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Some sage advice from the award-winning, bestselling author, John Scalzi, whose new novel, The Collapsing Empire, is out now from Tor.
Don’t try to write a best-selling book. Because you can’t. One, if you just try to copy the current set of bestsellers, you’re already behind. If you can spot a trend, it’s because you’re behind it. Two, because no one really knows what things are going to be bestsellers. Publishers spend a lot of money promoting books that they want to be huge that don’t sell, while other books seemingly come out of nowhere and just perch on the top of lists.
Write a book you would want to read. You are your first, best reader, and if you’re trying to write a book that you wouldn’t want to read yourself, then what are you doing? Be in love with what you write, because if you’re not, no one else will be.
Put your ass in a chair and write. Because before you can write a best-selling book, you have to write a book. Many would-be writers don’t really want to write a book, they want to have written a book. But, alas, there are no magical book fairies to come at night while you sleep and write your book. So what that means is on a regular basis, you have butt meet seat cushion and bang out a few hundred words.
Put your ass in a chair and edit. Surprise! You’re not done yet! Now that you have it done, it’s time to look at it critically and find everything that’s wrong with it and then try to fix it. Because -- surprise again! -- nearly everyone’s first draft is not publishable (this doesn’t stop some people from trying to publish it anyway. Don’t be that person).
Did you remember to make interesting characters that people will care about? “But I’m writing a science fiction novel with cool ideas!” Meh. Cool ideas are easy. Lots of lazy science fiction has a cool idea but cardboard characters, and then the reader simply doesn’t care. Cool ideas are not cool in isolation; they are cool because of how they affect the universe around them. And (usually) the best way to show that is to show how interesting characters are affected by them. If you can’t make characters readers care about, you make it much harder to show off your cool science fictional ideas.
Make your universe two questions deep. By which I mean, make it so when someone asks you a question about why/how you created or portrayed the universe, character etc the way you did, you have a smart, cogent answer for it, consistent with the construction of the book. And then when they have a follow-up question, be able to answer that effectively, too. That will make 95% of your readers happy with your worldbuilding (the other 5% are SUPER nerds. Which is fine! For them, say “Oh, I’m glad you asked that. I’m totally going to address that in the sequel.” Try it! It works!).
Don't worry about whether you’re a best seller or not. You literally cannot control all the variables it takes to be a best-selling author. Focus on the thing you can control: Writing a good book that you’re proud of and that people, including you, would want to read. Them no matter how well it sells, you’ll still have written a book you love. And that is an excellent thing, indeed.