Saturday, May 25, 2013

What novel became the highest grossing movie of all time?

Recently, I‘ve been re-watching one of my favorite movies. The film came from one of the bestselling books of all time, and is considered the second favorite book of American readers, just behind the Bible. This book has all the elements that are necessary for a bestselling novel and I think as writers today we can learn a lot from classic books such as this to help us improve our own writing. If you haven’t already guessed what book I’m referring to, it’s Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gone With The Wind. Now before all you lovers of today’s current fiction scoff at looking back to the classics for inspiration, let’s take a look at the elements of this book and see what we can glean and incorporate to enhance our own writing, upping that elusive bestselling status. To that end, I’ve came up with three elements included in Gone With The Wind that need to be included to produce a bestseller today.

   1) Protagonists We Love to Hate and Hate to Love:  While we may not want Scarlet or Rhett as neighbors or best friends, we secretly love them and wish we could write such characters that get on our nerves, stir us to deep emotion, and cause us to cheer them on all the while knowing that they get what they deserve. The very name Scarlett is representative of fire and wildness. She is the epitome of survival in the harsh aftermath of the Civil War and represents more than just a mere female leading lady. She is the South at its best and the South at its worst. She knows how to take lemons and make lemonade, even if it is at the expense of everyone around her. Through all this she still hangs onto the past and we see her continued vulnerability in the one thing that she thinks she wants, but in actuality wouldn’t be good for her - the less than manly, romantic dreamer, Ashley Wilkes. Then there’s Rhett, her counterpart scalawag and comrade in southern connivery. While we hate to admit it, all us ladies would be swept off our feet by this ungentlemanly gentleman even though he might not be good for us. Compared to the boring Ashley we wonder why Scarlett can’t see the forest for the trees. Sometimes we just want to slap her and tell her to wake up. But oh, that we could write such characters that ignite such emotion in our readers. Bestselling novels, movies, and even television all have characters that we love to hate. Think Lady Mary and Thomas in Downton Abbey, Emma Woodhouse from Emma, Jo March in Little Women and Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility. All these characters have one thing in common that is a necessary ingredient in our leading men and ladies- Passion! They may be debilitatingly irritating but they all are extremely passionate characters that cause us to relate to their human strivings.

2)      Counterpart Secondary Characters: If it weren’t for Melanie and Ashley how would we see the opposite of Scarlett and Rhett? We need these characters to balance out our protagonists and we also need them to make us agonize when their very goodness still leaves them with problems and pain. Ashley represents the lost south and the dreamy status that it once held in the heart and mind of Scarlett. A past that she cannot regain and really would she have survived in its trivialities of parties, balls and teas? She would have had no need for her passion, spunk and ability to survive against all odds. Ashley balances out Rhett’s wildness, and yet for all his outward gentility he is inwardly miserable. Melanie, whom Rhett considers to be the only truly decent person he has ever know, counterbalances Scarlet and we can just envision her as our sister or best friend. Inwardly we know we should be more like her but in our human nature we just can’t help being more like Scarlett. Because of her innate goodness we feel all the worse when tragedy befalls her. Again, Mitchell’s genius comes through with this ability to create characters that cause us to experience this love hate relationship. We see this same counterbalance in other popular works of fiction. Think Sybil or Anna in Downton, Beth in Little Women or Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. A good novel must include characters such as this that counterbalance the flaws of our protagonists.

   3) A Setting That Inspires: The timeframe that the novel takes place provides ample opportunity for conflict between the characters and also stirs emotions in us with the history taking place. The Civil War was a time of division not only between north and south but also between families and even between the past and the future. Always causing examination between what is, was, and what could be. Mitchell uses this framework as the backdrop for her characters to develop and grow. Really compared to the setting and history within the novel, the characters are small potatoes. In a sense the setting, historical time period, and the very land of Tara are characters in and of themselves. Tara becomes the “mother figure” and nurturing element in Scarlett’s life after the death of her human mother as it was part of her so deeply all her life and in the generations that came before her. As Rhett says “You get your strength from this red earth of Tara, you’re part of it and it’s a part of you.” Once again, Mitchell gets us so deeply ingrained within the setting, land and history that we feel as though we are there living it right along with the characters. Good novels all use this technique to make the story come alive and not just feel like these elements are only afterthoughts. The characters are so caught in the time in which they live that they are paralyzed to act or think differently even though they stretch the bounds to the breaking point.  Think Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Wharton was another master at using this in her novels.

