Thursday, September 24, 2015

Does a book have to be good to be successful?

Three Books

Today I will be reviewing three books that have been popular in recent years: Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and The Maze Runner.  I haven't heard too much buzz about The Maze Runner, but I have heard quite a few scathing critiques of the other two, so I thought, "Why not blog about it?"

Bringing in a Third Party

Just to keep this from being all about my own opinion, I will be using as my standard of measurement Why Does My Book Not Sell by Rayne Hall.  In this book she mentions some "mistakes" that novice writers typically make and that could potentially drive readers away.  Chapter 20 is entitled "The Opening Scene." It lists several book openings that have apparently been overdone down through the years, especially by inexperienced authors.  Today I will be looking at three of them, but first...

My Impression of the Books

When I read Twilight, I had just completed the Harry Potter series.  Now, anyone who has read Harry Potter, whether they like it or not, has to admit that it is a very well-written series.  Just the amount of time and talent that had to have been involved in the world-building of those books is astounding, and then there are the characters and the story itself.  So when I started Twilight, I had a natural inclination to judge it against the high standard set by Harry Potter.  It did not measure up.  The story itself was decent, but the writing style grew tedious after a while.  At least once in every chapter, Bella rolls her eyes.  It got to a point where I would stop reading to ask, sometimes out loud, "I know she's a teenager, and that's something that teenagers do, but couldn't she at least try to express frustration in some other way?"

I read Fifty Shades of Grey just because so many people were talking about it, and I wanted to see what the big deal was.  Okay, first I have to admit that it is the only erotic book I have ever read, and I probably won't be visiting the genre again.  If there are people who are into that, fine, but I was a lot more interested in the story than I was in the sex.  I found it highly annoying when they would be in the middle of a conversation in which Ana was finally going to find out something about Christian's past, and then they'd stop and have sex for the next five pages.  Now, as far as writing style, I really can't comment.  Why?  Because I read the book in Spanish.  Why?  Because now that I can read Spanish without the aid of a dictionary I have decided to do most of my light reading in that language.  That way I won't lose what I have learned.  What I do know is that, just like in Twilight, there is a lot of rolling of the eyes.  Or at least I'm assuming that's what it means when it says, "poniendo mis ojos en blanco."  And it says that quite a bit.

I read The Maze Runner because I liked The Hunger Games, and it looked like a similar book.  I really don't have too many complaints about the style.  My biggest issue with the series is that after the first book the story became less interesting.  Or at least I found it less interesting.  In the first one it seems as though everything that happens has to happen for the sake of the story, but by the time I read to the end of the third book I was beginning to get the impression that the author was adding action sequences just to fill up pages.  I was ready to get to the end and find out the answers to the all of the questions that had been introduced.  It seemed to take forever to get to the end.  But that could just be my opinion.  People who like action more than mystery may have preferred the third book.

An Assessment Based on Why Does My Book Not Sell?

Okay, in the chapter entitled "The Opening Scene", the first over-used story opener that Ms. Hall mentions is what she calls "The Journey."  Basically the main character is on his/her way somewhere--presumably the location where the story will take place--and is thinking about what it's going to be like, or all of the reasons why he/she is going there, etc.  This pretty accurately describes the opening chapter of Twilight, with Bella bidding farewell to her mother and the life she loves to go and live with her father in the town of Forks.  And as she's leaving she considers all of her misgivings about the decision that she has made.

Another over-used opening scene is one that Ms. Hall calls "The Wardrobe", in which the character is trying to decide on just the right outfit for some important event that is coming up.  This is an exact description of the first chapter of Fifty Shades of Grey.  Ana is on her way to interview Christian Grey and is wondering what to wear.

Another one is what Ms. Hall calls the "Disoriented Wake-up".  A character wakes up somewhere and doesn't know where he is or how he got there.  This, of course, is the first scene of The Maze Runner.  Thomas is in the elevator on the way to the glade.  Not only does he not remember how he got there, he doesn't remember anything about his life before.

Does It Matter?

