The Literary Salon – The Listening Path – by Julia Cameron

When was the last time you had a really good sit-down soul-satisfying conversation with somebody? Notwithstanding the pandemic, it’s surely a given in today’s society that we have become a nation of non-listeners. We have a tendency to interrupt with our own opinion, or maybe we’re not really listening at all but thinking about what our reply will be. I blame this general lack of attention on the instantaneous nature of the internet. We have become so accustomed to conducting everything at high speed, that we’ve lost the fine art of conversation….in person….not by text or tweet. It takes time to have a conversation, and two people who are willing to truly listen to each other’s words. Someone may say they are fine, but you can tell from the tone of their voice or facial expressions that they’re not, and so you ask questions, and then listen carefully. Listening better was one my goals this year, so it was with great anticipation that I ordered Julia Cameron’s latest release, The Listening Path – The Creative Art of Attention.

Publisher’s Blurb from Goodreads:

The newest book from beloved author Julia Cameron, The Listening Path is a transformational journey to deeper, more profound listening and creativity. Over six weeks, readers will be given the tools to become better listeners—to their environment, the people around them, and themselves. The reward for learning to truly listen is immense. As we learn to listen, our attention is heightened and we gain healing, insight, clarity. But above all, listening creates connections and ignites a creativity that will resonate through every aspect of our lives.

Julia Cameron is the author of the explosively successful book The Artist’s Way, which has transformed the creative lives of millions of readers since it was first published. Incorporating tools from The Artist’s Way, The Listening Path offers a new method of creative and personal transformation.

Each week, readers will be challenged to expand their ability to listen in a new way, beginning by listening to their environment and culminating in learning to listen to silence. These weekly practices open up a new world of connection and fulfillment. In a culture of bustle and constant sound, The Listening Path is a deeply necessary reminder of the power of truly hearing. 

Why I Liked It: I didn’t. I don’t even know how it got published. Normally I wouldn’t review a bad book, because I would have quit reading it, but I finished this one out of respect for the author, the creativity expert and author of 40 books most of them truly inspiring, including her first, The Artist’s Way.

I read The Artist’s Way back when it was first published in 1992, and enjoyed it, although I’d have to say I found the Morning Pages a bit OCD. I even tried them once during a week’s vacation, but who has a spare hour in the morning to write out three long hand pages of stream of consciousness stuff. (This was in the days before computers, but she still requires they be hand written, and never in the evening!) Unless you were seeking clarity or trying to solve a problem, and even then wouldn’t you get sick of whining about it day after day, I just couldn’t see the point. For many people those early morning hours are often the most productive of the day, and for some, the only time they get any writing done at all. The Artist’s Dates and Meditative Walks were fun and helpful suggestions though. It was a twelve week program for discovering your creative self, which grew out of a writer’s workshop she taught, although the art can be any genre – writing, painting, music, etc. A best-seller at the time, the book has never been out of print and a few years ago they re-issued a 25th anniversary edition, but it can be found at book discount places, as can many of her other popular books on creativity. I own several of her earlier works and found them uplifting, especially for people who may not have anyone who encourages their writing, or even understands it. She’s revered as the Cheerleader of Creativity.

But back to The Listening Path:

The Publisher’s blurb sounded good, but this book was a disappointing read on so many levels.  It’s a slim 180 page volume, with a long 40 page introduction, which is basically a recap of The Artist’s Way, and six chapters, Listening to the Environment, Others, Our Higher Self, Beyond the Veil, Silence and Our Heroes, with the chapters getting progressively shorter, so that towards the end they were only 4 or 5 pages. The pages themselves had a weird format of very narrow columns (4 inches), designed to make the book appear longer.

The Beyond the Veil chapter (where she connects with the world beyond and her spirit friend Jane tells her not to second-guess herself, the book is going well), reminded me of a seance.  (Jane, if you’re listening, it was bad advice).  The listening to others chapter, which should have been the gist of the book, consisted of interviews with her artist friends and acquaintances, who may be perfectly nice people but are not experts in the field and had nothing interesting to offer other than their personal opinions. (I could just as well interview my friends about listening but then medical people like jargon and brevity. I inadvertently offended a newly minted colleague once when I said cut to the chase.)

