Mark Terry

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

How To Be A Bestseller

August 26, 2008
(As if I know).

I had a revelation this morning of sorts. It may be a BS revelation, after all, but it was something of a revelation. I think it struck me in the shower, as many ideas do (why is that, anyway?). I was thinking about various story ideas and what I needed to do today and my reminder from Erica Orloff's blog yesterday that something "extraordinary" is going to happen to me this week and I thought...

It might not be enough to just like an idea.

I imagine most novelists have this attraction to various story ideas for a plethora of reasons and they may sound like, "this really appeals to me," or "I thought it was cool" or "wouldn't it be funny if..." or "this is a really commercial hook."

And I wondered:

I'm really busy. I'm working full time. I've got two kids and school starts next week. One's in marching band and is going to require I pick him up after school every day and he has rehearsals at night twice a week and performances almost every Friday night. I'm taking guitar lessons. I workout at the gym, bike, run, take karate. I'm married so there's a wife to tend to, plus all the various household duties, etc.

In fact, most people are busy and in my experience, most people aren't as organized as I am.

So what sort of story ideas do I have that would convince someone whose life is a cup running over to shell out $25 and stay up late reading it? What would convince them that, even though they're got a PTO meeting to go to, they'll stay in the car 5 minutes reading the book before going in? What story ideas do I have that can convince them is more interesting or entertaining or titillating or whatever than the new lineup on Dancing With The Stars. They're tired, all they want to do is turn off their brain and stop wondering how they're going to get everything done.

What are you offering them?

And it occurred to me: maybe not that much. That, as a matter of fact, just because I think it's a cool idea, it has to be more than a cool idea to get them to read it.

As many of you know, I recently completed a novel aimed at middle grades and I asked a number of people to read the manuscript. By and large, the majority of people did. (Thank you, thank you, thank you.) It even got passed along to one or two people who read it. (Extra thank you). But a couple of people who said they would, well, they never got around to it. (Oddly enough, those tend to be people I actually know fairly well--go figure).

I think that's human nature and I frankly don't get upset about it (rueful and bemused, yes, upset, no). But I think it's indicative of what writers are up against.

So really, how great--really, how great?--is your story? What are you offering them that's better than what they've already got? Because the competition isn't really other books and authors. It's life. It's the whole freakin' universe you're competing with. 

Mark Terry


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

If there were any way to predict or control bestsellerdom, then every debut author would be a mega-hit.

I know what you're saying, Mark, but I really don't feel like I'm in competition with the universe for people's time. Readers will find time to read. All I can do is write the best book I can, and hope that something about it catches on.

I think it's best to try to be one with the universe, rather than to fight it.

Anyway, there's no point in fighting it. It always wins. ;)

7:41 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

No doubt. I was mostly just sifting through my head and wondering, "What idea would totally blow you away?"

And frankly, wasn't coming up with one. I have plenty of ideas, but none of them made me jump out of the shower soaking wet and go running down the street screaming, "Eureka!"

(For which my neighbors are grateful).

7:51 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I think readers mostly just want a good story told well. Most of the "high concept" stuff I run across is absolute rat shit. Some writers with Hollywood on the brain are good at coming up with ideas, but then the execution sucks. Better to be a good writer with good ideas than a bad writer with great ones, IMO.

8:11 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I disagree with Jude . . . I really do think--particuarly if you are trying to break in--that you have to have an "extraordinary" mindset. It is not enough to say, "This is as good as so-and-so's published novel." "As good as" just won't cut it. "Best as I can" may be a truism . . . but . . . I don't think anyone gets on the bestseller list the first time (I'm not talking about once you have a name) for "good as." "As best as I can" (and again, it's a truism that you can only write the best book YOU can, but what if that isn't GOOD ENOUGH?) is true--but when picking what to write, I think it behooves the writer with multiple ideas to think along the lines you are thinking. We do compete for time and entertainment. And I do think for many, many people it's the buzz book that they go for and indeed something they CAN'T put down that builds the buzz. There are book I really like . . . and books with a good hook. But the "I couldn't STOP reading" books are few and far between.

Right now I have an amazing Shiny New Idea Book. But . . . . I have the beginning. The middle. But I don't know how it ends. And if the ENDING isn't as audacious as the premise, which I do think is pretty wild and out there and buzz-worthy, then it will only be a "good as" book. So I need to gel an ending I think holds a candle to the idea. So I ruminate. A lot. :-)


10:07 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I don't think I have those "blow you away" ideas either, although I have plenty of ideas. But what Jude said ties in with what I was going to say. "...readers mostly just want a good story told well."