This is a difficult question.  To a certain extent the answer is "yes" because if the same story-lines are used over and over people will eventually get bored and want to read something more original.  If you are a new author trying to make your mark in the writing world, you want to stand out, not blend in with the crowd.  But at the same time, a lot of the stories that are supposedly overused are overused because they work.  And you can say it's not quality writing, you can say it's the same old thing being reused again and again, you can say it lacks imagination, but in the case of the three books I've reviewed today there's one thing you most definitely can't say.  You can't say that those books, and their authors, have not been successful.  I especially want the authors out there to think about that for a moment.  You may like these three books, or you may not.  You may have written your own critical reviews of them, tearing them apart ruthlessly, but ask yourself one question.  Wouldn't you like to have the kind of success that these books have had?  Wouldn't you like to have someone coming to you wanting to make your story into a movie?  Wouldn't you like to have readers all over the world eagerly awaiting the next installment in your book series?

What I take away from all of this is that the "rules" for good writing are suggestions.  They are good suggestions, and most writers would benefit from following them, but breaking the rules is not always a recipe for failure.  It's a big world with lots of people living in it, and every person has his/her own taste in books.  What one person hates, another might love.  Many readers hate too much backstory, but some people love getting that little glimpse of what the characters have been through before the events of the current story.  This goes hand in hand with character development.  I remember getting in many conversations with people about this when the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out.  So many people complained about the first movie because it takes so long for anything to happen.  But I love the first one because I like finding out all about the characters and their world.  My least favorite is the second one, because it spends far too much time on the battle scenes for my taste, but every male friend that I have would say that the second movie is the best because it has the most action.  In fact, when my husband watches it, he fast-forwards through the scenes with Frodo and Sam so he can get back to the "good" part.  If I were to use that method, I would skip the battles and just watch Frodo and Sam.  Oh each his own.

This is not to say that I have given myself permission in my own writing to focus on backstory and character development more than action.  In fact, I asked my husband to read the book that I am preparing to self-publish because I know he easily gets bored with books which spend chapter after chapter just describing things and in which, as he puts it, "nothing happens."  I needed him to read my book just to assure me that it didn't move too slowly.  He liked it, so I guess that's a good thing.  I suppose I will find out very soon how the rest of the world feels about it.

So basically, what makes a book successful is the number of people who like it, not the extent to which it follows the rules.  But of course the best books are the ones that follow the rules and are popular.  I don't know if my book measures up to that standard, but I'm working hard to improve my writing every day, and I hope to be that kind of writer eventually.

Remember to follow me on Twitter for updates on this blog. Also keep a lookout for my paranormal mystery, Amelia's Children, which I will be publishing in October.


  1. It doesn't matter if you break all the 'rules' in the book if you're a fab writer. Jackie Collins's books have acres of back story (which I love, incidentally, though people who reckon they know about such things say it's a big no-no!!). As far as being successful in terms of great sales is concerned, It doesn't matter if you're only an average writer if you have a big promotional team behind you, or happen to catch the public's interest. Try reading the 'Look Inside' of some of the Amazon best selling chick lit books - some of the writing is appalling, but they sell by the bucket load, because millions of women love chick lit, and a large proportion of them don't know how to recognise bad grammar or a badly constructed sentence, and don't care anyway.

    Everyone has different standards; some people consider themselves successful if they write an average book that sells 10K, others that they write a highly acclaimed book that sells 200 copies, and ever permutation in between!!! You can only do what's right for YOU - I've tried a couple of times to write a light, 'feel-good' little number to catch the Christmas market... but I just can't. I need edginess, female characters that aren't super girly. :)

    1. ps: the second paragraph again, without the errors...!

      Everyone has different standards; some people consider themselves successful if they write an average book that sells 10K, others if they write a highly acclaimed book that sells 200 copies, and every permutation in between!!! You can only do what's right for YOU - I've tried a couple of times to write a light, 'feel-good' little number to catch the Christmas market... but I just can't. I need edginess, female characters that aren't super girly. :)

    2. Thank you for your comment, and I agree, there are many different ways of measuring success. There is no magic formula for a best-seller. Much of it has to do with luck, timing, and, as you said, promotion. Having read a few indie books recently, the only rules I would advise new authors to follow more closely are grammar rules. You are correct in saying that many readers won't notice, but for those who do it can be a big distraction. Everything else is simply a matter of taste.