There were lots of walks with her dog Lily (a cute but yappy little Westie terrier) in the Santa Fe area where she lives, constant weather reports on storms and hail, feeding the dog salmon, and something called gravlax to stop her from barking and annoying the neighbors.  “Lily! Salmon! Treat!” was repeated so many times, (pages 44, 45, 47, 56, 97 and whenever there was a thunderstorm), it got to be annoying.  She has a bad connection on her landline, (several pages on that including dialogue), feels “bludgeoned” by a friend’s dietary advice that she eat more protein, (ditto….sister you don’t know what a bad day is), worries about whether she can afford a house (yes her accountant says she can, and a maid too)….basically it was a whole lot of repetitive personal trivia, zero research and nothing much at all to do with the topic of listening. Unless you’re writing a personal blog, sharing anecdotes for a reason, and/or lead an interesting life, this kind of stream of consciousness stuff might better be left to Morning Pages, not published in a hardcover format for $50 Cdn ($36.99 US).

Her one and only novel, Mozart’s Ghost was like that too – I swear the protagonist lived in the laundry room, but after 43 rejections (page 19) what would you expect? Not that you can’t branch out and try something new, but sometimes an author can be good at one genre, but not others.  (I loved Frances Mayes series of Under The Tuscan Sun travel books, but her attempt at a chick-lit novel was painful).   If you like an author, you expect only good things from them, and are doubly disappointed when they don’t deliver.     

The Listening Path was written pre-pandemic, and while many people have been lonely during this past year, with no company and their only social outlet walking the dog, if you read between the lines this book spoke volumes about how solitary a writer’s life can be.  She needs to ditch the desert, move back to New York and re-read her own books for inspiration.

I didn’t sense too much joy in the creation- more of a pounding out the pages to meet a deadline. There was a lot of self-doubt which I don’t remember from her earlier works.   Was her stuff out of date (yes, Morning Pages)? There was much angst about teaching a course in London she has taught for decades – how can someone with 40 books be so lacking in self-confidence and so insecure.  I perked up at the mention of London though, it sounded much more interesting than walking in Santa Fe.

I even wondered if she was well, maybe even depressed? I read her 2006 memoir, Floor Sample, many years ago, and what struck me was what an unhappy life she had lead, because the memoir was such a direct contrast to her positive encouraging books.  She was married at one time to director Martin Scorsese (a man she declares she still loves – page 114), has a daughter and a grandchild and is a decades long recovered alcoholic.  I suspect AA inspired her writer’s workshops, hence the 12 week programs.   

Normally if I’m struggling with a book, I’ll hop on Goodreads and if enough people share my opinion, then I quit. (Too many DNF’s mean it’s not me, it’s you dear author, keeping in mind of course that some of those glowing reviewers may be receiving free copies).  But I soldiered on….it was readable, but barely, in a train wreck sort of way.

All in all, it was a timely topic which just didn’t translate, and I was left with a sense of disappointment, but you’ll be relieved to know there was a happy ending, as Lily got one of those anti-bark “citronella spray” dog collars. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but apparently dogs hate the smell of citronella. Yes, that was how the book ended, with a short section entitled, “The Neighbors Rejoice.” I may pass that tip along to my neighbors.

This brings up the question – what does a publisher do when a best-selling author turns in a sub-standard manuscript? A good editor will hand it back to be fixed, or they may just publish it, take the money and run. It might be better to abandon it though and save the author’s reputation. Julia Cameron is 73 now, aren’t writers allowed to retire? (Another recent example of this is Jodi Picout’s latest, The Book of Two Ways, a four hundred page disaster which defies description, although I’ll try in a future blog). Same with the author – it’s hard to be objective especially when you’ve put so much work into something, and it’s also hard to admit when something just isn’t working. Books are subjective, but if the general consensus/feedback isn’t good, then you know there’s a problem.

If you want to read a good book by Julia Cameron, I would highly recommend this one.

Publishers Blurb:
 
Julia Cameron has inspired millions with her bestseller on creativity, The Artist’s Way. In It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again, she turns her eye to a segment of the population that, ironically, while they have more time to be creative, are often reluctant or intimidated by the creative process. Cameron shows readers that retirement can, in fact, be the most rich, fulfilling, and creative time of their lives.

When someone retires, the newfound freedom can be quite exciting, but also daunting. The life that someone had has changed, and the life to come is yet to be defined. In this book, Cameron shows readers how cultivating their creative selves can help them navigate this new terrain. She tells the inspiring stories of retirees who discovered new artistic pursuits and passions that more than filled their days—they nurtured their souls.  
A twelve-week course aimed at defining—and creating—the life you want to have as you redefine—and re-create—yourself, this book includes simple tools that will guide and inspire you to make the most of this time in your life:

–  Memoir writing offers an opportunity to reflect on—and honor—past experience. This book guides you through the daunting task of writing an entire memoir, breaking it down into manageable pieces. 
–  Morning Pages—private, stream-of-consciousness writing done daily—allow you to express wishes, fears, delights, resentments, and joys, which in turn, provide focus and clarity for the day at hand.
–  Artist Dates encourage fun and spontaneity.
–  Solo Walks quell anxiety and clear the mind.

