Pub Rants

A Lesson To Be Learned from Popular Books?

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STATUS: It’s late and I have lots to do tomorrow. Still, I had a fun evening.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHEN YOUR MIND’S MADE UP by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova

Even if you are a successful writer, you can still just be a fan. Tonight I attended the Stephenie Meyer event (hosted by the Tattered Cover) with my assistant Sara, Ally Carter, and Ally’s good friend Beth. All three are huge SM fans and of course were delighted to meet Stephenie (and Elizabeth, if you are reading this, huge thank you for the backstage passes. I owe you the Gallagher Girl book #3 ARC!)

It’s amazing to attend a book signing where the fans scream before the event begins—to be in a crowd where readers are palpably excited about books. That in and of itself made attending the event worthwhile.

But that’s not what I really want to blog about. While at the event, all four of us got to talking and my author Ally Carter had an interesting observation that I thought was worth sharing.

When books are as successful as THE HOST and the TWILIGHT series (or say, for instance, the Harry Potter books), there is often a focus (by aspiring writers) on whether the books live up to their popularity—whether they are worth all the hype. Writers tend to focus on their own opinions about whether they like or dislike the books rather than what they should be paying attention to which is what they can learn from books that have captured such attention.

Books are popular for a reason. Trying to put your finger on that “why” could potentially teach you a lot about your own writing.

Now of course everyone has an opinion and all those opinions are certainly valid but what I’m getting at is this: Even if you dislike a popular book, try and see past that opinion to the “why” behind why devoted fans love it so much. You might just discover something that could take your writing or your next project to the next level. It might not but that “why” is certainly worth contemplating.

29 Responses

  1. Kim Kasch said:

    My niece and I are waiting… for the Breaking Dawn event that will be at Borders in August – now that’s a serious fan.

  2. Paprika said:

    That’s a very good point. I think a lot of aspiring writers tend to be bitter towards successful ones out of jealousy. Especially in a case like Stephanie Meyer’s, where her trip from non-writer to ultra-popular, best-selling author looks incredibly fast and easy on the surface (although it probably wasn’t really as easy as it looks–it never is…). But you’re right that it’s MUCH more productive to try to learn from successful writers than to get all bitter and sulky because they’re on the NYT bestseller list and you’re not (yet).

  3. Anonymous said:

    I think the ‘why’ is definitely worth contemplating.

    I have known others to think that would be ‘selling out’ but so far they seem not to have sold anything, yet alone ‘out’.

    I have also known beginners to answer that ‘why’ as though it were a catalytic motivation rather than a structural element.

    Say you identify ‘Harry Potter’ as a magical fantasy myth that allows children to interact with adults as equals. So is Narnia, and a half a dozen others that I can’t recall at the moment. Do not write a mfm with kids vs adults!

    However, if you just happen to be writing a kid’s story with a little magic, a land away from adults or midway between them, then it would be of definite use to employ some of some of the forms already proven and true, so that the ‘why’ that so many people seem to be interested in is also answered.

    And if you want to be a rebel, remember it’s easier to break laws you know than laws you are ignorant of. Besides, ignorance is no excuse, so better a sheep than a lamb and also the difference between a rebel and a petty criminal.

    wplasvegas (not anonymous, I just have somehow po’d goggle blooger and I don’t know why)

  4. Tia Nevitt said:

    This is why I read Eragon. I wrote my thoughts about it at Fantasy Debut and got a bit of flack for posting a mostly-positive review. It was important to me to figure out why this story was popular. I’m not sure I succeeded, but it assuaged my curiosity.

  5. Jana said:

    But I also think that the “why” is not exactly discernible. We can all put forth theories, but in the end, I’d rather worry about my own writing then try and figure out why something else is popular, when that question seems unanswerable.

    Some writers obsess too much about over what the current trend is, and then try and mimick it. But it doesn’t seem to work out though, not quite in the same way.

  6. karen wester newton said:

    Interesting comment. One thing Kristin doesn’t mention is that a lot of best sellers aren’t that well written (Da Vinci Code, anyone?), and yet they sell well because they are good stories. I think it’s fair to say that while it’s important to hone your craft, craft is no substitute for story telling.

