For the past few days I’ve been talking about how you can try to maximize the size of your audience for a novel. Today I’m going to give you what is probably the most important lesson that I can give to a new writer.
So let’s start talking first about the buying habits of book readers.
By far, the vast majority of people in the United States do not buy novels on a regular basis. Some people choose to go to the beach for recreation. Others go to sports events or play video games. Some take meth. Many people satisfy their craving for stories by watching an occasional movie, or sitting in front of the television. Nearly half of the people in the United States will not read a novel in the coming year–or in the next decade.
Yet every year there are a handful of novels that break out and get enormous national attention. Sometimes these books deserve such attention because they tell stories that are fresh and exciting. Sometimes they don’t deserve any attention at all, but are instead sold primarily because a huge media machine is behind them, pushing with all its might.
Often these books become such a phenomenon that even non-readers will pick them up and give them a try. The books become so popular that people talk about them everywhere, and you as a person might feel uncomfortable if you haven’t read them. You might feel . . . uncultured, left out. So you pick up a book and read it just to be part of the herd, to find out what all of the excitement is about.
Most of the time, readers who buy because they feel pressured won’t get through the first few chapters. They’ll give up.
But if the book is worthy of the hype, our readers might find themselves actually liking it. In fact, they might like it so much that they’ll go out looking for similar books, and suddenly a whole niche market is created.
This happens time and time again.
One novel that made it big in the 1880s was Treasure Island. When it came out, it inspired a huge number of imitators, and for the next fifty years a “pirate novel” genre existed. Among the pulp magazines, pirate stories became a favorite, but finally died out in the 1940s.
Treasure Island was what I call a “niche builder,” in that it paved the way for countless other books by imitators. Some of those imitators were quite good in themselves. I recall reading Swiss Family Robinson over and over as a kid, loving it, not knowing that it was written in imitation of something even better. But eventually the furor over pirate novels died down, and the pulp magazines failed.
Yet the large number of swashbuckler novels gave rise to movies that were created to feed upon the “pirate story” frenzy. Some of these are classics. The original movie of Treasure Island (the 1950 version) is a classic, but we also had movies like Mutiny on the Bounty and very often a dead genre gets new life pumped into is. Hence, the swashbuckler movies inspired a ride at Disneyland, and in turn the folks at Disney realized that it was time for another movie. Given the great characters designs created by Crash McReerie and the delightful performance of Johnny Depp, a huge new franchise was born from the ashes of the old.
A few years ago, the current hot writer was Stephenie Meyer with her Twilight series. The third novel in Stephenie’s series had an initial print run of 1 million copies–twice the number that J.K. Rowling had on her third book. And I heard people talking about her books everywhere–at grocery stores, book stores, at my barber’s. Stephenie had been one of my students at BYU and I was proud to see what she had accomplished.
In any case, I think you can begin to see what happens. A writer comes along with a vision, and people love the book and talk about it enough so that it becomes a phenomenon. Other writers–some hoping to make a few bucks and become the next big thing, others perhaps writing imitations out of pure love for the author who inspired them–go on to create new works that might vie for popularity with the original or even surpass it.
In speaking with bookstore owners, I heard over and over again that the easiest way to sell a ton of books was to write teen vampire fiction in the style of Stephenie Meyer. Dozens of writers were doing it. Of course, in all fairness, there were plenty of fine writers working the teen horror angle before it suddenly gained so much attention–but suddenly they were developing a far wider audience than ever before.
Of course, that wasn’t the first time that vampire novels had come around. Dracula has been with us for ages, and surged in popularity with Ann Rice’s engrossing books. Perhaps feeding off of that, the television show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” became a staple for teens over twenty years ago. So it isn’t surprising that once it was taken off the air, millions of young vampire-loving fans were ready to support the Twilight series.
In fantasy, of course, this happened years ago with J.R.R. Tolkien. His Lord of the Rings trilogy gained enormous attention in the mid-60s (years after it was first printed), and from all of the attention that it got, one would think that he invented fantasy. In fact, his work had such an impact on the fantasy genre, that it is still difficult to make a living writing epic fantasy unless you place your story in a medieval setting.
I read Lord of the Rings when I was 16, back in 1973. I loved the books so much that as soon as I finished, I picked it up and read them again. About my fourth time through, I realized that there might be other books like that “out there,” and I went in search for them. It was my good fortune that a new bookstore opened in Corvallis, Oregon at that time. It was called the “Grass Roots” bookstore, and it specialized in fantasy novels, incense, and–if memory serves me correctly–bongs. That’s where I discovered writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Patricia McKillip, Anne McCaffrey, and Fritz Leiber.
Now, when a phenomenon novel comes along, it can build a vast audience, and if enough readers feel compelled to go out looking for similar novels, and if enough writers recognize and fill that demand, a new niche market can arise seemingly overnight. Our “niche-building” novel has what we call “conversion power.” Suddenly millions of people might go out shopping for a book that makes them feel the special way that they felt when they first read Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, Sense and Sensibility, etc. (You fill in the blank.)