As a reader, I think that's absolutely true. But the problem is, writing just for "readers" is not going to make you a bestseller and maybe today it won't even get you published. There aren't enough readers to around these days, who appreciate the aspects of literature that I appreciate, as a long time reader and, unfortunately for me, as a writer. The people who create bestsellers -- who don't read much but will buy a book once in awhile to read instead of watching tv (and give them credit for that) want high concept.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Sorry Jude, but I find I agree with Erica and Eric (no relation :)).

For better or worse, my experience in the wider world of novel publishing is this:

There's a hell of a lot of competition.

And I don't mean that as, oh yeah, you're playing on the tennis court with Lee Child (although I was).

I'm saying, as someone who loves books, buys books and reads somewhere between 50 and 70 books a year, what does it take to convince me to pick up a book by someone I've never heard of before?

And here's my answer:

A miracle.

That's what I mean by competition.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I'm not buying it you guys. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Everyone and his grandma has a great idea for a book.

The shelves are stocked with stories, not ideas. The NYT bestseller list is there because of stories, not ideas. I don't think Lee Child is particularly "high concept." James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer...the list goes on and on. These writers sell bajillions of books because of amazing characters and stout storytelling.

You can scroll through tagline databases and find literally thousands of "high concept" ideas. 99.9% of them will never sell. So what makes you guys, as writers, think some "Eureka Moment" is going to carry you over the top, that a great idea for a book is going to translate into superstar sales figures?

Ideas don't sell books. A good story told well sells books.

That said, let me tell you about this great idea I have for a book...


1:31 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

James Patterson is nothing but "high concept" and I'm not sure I'd rule out Stephenie Meyers either, although I haven't read any of her books.

Stephen King? The "high concept" is Stephen King. He's his own brand. "Carrie" came along in the wake of "The Exorcist" a blockbuster novel and movie about a teenage girl possessed by the devil. Voila, a teenager girl with supernatural powers.

But please, I just said "great idea." I didn't say high concept.

A great idea has a hook, it resonates with readers. Say what you will about "The Da Vinci Code" but the notion that the Catholic Church has been hiding the truth about Jesus having a child and there being a bloodline, and that the secrets to it are in famous artworks THAT EVERYBODY ON THE PLANET KNOWS (which is where it's more affective than "Angels & Demons" even though I liked A&D better, probably because I WASN'T familiar with the artwork).

I don't think DVC is high-concept, but I think it resonates with an awful lot of people, a couple billion Catholics and Christians and people who could not only tell you the name of the Mona Lisa but the artist. Try that with a Cezanne sometime.

3:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But how do you know if an idea is a biggie worth exploring? How can we objectively evaluate our ideas? I struggle with this a lot. I was previously represented, but I remain unpublished. The ongoing theme I hear from agents and editors is that my writing is energetic and polished, but my plotting/storytelling isn't as strong.

This scares me.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Uh, beats me. I'm working on it.

What I'm trying to do these days--and yes, it can be a bit debilitating--is to ask myself: if some agent or editor were to read this, would they automatically think, "Oh yeah, Lee Child; or, oh yeah, just like Robert B. Parker." Or would they think, "Hmmm, that's new. Sort of like Lee Child only not."

Of course, sometimes it makes you feel like an animal with its paw caught in a trap. Do I wait or do I start gnawing?

4:13 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

The idea for DVC has been around for a long time. That guy Lewis Purdue who sued Dan Brown for plagiarism wrote basically the same book years ago, and there was a nonfiction book years ago that also dealt with the premise. Everything just fell into place for Dan Brown at the right time. Even if DVC was an awesome original idea (which it wasn't), sales like that come along once in a...glacial age. Definitely an unreproduceable phenomenon.

James Patterson high concept? Hmm. Maybe the bird children books. Or maybe we're just not on the same page as far as the definition goes. According to Wikipedia: High concept, in film or art in general, is a term used to refer to a succinctly stated premise describing the overall idea of production in just a few sentences or less. So, to me, "high concept" and "great idea" are practically synonymous--a unique story premise, i.e. the hook, in a nutshell.

While I agree that a good hook is probably essential for a novel (especially by a new writer, as Erica said) to garner initial interest, the hook itself might keep an agent/editor/bookstore customer amused for a few pages at best. I think execution (i.e. great characters/storytelling) is paramount, not the idea itself.

Like I said, you can scroll tagline databases and find more ideas than Carter has liver pills. You can even use them, because ideas can't really be copyrighted.

