Where do massive bestsellers come from? Robin Cook‘s first blockbuster, Coma, came out in 1977. It’s sold an infinite number of books, and it’s still selling, and it started his career as the father of medical thriller. But what you might not know is that he wrote a book four years earlier, called The Year of the Intern. (He’s a medical doctor.) Never heard of it, right? When I interviewed Robin Cook recently, he admitted that his first book had, well, tanked.
But instead of allowing his writing career to tank along with it, Dr. Cook became analytical.
His first question: Why hadn’t his book worked?
And his second question: What books do work? And why?
And then he realized, and this is exactly what he told me: he realized he had never read a best-selling novel. Let me let that sink in. He realized he had never read a best-selling novel.
How many of you have gone to author events where the author is asked: what’s the best advice you can give a person who wants to make a career of being an author? And they say read read read. And you might think oh no, that can’t be the real answer. But Robin Cook is the proof. It can be career changing.
He chose two massive bestsellers and decided to analyze them to see why they’d been so successful.
Jaws by Peter Benchley was the first one. It came out in 1974, and was a blockbuster. As you know, it tells the story of a great white shark (I know you know this) that preys on a family-friendly resort town, and the three men who band together to prevent it from terrorizing beachgoers. (We’ve talked here on Career Authors about the movie.)
Dr. Cook also read–and this may surprise you–Love Story by Erich Segal. If you are a certain age, you will remember “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” and also that this book was the novelization of a screenplay, and was only 131 pages long. Romeo and Juliet at Harvard, but Romeo lives. As you can guess, it had a gut-wrenchingly sad ending. It spent 41 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and hit the number one spot.
So I asked Robin Cook for the results. What had he learned from those two books?
From Jaws, he said, he learned that the peril in a thriller had to affect everyone. The stakes had to be life and death. That ordinary (but savvy or determined) people had to battle a powerful and seemingly impossible foe. That the good guys had to be protecting more than themselves. That the action had to be fast-paced, with no digressions or tangents. That characters had to be fully formed, but not with long descriptive paragraphs. That everyone had a motivation for what they did. And that the good guys were equally concerned with saving others as with saving themselves. And the bad guys’ interests were personal and selfish.
He read Love Story, he told me, because he knew he wanted to write a medical thriller. If you remember, and how can you not, Jenny the quirky beautiful working-class Radcliffe student, finds out she has terminal leukemia. (I hope this is not a spoiler.) The disease is discussed in a clear and understandable way, not technical, not too medical, but in a way that allows the reader to feel smart. And moreover, that the disease has stakes–not only will Jenny die, but her death will devastate her swoony rich Harvard boyfriend. Who, by the way, had sacrificed his family wealth to be with her. And her death teaches him something.
Now here’s the key. And what makes the lessons from those books so powerful. Each of us has been in love with someone. Each of us has been to the beach.
After reading Love Story, we’ll never think of Harvard the same way again, or leukemia the same way again, or falling in love the same way. After reading Jaws, have you ever been to the beach without at least thinking about sharks?
Those stories were so powerful, and so relatable, that they changed the reader’s entire view of their own world.
And then, after realizing what Jaws plus Love Story plus medical thriller added up to, Cook wrote Coma.
And after you read Coma, did you ever think of anesthesia the same way again? Have you ever entered the hospital and not wondered… what if they “coma” me?
It was fascinating to me that Robin Cook–the brilliant genius super-successful author who continues to write timely and contemporary and terrifying best-sellers–studied and learned to understand what a bestseller needs to work. He took those universal truths and made them his own.
Now people use Coma as the template for the perfect thriller. High stakes, relatable main characters, and an everyday situation turned terrifying. The New York Times Book Review called Coma 1977’s number one thriller of the year.
Can you channel that into your writing?
What books have you learned from? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page.