The Three Most Important Tips To Writing A Bestseller

Flickr / April Killingsworth
Flickr / April Killingsworth

A few weeks after I published “Choose Yourself”, I published a novel on Amazon. I didn’t tell anyone. I wrote it under a fake name.

It did ok. Later that month a small publisher offered me the chance to publish a series around the first novel. They would help market it.

I liked the idea but I didn’t have time. I wanted to help people with “Choose Yourself” and the novel was just an exercise. Plus it wasn’t very good.

Sometimes it’s fun to do something, load it up, hit publish and watch. I got some reviews. Some people gave it 1 star and some people gave it five stars. I wrote the book in three days just as an experiment to see if I could.

One person wrote in his review: “This a must read! I found it to be very delightful point of view.”

A more intelligent reviewer said, “Rubbish!!…suggestions in this book are crude and insulting, I would not recommend it to anyone”

I came up with an idea for it to be a series. I pitched it to one publisher and they said “yes” and sent over a contract. But then I wanted to focus on “Choose Yourself” instead and the ideas around that.

I always wanted to write fiction. I love fiction and read fiction every day. Today I re-read several stories from Raymond Carver. I like to connect the dots in his stories.

I try to imagine what he was thinking when he moves in his spare way from conversation to action to scenes of the weather to the closing sentence.

Every sentence in his stories has a double-meaning. Each sentence moves forward the story.

But it also has some extra meaning that’s hidden. It’s like he wrote a huge paragraph that explained everything and then he chiseled out everything from the paragraph except for four words and merged them into a sentence.

He must have a logic for it. I try to figure it out. And if I can’t, I google the story and try to see if there is any written criticism out there that can help me connect the dots. Sometimes there is.

A few weeks ago I spoke with Andy Weir on my podcast. Andy Weir is my favorite fiction writer of the year. He wrote, “The Martian”. The Martian has 7000 reviews. It’s being made into a movie.

It’s about a man in the very near future who accidentally gets left behind on Mars during a dust storm when his crewmates think he’s dead. He has to figure out how to survive for 400 days.

There were many things about the book I wanted to understand more so I called up Andy and asked him if I could ask him the questions in front of the listeners to my podcast. He was very kind and did so.

It was his first published book but he had been writing for years. That’s how it goes.

He self-published “The Martian” in 2011 after everyone rejected it. He started writing it and researching it in 2009.

Once he published it it got so popular (35,000 copies in 3 months) that Random House bought it and republished it in 2014 where it quickly went on every bestseller list. Then Ridley Scott scooped up the movie rights and Matt Damon is starring.

Very exciting!

At the end of our discussion I asked Andy his three tips for writers. I was asking for my own personal benefit. He said, “I would love to give you three tips.”


“It’s easy to daydream about your story but you have to sit down and write.”

Almost every writer I know writes every single day. I find for myself if I miss two days then I can physically feel it in my head when I try to put words together. They don’t connect in the same way.

AJ Jacobs told me the other day he just assumes the first 20 minutes of any writing session will be bad so he writes whatever he wants for 20 minutes and then throws it out.

Raymond Chandler used to set up his typewriter and just stare at the blank paper if he had nothing to write. But he just wanted to build the discipline of sitting down every day with the plan to write.

Stephen Dubner, author of Freakonomics, told me, “assume 70% of everything anyone writes is bad. Then try to refine the 30% that’s good.”

Hugh Howey, author of Wool and also a former guest on my podcast has total transparency on his website showing where he is at in each book he is writing. He is a writing machine, doing several excellent books a year. You can only do that if you write every day.

Steve Scott, also a guest on my podcast, puts out a new book every three weeks and is now making up to $60,000 a month with his books on habits.

Seth Godin posts on his blog every day – I think seven days a week. He told me, “I never have writer’s block. Think about it – nobody ever complains about talker’s block and I write about what I talk about.”

Since Seth’s talking is smarter than mine by at least 100 IQ points I think this is a good strategy for him.

More books than ever are being written so you would think the competition is tough. It is. That’s why writing every day is the best advice. Find your voice and then it’s recognizable by everyone.


“VERY IMPORTANT!” Andy told me. “Resist the urge to tell your friends and family what you are writing about.”

I have experienced this countless times. I come up with an idea for a story or a post or a novel or a book and I tell someone about it. BAM! There goes all the creative energy I would’ve used on actually writing the book.

One friend of mine once told me a great idea for a screenplay. It’s about a guy who is poor and unemployed and lonely and living in Chinatown. He sees all these mafia guys walking around so he comes up with a plan.

The plan is to follow the mafia guys all over the place so that he becomes “suspicious” in the eyes of the FBI. Then the FBI picks him up and he works out an agreement to be in the witness protection program so he can have a whole new life, a job… friends.

It’s idea sex: a “mafia story” meets “story about loneliness and finding meaning in life.”

I loved it. He loved it. He had a famous actor who loved it. He talked about it so many times he never wrote it.

I then said I would steal it. I kept saying it. And, of course, I never wrote it.

Don’t talk to anyone about your idea for a story. Don’t look for approval. Write it first, publish it second, then look for approval.

Creative energy is like toothpaste. Once you squeeze it out you better use it because it’s gone after that.


This was Andy’s third piece of advice. He knows this to be true. How else could he go from self-published one year with 50 rejections to now major bestseller with the exact same book and millions of readers.

The gatekeepers have all died and gone to gatekeeper heaven and we are all left behind. What does the world look like with no gatekeepers?

We have to get over that feeling of wanting to be chosen. The feeling of desperately wanting to say, “you really really like me.”

You get to choose. You get to be curious about whatever excites you. You get to research and collect and think and write and then publish or make a company or create your own source of income.

Andy told me at the end of the podcast that he is afraid he will be a “one hit wonder”.

Cuavos de la Manos from 13,000 years ago is one of the earliest examples of art by humans. It’s beautiful. It’s a wall with stenciled hands all over it.
Whoever made it was clearly a one-hit wonder. But 13,000 years later we marvel at it and try to decipher meaning from it.

Every day I think about bills and relationships and deals and business and “what’s next?” I hardly take the time to wonder, what can I do today that people will wonder about 13,000 years from now.

Maybe someone will find my novel written in three days (“Rubbish!”) and try to figure it out (believe me, it means nothing).

And when robot angels come down to pick me and take me to the next virtual reality, will I be able to look back and say, I did something? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

I’m going to have another coffee and wait for the day to slowly begin it’s onslaught. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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James Altucher is the author of the bestselling book Choose Yourself, editor at The Altucher Report and host of the popular podcast, The James Altucher Show, which takes you beyond business and entrepreneurship by exploring what it means to be human and achieve well-being in a world that is increasingly complicated.

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