Sunday, 17 August 2014

Stan asks: "Does it seem like he wrote this backwards?"

When Richard Rohmer wrote How to Write a Be$t $eller was he kidding? Was something like Triad actually planned?

This is a question so important I think it's worth breaking in two.

  1. Did Richard Rohmer believe he knew what he was doing?
  2. Why did nine of these terrible books become Canadian best sellers? We’re a nice country.

How to Write a Be$t $eller answers the first question.  Rohmer thinks he’s learned a thing or two about giving the people what they want.  I don’t know the answer to the second question, but I’ll make a guess… at the end of this post.

The only really useful book I’ve ever read about screenwriting is Save the Cat.  (He says, having never sold a screenplay.) Everything else was either a waste of time, for thinking about writing instead of doing it, or an out-and-out shuck.  If the people who wrote those books knew how to write and sell big money screenplays, they would.  And they’d keep the secret to themselves.  But Save the Cat was written by a guy who really did write big money screenplays that were turned into awful movies you wouldn’t watch to win a bet.

And then he died.  So you can enjoy Save the Cat without envy.

And Save the Cat is really good.

Save the Cat says: Do you want to make money or not? Follow this formula and write a movie they’ll show at the mall. Don’t write about your summer abroad.  Don’t write about French history.  Don’t waste everyone’s time.  Write about an FBI agent undercover at some place amusing. Make sure your likable lead learns something. The end.

The problem with Richard Rohmer’s How to Write a Be$t $eller is that Rohmer never learned how to write a best seller.  He just wrote nine.  And -- I don’t want to keep hammering this nail -- they’re terrible. And not in a fun way.  It’s impossible to imagine reading one for pleasure.  So, like the author of Save the Cat, he wants to tell you: “forget art, just follow this formula,” but there’s no formula to Rohmer. 

It’s just this block of exposition and this airplane trip and then this next block of exposition.  (Or, maybe twice a book, a piece of action fought out between ancillary cyphers, ending up exactly where it began.)  Is it the same President of the United States in all the novels?  Does it matter if it isn’t?  Sometimes he likes to say “I’m from Texas” over and over; other times he doesn't.

So Rohmer doesn’t know what to tell you.  He wrote these half-assed slogs and people bought them anyhow. It’s like writing a book called how to inherit money.

Here’s Rohmer’s advice:

Make sure your characters have no backstory. 
If you use real people, don’t say anything untoward. 
Don’t describe things much.
Don’t reveal information until you absolutely have to.
No swearing.
Add as little sex as possible.

Do you see the pattern here? 

It’s all about playing defense and not screwing up.  You will write a (Canadian) (business, politics or war) bestseller unless you do something stupid.

And I think that might be the answer to the second question: Why did people buy these books in the first place?

Were there 200,000 Canadian businessmen who loved Arthur Hailey so much that they’d read any old crap, as long as it was slightly like Arthur Hailey, and it was on the rack at the airport and didn’t have too much cursing?

Is that the real $ecret of the Rohmer $ystem?


  1. This also brings up the logical fallacy that the more copies it sells, the better it is. Like a purchase is a vote for it's quality. How do we know everyone who bought it didn't hate it? It's always the same "critics - bah! People bought it and made it a best seller, therefore it's good" argument.

    Jonathan Livingston Seagull was the best-selling book in the early half of the 70s, when Rohmer first started writing. Where does that fit into anything he tells us about formula?

  2. Robert Benchley pointed out (100 years ago?) that if you are a hack, and you write a book that people buy but critics hate, and you are interviewed, you will mention that Dickens wrote for the people, too.

    Was Jonathan Livingston Seagull sold at airports? If you look at the writers mentioned in HTWAB$, they tend to be names you'd see racked at a W.H. Smith at Pearson International in 1976.

    It's funny that Irwin Shaw keeps coming up in HTWAB$, because Shaw was a veteran, like Rohmer, and made a boatload of money writing increasingly not-very-good books. But writing B$s didn't make Shaw happy. He wanted to be respected too, for his early work, and like Norman Mailer and James Jones and John Cheever.

    It's just sort of weird, if you read Shaw's biography, that the thing that made him feel like kind of a whore and a loser -- churning out crap -- is Rohmer's fondest dream. And Rohmer's dream for you, too.

    It's like writing a book called How to Be in Big Movies and citing Buster Keaton all the time, for his work in Beach Blanket Bingo.

    1. Am I right that The Young Lions was once placed in the same league as The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity? My father had a nice first edition. If memory serves, it sat one a bookshelf next to Barbary Shore.

      One thing Rohmer doesn't address are the fleeting sales of commercial fiction. True, a killing can be made, but you'd best squirrel away those royalties. Ultimatum was the biggest Canadian novel of 1973, but saw its last edition six years later. Surfacing, with which it did battle, remains in print (even in translation) and is taught in high schools, colleges and universities.

      I see that The Young Lions is available from the University Of Chicago Press. That's it.

  3. Your last comment made me laugh out loud.

    I wonder if anyone compiled a list of best sellers by source - airports, tobacco shops, bookstores?

    1. Born in the dying days of the Diefenbaker government, it wasn't until a few years ago that I learned there had been a time when paperbacks - "pocket books" - were found only at news stands and drug stores. Book stores wouldn't touch them. This goes some way in explaining why a book like Brian Moore's Wreath for a Redhead is so scarce. The thing was considered to be as disposable as the June 1951 Saturday Evening Post.

      I think Rohmer did really well in paper for a few years, but can't help but think that it was his hardcovers that really sold. He was savvy enough to go after Christmas sales. What to get Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey? Exodus/UK, of course. Oh, how his eyes lit up with Exxoneration!

      I see no evidence that any Rohmer novel was released as a mass market - the thriller format - after Starmageddon. In fact, there appear to have been no paperback editions of Red Arctic, Sir John A.'s Crusade and Death by Deficit.

      And after those?

      Straight to paperback.