The Magic Formula to Becoming a Bestselling Author–There Isn’t One!

Recently, I commented on a Facebook post, a link to a Buzzfeed story: 14 Books Every English Major Has Definitely, Totally Finished. Okay, first off, the title sounds like it was concocted by a teenager–“definitely, totally?” Talk about overkill! Not something one would expect of an English major, right?

To be fair, I wasn’t an English major. I started out an English major–but I switched to communications early on. I’m one of those authors who believes we don’t learn to be writers in a classroom–we learn by reading authors whose works we love, authors writing in the genres we want to write. By the time I went to college, I’d already been told by an editor at a major publishing house that I had talent, I just wasn’t ready for the commercial market. And at the time I wrote it, I’d dropped out of high school. I only ended up in college because of an accident (long story).

To this day, I wonder how much of that editorial assessment had to do with the embarrassing fact that I’d stupidly submitted a handwritten manuscript!

In my defense, I was only sixteen at the time. Brains haven’t completely formed at that age. But I’m getting off track here. Back to the claim that every English major has read the fourteen books on that list. I’ve read five of them. Maybe if I’d stuck with that English major, I would have read all of them–but probably not by choice.

The article made me think about how many of today’s bestselling authors were English majors and what they did before they were authors. Here’s some of what I found….

Not all of the biggest names in fiction even went to college. Nora Roberts didn’t. Neither did Janet Dailey, Jackie Collins or Jacqueline Susann (who had an IQ of 140). Roberts was a legal secretary; Dailey worked as a secretary at her husband’s construction business. Collins and Susann tried their hands at acting, with mediocre results.ย 

Stephen King and Dan Brown were English majors, and both were teachers before publishing their first novels. Stephenie Meyer also has a degree in English from Brigham Young University–but ended up working as a receptionist. Laurell K. Hamilton has degrees in both English and biology. Tom Clancy majored in English literature at Loyola University, but was working at an insurance agency owned by his then-wife’s grandfather when he wrote The Hunt for Red October.

John Grisham and Scott Turow are lawyers–though Turow was also an Edith Mirrelees Fellow at the Creative Writing Center at Stanford and taught creative writing at Stanford as an E. H. Jones Lecturer before attending Harvard Law School. Danielle Steel studied fashion design and worked in public relations. Janet Evanovich was an art major at Douglass College at Rutgers, but ended up working as a temp until she launched her writing career. J. K. Rowling has a degree in French and Classics and worked as a researcher and bilingual secretary for Amnesty International–but was on welfare at the time she created Harry Potter. Meg Cabot has a Bachelor of Fine Arts and once worked as a residence hall director. Daniel Silva has a Masters in International Relations and worked as a correspondent for United Press International before he became a bestselling author. George R. R. Martin majored in journalism at Northwestern and was a story editor /story consultant/producer for TV shows including The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast in his pre-Game of Thrones career. The late Sidney Sheldon also attended Northwestern and, like Martin, had a career in Hollywood before writing his first novel because he had an idea he felt wouldn’t work as a screenplay.

Novelists come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. It doesn’t require a degree in English, Literature or Creative Writing to have a successful career as a novelist. When I sold my first novel, nobody asked me to submit a resume or academic credits. They only cared about the manuscript–and that one was typed!


36 responses

  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing all of this fascinating information about these authors. And yes, you are quite right… publishers care more about your manuscript than what degree you have. And it is nice to see writers coming from all different walks of life. This should give writers hope! Take care, Norma!

  2. Yeah, like anything creative, it's not exactly something they teach in school…heck, if it were, I would have taken Rock Star 101 myself…and for the record, I was M.E. at Cooper Union…though I didn't graduate…and I believe it's safe to say that nobody at the time could have possibly predicted I would someday become a published author, myself included…

  3. I think it's still true that writing is all that counts. And whether or not you have the drive, or ambition, or pure cussedness to keep writing when you don't at first succeed.

