What it Takes to be a USA Today Bestselling Author

TJ Klune’s story of touching millions of readers across the globe

What it Takes to be a USA Today Bestselling Author
TJ Klune (published with consent from the author)

TJ Klune’s story of touching millions of readers across the globe

On September 22, Lambda Award winning author, TJ Klune, tweeted that if readers took his book, The House on the Cerulean Sea, to #1 on Amazon, he would write a sequel.

Get it to number 1 on Amazon, and I will pitch the sequel to the pub you all seem to think I’ll write regardless. Ya weirdos.

His fans went crazy and ordered so many copies that on October 1, the book was once again topping the USA Today Bestseller List.

Yeah, it’s not an understatement to say the author has a great sense of humour and a super loyal fan following. Which isn’t surprising, considering the heart-warming stories and memorable characters he writes.

I came across this amazing author because of how passionately some of my favourite book reviewers were raving about The House on the Cerulean Sea. When I started reading the book, I immediately fell in love. TJ’s writing has that magic, the power to pull you into his world and make you love the story and the characters with all your heart.

I was so moved by TJ’s writing that I got in touch with him. In the chat we had, I tried to understand his writing process and what makes his books so fiercely loved by so many readers all across the globe.

I was floored by his answers.

TJ’s story was one of constant effort and regular honing of skills. It is a story all writers can learn from and use to help themselves become better.

His story is a story of hope. Read on to know more.

Humble beginnings

TJ had been a reader all his life. Since his family didn’t have much money, he used his library card to read any book he could lay his hands on. As a child, most of the books he read went over his head, but reading was his safe space, and he loved being transported away, at least for a little while.

Writing almost came hand-in-hand with reading. He says he always carried a notebook around when he was six or seven years old, filling it with stories he would think up on the fly. Once that notebook was filled, he would start with another.

I did this for years. Most of those notebooks have been lost, but I still have a couple, and they’re delightfully bad.

Unpublished first drafts

The first book TJ wrote was never published. He says “that book was a ridiculous look at what I thought was a “gritty” and “realistic” look at the lives of high schoolers. It was drug and sex and really, really bad. I hated it, and it put me off writing for a while.”

As a writer myself, I found myself chuckling while reading his words. Isn’t that a feeling we can all relate to?

However, TJ did decide to try again, and that story eventually became his first published book, Bear, Otter and the Kid.

He has a soft spot for that story because it taught him a lot about finding a narrative voice and stretching the limits of how he believed a book could be written.

It also showed him how vital plotting out details was, so you don’t write yourself into a corner and get frustrated at how there seems to be no way out.

“My first book is imperfect, and obviously so. If I could do it all over again, I’d go about the narrative in a different way, but I’m glad I can’t, because I think it shows just how much I’ve grown as a writer since then.”

The takeaway

It does not matter where you start. The first piece you write is not going to be a masterpiece. But because you wrote it from scratch, it will always hold a piece of you. Also, it might end up as a lesson on how not to write a book.

Lessons from the first book

In his own words, TJ says he has grown quite a lot since the first book came out in 2011. He doesn’t aim to be “the best writer the world has ever seen”, but he wants to be as good a writer as he can be, and there’s a difference.

It’s a continuous learning process, and as one progresses in their journey, they are bound to learn new ways to tell stories, experimenting with styles and narrative voices.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve written one book or a hundred, each time you start again, you’ll undoubtedly learn something new that you can add to your storytelling abilities. It’s an exploration that I never get tired of.”

The takeaway

Will it all be successful? No, of course not. But it will help you grow as a writer. You’ll be more confident in your abilities to tell a good story as long as you keep reminding yourselves constantly that there is still so much left to learn.

The House on the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune (Picture by bookstersisters — published with consent)

The importance of editing

Many people seem to think that once a book’s written, it’s done and ready to come out. That’s not even close to the truth, and I wanted to hear TJ’s opinion on it. According to him, there are three stages to his editing process:

  1. First drafts are great for getting ideas onto a page, more of an outline than anything else. Subsequent drafts are about filling in those ideas, giving them purpose, colour, and a point.
  2. After that, the book usually goes to Beta readers, who should not necessarily point out the good parts, but also mention what they think needs work. As an author, TJ would rather hear what he did wrong than what he did well because it shows what needs to be fixed.
  3. Then, if all goes well and he hasn’t scrapped the whole thing (which sometimes happens), it’ll go off to the editor with the publisher for at least three rounds of intensive edits, the first usually being the most involved.

Take, for example, TJ’s upcoming book, Under the Whispering Door, coming out in March 2021. The first round of edits from the publisher took him an entire month to complete, not because the story was bad, but because he got really, really involved with trying to make the story the best it can be.

“I go line by line through the book, taking the suggested edits under advisement while also making changes I’ve thought about since I sent it in. Editing is one of my favorite parts because a good editor only makes the story better.”