  7. Anonymous said:

    I think too, certain bestsellers can become a sort of peer pressure situation within the kidlit community.

    If you’re the “only” one who hasn’t read the Twilight books, etc,, then that in and of itself makes you different. It’s easy to give in and buy them, to fit in, which perpetuates the sales.

    Same thing with adults and something like The Davinci Code — I’ve yet to find a single person that really loved the book, yet it seemed everyone read it just so they could chime in on how badly written it was.

  8. Anonymous said:

    I agree totally and have two good examples from real life …

    I’m not a James Patterson fan, but to ignore his successful formula in commercial books is silly. He has something to teach all of us about pacing, accessibility, flow and plot — not to mention promotion.

    And while I didn’t get involved in the controversy surrounding the DaVinci Code’s religious theories, I thought on a purely technical level, the book was a very, very well constructed thriller, and there’s something to be learned from that also.


  9. Judy Schneider said:

    I am reading The Host right now for that very reason, to find the “why.” It is not a title I would have chosen to read for pleasure. Writers need to keep abreast of what’s out there, not to follow a trend they wouldn’t naturally be a part of, but to heighten their awareness and grow with the industry.

    Often my sister writers will tell me they don’t care what the trends are; that they are going to write the book they want to write whether or not it’s what’s selling. And that passion is necessary to see the process through. But there’s more to it than that.

    As Karen Wester Newton stated above, a lot of the bestsellers aren’t that well written. But they’re bestsellers. So we’re back to the “why.” High concept helps. And just think…if you can come up with a high concept book and write it well, then you’re ahead of the competition. I just wish it were as easy as it sounds!

  10. JES said:

    Thanks for the fresh perspective!

    Something similar goes on in the minds of reviewers/critics, I think. Many of them seem to assess a book in light of how they, the critics, would have tackled the same topic or plot the author has selected. (Or, worse, they use the review to discuss why the author should have selected a different plot or topic.)

    A more useful approach — more useful to a reader, at any rate — would lay out something up front like “I think, based on the following evidence, this is what the author meant to accomplish with this book.” Said evidence to be followed by an assessment of how well the book hits the mark.

    Sure, this would make book reviewing harder for the reviewers. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 🙂

  11. Melissa Biemans said:

    I’m reading the Host Right now. As the person above me wrote, It’s not something I would normally pick up.

    The big BUT here is, I work in a book store and need to keep myself up with what’s hot. No one else in the store really wanted to read it (or could take the time for a 600 plus page book)… so I thought I’d be the one to read and share.

    I’m actually really loving it. I’ve put it in my staff pics and share it with people who read everything from classic Lit to Sci-Fi to Womans fiction.

    It’s *not* the writing that has hooked me. the book itself is overly long and many pieces could have been tightened or removed to speed the pace of the book. Several things are repeated to good effect, but others are simply stating the thought in another way.

    In this case, it’s the humanity behind the story. I Love books that make you think about different things. This book really makes you think about humanity.

    It’s the story itself… which any author, new or established, rough or polished in their craft, can strive for. That in itself is very motivating.


  12. Just_Me said:

    Okay, this is Just Me and my opinion and certainly not the word of any almighty diety, agent, or editor…

    The popular books appeal to a broad range of readers. Harry Potter wasn’t just a YA book, it had enough darkness that it drew in adult readers. The Gallagher Girls series isn’t just a teen romance, it has suspense, action, mystery.

    The popular books can be picked up and enjoyed by about 80% of the population.

    The cult classics, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, sell well (he’s a top UK seller) but it isn’t “popular” because the genre only appeals to a rabid 10% of the population. But they are rabid fans who will buy anything Discworld related. The same for Star Wars, the mech series, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Terry Brooks, and Louis McMaster Bujold.

    For a writer this means that what genre you want to write will determine whether you become the super-popular author who dominates the NYT even if you don’t edit (although no good agent would let their author try that stunt) and being the Cult Classic who has a devoted following but not the recognition status.

    I’m biased, I like the genre books, I like sci-fi more than anything, and that’s what I’m comfortable writing. I don’t ever expect to have a fan base like JKR. But, provided I live through edits, I may get a small group of devoted fans. Maybe. I have to convince an agent I’m worth the trouble first.

    But, edits first!

  13. ICQB said:

    One word, entertainment.

