that he had seen a guy walking with my book. But I don’t quite believe that; he is an intelligent son.” [I don’t remember the right words].

Later, I read Small Vices, one of his fiction works I happened to find in the British Library. This novel deals with a detective’s effort at getting to the bottom of serial kills of prostitutes. Almost similar to a Bollywood film (Nazar)’s theme.

That novel didn’t quite engage me, and I didn’t finish it. However, it taught me many lessons a Stephen King novel might not have.

When you read a best-seller of your favorite writer, if you are a writer, the feeling that your work will never be like that always haunts you. But, a fact most writers don’t understand is that there are differences in all best sellers as there are commonalities. What they see are differences alone; they don’t see commonalities. So, they get confused. Some say, Stephen King lags on his works, though with great characterization, while James Patterson moves the plot forward quickly and engagingly, though his characters suck. People are confused that both of these authors still sell millions of copies. They can’t say what exactly makes their works sell. This is the root of confusion. They don't know whether to create characters describing their every feature and thus really lagging the story, or to move the plot quickly forward, while risking having half-baked characters.

Salman Rushdie is one of my favorites. But I could never read any of his works in a day or even in a week. They are so much lagging. On the other hand, several of Sidney Sheldon novels, I could finish within a day or two at the most. They just kept me reading.

Reading a best seller will continue to confuse you, if you are trying to write a best-seller yourself. On the other hand, if you read a non-best-seller, you will be inclined to see why it wasn’t successful. You may be well able to analyze the problems with the writing, plot movement, characterization, etc. This analysis will help you improve your writing

Fiction writers shouldn’t let best sellers guide them. Look and learn from mistakes others make, so you will not repeat them, so you will be an intelligent author, and so your works will sell well. What each best selling author did successfully was building their own writing styles and unique plot and characterization methods early on in their careers. Their methods were so original and appealing to the audience that they helped them rise in popularity. That’s the only common element with each best selling writer. When you try to sell alone and don’t look at the craft part of writing, you will end up not selling at all.

One of the major reasons why a writer fails is not having proper planning. For instance, Armstrong’s novel Small Vices is ill-named (though he himself justifies it in How not to write a novel). The name gives the impression of a drama rather than a thriller. So, thriller enthusiasts may not look inside the book at all. Drama readers may not be interested when they look at the blurb and find that it revolves around bloodshed and suspense. So, mere naming of a novel involves a lot of planning.

John Grisham’s titles are very much my favorites, because they leave a great suspense behind an innocuous looking title. The Firm for instance, gives me the impression of a normal firm, but I am very much intrigued by the idea that this firm can be anything, such as a Mafia company. Look at other excellent names like The Street Lawyer (a begging lawyer?), The Client (reminds me of the Invisible Man of H G Wells, a mysterious client clad in a black coat, with a top hat, standing at the doorway), The Brethren (giving impression of dark, horror, crime, secret society, etc).

Small Vices starts with a disturbing sexual act. It is a misconception of many writers that successful works of fiction should involve sex. What works is uniqueness, not sex. For instance, Alistair Maclean is successful, but his works don’t involve sex.

Another concept is that action, horror, and love make big sellers. But most of Grisham’s works don’t have great suspense, action, or love, but have characters that talk to you directly. Without engaging your readers with such good characters, you can’t make your work successful.

I believe, fiction writers should read a mix of selling and non-selling works. While selling books will give you great ideas and entertainment, non-selling fiction can teach you many mistakes, those writers made (not to mean that non-selling works don’t have thrill or entertainment). This gives you a better chance of avoiding mistakes; when you avoid all mistakes, the remaining can make you successful. Also, in your learning quest, you will give a non-best-selling writer, some sales.

I remember Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes's philosophy: “When you avoid all impossibilities, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” So when you have avoided all mistakes, what remains must give you success. All the best with your writing career.

Read more of the archives to get more ideas on creative writing.

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008


  1. What a great idea -- to use negative examples rather than positive. I think this will work as well for memoir as for fiction. Thanks for the suggestion.


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