  4. It's a combination of all of those things plus timing. When I sold my first novel, I submitted my proposal to my agent at a time when she had just had a New York Times bestseller with a novel in that genre. When she sent the manuscript to 12 publishers, 8 made offers. A year either way and the outcome could have been quite different.

  5. Super interesting post !
    I think one is born with certain abilities. School helps you understand and use them.
    But yes, a plane B is needed. Just ask my one son who has a History Degree.

    cheers, parsnip

  6. There's no such thing as a non-author profession, Hilary! Look at Robin Cook–he's also a doctor, an MD. I believe Michael Crichton was as well. I've known authors who were trauma nurses, accounts, actors….

    I wanted the least-demanding job I could find, so I worked as a temp–until my son was born. The need for things like health insurance prompted me to get a job at an advertising agency (but that's another story).

  7. No classroom will ever take the place of reading. The best novelists don't concern themselves with the mechanics of writing. They're first and foremost storytellers. That's a gift we can only be born with.

  8. Ah, yes. I remember seeing ads touting your getting your degree in writing. I must have an above average IQ, since I didn't fall for that one. Your degree has nothing to do with it. I've got an art degree from a small college. Like you, Norma, I wanted the least-demanding job I could find (so that I could think about my writing, whatever it was at the time). Still driving a bus, and it's nice to have time off, when it happens.
    Great post, Norma!

  9. Just read last post Norma.. PHEW! What relief you must have felt.. I must admit I was wondering why it was taking so long for the results to come in but they were obviously doing a first class job of checking everything. So good to hear this news, and from all the info in THIS post there isn't anything wrong with that brain of yours at all!

  10. Lorelei–I would think driving a bus would be a great job for a novelist.

    I know a bus driver here–he drives mass transit. He's MENSA–he drives a bus because he likes it. He told me it gives him the opportunity to think while he's earning a paycheck.

  11. Hey, Grace–good to see you back! As it turns out, my doctor was first out of town, then she didn't want to discuss it with me by email.

    I have good days and bad days. I don't have too much trouble obeying the restrictions, fortunately. As for how well the old gray matter is working, it's a day-by-day thing. Some days, my brain really does give me the silent treatment! I've learned to be thankful it's not as bad as it could have been, and to just write on the good days.

  12. Welcome to the club, Eve! But you're a good storyteller, and you will find your way. Just be patient. As far as I can tell, you're doing all the right stuff. This is a slow-build career.

    In traditional publishing, many authors were frustrated by the fact that their publishers would put their books out for a month, and if things didn't start happening right away, game over. With self-publishing, we have the time and the freedom to get it right.

  13. TYPO! That was supposed to be “accountants,” not “accounts!” That's what I get for even trying to respond to comments early in the morning. MY brain has grown fond of sleeping in….

  14. Sounds like you are taking a positive pro active approach to your health situation Norma, that's the way.. Too many people totally leave every decision to others, no one knows how we feel like ourselves oui!

  15. I've met people with degrees in Literature, English, Creative Writing, and some with a MFA. Most of them spend more time talking about how educated they are than they do writing.

  16. And most of them never do anything with those degrees because they end up so full of themselves.

    Most of the aspiring writers I've met are dedicated and talented. They want to learn as much as they can, not just about honing their craft, but about packaging, promoting, etc. But there are the occasional few who think they already know more than they actually do. They've read a few books on writing, they've taken courses, usually online, and suddenly they're experts.

    I read a lot of books and subscribed to writer's magazines for years…but when I sold my first novel, I discovered I didn't really know anything!

  17. I think Stephen King majored in 'creepy' Norma ๐Ÿ™‚ Not sure how comfortable I would be sleeping next to him ๐Ÿ™‚ btw I'm sure you will have guessed, Aimee is a HUGE fan, has every one of his books, I'm just glad they've all left my bookshelf and migrated to her new house ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. I checked out the list. I've only read 4. The blurbs had me laughing out loud. I was an English major, but never even thought about writing a book. Just kinda happened. You need to write a post about how you ended up in college after dropping out of HS. Got me curious about your life's story;).

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