The takeaway

Editing is definitely going to take much, much longer than writing, but it is also arguably the most critical phase in a book’s journey.

Being consistent

As I mentioned earlier, I am a huge fan of TJ’s writing. Aside from that, the pace at which this literary genius churns out new books shocks me. His first book was released in 2011. Since then, he has published 28 books. That totals more than three books each year.

Needless to say, one of the most important questions I wanted to ask TJ was how did he manage to maintain such inspiring levels of consistency?

In his usual humble manner, TJ confessed that his brain tends to be a bit chaotic, and writing helps him keep his focus. Since he started writing full-time in 2016, his output has increased, but only because he actually has time now to write.

Before that, he was “a bit prolific”, but that nearly killed him. He worked 50–60 hours a week and then came home to write until near midnight. He would get up at five in the morning and start all over again. It wasn’t a sustainable routine, by any standards.

But now that he does this as his only job, he has room to breathe, and it has allowed him to continue to be creative.

“I don’t fear running out of ideas because I’ve got dozens — if not hundreds — of stories I want to get to someday.”

If you request the specifics, TJ typically writes 4–5 days a week and averages 3–5k words a day. The majority of those aren’t good words, but they’re a start.

He used to keep track of his daily word count, but that made him feel like a failure if he didn’t hit what he thought he needed to. Once he let that go, he was able to relax and put the focus on where it belonged: on the quality rather than the quantity.

The takeaway

Don’t obsess over a daily word count. There will be good days when you write tons of words, and you will have bad days where you can’t write anything at all. As long as you can celebrate the former and forgive yourself for the latter, it will all even out.

Writing memorable characters

When you pick up a book by TJ Klune, the first thing that will strike you is how relatable the characters are. They seem so real and believable that they will make you want to tear inside the pages of the book and give them a tight hug.

I was awed by the loveable characters TJ writes and how he manages to make even minor characters stand out. I asked him for some tips for writing believable characters. Here’s what he said:

Adding to the story

A character, no matter how big or small their role may be, should have a purpose. If it’s a minor character, think about why you include them.

Do they add to the story?

Do they help the narrative move forward?

If not, consider cutting them.

Maintaining authenticity

Something that’s always helped TJ is thinking about a character’s voice. No matter what the setting of a book is — whether it be contemporary or dealing with the fantastical — it is important for characters to sound like real people.

Overusing names for the sake of it

TJ says that if there’s something that will always take him out of a story he’s reading, it’s when authors have their characters say each other’s names every other sentence.

“Think about how you talk in real life. How often do you say the name of the person you’re speaking to? Chances are, probably almost never. This could be a small fix that would help your characters sound like people and not robots.”

The takeaway

Memorable characters are the ones that seem closest to people we meet in real life. To make readers love your characters, observe and learn as much from people around you as possible and try to replicate that in your writing.

Reaching out to an audience

I live in India, and I would have almost missed out on how outstanding TJ Klune’s writing is had I not come across the hype surrounding The House on the Cerulean Sea on Instagram. I asked him some marketing tips that he has learned from experience that have enabled him to reach an international audience.

TJ said he wished he had a better answer for this because even the books that are marketed the heaviest don’t always find the audience the publisher hopes for.

The best asset he has had — and not with just with Cerulean — has been word of mouth by readers. When people find a book they love, they will try and get everyone they know to read it.

I’ve been fortunate in that regard, and I can’t thank my readers enough for it. I think there’s something magical about finding a story that resonates and wanting to share it with others so they can experience the same thing.

The takeaway

Marketing helps, but if you write quality content, word of mouth can be a powerful tool. There is nothing more powerful than a group of loyal fans who love you and will do anything to see you succeed.

The bottom line

Being a USA Today bestselling author is not something that can happen with your first book — or even your tenth (unless you are exceptionally fortunate). However, if TJ’s story can teach us anything about writing, it’s this — consistent efforts in the right direction can go a long way in planting the seeds that will reap success.

Summing up, here are the most important lessons one can learn from the journey of this talented author:

  1. It does not matter how humble your beginning is. The first book you write might not be a masterpiece. But even if it fails, it will remain as a valuable lesson on how not to write a book.
  2. Everything you write might not be a huge success. But if you keep writing, you will grow as a writer and become more confident in your abilities to tell a good story.
  3. First drafts are not meant to be published. Editing might feel long and arduous, but every novel requires polishing.
  4. Being consistent and writing daily is essential. But even more important is not obsessing over word count goals and celebrating whatever small successes you are able to carve out.
  5. To write memorable characters, try observe how people around you talk and behave, and mimic the reality in your writing.
  6. You can pull out all stops to build a marketing strategy, but at the end of the day, it is difficult to predict. Stick to writing quality content instead and building a group of loyal fans. Word-of-mouth can be more powerful than any marketing tactic you learn.

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