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26 April 2016

Curtis Brown joint-CEO Jonny Geller on what makes a bestseller

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by Eli Keren From the Agents, Writing Tips

‘Reading is fundamentally a social act,’ says Curtis Brown joint-CEO Jonny Geller in the opening to his TED talk on what differentiates a seller from a bestseller. ‘What better feeling is there than when you’ve read a great book and you’ve recommended it to someone and they come back to you and they say, “Wow, thank you, that book changed my life”?’

Jonny argues that, when all else is said and done, when the edits have been made, the drafts redrafted and the cover tweaked, what ultimately makes a book into a bestseller is you and I.

In his talk, Jonny shares with the audience how he looked back over the recent bestsellers to break down exactly what it was that set them apart. He built for himself a list of five distinguishing features:

The bridge
‘As a reader, you look for a story that takes you on a journey from somewhere you haven’t been, to a place you know not where. But as a literary agent, I’m looking for something slightly different. I’m looking for a story that takes you on a journey, but from somewhere familiar, on a bridge to somewhere new.’

‘If you can write a novel that only you could write in that way and at that time, then you might get a novel on that chart.’

‘Writing is hard work, it’s a skill, it’s a muscle that needs exercising. There are many ways that you can perfect your craft. You can join a writing group, you can enlist in creative writing courses, you can even get tips on the internet.’

‘How does a book resonate with as many readers as quickly as possible… What are we afraid of?’

The space between the sentences
‘The gap that an author leaves in order for us, the reader, to inhabit. We do this with our imagination, our experience, our feelings; and the better the book, the more this space will allow us in.’

Finally, Jonny takes a moment to linger on a novel’s core idea. ‘Every great classical narrative can be reduced to a sentence,’ he says. ‘Hamlet: it’s about a man who cannot make up his mind whether to avenge his father’s murder. Macbeth: it’s about a man whose ambition proves his own downfall. King Lear: it’s about a foolish king who picks the wrong daughters.’

If you want to hear Jonny’s talk, it is available in full here.

For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:

Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).

Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).

For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for: 

Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).

We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:

Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).

Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).

Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).

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