4:23 PM  
Blogger awalls said...

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6:52 PM  
Blogger MissWrite said...

I really think it is impossible to pick that 'one' thing. Sure you can get lucky and stumble upon the next 'Harry Potter' but even JK doesn't have EVERYONE on her hook -- hangs head but with just enough indignance -- I haven't read any of her books.

What you, dear writer, are offering isn't the 'perfect' plot (although it will be perfect to those who choose it hopefully) what you are offering is ESCAPE from the very rigors you so well described.

Give me a break from my daily hassles and non-stop running... it's not 'Calgon take me away' it's you, dear writer, who does the carrying away from the crazies of life.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Very true, Mark. We should be so lucky to only have to compete against other books, lol. You're competing for about a zillion different entertainment options AND the crowded book industry. The whole thing is just so damn daunting that if you think about it too long you're bound to go hide under the covers and never come out.

It becomes a miracle that even ONE person buys any particular book and reads it through to completion.

And I think you're on the right track. I love the book: "Writing the Breakout Novel" by Donald Maas. His views on this are very empowering, because so very little is about luck.

There are two features to this game. Writing something so wonderful no one can put it down, and making sure people know where they can pick it up. Both of those things are exceedingly difficult to do and do well. But that's the challenge before us.

Not for the weak, most definitely.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Having read Twilight, I can definitely say there is little in the book that hasn't before been done in some way and is familiar to the reader. BUT it's the execution.

I agree with what Erica is saying about a book needing to be GREAT. And so much of the success of a book rests with the author (both in their ability to write something that grips people, and their ability to market it. There really just is no outside source to blame. It's a hard thing to accept but it's also empowering.)

But I also agree with Jude on the "high concept" angle. I think it really is about great storytelling, not the "idea." It's the execution of an idea and if the writer has the chops to write it.

Someone can have high concept but not be able to write worth a damn. And someone else can take something "ho hum" and turn it into something great. Which I think is what Stephenie Meyer did. I love vampires, but the Twilight concept isn't that groundbreaking.

Still the execution was damn near perfect and she moved me with her book.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Of course I meant loglines, not taglines.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Literary agent Peter Rubin (I think I got that name right) recently commented that nobody "deserves" to be published and that even hard work and talent didn't mean you "deserved" to be published.

Tough love?

I don't know and I'm not 100% sure I understand where he's coming from, but I think part of it is what I'm saying in this post, that with hundreds of thousands of books published yearly in the U.S. (and of that, several thousand novels), the competition is just too fierce for "good" or even "very good."

But maybe I'm putting words into his mouth.

I do suspect the Internet, like with TV and music (especially music), book publishing is getting more fragmented. That makes me suspect there are going to be blockbuster books written by name brands published by the largest publishing conglomerates, then there's going to be a ton of people selling 10,000 or fewer books from either small presses or imprints of the big publishers.

6:30 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

I don't understand the masochism that says someone doesn't "deserve" to be published. This is a free country and anyone can start a company and publish a book with or without permission.

IMO the "deserving" part is about whether or not a writer "Deserves" to sell well. And that is dependent on the quality of the writing as well as his/her marketing ability.

But "deserving to be published" is so goofy I can't even entertain it.

Also, I know you aren't a fan of the "indie way" but nevertheless people are swimming in that pool and a few are doing it well. It may be optional to ignore the indies right now, but in ten years I don't think it'll be an option to just ignore that contingent or say they weren't "good enough" to get a publisher at least not as a wholesale statement that applies to everyone.

Some don't WANT a publisher as a first step.

8:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, interesting comments. I often will grab books off the library shelf just on a whim knowing nothing more about the book than genre. (I was thinking about how you said: "what does it take to convince me to pick up a book by someone I've never heard of before?

And here's my answer:

A miracle.")

I have found many enjoyable books this way - but often I do find myself slugging through the random book I've picked up, trying to make myself read it. Other books I can't put down.

Trying to write one that is can't-put-down versus slugging-through is easier said than done, as you said. Otherwise we'd all be writing bestsellers all the time.

I often avoid reading authors who are always on the bestseller list in some kind of rebellion - I won't be a lemming reader idea. But then when I cave and read some of them, I am hooked. (Harry Potter books for example)

Since you mentioned The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons...I avoided Dan Brown books for a long time. I didn't think his writing was great (and still don't) and I often skimmed, but it was engaging for the most part. I wish I had read Angels & Demons first b/c I liked it better but because to me it was so much like The DaVinci Code - it took away my enjoyment because I felt it was too predictable.


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