That Mysterious New York Times Best Seller List

New York Times Best Seller

I know.

All of you want to write a New York Times best seller.

I do, too.

I so do.

You’re writing and editing and hoping. Tears, sweat, maybe some blood.

Too much coffee, now and then too much tequila.

So what makes a book hit The List?

Ask this question to a thousand people and you could get a thousand different answers.

But as I was laying down tonight, feeling like a sick slug (I do have a cold – whine, whine) I thought about this.

Here are a few elements that I think throw books onto the best seller list. I hope it helps you in terms of what you’re writing now or what you want to write in the future, if your goal is to hit that list…

Impeccable writing.

Beautiful, lyrical, painful, gut wrenching, tear jerking writing that is honest and raw and maybe poetic. Please read All The Light You Cannot See, The Book Thief, The Color Purple, The Underground Railroad, and The Kite Runner if you haven’t already for a few examples.

A compelling, modern plot.

Let’s look at Gone Girl and Girl On The Train. Or, the most recent book I read, Watch Me Disappear. The protagonists aren’t likable. But the plots keep you whipping through the pages to see when the secrets are going to break open and the twists and turns are going to crash into each other. Is your plot compelling? Are there hooks and surprises? Do you keep the reader guessing on what the heck is going to happen next?

A Book Club book.

There is “stuff” to talk about for a group of women in these best sellers. For example, Eat Pray Love. You may have loved that book. You may have hated it. People had extreme responses. Eat Pray Love is a heckuva book club book because it gives women something to talk about, even argue about. Do you have an idea for a story or a character that will make for a possibly heated discussion at book clubs? An invigorating talk? Does your book have moral questions or ethical issues to debate? Excellent. Write it. See also: Wild. The Light Between Oceans. Hillbilly Elegy.

Historical fiction that yanks readers out of their lives and into another intriguing era.

If you love history, especially if you’ve already done extensive research in one area, consider this genre because people love it. They love to learn while reading something entertaining at the same time. Try Pillars Of The Earth. Sarah’s Key. The Other Boleyn Girl. Molokai.

Memoirs you can’t put down.

If you have not read The Glass Castle, please do. If you have something interesting/painful/funny/unique to say, this could be your writing home. Other excellent memoirs? Infidel. Escape. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

A Totally original plot.

Have you read A Time Traveler’s Wife? Station Eleven? The Martian? Absolute creativity. What can you write that, truly, no one has written before? And don’t fall into that, “Every story has already been told,” bull. That is not true.

Books that make people cry.

Is there a story that you can tell that will jerk tears out of yours and your readers’ eyes? There is a huge group of readers out there that like to cry over their books. I’ve done it many times myself. Examples: Me Before You. Where The Red Fern Grows. The Lovely Bones.

Books that make people laugh.

Like Bossypants. Or anything David Sedaris writes. Are you funny? Are you sarcastic or wry? Take that talent and make people crack up.

Books that people can relate to in some way.

Try Liane Moriarty’s books. Normal people. Then something extraordinary happens. Take the every day and wrench it into something totally new. Add something unexpected, devise interesting characters who may be hiding something, and shuffle it altogether with changing social dynamics in a setting we’re all familiar with, then explode the whole thing.

Escapism books.

If you want to write a fast paced book that simply gives people a  break from life and their problems while reading your knuckle gripping story, do it. Action. Adventure. Romance.  Maybe all three. Huge market for those books. Examples: Bridget Jones’ Diary. The DaVinci Code. Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich.


Do you have a true story that you have been aching to write? People love to read truth. Research. Study. Write. All at the same time.  Examples: Unbroken, Into Thin Air, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Best of luck. I truly hope that I see you on the best seller list one day.

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