    Even if it’s not of stellar quality, if it’s entertaining then people put up with what may be wrong with it. For instance, the Sunburn Song on youtube:

    These guys wouldn’t win American Idol, but you’ll watch the whole thing and probably email the link to others because it’s really entertaining. (the link is via my blog).

  14. Anonymous said:

    This is great advice, Kristin.

    I have to admit I read Twilight and so didn’t get why it was wildly popular vs. the mountains of other vampire books. I read it really, really wanting to like it because, hey, I *like* seeing success like that. I cheer those writers on because they drag people who don’t normally read into bookstores and leave them wanting more. YA writers should be throwing rose petals in the paths of JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer.

    But… I just didn’t get Twilight (loved Harry Potter though). Average, boring girl meets Gary Stu perfect vampire. Hundreds of pages of unresolved sexual tension ensue. Girl is almost killed. The end. No particularly new or interesting take on vampires. Characters were blah. The plot was… there… sorta. The narrative read like better-than-average fanfiction. I was completely turned off by the POV character because I thought she was weak and boring and stupid. And I am starting to think that may be it — people really related to that character’s averageness and voice, whereas I… just didn’t.

    The Host sounds really interesting, and I’ll probably pick that one up even though I didn’t care for Twilight.

  15. Renee Collins said:

    I so totally agree.

    I’ve noticed in the (unpublished) writer’s community that it can be quite hip to trash the most popular novels. Some people sneer at the quality of the writing and rattle of a list of “rules” that were broken per page or something like that.

    It all comes across a bit like sour grapes. And I want to be clear, obviously you can dislike a popular book. But, they are popular for a reason. Why don’t we try to find out why?

  16. Natalie said:

    I’ll admit I was one of those jealous of Stephanie Meyers…until I read the books.

    Of course there are flaws, but I got an understanding of why it is so popular. She really speaks to her audience–teenage girls who are insecure, who are going through all that sexual tension, who are still dreaming of prince charming. She hit the nail on the head.

    Then older women, who still face some of the same things, got hooked in too.

    That’s a lesson right there–knowing your audience. Reading Twilight taught me a lot as a writer, and now I’m a bigger fan than I ever planned on being, even if I still can’t stand Bella, lol.

  17. Deb said:

    Renee, I’ve got a feeling that some of the nastiness when it comes to hugely successful books boils down to this: the perception of two separate sets of “rules.” One for them, one for me. The wildly successful author can break any rules she wants, while the rest of us are told to toe the line.

    I’ve seen this in my niche market. “You can’t have a divorced hero!” Then the fabulously talented Patt Marr comes along & does exactly that, and it works.

    And this wasn’t said after the speaker had read my book. Nothing of that nature. It was just a rule. End of topic. No discussion, please.

    This honks off unpubbed writers, and rightly so. Wouldn’t it be better for the overall discussion if the rule-givers say instead, “Yes, she broke this rule, and it worked because…”?

  18. Patrice said:

    Anonymous said exactly what I thought after reading the Twilight series. I also felt that the protag was dangerously narcissistic and a bad friend.

    However, my daughter, who is smack in the demographic the books are aimed at, loved them. She couldn’t really articulate why except that for all the faults, which she recognized, the books were a good read.

  19. Emily said:

    I recently read Twilight, and it really helped me put my own writing into perspective. I’ve tried so hard to follow all the rules, yet here is a book where it is nearly impossible to find “said” as a dialogue tag, every emotion is overexplained with purple prose, the romantic interest is a Gary Stu, and there is absolutely no plot in sight for the first 300 or so pages.

    Yet it helped me understand that it really is all about emotion; whether we as writers manage to tap into the emotions of our target audience. The average reader will not comb the book for POV switches, weird dialogue tags, the amount of times “gasped” was used, or scenes where the MC looks in the mirror to describe herself. The demands to correct those “mistakes” have been born out of the relatively small, language-obsessed circle of writers and writing professionals, and I freely admit to being one. But those things do not matter to the reading public, not one bit – Meyer’s books have definitely proved that.