It took Margaret Mitchell 10 years to write Gone With The Wind and she only wrote it to the pass the time while trying to recover from an auto injury that refused to heal. It was the only book of hers published in her lifetime. The movie version received 10 Academy Awards and is considered the highest grossing movie of all time and one of the most successful period romance novels of all time. This post is not to say that a great novel has to take 10 years to write or that it should be as long as this book (one critic said it was too long and should have been shortened from its 1000 pages down to 500- imagine that!) But I am saying that it takes these elements to make a great story. Several current works of fiction that I have recently read also contain these elements and one of them is currently up for several Christian Fiction awards. So when crafting your stories, think of these elements. And if they are lacking in your work, you just might want to get out that dusty copy of Gone With The Wind or sit back to watch Scarlett and Rhett dance across the backdrop of Atlanta. While they are entertaining, they also are bound to inspire you to new heights in your own attempt at writing a bestselling novel.
Happy Writing!


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How does a book make the New York Times Bestseller list?

Ever wonder how books make it to the New York Times Bestseller list? I was thinking about this, as I read the list whenever I can, and thought it might be interesting to see how books make it on the list and the criteria involved.
According to Reader Views (read the whole article here: the process of a book making it on this list is a rather arbitrary one. The New York Times has relationships with various independent and chain bookstores and wholesalers throughout the United States,  that report their weekly sales to the New York Times. These sales do not include sales of books through the internet, such as Amazon, or in department stores, or even in stores such as Walmart. The books that sell the most copies each week (during a seven day time period) in the stores they are monitoring determine which ones end up on the bestseller list.  According to Wikipedia, “The sales figures are widely believed to represent books that have actually been sold at retail, rather than wholesale, as the Times surveys booksellers in an attempt to better reflect what is purchased by individual buyers”. So say your book actually outsells a bestseller in sales in your hometown of West Branch, Michigan (my hometown). This book will not make the list because your bookstore is not reporting those sales to the New York Times. Also, the sales must occur over a short period of time (seven days) rather than slow steady sales over a longer period of time. Accordingly, a book that sells over a million copies over the course of several years will not make the list, even if its lifetime sales are more than a New York Times bestseller. This is why you will see writers actually asking readers to not purchase their books in stores or on Amazon until a certain date. They then put out promotions during that time to encourage purchasing, thus making sales during that specific timeframe very high. If enough sales are achieved during this time they then make the New York Times bestseller list or Amazon’s top seller list. To achieve a ranking in Amazon’s 1-10 list, a book must sell over 500 copies in a day.

Michael Hyatt has an article on his blog telling how he achieved his goal of getting his book Platform on the New York Times bestseller list. Along with many other techniques, he actually asked people not to purchase his book before the official release date and pushed for big sales during that week by offering “can’t say no” promotions. As a result of this he sold at least 11,000 copies during that first week thus making the bestseller list.
So does making it on the New York Times bestseller list actually constitute a bestseller book? Many books sell over a million copies in a short period of time and then quickly fade from the spotlight. Whereas books, like the Bible, or certain classics, never appear on any list but their total sales far outsell any bestseller, just because they are good literature, or books that stand the test of time.

So there you have it. If your goal is to get on the New York Times bestseller list or another bestseller list you’ve got a big job ahead of you. Frankly, I think we as writers should concentrate on producing the highest quality fiction possible and let the bestseller status take care of itself.  

Happy reading and writing!