In music, when an author plays a line of music, setting up a melody or a theme, he will often use variations on that theme. Most of you, I hope, will be familiar enough with Beethoven’s Fifth that you can play it in your heads: “Da, da, da, dumm. Da, da, da, dumm. . . . ” If you listen to the symphony, you’ll see how he plays with dozens of variations, seeming to abandon the theme altogether, until suddenly he leaps back into it, playing louder and more boldly than ever. Indeed, during the repetition of those notes, there is an electric moment, almost a shocking moment, where we realize that we have come full circle.
In music, when a refrain gains power by repeating what has gone before, we say that it resonates.
With novels, most buyers will purchase a book because it resonates with some other book that they dearly loved. For example, in fantasy a young reader who first read a Tolkien novel will often look for books that are similar. He may define his tastes by saying, “I like books with dragons,” or “I like books with elves.” The reader is attempting to duplicate his experience.
As he grows more sophisticated in his tastes, begins to grow in his tastes and widen them, he begins to look for something different; he will recognize that his like more than books with dragons and elves. He might even say, “I’m tired of elves. I wonder what other cool things are out there?”
So he goes searching for something different, but not too different.
If he began with Tolkien, the chances are excellent that he will stick with medieval fantasy. He will yearn to escape to a world that made him feel the way that he did when he first visited Middle Earth.
So as writers, we find that entire “genres” or “niches” grow up around great novels, and over the years, hundreds of different types of code words and phrases begin to creep into that genre. For example, if you’re writing a romance, do you say that your hero has “gray” eyes or “grey” eyes. The answer, of course, is that he has”grey” eyes. Why? Because Jane Austen’s heroes had “grey” eyes, and thus the British spelling became preferred. It has stronger resonance with romance readers.
In the same way, we have codes that creep into fantasy fiction. I judge the Writers of the Future Contest, and every few months I will get a story that starts like this:
Joe, John, and Dave are sitting in a bar, drinking cool beers, brought to them by a big-chested waitress. They’re jawing about things. “How’s work?” Joe says. “Oh, you know, same ol’ stuff,” John says. “Say, have you seen Tina lately,” Dave asks John. This kind of thing goes on for a page or two.
Suddenly, the door to the bar bursts open, and a dwarf walks in. “Dwarf!” all three men suddenly shout, as they leap up from their stools and draw their swords.
And as a reader, you ask, “Say what? They’re drawing swords?”
Do you see what is wrong here? The author begins with a description befitting any modern-day bar from New York to Boise, Idaho. But in fantasy we have a secret language, inspired by Tolkien and others, that lets us know that we’re in a different time, a different world, where men wear swords and attack dwarves on sight.
First of all, their names can’t be Joe, John, and Dave. They have to sound like fantasy names. So let’s try Theron, Wulf, and Sir Giles.
Second, they’re sitting in an inn, not a bar.
They aren’t drinking cold beer, they’re drinking “frothy mugs of warm ale,” and instead of a big-chested waitress, the brew is offered up by a “buxom serving wench.”
When the men talk about their day, they don’t say, “How’s the boss?” Instead, one might ask, “Is Lord Hebring faring well?” And so on.
All of this prepares us for the moment when the dwarf walks in, and the three city guards suddenly draw their swords ringing from their scabbards.
The truth is that if you as an author are not aware of the conventions and vocabulary of the genre and niche that you’re trying to write in, you will fail. Your readers will feel uneasy about your work, the critics who are familiar with the genre will lambaste you, and you will fail to sell. Sometimes, authors get the wild notion that “Writing romance would be so easy,” or “If I just moonlighted by writing a fantasy novel, I could write so much better than the rest of those idiots.” But it doesn’t work that way.
You have to write in a field that you know. You have to love what you’re doing. If you don’t, the chances are almost zero that you will succeed.
Thursday I’m going to talk more on resonance. I’ve given you an overview of what it is, but you need to understand the subtler nuances of it. For example, you need to understand how Tolkien used resonance to create his own fiction–drawing not just from other great stories, but from life itself. And then I’ll show how one modern writer–Robrt Jordan–used resonance with Tolkien to become the foremost author in epic fantasy today. Only when you understand how they did it will you be able to understand how you can do it.
Note: In January, I will be releasing my latest book, Casting Your Novel which helps with character development. I also have had my Serpent Catch series bundled which you can find by clicking on this link. I will be speaking at Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium at the Provo, Utah Marriott. It will be from 9 am to 5 pm on Wednesday, February 13th. Lunch is not provided. You can register here. Finally, would you like the chance to win $1,000 with your writing? Do you have a friend who is an excellent photographer? Combine your talents and enter the People of Earth Contest by clicking here. You have until February 15th to enter.