This fun, gentle, step-by-step process will help you explore your creative dreams, wishes, and desires—and help you quickly find that it’s never too late to begin again. 

This book is geared more for middle-aged folks like me facing their second acts…..those reluctant souls who maybe always wanted to do something creative but lacked the courage to try. I read it back in 2016 and it was a big factor in starting my blog, although it was a whole year before I actually wrote anything on it, and another three months before I made it public. (My creative soul was a bit rusty). This book was an inspiring read, which truly delivered.

PS. Two out of three isn’t bad, and goes to show that even the best of writers have their duds. Do you think it is better to abandon a book which just isn’t working and move on to something else, or stick with it and carry on?

PS. I’ll be exploring more on the dichotomy between a writer’s books and their life, in a future blog about L.M. Montgomery, of the Anne of Green Gables series.

The Adventures of Mr. Vole and the Merry Band of Wasps

(Don’t be scared, it’s just a harmless little children’s book followed by a discussion on the creative muse – based on a true life story).Vole cartoon

Mr. Vole was on a mission to dig up every bulb in the Home Owner’s garden.  He didn’t eat the bulbs although once in a while he had one for dessert, but took them back to his home under the deck.   Mr. Vole was a vegan and there was lots of other food to eat in the garden, although he was sad the lettuce was done.  He had watched the squirrels storing them up for winter and thought it was a great idea.  He pictured himself with a big fat tulip bulb and a cup of hot cocoa, in his cozy den while the snow piled up on the deck above. 

Although he was a vole, he had a lot in common with moles, as he loved to dig.   He was fast at it too.  He was big and fat like a mole too.   Sometimes he would dig up a bulb just for the sheer joy of spreading all that dirt on the sidewalk and annoying the Home Owner.   She would get the broom out and sweep up, and a couple of hours later he would dig it all up again.   He could tell she was annoyed, but that was part of the fun.    The Home Owner was retired, so she had lots of time to sweep.   She lived on Easy Street and fancied herself quite a gardener so there were lots of bulbs around too. 

swarm of bees wasps

Mr. Vole wasn’t the only one annoying the Home Owner as one day a Merry Band of Wasps moved in above the deck.   They were busy building their hive which was tucked up under the siding in a hidden spot.   Their constant droning and swarming was annoying sometimes, and he could see why the Home Owner came out and sprayed them with something smelly.   While a few fell suddenly to the ground, the net effect was just to increase the sound of the construction noise – as then they were angry and the buzzing grew louder.   Things quieted down at night when they were all tucked up safe in their nest above deck, and he was able to sleep soundly below deck in his.   

Some summer nights there were loud parties in the neighborhood, with bonfires and hotdogs, and he liked to stay out late on the deck and listen to the music.  He was a big Bruce Springsteen fan.    The wasps would join him, as they were always up for a “jam” session.  With their constant buzzing, they learned to harmonize quite well and made good backup singers, but he was more the lead singer type.    Sometimes the wasps had too much “hard cider” from the fallen crabapples and couldn’t keep their dance moves straight and what’s a boy band without dance moves, but they still had fun.   They would always end the evening with a noisy rendition of “God Save the Queen” before they collapsed into bed.      

One day the Home Owner boarded up all his nicely dug holes and he had to build new ones, which didn’t take long.   It was a big deck, with lots of sides to dig under. 

Boarded Up Deck

Sometimes she had company over to show off her new kitchen, and the wasps ended up spoiling the party.    She made desserts and they loved anything sweet, so they hovered around making a pest of themselves and waiting for the crumbs.   

Party on the Deck

One night, she came out very late in her PJ’s and tried to duct tape the opening of the wasp nest.   Big. Mistake. Lady.   The next night she came out and ripped it all off, as those sneaky wasps had found an inside venue to play in.   