    So, why fret so much? 🙂

  20. Anonymous said:

    I think what so many people don’t get is that the story itself is what people remember, and the writing is just the vehicle that delivers the story. It’s not at all about trends, it’s about delivering on expectation. When a reader picks up a book, they hope they’ll get ‘lost in the story’, that it will so captivate them that they’ll read it in one sitting, and the ending will be worth waiting for.

    What do the big breakout books have in common? Killer story structure….the book delivers on the reader’s expectation or exceeds it. When it exceeds it, word of mouth happens. A few books that come to mind that are still at the top of the bestseller lists are The Kite Runner and Water For Elephants. Both books have a somewhat similar story structure, where everything ‘connects’ at the end…that ripple effect when the book ends, and the reader is completely satisfied and tells their friends ‘you need to read this.’

    Twilight has this too, two teens who cannot be together, yet can’t stay away from each other, characters that ring true, flawed, and normal, and a hero to lust after.

  21. LoveMakeda said:

    I have to agree with Emily. I am a Twilight fan to the nth degree, and the emotion factor in Twilight is off the charts.

    When Bella is depressed, I’m feeling a little down. When she’s happy, I’m right there with here, and when she’s terrified, I’m afraid to turn the page.

    SM has a way of toggling that emotion button throughout the entire story, and I can’t wait for Breaking Dawn!! My calendar is marked :o)

  22. lizr said:

    Thank you so much for saying this.

    In addition to my original stories, I write fanfiction based on a very well-known young adult novel (the original author is aware of our writing and is both supportive and encouraging). Many of the writers on the site, though, aren’t just young (many are 13-14); they are inexperienced and, well, not very good writers. Yet :).

    When I see a story with horrendous writing that’s got dozens of reviews telling the author how wonderful it is, though, I read the story trying to pinpoint what it is they like about it. It sure isn’t the grammar, heh heh, and there usually isn’t much of a plot; but over time I’ve noticed a few specific aspects that draw a lot of readers in.

    While this is on a different end of the spectrum from a published novel, the thing I’ve figured out is that it isn’t always just the writing that does it, especially when you’re looking at readers who don’t have a good grasp of writing themselves. Sometimes there’s something less technical, less rule-related, hiding right there on the surface.

  23. Kristin Laughtin said:

    I read Twilight for exactly that reason- I wanted to see what all the hype was about, and figure out why it was just so popular. And I found I had a greater appreciation for it by reading it with a critical eye, dissecting it to see what was so appealing. As I read it, I constantly thought about how this part was too wordy, this part a little too purple, and other things from a technical point of view, but when I actually finished the book, I found that I liked the story for what it is. It brought me back to being a teenager and the intensity of the feelings I had then and all my wistful daydreams and I smiled and wanted to read more. It really does all lie in the story, even if the story is not particularly original, and shows that even if your book is grammatically perfect, it needs to have some spark if it’s going to appeal to a mass audience.

  24. Anonymous said:

    I’m sorry but whatever SM has to say, I really am not interested in hearing it; just can’t get past the level of the prose — which is awful in any given paragraph. I read the excerpt for The Host which up on her official website and life is way too short to wade through material like that.

  25. AstonWest said:

    I don’t know if all writers are like this, but I have to try really hard to read a novel just for the story. I find myself critiquing it as I would while revising my own manuscript…

  26. Nancy Beck said:

    A lot of writers/readers fell for the hype of a fantasy book (we’re talking a few years ago). He was supposed to be the latest and greatest, story is great, blah blah blah.

    Except, from reviews I’ve read, his characters are one dimensional (women who are witches are all evil; gorgeous, normal women have non-existent IQs; all magical men are gorgeous, smart, etc.). I can’t remember his name offhand, but I think a lot of people in the fantasy community really got p.o.’d big time because of all the hype.

    Which is one of the reasons why I tend to stay away from those hyped to the hilt.

    For instance, I didn’t get a copy of The daVinci Code until last year. I turned the pages like crazy; and I decided that despite the wooden characters, it had me interested to the very end.

    So of course I had to blog about it:

    because I figured Dan Brown had something to teach me about making my novel into a page turner – something that readers wouldn’t want to put down.

    Of course, I still haven’t analyzed it, lol, but I’ll get around to it some day.

  27. Anonymous said:

    I know what you mean about SM signings. I went to one and the auditorium was over-flowing… and the clapping was ear-shattering.