Here’s the answer to the question nearly every aspiring author has asked (whether they admit it or not): How do you write a bestseller?
Well, I’m going to tell you how.
The answer is: You can’t.
Well, duh, JJ, you might say. Keep your head down and write your own book, that’s what everyone says.
That’s all true, of course. But it doesn’t stop all of us (agents and editors included!) from trying to find/write The Next Big Thing. Surely there’s a secret—a trick! If we could just crack the formula, then surely we can game the system. Funnily enough, this is what my fiancé believes. He’s more math/science-inclined than I am; in addition to being a doctor, he also has a business degree and his religion is statistics. He thinks that surely, if we conducted a big enough study of all the “hits” in publishing, we could reasonably extrapolate what the next one might be.
Well, yes…and no.
He might be the more mathematically/scientifically-inclined one of the two of us, but I was an English major, and was therefore trained to think analytically. He might study facts, but I studied (and continue to study) culture, and our processes are astoundingly similar. Take the evidence, analyze it, and form a conclusion. However, where he and I differ is in the belief that whether or not said conclusions can predict an outcome.
A few weeks ago, there was an interesting piece in The New Yorker about How Frozen Took Over the World. The conclusions reached were more or less what I’ve laid out—namely that no real conclusions about what makes a hit can be reached—but there were some interesting bits of information that I think can be applied to writing a “successful” book, the most important takeaway being:
Story is king.
A lot of my writing posts here at PubCrawl have dealt with Story (here, here, and even here to some extent); in my opinion, it is the most important part of writing. The craft is secondary to the choices a writer makes in telling the story. In fact, when I was an editor, a writer’s ability to craft a perfect sentence was secondary to the writer’s ability to keep the pages turning. I could forgive a lot of flaws on a sentence level if I just needed to know what happens next. (Cough, The Da Vinci Code, cough.)
In my years in publishing, I gradually came to the conclusion that I fell a little bit more on the commercial side of the literary/commercial divide. Of course, literary vs. commercial is a false dichotomy; you can have a literary novel that is also commercial. But when I was a young English major at NYU, I just assumed that “literary” (whatever that means) meant better in some unquantifiable way.
But that’s not true at all. Over time, I came to understand that if a premise didn’t hook me, then all the Proustian or Joycean-levels of writing could not save it. If I wasn’t interested from its opening pitch, then a book would have to overcome a subconscious obstacle in order to grab my attention. Simply put, I was more interested in what a book was instead of what it was about.
Which brings me back to Frozen. The article mentions “buzz” or “word-of-mouth”, an elusive thing that contributes so much to a work’s success. What is Frozen? It’s the story of a young woman who has to save the kingdom—and her sister—from a fearsome power. The most commercial and/or easily digestible (which does not mean “uncomplex” or “simplistic”) works can very easily be simplified into a single, powerful sentence.
A boy discovers he can do magic, and that he is fated to save the world from the darkest wizard who ever lived.
A young woman falls in love with a young man, only to discover he is a vampire who might kill her.
A young woman will do anything, including kill other children on national television, to save her sister’s life.
A terminally ill girl falls in love with a boy who also has cancer.
I just described Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars, respectively. I don’t think it’s coincidence that John Green’s most successful title to date is probably the easiest of his works to describe in a “high concept”-style pitch. That is, in effect, what “high concept” means: an easily digestible premise.
People have decried the “literary value” of each of these works (and some for justifiable reasons), but even if Stephenie Meyer had been world’s finest prose stylist, it still wouldn’t have diminished the intrinsic commercial quality of Twilight. A good story is a good story, whether the writer is “good” or “bad”. And that, I think, is the the secret to writing a commercial hit.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!