by Kathleen Bradean
I know a writer–actually, I think every writer is tempted with these thoughts, but let’s pretend it’s just this one guy — who was fairly good at short stories, but he wanted success in the form of a highly acclaimed and commercially successful literary novel. The writer would never admit this out loud, but he secretly believed that there was a formula to creating these rare books, so he spent hours analyzing novels that enjoyed some critical acclaim and commercial success in an attempt to distill the essence of the magical formula hidden within. He wrote detailed outlines to analyze their pace. He picked apart paragraphs and plots and poked around their insides hoping to discover it. Year after year, he obsessed over this idea. He was looking to turn lead into gold. An alchemist.
I sympathized with the Alchemist. After all, wasn’t I once so frustrated by the publishing landscape and relatively low sales of erotica that I was tempted to try my hand at a romance novel? Not because I thought romance novels were easy to write, but because the market for romance is so huge and back then my definition of success having thousands of readers.* My brilliant plan was thwarted by the fact that I have zero ability to write romance. Believe me, I tried. Anyone who thinks it’s so simple obviously hasn’t sat down and tried to write one. (And anyone who thinks romance is formulaic should consider that murder mysteries are too.)
Then I was struck by an epiphany. I already knew what the literary equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone was. The Alchemist doesn’t need to spend hours trying to find this elusive magical ingredient anymore. *crooks finger* Come closer, and I will share this secret with you.
All he had to do was…
But first, a moment of ‘catty sounding but not really meant that way’ commentary on runaway best sellers such as The Da Vinci Code and Shades of Grey. Books that enjoy wild popularity like that usually aren’t well-written, which is confusing as hell to writers. Why do we struggle with our craft when it appears not to matter?* This odd dichotomy happens because to reach those levels of sales, you have to get non-readers to read the books, and non-readers aren’t as picky about writing quality as habitual readers are. Non-readers may even feel that those books are more accessible because the writing isn’t literary or artistic. They’re light, breezy reads that don’t challenge the reader. (And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sorry. I can’t support snobbery when it come to books.) Then there are books such as the Harry Potter series which are well-written (even though for a while there it was verrrrry fashionable for writers to pooh-pooh their artistic merit too) yet also sell heaps of copies and often to non-readers.
So what are the similarities here?
What’s the big secret to their success?
*Back into whisper mode*
It’s the characters.
Do you feel cheated? That’s no big secret. But if you’re the Alchemist, somehow, you’ve lost sight of this. Something about the characters in those best-selling books we love to hate make the story worth reading. Oh sure, a ripping yarn helps. A fantastic opening paragraph is also important. All the basics of a good story have to be there no matter how mediocre the execution. But I swear that no one would have bothered handing FSOG or Harry Potter off to a friend, saying ‘You have to read this!” if the characters hadn’t spoken to them. Characters are what we read for. We get wrapped up in what’s happening to them. We cry at their losses. So yes, pay attention to your prose, and your plot, but give your readers what they want – someone worth reading about.
What we should study is the way these authors created that spark that made their characters compelling enough to follow around for several hundred pages. For some reason, this is the art of the craft we don’t often talk about. Maybe it’s so obvious that we can’t see it. Or perhaps we feel if we get the grammar and the story structure prefect, it will make the character leap off the page, but I’ve read, and set aside unfinished, too many perfectly polished literary novels with drab characters to believe that’s true. Mary Shelly cut right to the truth of writing when she created an entire novel around the idea of sparking life into an inanimate body!
Oddly enough, the Alchemist already writes fairly compelling characters, so he has to tools to write a successful novel. Now if he’d only stop diagramming sentences of literary masterpieces and just write, maybe he’d turn out a decent novel.
* Success means different things to different writers. Your ideas and goals may change. And don’t let me imply that wanting to be number one the best seller’s list isn’t a perfectly legit dream for a writer, because you know I’d take that spot in a heartbeat.