How to Write a Bestseller with Joy Fielding – Day 1

It's here!  The first day of “How to Write a Bestseller,” as taught by Joy Fielding at the University of Toronto.  This week-long class, of course, doesn’t guarantee that what you write will automatically catapult you to the top of the bestsellers list.  But, it does promise, at the very least, to give the 12 aspiring writers who plunked down their hard-earned cash, the tools to learn how to write a good book that readers will want to read.

During the week, I’m going to attempt to put up daily blogs detailing the experience and my own observations.  Notice I said “attempt.”  This lets me off the hook if my good intentions go south during the week.
With that said, here goes:

Class – Day 1
Admittedly, I had a bit of trepidation in the day or so leading up to today.  I would be meeting Joy Fielding, heroine of my literary dreams.  My work would be critiqued by Joy along with 11 of my peers.  Would they hate it?  Would they get it?  Each student was asked to submit a chapter from a novel in progress a month before class and after slaving over my chapter, I sent it along with more than a little nervousness (I was a little disappointed to learn later that some folks had thrown together submissions at the last minute.) 

Even though I had scoped out the location of the classroom the day before, I still wanted to arrive a little early to get settled.

And who should be waiting at the elevator but Madame Fielding herself!  Recognizing her instantly, I ventured a hesitant, “Are you Joy?”

              “Yes, I am,” she said, shaking my extended hand.

                I held out my hand and introduced myself, explaining I would be taking her class.

                “Oh, good,” she said.  “Do you have any idea what classroom we’re in?”

                I did indeed. 

Imagine – me showing Joy Fielding where to go.  Insane.  While I recognized her right away, she did look a little different than her pictures, as the famous often do.  The photographs on her website reveal a redhead with runaway waves; in person her hair was a soft, cotton candy blonde.  She wore a simple, white cotton, short-sleeved sundress decorated with hot pink roses and delicate blue flowers and flat, strappy sandals that matched the color of the roses on her dress.  She was petite in stature, but, as I would soon discover, not in personality.

Class Begins
As expected with these sorts of things, the participants and their backgrounds were varied; a few teachers, one guy who works in television production, some retirees, a few students, one girl with a marketing background similar to mine (of course she and I struck up a conversation later about the joys and woes of working for yourself).  I was the lone student from the States, which seemed to impress people that I would travel all this way (truthfully, an hour and so change by plane. I think it took me longer to get through customs.)

Joy let us know right off the bat that she is a blunt person, explaining, “I’m no good to you if I can’t be honest.”  She asked us in our critiques of each other’s work to be specific about what worked, what didn’t, what we liked, and where we felt it went off track, adding that we should “leave the harsh stuff to [her].” 

The Advice
Echoing what I heard Barbara Taylor Bradford say about a month or so ago, Joy told us that CHARACTER DRIVES PLOT.  While commercial fiction is more driven by plot than literary fiction, which is more reliant upon character, Joy couldn’t seem to stress enough that you have to know your characters inside and out, almost before they were born, before you can figure out what motivates them to do what they do, which in turn…drives plot.

As far as bestsellers go, Joy said much to the chagrin of the publishing industry, there’s just no way to predict what will become a bestseller, but said if you can address a common fear or touch on a nerve, that will help tap into that elusive “phenomenon” that so many are chasing.  Of course the “50 Shades of Grey” craze was discussed, as about half the class had read it in spite of the bad writing, because it was just so “titillating.” 

And yet somehow, I still don’t want to read it.

Some additional advice:

-   To justify excessive dialogue or procedure, introduce some sort of threat to keep the reader interested, i.e. sex or violence.

-          Dialogue should keep the plot moving.  See point above.

-   Three things are required for writing a novel: imagination, life experience and discipline.  And of course, luck.

-   Shorter chapters=page turner

    -   As much as people swear in real life, they don’t like to read it (go figure).  It seems like using the Lord’s name in vain seems to ignite fury in readers.  Joy’s stance on this is that “it’s just not worth it.”    

-   WRITE…everyday.


We didn’t delve into critiques today, but were assigned to come prepared with our comments on four of the submissions for tomorrow.  Joy’s blistering commentary, which she promised to go into more detail on during the week, was that 90 percent of the submissions had atrocious grammar, spelling and form and she had to wonder “how many of you had ever even looked at or read a book in your lives.”  Ouch.  Well, she said she was blunt.  I hope I fell in the ten percent.

A few other tidbits:

   -    Write what you like to read and analyze it.

   -   There is a dearth of fiction for young men that isn’t in the fantasy/sci-fi realm.  Could be a goldmine if someone tapped into it.
       - Word of mouth sells books.  

   -  “If you want the facts, read non-fiction.  If you want the truth, read fiction.”
       - Joy too, had just finished “Gone Girl,” and she and I had the chance to have a 30-second book club.

We ended the day by attending a welcome lunch hosted by the university and hearing short readings by the 15 instructors also teaching writing courses (a celebrated group full of bestsellers and award winners on topics as varied as screenwriting, memoir, graphic novels and comic books).  I’ll try and add more about them in another post.

There was so much more, but I just tried to hit the highlights.  Tomorrow we get our first writing assignment and the critiques begin. 

Until tomorrow!