What’s In a Bestseller? Inquiring Minds Want to Know!

I’ve been reading some different things lately. Normally I’m all about historical fiction and paranormal fiction/romance, but this year so far I’ve gone out on a limb, literary-speaking.

It sort of goes hand-in-hand with my constant curiosity about “what makes a bestseller.” It’s something all authors wonder about. What’s the magic formula that creates that New York Times chart-topper? What esoteric spells and sorcery do these writers perform to get it exactly right? What’s the secret?

So far this year, I’ve read Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Invention of Wings and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, and House Rules by Jodi Piccoult.

(Spoiler Alert! I DO discuss plot points, so if you haven’t yet read these books but want to, you may want to stop now.)

eat_pray_loveEat Pray Love was by far my favorite. I’m firmly convinced that you have to be at a certain point in your life before you can ‘get’ this book. You have to be like her (and me):  people who seem to have had everything handed to them, and yet feel unworthy of it, who think they’ve screwed up literally everything they’ve ever touched, who are so mired in depression that they feel there’s no way out – yet there’s this one last desperate spark of hope that won’t let them quit. If you’re not there, then you may not understand this book on the level you should. To me, there’s no mystery as to why this was such a runaway bestseller. Gilbert’s voice is funny and poignant by turn; she leaves nothing out; she’s unflinchingly honest, letting her story and her journey be a path for others.

 

81BDonFzZoLMore of a mystery to me was The Secret Life of Bees. To be honest I finished it only because I paid $13.99 for it. I KNOW there’s something in there that people connect to; if there wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a bestseller. But what? I hate to say it, but I never figured it out. It’s told by 14-year old Lily, who is on the run with Rosaleen, the woman who raised her.  They end up in a small town in South Carolina, where they’re taken in by three beekeeping sisters. Though Lily is white and the sisters (and Rosaleen) are black, and it’s set in 1965, I never truly got the sense of race as it was then. I kept waiting for the real threats to begin. I kept holding my breath, waiting for the angry townspeople to burn down the sisters’ house, or for a mob to attack the boys in jail. But nothing ever happened. I couldn’t decide if this was a young adult novel or not, which bothered me. It had elements of a YA novel, and yet I didn’t think it’s slow pace and lack of action would really appeal to teens. There were also plot holes big enough to drive a coach-and-four through. It felt like Kidd was deliberately skirting around issues, skimming the top when she needed to dive deep. So this bestseller, I never “got.” If you did, can you let me know what it was you liked about it? I’m truly curious to know.

theinventionofwingsOn the other hand, The Invention of Wings doesn’t spare the reader or its characters. The amount of research that went into this book shows through in the tiny details. Again told in the first person, with alternating viewpoints, this novel explores the parallel lives of Sarah Grimke, the daughter of slave owners, and Handful, the slave girl given to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. The central question here is:  what happens when a woman goes against her family – and society – to follow her convictions? There’s real danger here, real consequences for actions; in places, you can almost imagine Kidd chasing her characters, screaming, “No, don’t do that!” This book, I get. It’s clear to me why this was a bestseller. But again, it appeals to the historian in me. If you don’t do historical fiction, this is probably not going to be your cup of tea.

 

6614960House Rules was the first of these four that I read, and it was also the first novel by Jodi Piccoult I’d ever read. I loved the five alternating viewpoints; it added to the tension throughout the novel. House Rules has one central question at its heart:  what do you do when everyone – including you – thinks your son committed murder? Jacob, the prime suspect, is eighteen and has Asperger’s. He’s also obsessed with forensic science. None of this makes him appear innocent when a girl he knows is murdered.

The one central question in my heart about this novel is:  why didn’t someone just ask Jacob point-blank if he murdered the girl? I hate plot holes like that. No one – not the detective (who should have known better) not his own mother, not his lawyer – ever asked him that. They asked him a million other questions, but never that one question. Did you kill her? I suppose if anyone had asked him that, there wouldn’t be a novel, but that’s exactly what bothers me so much about it:  I hate novels that pivot on one silly point that would have taken literally thirty seconds to clear up, and that most reasonable people would have just done. So while the novel is extremely well-written and researched, I’m not sure I could ever get past that one point.

Four novels. Four very different reactions from me. The only thing I can say is this:  if a novel resonates inside you, if you react to something in it, if you love the characters and sympathize with them, you’ll love and recommend that novel to others. I can well imagine that there are cadres of people out there who hate Eat Pray Love; they can’t relate to it on any level. As hard as it is for me to say, there are even people out there who don’t like Outlander! (As if, right? I know!)

So if you’ve ever loved or hated a bestseller, let me know what it was, and why you reacted the way you did. Not every reader will love every book. That’s why there’s so many authors! But the books that rise above the masses to become bestsellers – I’m still curious as to why, what that secret formula is.

If there is one.

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A Tale of Three Authors

In the last month, I’ve been to see three best-selling authors at our local independent bookseller:  Lisa See, Sue Monk Kidd, and Deborah Harkness. Each provided a unique view of their writing process, and how and where they get inspiration.