Things continued on in this manner for several weeks.   One day a man showed up wearing a spacesuit with a huge hat with netting over his face.   He meant business.   Mr. Vole had noticed the car with the Pest-Bee-Gone decal on the side and quickly ran around the corner to warn the others.   He climbed up on the railing and shouted as loud as he could –  MayDay MayDay!  (It was August, but they knew what he meant).   One of the worker wasps darted inside and soon the whole swarm had exited and flown away, with the Queen B (not Beyonce) in their midst, protected on all sides by her entourage.    He saw the man in the suit spray some not-exactly-fairy-dust inside the hole but they were already safely away. 

BeeKeeper Guy Pest Control 

Mr. Vole decided he had better move on too.   Although he hated life on the road and would miss his cozy home under the deck, it was too dangerous to stay any longer.   The Merry Band of Wasps were so grateful he had warned them that they told him about a mansion nearby, and he quickly found “new digs” under the deck of a larger house, one with younger owners and an in-ground swimming pool.    He was now into rap music, like everyone else.  The young owners worked long hours to pay for the big mortgage and were never home so he could cool off in the pool, a cold beverage in hand.

pool chair

 Soon he was the one hosting parties on the deck every night.   The wasps were keen on anything Drake, but the Queen B had departed for a solo gig.  They played together so much they got better and better, and the very next spring he decided to take the show on the road.   The wasps were excited about a world tour, but he wanted to stay closer to home.    He could see the marquee now – his name in flashing neon lights.  (When you’re famous you only need a first name).   Onward to Fame and Fortune (and only pink tulip bulbs in the backstage rider please).  

 Voley (in big letters) and the E-Street Wasp Band (in smaller letters).   

Coming soon……to a neighborhood near you! 

The End

(If you want to know the real ending, see the postscript below.  Warning – not for the faint of heart).

Discussion on the Creative Muse:   

It’s a curious thing what can spark the creative process.   I find it interesting to read biographies of famous writers, to see where they got their ideas from.  Did they spring fully formed from thin air, or was it a gradual process, a thought here and there scribbled on a napkin in a coffee shop and laboriously reworked for years, or maybe a combination of both.  The whole creative process is a fascinating subject.  

And what a wonderful thing it must be to be able to create a whole world out of nothing but your imagination – like J.K. Rowling did, not just once but seven times.    Do writers have a more vivid imagination than other people?   Are worry-worts more likely to be creative, having spent so much time dwelling in the world of “what if.”   What makes one person more creative than others.  Genetics?  Practice?  Or are we all creative beings, in one way or another?  Can creativity be learned, or even analyzed or is it something that just is?

My children’s story was inspired by a number of things.  Firstly, my frustrating “critter woes” this past August, and secondly by fellow blogger Linda’s tales of Parker, the squirrel in her neighborhood park, and our subsequent discussions of children’s books and the children’s television shows we had watched as kids.  (see Walkin’,Writing’,Wit and Whimsy for Parker’s guest post). 

Squirrel - AMc

The Famous Parker as painted by my mother…

 In the eyes of a child, all animals are God’s creatures, great and small.   It’s only adults who consider some of them vermin – a nuisance to be disposed of, of which I admit I am guilty as charged.       

Sometimes a visual aid can spark an idea.   While I was searching the basement for my old Seventeen magazines for the Woodstock blog, I came across a children’s book I used to read to my young niece when she visited the farm in the summers.     

The Adventures of Mr. Toad (3)

It was a Walt Disney abbreviated version of the children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, and in the manner of small children everywhere who find a particular book fascinating, we would have to read it over and over again, night after night, until I’m sure I had the whole thing memorized.   I don’t know what was so appealing to her – perhaps it was the gypsy-cart, or the motor car or the general reckless behavior of Mr. Toad who was always being rescued by his friends.   Certainly as a city child, those rodent-type characters were not anything she would have encountered in real life.   They weren’t even anything I ever encountered on the farm, as we had dogs and barn cats whose job it was to “take care of things like that”.

I’ve never read the full version of Wind in the Willows so don’t know how it compares, but there were more chapters and adventures in the original, as the Walt Disney book is a very condensed thirty or so pages.   The copyright having expired, I suppose I’ve taken the liberty of adding another chapter, although the main characters in the book were Mole, Rat, Toad and McBadger, plus the Weasel Gang.    It was written in 1908 by Kenneth Grahame (link), initially as a series of bedtime stories for his young son, and was inspired by his childhood spent along the river banks in England.    

The Adventures of Mr. Toad

Flipping through the book that day, it was this fireside scene which helped me imagine my visitors, the vole below deck and the wasps above, all cozy in their respective nests.  While I was entertaining on the deck I was also thinking about how my guests were unaware of all that unwanted company down below. 

