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The Bestseller Code

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - January 16, 2021 - 12:00am

That is the title of the book by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers, subtitled “Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel.”

And anatomy it is, indeed, for it talks about the algorithm that could predict which manuscripts would become huge bestsellers. Think of such titles like Girl on the Train, Fifty Shades of Gray and The Goldfinch. This book talks about the secret DNA, the template, in the writing of such books. It has a caveat, of course, that reading the book does not necessarily mean your next novel will shoot to number one on The New York Times bestsellers’ list. But writers like you and me harbor this dream of writing a book whose success will allow us to leave behind our day jobs, buy a writer’s cottage in the province and just write for the rest of our lives.

The way Vladimir Nabokov did after “Lolita” made it, retiring to live in a chalet in Switzerland, or J.R.R. Tolkien after his Lord of the Rings trilogy became a smash hit.

Start with the title, which should have the article “The.” The Bestseller Code is more forceful than Writing a Bestseller. The book also notes that many of the best-selling novelists have worked as journalists or magazine editors. They have been trained to write accessible prose, with a finger on the reader’s pulse. And no, you don’t have to write porn to make it, for even a book like Fifty Shades of Gray deals, at its core, with love, or its absence.

The book also cautions against writing long descriptions, making the readers lose their way in the thicket of words. Instead of a long paragraph on loneliness filled with useless adverbs and adjectives, why not write this line: “My left hand spanned the emptiness of my bed.” Instead of writing a long treatise on skin tones, why not just say this: “His skin was light-brown like honey.”

How to describe the hand of a character in your novel? Description should be mixed with action.

“He smiled. ‘Xavier,’ he said his name, then he gripped my hand. Some part of his hand was soft while some part has already hardened with calluses. But his smile remained warm and his eyes – what is its color? amber in the changing light? – were fixed on me.”

Moreover, the book recommends the use of contractions because that is how modern people talk. Dialogues should be short, but should move the story forward. Avoid useless babbling that are like dead air in a TV studio.

Bestselling novelists also have a character who has a voice. A strong and compelling voice makes the readers turn and turn the pages even deep into the night. The character should also be an individual, with his or her quirks. Our Catholic upbringing tells us to be good, but good and plain characters make for boring characters in a novel. Characters in bestselling novels ask questions; they are not white or black but sketched in tones of gray.

The book also notes that “bestselling novels are about human interactions, they involve relations filial and familial. There must be some sort of unhappiness, or conflict, because otherwise we would have no plot. The opening paragraph is not a truth statement but a fictional statement, meant to set up the potential of a fictional world. And it signals to any reader, as the other sentences do: here comes the plot!”

That is why you should craft your opening sentence many times, as well as the rest of your story. Ernest Hemingway was quoted to have said that he revised his books at least 20 times, and the trash can was his best friend.

What should the opening sentence have? They should “contain all the conflict of a 300-page story in maybe 20 words or less. The art of the novelist is to create selfhood through style and narration… Set up the first sentence, and set it up well. This is the stuff that a good stylist needs to recognize: that the first sentence is the hook and the hook is a mixture of voice and conflict achieved through the mechanics of diction and syntax.”

This helpful book also discusses diction (word choice) and syntax (arrangement of words in a sentence). Foreign words should also be avoided, unless they develop a character. Otherwise, the author and the novel’s characters will just sound as if they are showing off.

Two kinds of writing styles are also discussed. One is lettered and learned in the Establishment; it is prose sculpted in the canons of English literature. The other, as I’ve said, is journalistic, used by people who have worked on radio, TV, magazines, newspapers and advertising.  The language is accessible and colloquial, “not Henry James or Herman Melville so much. Magazine journalists are trained in voice, headlines, snappy prose and the sort of sentences that work best in the column format of newspapers. These people have been trained in a style of writing that will appeal to the mass public rather than the Establishment of letters.”

The English poet William Wordsworth called it “the everyday language of the common man.” Writers whose novels have skyrocketed in the best-sellers’ lists with titles like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl on the Train, Luckiest Girl Alive, The Friday Night Knitting Club, The Devil Wears Prada and The Help share a background in journalism. Their novels have stayed on the global lists of best-sellers for months.

They will not win the Pulitzer Prize in the US or the Man Booker Prize in the UK, but hundreds of thousands of people will read their books. Even millions.

“Book clubs and thousands of readers claim that actually, character is likely the most important aspect of the difference between a good novel and a can’t-put-down novel. It is through characters that we can observe vicariously or judge quietly, our fantasies unnoticed. So many of us buy novels for the promise of these experiences. Characters take us to new places – geographic, emotional, mental, moral, sexual.”

So character is destiny not just in life but also in writing a novel that will make you smiling all the way to the bank.

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Email: danton.lodestar@gmail.com. Penguin Random House has just published Danton Remoto’s novel, Riverrun.

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