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 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 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 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