Perhaps Ally of The Spectacled Bean’s catchy title, It’s a Party in the Parsley about caterpillars, inspired the deck party?   Definitely I was thinking about music, and my subconscious mind must have recalled reading Daisy Jones and the Six earlier this summer, and their struggle over whose name came first on the billing.   But perhaps the true spark came from lying awake listening to the music from a street festival one holiday weekend, so loud I could hear the words of the songs from blocks away, long past midnight.   I’m sure there was some Bruce Springsteen involved, and doesn’t that rap music often sound like a whole lot of droning going on! 

I may have been thinking about children’s books, because I had been hearing lots of buzz recently about Tom Hanks playing Mr. Rogers (movie trailer below).   What wonderful children’s programs we had back then.   As a Canadian child I grew up watching Romper Room (Do Bee and Don’t Bees), Captain Kangaroo and a show called The Friendly Giant, who always placed miniature chairs around the fire for story time – here’s a chair for someone to curl up in and another rocking chair, before he asked you to look up, way up, and see the Friendly Giant.    How calm and measured their voices were – so soothingly and reassuring to a small child.   It looks like an interesting movie, but now the song “It’s A Beautiful  Day in the Neighborhood” is stuck in my brain!    

Creativity is a strange and wonderful thing.   Who knows what goes into any creative idea – it’s a mishmash of things we’ve heard or seen or remembered all jumbled up in our minds, and hopefully something beautiful or at least somewhat entertaining comes out of it all.   The most important thing is to pay attention, write it down and have some fun. 

PS   I had such fun with this, I’m now working on a fairy tale, Once Upon a Kitchen Reno…

 

The Real Ending: 

(not for the squeamish, but useful information if you ever have to deal with a wasp nest in your siding).

I’ll spare you the details of the vole’s demise as I could not watch.  (My grasscutter whacked it over the head with a shovel).   I have not seen any of his brethren lurking about, although the Pest Control man warned me there might be more as they reproduce like rabbits, but his company did not deal in voles.   The bulb digging has stopped, but I’m hoping for a Polar Vortex Winter in case there are more.     Should you have voles, HappyHauteHome has an informative post on How To Get Rid of Voles in Your Yard or Garden. 

If you have a wasp nest in your siding call the exterminator right away.   Do not tape up the entry hole as they will just find another way out and into your house.   Wasps can chew through drywall and crawl up small spaces beside radiators and hot water heating pipes.   Do not waste time buying useless sprays from the hardware store which will not reach the area involved and only have contact but no residual action.   As the wasp nest cost $170 to spray with pesticide powder, I delayed until after Labor Day weekend thinking I could save money and do it myself, but it had grown so large over a mere three week period, that I have been stuck with the smell of decaying wasp larvae in my bedroom for weeks.   The smell is so bad I’m still sleeping in the spare bedroom.   Apparently this putrid odor is normal, especially if it’s a big nest.   As the guys cleaning the mildew off the siding alerted me to the problem on Aug 16, I was surprised it got that big so quickly.  (By the time they got to Woodstock they were half a million strong.)   It smelt like dead rodents, to the extent that I wondered if the Vole Brothers had somehow managed to crawl into the space between the wall and the floorboards to party with their Waspy friends, although that would be impossible, wouldn’t it?  (I’m in need of some reassurance here).   I’m at a loss for what to do now as the exterminator advised me to just wait, as tearing up the floorboards or drilling into the wall trying to find the nest would be an expensive proposition requiring a contractor and most would not be interested in such a small job.   Nor is it covered by insurance, although it would be if the nest has pushed the insulation aside and the pipes freeze.   I can only hope that the weeks of unseasonably hot and humid weather we have been having will help accelerate the decaying process and it will be over before I have to turn my hot water furnace rads on. 

The strangest thing was a few nights after I had quarantined the bedroom trying to air it out, there was a Hoot Owl outside the window – who, who, who. 

Owl

I’m going to a Hootenanny…

If it hadn’t been 2 am I would have gone out and tried to get a picture of it, but the sound was enough to identify it.   The Wikipedia people say Hoot owls prey on small animals so maybe they wanted a midnight vole snack (or maybe The Who was attracted by the foul stench and just dropped into Woodstock Revisited)!    It’s certainly not a pleasant way to end the summer, and I hope never to have a repeat performance so I’m going to caulk silicon all around the house as an ounce of prevention.    Has anyone else had problems with wasps or voles this year? 

PS.  I went to a country musical theatre production this past weekend – lots of square dancing and fiddle music, which got me thinking – there could be a book sequel at that hootenanny…

 

 

 

                                                 We’re with the band…..

 

 

 

The Literary Salon

I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore and host a literary salon at night for all my witty and talented friends.    A literary salon is different from a book club, as people can just drop in, like a cocktail party.   In Paris in the Roaring Twenties salons were frequented by intellectuals, writers, artists and the celebrities du jour (Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald & Co), with the sole purpose of providing stimulating conversation, amusing repartee and a lively exchanges of ideas…..plus free booze.   With a book club, you can have all of those too, but you are there to focus on the book…..hopefully.  

My experience with book clubs has been poor.  Attempting to infiltrate a library book club proved a disaster as the tightly-knit group had been together for over a decade and there always seemed to one or two members who squashed any opinion which didn’t agree with theirs, or worse monopolized the discussion.  The group was so large (18-25), as to be unwieldy, with some (myself included), being too intimidated to speak up, despite the best efforts of the moderator to make sure everyone had a say.  The structure was rigid, with a list of questions to cover in a set period of time.   Also, there was no food, or even coffee and it was late afternoon, which tended to interfere with my nap time.   I then thought of hosting my own more informal book club evenings with a smaller group of literary friends, perhaps once a season with food, like Southern cooking for The Help….pass the pecan pie please.   A group of local women self-published a book about their book club theme nights, complete with menus and lots of bevies, but they were rich and prone to extravagant weekend getaways, plus the hostess had to buy everyone a copy of the next book.      

What is the difference between a book club and a famous literary salon like the ones Hemingway attended, other than better food and more chic clothing?

Paris salon

Hard to imagine Hemingway at a book club.   Do men do book clubs – possibly in big cities, but not in my neck of the woods.   Only in the movies, like The Jane Austen Book Club, where they may have an ulterior motive ie. a crush on one of the members.   But they might be tempted to drop in on a literary salon if alcohol was provided.   Most afternoon book clubs tend to be female affairs  with tea in china cups and fancy sandwiches and cookies, or evening wine and cheese and gossip….but first we must discuss the book with a list of questions to cover.    Literary salons tend to be more free ranging affairs with small groups of individuals, male and female, congregating and discussions covering any number of topics…..and of course gossip!   It would be nice to combine the best of both worlds, good conversation, good food and drink and a relaxed atmosphere (one where you can hang out in your PJ’s).   Of course, if you are hosting a literary salon, having a Paris address helps, but since WordPress is our blogging home, that will have to suffice.     

So starting in January, I would like to present my new virtual Literary Salon.  We will open with the murder mystery, An Unwanted Guest, by Shari Lapena  (see link).   It’s the perfect book for a blizzard, so button up your overcoat, you don’t want to get chilled.     Please feel free to drop by anytime…..   

Postscript –  Bring Your Own Beverage – a Bloody Mary might be suitable for our first selection. 

Cue some jazzy twenties cocktail music:

 

 

 

 

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Books

 A Review of Three Writing Manuals           

      “What if there was an algorithm that could reveal the secret DNA of bestsellers, regardless of their genre?     Thanks to authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers such an algorithm exists, and the results bring fresh insight into how fiction works and why we read.”    

      This jacket blurb of The Bestseller Code – Anatomy of the Bestseller Novel promises to unlock all the secrets.  

The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster NovelThe Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a scientific person I found the computer analysis of the DNA which makes a book a bestseller very interesting, but I’m not sure you can distill the magic of writing down to such generic common denominators. Still this was a worthwhile read, especially considering the growing field of AI. Plus we all like to read about books like The Help being rejected multiple times, as it gives us hope….

Although this book was published in 2016 it only recently came to my attention, through another blogger’s review.  As I had half-jokingly written in my One Year Blogging Anniversary of my wish to write a murder mystery, I thought reading this book might give me some tips as to what might sell in the unpredictable world of publishing.    Normally I do my book reviews on Goodreads, but as there are many writers on WordPress who may secretly be harboring the wish to write a novel or are actively pursuing that goal, this book might be of interest to some.   I made notes, as it was a library book and had to be returned prior to posting this.           

Some points and random notes:    (The observations in brackets are mine)

Pg 3    In the US about 50-55,000 works of fiction are published every year.   Of these, about 200-250 make the New York Time bestseller list.    That’s less than half a percent.     (The odds are slim).

Pg 3.   The sudden and seemingly blessed success of books like the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, 50 Shades of Gray, The Help, Gone Girl and The DaVinci Code is considered as lucky as winning the lottery.   But is it really?    After feeding 20,000 books into a computer program and developing an algorithm, the authors feel they can predict with a fair degree of accuracy which ones will make the bestseller list due to certain common characteristics.  

Pg. 27 you have about 350 pages to take us somewhere and back.     Journeying is the main thing, as is the theme/topic of human closeness/connection.  (The Goldfinch was awful, 600 pages of nothing.   So was All the Light We Cannot See.   But Gone with the Wind was wonderful at over 1,000).  

The average age of the heroine is 28???   (With Mary Higgins Clark it is usually 32, although lately they have aged a bit with her.    I’m not sure age matters that much as long as you have sympathy for the character.   I never thought I would read a Young Adult novel but Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games was totally captivating.    I loved the middle-aged protagonist in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, but those four sixtyish women in Frances Mayes new novel, Women in Sunlight, annoyed me to such an extent that I would not recommend the book to anyone….yes, four main characters that I could not keep straight and not one likable.   Tuscany was the best part of the book by far).   

 There was a chapter devoted to themes and topics, what sells best, crime/legal thrillers/romance etc, and getting the right topics in the right proportions.    The computer model picked Danielle Steel and John Grisham as the two names who did this best.   (But then how to explain the success of Orphan Train, Water for Elephants, The Help, all diverse topics indeed.    The Help was rejected 60 times, mostly because editors thought the topic, black maids in the South in the 1950’s, would not be of interest to anyone.   I remember someone reading Water for Elephants in the lunch room at work and saying what a really good book it was and thinking they were crazy, who would want to read a novel about the circus during the depression?  After I read it, I thought it quite wonderful).

Pg 67 – The most common topic among bestselling writers was human closeness and human connection, which crosses all genres.    (perhaps self-evident as books do tend to be about people?)

Pg 89 – There are seven different types of plot-lines with sample charts of peaks and valleys.   You must hook your reader within the first 40 pages or they will nod off forever.   (I persisted through 150 opening pages about thet the poor and lonely protagonist in Ruth Ware’s latest The Death of Mrs. Westaway and was glad I stuck it out, as the last half was well worth it.   Some novels are slow going at the beginning).

Pg 115   The compute algorithm could detect with great accuracy whether a book was written by a female or male, even those such as JK Rowling writing under aliases. 

Pg 121   Opening sentences must be gripping and create an authentic preferably active voice, but a comparison of the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with a Jackie Collins novel???   (I think not.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that one is classy and one is trashy.   But then the authors appear to have an obsession with the success of Fifty Shades of Gray/Garbage).  

Pg 136     Sentences do not need decorating with additional clauses.   Verbs prefer not to be followed with a string of really very pretty lovely little words ending in ly.     (Oh no…my nemesis….sighs sadly).   The sentences of the bestseller are not gaudy Christmas trees, carrying the weight of lights and baubles and tinsel and angels and stars.  Better the plain fir tree brought into simple relief.  (But wouldn’t that be like imitating Hemingway who famously never used a word you needed to look up in a dictionary and ignoring Dickens whose verbose descriptions ran on forever?)

Pg. 148   There was a  chapter on the dark heroine or the Girl phenomena – The Dragon Girl, Gone Girl, The Girl on the train.  The Girl is not your average heroine.  What is their popularity saying about our society?   (These are strong women, but are they nice?  Is this anything new – Scarlet O’Hara was not nice either – she was strong, selfish and determined.   Frail Melanie Wilkes was the nice one, but where did it get her in the end – she died young).

Pg. 194   In the final chapter, the computer picked the one novel 100% most likely to succeed.  (I will not spoil it for you, but it was not a book or an author I was familiar with, nor do I have any desire to read based on subject matter, but it was somewhat ironic).  

Pg. 209 In the epilogue there was a discussion about whether we will ever see a machine-written novel.    As far back as 1952 they tried to set up a program for a computer to write a love letter by feeding it common words used in such, but it was a complete failure, (and sounded like one of those spam comments I occasionally receive on WordPress – “It is lovely worth sufficient for me.  In my view, if all siteowners and bloggers made excellent content as you probably did, the web will probably be much more helpful than ever before.  I can help make very pretty….”    Poor Mr. SpamBot is not going to get anywhere using all those adjectives that end in ly!)   

To sum up, while this was a worthwhile and interesting read, but other than a few tidbits, I don’t think there was any major earth-shattering advice or analysis offered.    It was based on what was popular at the moment, but tastes change.   Some books endure, and others don’t.   I believe most writers write about what they find interesting, which is what makes the book world so diverse and unpredictable….and magical.   While common denominators may predict a winning formula for what sells, you can’t sell your soul either trying to imitate them.   I do read some of the authors on the bestseller lists, Jodi Picoult, John Grisham, Kate Morton, Elin Hilderbrand, (all of their latest  books have been great), but not others such as James Patterson and never ever Danielle Steele or Gray Garbager.   I don’t care how much money they make.    An analogy would be, while there may be a large market for reality TV shows, how many times do we tune in because that is all there seems to be on TV?   Shouldn’t we strive for something unique, something better than the norm no matter how well it sells….or just be content with more of the same…luckily as both readers and writers we get to decide.   

Perhaps we should turn to Jane Austen, who has endured over the centuries, for some writerly inspiration.  

The Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved NovelistThe Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved Novelist by Rebecca Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an entertaining guide to writing by a five times great niece of Jane Austen who has also been writer-in-residence at the Jane Austen House Museum, and so is well qualified to write about her methods, characterization and plotting. There were some useful tips such as writing an autobiographical sketch on each character, but I found the extensive quoting of large swaths of JA’s novels (sometimes for pages and pages), to be irksome, and in truth I skimmed most of it only ever having read P&P and Emma. There were lots of exercises suitable to a classroom setting. In truth, a book only for true Janeites, who know the novels inside out.

Last spring, I picked up The Jane Austen’s Writer’s Manual, by Rebecca Smith, at a discount store.   Written by a many-times great descendant of Jane Austen, it too had some interesting points, but as it quoted extensively from her seven novels, (at least half the book consisted of pages of direct quotations), I found myself just skimming it.     Jane Austen had many years between the first drafts of her novels and the finished products, long enough to perfect them into the polished gems they were.   One of the most useful pieces of advice in this book was to write an autobiography of each of the characters before you start.    But then what about writers who don’t write with any plot-line in mind, and just let the story and characters evolve?    Sometimes characters have a mind of their own and may take you places you might never even have thought of.    Plan the ending scene before you begin.   I believe Jane did this, but as all six of her completed novels end with weddings, the happy endings readers have been longing for, that’s not much of a stretch.   Much of the book was devoted to writing exercises as the author holds writing workshops at the Jane Austen House Museum.   This book is probably more for true Janeites, of which I am not, having only ever read P&P and Emma a long time ago.   I find her life more fascinating than her books, as is sometimes the case with writers.     

The Best Advice Manual: 
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although I read this book well over twenty years ago, it remains the best book on writing that I have ever read. Time to re-read it again, plus I loved the inspiration for the title. When you are overwhelmed, that’s what you need to do, take it bird by bird…..or rather page by page.

Although it’s been twenty years, the best advice manual I have ever read on writing, was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.    I have a copy somewhere down on the basement bookshelves…..I should re-read it, but that would be procrastinating…..  

Best to just get on with it then……

So, we need a 28 year old Girl Detective who is vacationing in Provence when she sees a man walking up the lane of her rented farmhouse.   There has been a dead body discovered in the nearby sunflower fields.   (see April in Paris Part Two blog for the muse of this story).    It is Monsieur Darcie Leduc, une inspector with the French police force, (but much more Mr.Darcy-like than Hercules Peroit with his ridiculous mustache and undiagnosed OCD).   

Opening sentence:    “Paige Protagonist was tired of thinking for everyone.   She had come to Provence to rest, mind body and soul, and intended not to think of a single thing for the next two weeks.    Let them solve all their own problems back home – she would not be there.   She would be here on this lovely terrace with a glass of wine in hand, looking out over the lavender fields…..and wondering who was that man walking up the lane to the farmhouse.”      

Um……would a 28year old be tired of thinking for everyone….no…..best to make her older….and that “lovely” adjective has got to go.     I think I’ll rest now.   I don’t want to overdo it….a little at a time…..page by page….

PS.  On Cyber-Monday I was browsing on the http://www.bookoutlet.com site for books about Provence when I noticed that this story has been done before, several times, and the proof is in the remainder bin, but alas, as John Grisham said in a recent writing workshop podcast, everything has been done before.    I hope Santa brings me a nice plot-line and some characters for Christmas as I have no idea where to go from here…..  

Song of the Day:   Paperback Writer – the Beatles