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.

“Race Car Driver Excuses” for Writers

We all have them. Friends who are writers. Friends who are not-writers.

And friends who are wannabe writers.

Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. Like the ‘wannabe cowboys’ of the 1990s, who wore brand-new Stetsons and Justin ropers and drove brand-new half-ton trucks that they washed every single day, wannabe writers talk a good talk. But they never put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write. And their reasons include:

  • I don’t have time.
  • I have nowhere to write.
  • I had this great idea, but I have to do the research. That sucks.
  • I had this great idea, but I found out someone else already wrote a book kind of like it. It’ll suck.
  • I’m not as good a writer as Hemingway/Asimov/Stephen King/whoever. It’ll suck.
  • I’ve tried to write, but every time I sit down, I don’t know what to say, and I sit there staring at a blank screen and wasting time and then I feel guilty so I get up and go do something else.
  • I’ve tried to write, but it sucks. It’s not as good as I think it should be. I give up.

On Top Gear, there is – WAS, sorry, I hate you, BBC! – the “Star in the Reasonably Priced Car” segment. Invariably, guests immediately launch into reasons why their lap times may not have been very good:  it was too wet; it was too dry; the gearshift is on the wrong side of the car; I’m on the wrong side of the car; the car broke; I couldn’t see the track; there was a head wind all the way around the track . . . what Jeremy calls “race car driver excuses.”

Wannabe writers do this, too.

Guess what? Everyone starts out sucking. I have a dozen novels – some complete, some not – stuck in a box in storage, where I pray they never, ever see the light of day again. I have a half-finished romance in the style of Victoria Holt; I’ve got a little fantasy series a la Terry Brooks; I’ve got a completed time travel/spy intrigue novel that’s sort of like Diana Gabaldon (and I still like that one; that’s the first good novel I ever wrote). I’ve got another that I’d still like to finish, that I did in my early twenties, that is probably the first book I ever wrote in my own voice. But it took me 10 years to get there. Ten years, plus reading hundreds of novels in a dozen different genres, and at least a dozen attempts at my own novels, to get there.

Every new writer wants to know The Secret To Writing The Great Novel. If they only knew the secret, they say, they’d write.

It’s your lucky day. I’m going to tell you The Secret. And here it is. There’s just two parts to it. It’s so simple.

1.) Read.

2.) Write.

You can’t write a novel if you don’t read. If you don’t enjoy reading novels, why would you want to write one? Let’s say you want to be a professional Formula One driver, but you don’t enjoy driving. Then what’s the point? To be successful, you need to drive. Drive. Drive. Drive. Formula One cars are nothing like your Toyota Camry. You have to learn to handle something completely new. Learn how to get off the line and never, ever touch the brakes if you can help it; conserve your tires; handle the gear shifts; handle the G-force and speeds of up to 200mph; and how not to fear crashing at speeds of up to 200mph. Plus, you have to study every other driver out there, so you can learn how they drive, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. AND, you have to study the tracks! The best lines through corners, optimum speeds . . .

This is what reading is for writers. When you’re a writer, you read differently. You read for pleasure, but you also read to see how other authors do it. You study the craft by studying other novels.

And you can’t write a novel if you don’t write.

Here’s a sad fact:  You will suck at first. That’s a given. Because you have no idea what you’re doing. In writing, we talk about the phenomenon known as the “overnight success.” It’s a lie. No author claims to be an overnight success. They will flat-out tell you how many years, how many drafts, how many books about writing and creative writing classes and rejections they went through before they got that “overnight success.”

They did it by writing.

You will suck. I’m sorry. That’s just how it is. At first, we all suck at everything we do. Tennis. Photography. Driving. Writing isn’t any different. The only way to get better is to practice. The only way to practice writing is to WRITE. To stop the excuses and just do it.

Think about it this way:  If you don’t start writing now, and get the suckiness out of the way, then in two years, five years, ten years, you’ll still suck at it. But if you start NOW, then you’ll gradually get better. In two years or five years, you’ll be much better. You’ll have much more confidence. You’ll learn to trust your characters and your instincts.

So enough race car driver excuses! Go. Read. Write. And get the suckiness out of the way. 🙂


“Where do you get your ideas?” EVERYWHERE!