Lisa See is the author of among others – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, On Gold Mountain, and her latest, China Dolls. She talked about her family’s history – she herself is the descendant of Chinese immigrants, something she has been researching and discovering her entire life. This has greatly influenced the books she’s written. Her discussion of her family’s history, and the things she discovered while researching her books, was fascinating! She’s read newspaper archives and talked with people who lived through that time – in fact, her most fascinating story was about the time she was able to meet with the woman who actually gave the Mai Tai its name. 🙂

She starts with an idea about the relationship she wants to write about. Then, she chooses the best setting and era, and starts the research. She’s traveled across the world for her research, and made it clear that no matter where you think the story’s going, or what you think it will contain, the research is really the thing that dictates that! She often finds things that absolutely MUST go into the story – either because they’re too interesting to leave out, or because they will actually influence the plot or the characters in some way. Since she writes historical fiction, this is absolutely necessary. She also said she researches right up through the copyediting phase, just in case.

The takeaway quote from Lisa See:  Art is the heartbeat of the artist.

Sue Monk Kidd probably needs no introduction:  The Mermaid Chair, Traveling with Pomegranates, The Secret Life of Bees, and her latest, The Invention of Wings, a historical novel set during the early- to mid-19th century. Like many authors, Kidd takes inspiration from all kinds of places:  for Wings, it was a museum display of women who were historically significant.

One thing she discussed was her love of Joseph Campbell and his ‘hero’s quest.’ Your hero starts in the normal, everyday world – and then Something Happens. The call to action comes. Whether it’s Gandalf coming to find Frodo, or a girl realizing her life’s work is to help end slavery, there is a call to action. The hero’s journey is then about how they finish that quest, and whether or not they are successful.

For Kidd, it’s clear that being an author is still almost something of a novelty, despite numerous best-sellers. She told a story about when one of her novels was published, and at the bookstore, someone came up to her and said, “I think this is the best book of the year! But hey, it’s only February.” Kidd laughed, and said, “Having written a book is all about perspective, and you get a lot of help keeping that perspective!”

When someone asked her why she returned to certain topics, like race and civil rights, in her novels, Kidd said, “Gender and race matter in my life.” Since she grew up in the pre-civil rights South; “This is the stuff of MY history. I feel a responsibility to be a witness to it.”

Most surprising to me, though, was her candor about her characters. She said that when she started trying to write Hetty (Handful, the slave girl in Wings), she started in the third person. “But Hetty kept breaking in with ‘I.’ Sarah was actually more difficult – Hetty talked so fast I could barely keep up!” So she switched to first person, and that was that.

Deborah Harkness is the New York Times bestselling author of the All Souls Trilogy. The latest, The Book of Life, is out now in paperback. This was her second appearance at Watermark – I went to see her four years ago, when A Discovery of Witches was released in paperback. That was a totally random thing, I must admit – a friend called and said, “Hey, this author’s going to be at Watermark and she’s written a book set at Oxford – do you want to go?” So I did.

Unlike either See or Kidd, Harkness doesn’t write straight historical fiction:  her books are primarily paranormal, with a healthy dose of history. Also unlike either See or Kidd, Harkness has a doctorate in history, and her primary area of research covers pretty much the same ground as her books do. In fact, as she told us, “Who I am as a historian informs everything I do as a novelist. I try to bring what I love about history to people through my fiction.”

Harkness still teaches full-time; as she’s fond of saying, she only wrote Discovery because the characters came to her. In an airport bookshop, she saw all the paranormal books and wondered, if vampires and werewolves were real, what kind of lives would they be able to lead? What would they do for a living? From that, she began to wonder some more . .. and eventually, Matthew and Diana came to her.

“I always knew where it would end up,” she said, about the conclusion of her trilogy. “But I didn’t always know how I would get there.” Since she doesn’t outline, there are always surprises:  twists and turns in the plot she didn’t foresee; characters who appeared out of the blue and made themselves at home; things she wrote in the beginning, unsure how they would resolve themselves but trusting that they would.

Three authors. Three different views of the writing process. But the one thing they all said is this:  the ideas can come from anywhere, and the research is the most important thing.

Here’s a few links to the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Quest:

http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero%27s_journey.htm

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=9&ved=0CE0QFjAIahUKEwij05SE5Y3GAhUEQpIKHYM3AF8&url=http%3A%2F%2Fmythologyteacher.com%2Fdocuments%2FTheHeroJourney.pdf&ei=H7h8VePHOISEyQSD74D4BQ&usg=AFQjCNFH6Jj1Rw1G63IOqtEzMFwQpo8j_Q&bvm=bv.95515949,d.cWc  (This is a PDF that seems to automatically download when you click the link.)

Photo Challenge: Off Season

coaster 4

Nothing says “off season” more than an abandoned amusement park.

I took this last November – the last real remnant of the Joyland Amusement Park in Wichita, and probably the most recognizable:  the original wooden roller coaster. At this time, you could go up to the chain-link fence you see in the bottom of the photo, but you could not (legally, anyway) go inside.

As you can see, trees had taken over – the one shot I always wanted to get was standing on top of the coaster looking down that grade.

coaster 6

It suffered greatly in the last twenty years, with vandalism, bits stolen (a clown statue ended up in the home of a pedophile), and other parts salvaged to save them.

My camera club was trying to get permission to go inside, but storms in April destroyed the coaster entirely. I haven’t been up that way since. I try not to pass places that I’ve photographed when I know they’re gone. It’s just too sad.

coaster 1

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/off-season/

Keeping it Real: Magic

Last time, I talked about keeping it real in your fantasy and sci-fi works (and really, anything). But this week, I want to look specifically at magic.

Writers sometimes think that because their book is a fantasy, or it deals with magic, they don’t have to worry about the rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. Readers who love those genres WILL know if you break the rules. More importantly, the agents and editors you send your manuscript to will know it – and they won’t think twice about rejecting your work.

So remember the rules from last week (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/keeping-it-real/)?

All these rules apply to magic, too!

According to the presenter at this year’s OWFI conference, here’s the Top Three Things you MUST know about your magical system:

  • How much magic is there? (Is it everywhere, and the only trick is to know how to find and use it, like The Force? Or is it very limited, and impossible to find?)
  • Where did it come from? (Earth magic? The gods? Artifacts/talismans? Magical creatures? A birthright?)
  • Where is it located? How can you access it?

Other questions you will need to answer include:

  • How does this society structure itself around the magic?
  • What changes and adaptations has your society made to it, if it’s widespread?
  • Can everyone use it?
  • If not – how are those with magic treated? Are they in charge? Enslaved? Outcasts? Paid for services? Hated? Treasured? (Or, do they go create a separate little world and leave this one to the Muggles?) 🙂
  • If not – how are those without magic treated? Are they enslaved, or in charge? Peasants, perhaps? How do they manage without magic (what adaptations do they make)?
  • If everyone can access the magic – can some people access it more easily than others? Do certain families have certain powers?
  • What powers can the magic grant, and what are the conditions of its use?

Most important of all:  You must create rules for your magical system, and follow them to the letter. Always. No new loopholes. No new powers.

I know! It’s not fair! It’s MAGIC! You should be able to do whatever you want!

But here’s the thing:  magic is not a – well – a magic pill for your MC. If your magical system can fix everything, with no repercussions, then it’s going to make for a very dull story.  There have to be repercussions. There has to be a price to pay. Does it weaken your MC to use the magic? Is there a finite amount, and with each use, the amount shrinks? Or does it change your MC in other ways – by siphoning off his humanity, driving him insane, etc? (Think about Dean, fighting the Mark of Cain on Supernatural – literally turning him into a demon. Now there’s a price.)

In the MG novel All The Money in the World by Bill Brittain, the young protagonist captures a leprechaun and wishes for all the money in the world – and gets it. The novel deals with the fallout of that. He can’t spend the money – it returns right back to him. He can’t give the money away – it returns to him. When cities and countries attempt to install new currency systems, guess what? He gets all that money, too! Having all the money in the world was supposed to solve all his problems – but it just creates more than he can deal with. It comes with a price.

Or maybe your magic is an end-all-be-all. Maybe it can solve all the problems, and using it causes your MC no problems. Then what’s the plot? How are you driving your story forward? Remember the number one rule:  Start with the story. What if using the magic is illegal, punishable by death, but your MC is forced to use it? There’s your conflict!

So you have to spend some time thinking about your magical system. Look at how intricate a world J.K. Rowling created for her characters. A magical world, accessible only to those born wizards or witches, and accessible only by a few points, like Platform 9 3/4. The Ministry of Magic creates the laws and enforce them. While smaller spells have little repercussion for the person using them, larger ones – like Apparating – are dangerous if you don’t have enough talent or training. And most spells are almost impossible without a wand – and as we all now know, the wand chooses the wizard or witch, not the other way around. 🙂 But within that world, she has created myriad chances for conflict. Her characters have ambition, greed, envy. They are selfish. They are deluded. They are bullies, and they are heroes. They stand up for the rights of others, and they treat others like dirt. Magic doesn’t make them any less human.

Setting your novel in a world with magic is the same as setting it in the world of corporate America, or the halls of Oxford, or 14th century China. You need to do your homework, and build a world that the readers can trust. And the most important part of that is creating the rules by which your magic is governed and used.

And then, as stated before, you have to follow the rules. If you say that only children under the age of 13 can use magic, and your MC turns 13 during the final battle withe the antagonist – that’s it! No more magic! You can’t break the rule. But what you have done is set the stage for a final battle to end all final battles – your MC is without their greatest advantage. Now what? Figure it out! I read a book once in which it was stated, over and over, that humans could not become angels – end of story. The human MC died at the end, and was brought back to life by her angel lover, as – you guessed it – an angel. If that hadn’t been on my Nook, I would have thrown that book as hard as I could against the wall! I felt cheated. I felt lied to. The author had broken her own rules, and I will never read another book by her again. Follow your own rules, even if characters die as a result, damn it!

Just like when I said history is an infinite sandbox to play in, so is magic and fantasy. The more you dig and research and create and write, there more there is to research and create and write. Have fun – but remember the rules. 🙂