This weekend, I attended the Rose State Writer’s Conference in Oklahoma City. It’s always full of wonderful workshops, great panels, and fantastic speakers. This year’s capstone speech was given by children’s author Anna Meyers.

In her speech, she said something — and I will screw up the exact quote, sorry — that was very true. She said, “People always ask me where I find my ideas. I tell them I don’t find my ideas; my ideas find me.”

That’s so important, let me make it into a pull quote:

“People always ask me where I find my ideas. I tell them I don’t find my ideas; my ideas find me.”

This is one of the things I find SO frustrating about new writers! Not to go off on a soapbox, but come on! I’ve mentioned before that I frequent the Writer’s Water Cooler. Nearly every week, it seems, there’s someone there asking, “Where do you get your ideas? I have no original ideas. I can’t figure out what I want to write about.”

I need a soapbox icon, don’t I? Here you go:



I’m lucky; I don’t think I’ve ever had a shortage of ideas, and most writers don’t. We take inspiration from everything around us. A newspaper article. Something we heard on the radio. A “what if,” gleaned from a conversation. A snippet of dialogue, overheard while out shopping.

A lot of mine come from old photographs.

photo 1

Take this one, for example. I collect vintage photos — you’d be shocked at how many you can find at antique stores, rummage sales, heck, sometimes even in the trash! — and my mind often works on the question of who these people were, what their lives were like, who they knew and where they went, what they did for a living. Who were these people? How did they get along? Do they seem like a family to you, almost — or is there some subtext going on under the carefully neutral expressions? Is there one that jumps out out at you, who doesn’t seem to quite fit in? Why is that? Who would have a photo done of his household servants? (And before you think this is a modern photo made to look old, it isn’t:  this photographer hasn’t been in business for almost 100 years.)


Or, you could try this one. I found this one in a vintage photo album at an antique store this summer. I bought the albuphoto 1m just for this one photo, in fact — and I am floored by the mystery that I found within the rest of the pages. (But that’s MY story!)

This is precisely how Ransom Riggs came up with the idea for his bestselling YA novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. If you haven’t read this book, READ IT. I’m not even remotely kidding. Here’s his website:  www.ransomriggs.com

The point is, inspiration is everywhere. As a photographer, I know that; my camera is never far away. The same thing with story ideas. Your mind should always be a radar dish, spinning constantly for that next scrap or spark. I’ve had ideas that came to me while running (Nicky, my rumrunner, whose story I’m finishing for NaNo this year), stories that came to me while riding the school bus,  and stories that were inspired by the photos I collect (sometimes not an entire story, but just a character — my beta readers may notice that the dark-haired man in the top photo looks an awful lot like a certain ghost they’ve been reading about lately . . .).

So please, please, please, for the love of all that’s holy and everything that isn’t, go get your own ideas! Hit an antiques store. Hang out at the food court in the mall and jot down every conversation you overhear. Read online sites and magazines you’d normally never read. Open you mind. Accept that your next great idea might come from the least expected place. As Diana Gabaldon is so fond of saying, her initial idea for Outlander came to her while she was watching an old episode of Doctor Who — but then, once she started writing, one of the first things that came out was “I’m Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. Who the bloody hell are you?” (Here’s a link to one of her interviews:  http://www.goodreads.com/interviews/show/953.Diana_Gabaldon)

You have to be open to ideas. A lot of people are so judgmental — I can’t do that! That’s too hard! I know nothing about X or Y; I’d have to do so much research, I’ve never written about this, there’s that adage about ‘write what you know’ and I don’t know a thing about this . .  .  on and on, ad nauseum. Who are you to judge the ideas that come to you? To brush them away like a flake of ash on your coat sleeve? It bloody came to you. YOU. Go with it! 

Once you’re open to receiving new ideas — never mind if they’re good or not, who cares at this point?! — you’ll be shocked at how many come to you. I have at least six other books besides Nicky and my urban fantasy series, just waiting to be written. Does that worry me? Nope. Not a bit. I’ll get there. And so will you. Get a small notebook. Carry it. Or use the voice notes recorder on your cell phone. Every single idea, every single time. Don’t think you’ll remember it; you won’t. Don’t dismiss anything; that idea may not come through, but if you glean one thing from it, it was worth it.

Where do I get my ideas? Where should you? Everywhere. Now go out and find some, darn it. 🙂


Ahem. If you’re still struggling, here are some links to writing prompts you may find helpful: