Just Possibly the “Next Big Thing” Novel

Make sure you’re buying the right story.

Sometimes publishers and their paid prognosticators (called PR agencies) get it right.  They call the next mega-selling, iconic novel before a single book has been sold.

And in doing so they, in effect, ordain it as such.  The chicken and the egg can’t tell each other apart. 

Buzz lights the fuse on a self-fulfilling prophesy.  At least when they are right.  Because all that pre-release hype jacks the rollout numbers, and that, in turn, ignites further reader and media interest and the book takes off from there.

It must be good, right?  Even me writing about it here will make some of you want to buy it on Day One.  Because it is, after all, The Next Big Thing.

People sometimes buy books like they place bets. 

They are playing the odds.  If you’ve ever bought a book by your favorite author without really knowing much about the story, then you’ve done it, too.

Such is the upside of having your name branded in the marketplace.

Of course, ultimately a book has to stand on its own, and that’s what nobody can predict with certainty.  And sometimes it doesn’t work. 

Many are the novels that came out to loud fanfare and quickly disappeared (like “Derailed” by James Seigal), leaving the author to console themselves with their pre-release million dollar movie-rights deal and a truckload of rationalization on their hands.  Never to be seen or heard from again.

The DaVinci Code was ordained, based on pre-release raves from the independent bookstore community, which has significant clout.  The first Harry Potter wasn’t ordained (it was rejected 12 times), but the next Potter novels certainly were.  Everything with an A-list author’s name on the cover is, to some extent, ordained.  When a John Grisham novel doesn’t show up on the bestseller list on Day One it’ll be a sure sign of the apocalypse.

Some major books don’t get the on-the-come royalty treatment.  They earn their way onto the bestseller lists – The Lovely Bones comes to mind.  Nobody had heard of Jonathan Franzen before The Corrections (and then his fame had as much to do with his hubris as his storytelling).

Go ahead, look at the NY Times fiction bestseller list and see how many names there you don’t recognize.  Maybe one.  Maybe none at all.  Success breeds success, and it’s an almost impossible circle to break into.  Unless your publisher, for whatever reason, ordains it.

Now that DaVinci, The Help and Harry Potter have had their respective runs, it’s time for a new cash cow to show up.  And apparently it has.  There’s a new J.K. Rowling in town, and she’s here to tell us all how it’s done.

Don’t listen.  Just read.

How it happened usually has nothing to do with, a) how good it is now that it’s published, and b) the viability of the author’s writing process. 

The novel is called Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, and it will be published by Doubleday in September, with an initial print run of over 100,000 hardcovers – huge by today’s whittled standards – and the usual compliment of full page magazine ads, tours, talk shows and sparkling reviews. 

It’s a debut novel, which is unusual, but also strategic.  Buzz has that added dimension when the name doesn’t roll off the tongue. 

And here’s a big surprise… it’s very Potteresque

That is, the magical world setting plays a huge role in what the publisher is betting will be the attraction.  As the name implies, this story unfolds in a circus in which two young magicians – sexual chemistry ensues – compete with each at the behest of their fathers. 

It’s Hogwarts in a tent.  It’s Water for Elephants with magic wands and puffs of smoke.

If you think Big Publishing will place their bet (as in, huge marketing dollars) on something completely different and unproven… that’s just not gonna happen.  Just ask Alice Sebold.  Just ask J.K. Rowling when 12 idiot editors told her to take a hike.

Of course, the cliché raves tell us Night Circus will be “better than The DaVinci Code and The Help, and it’s all because of the writing.  That and a few abracadabras and the proximity of forbidden romance.  It’s for adults, but appropriate to younger readers.

Isn’t that just perfect, in a business school sort of way.

Not saying the story or the setting is cliché – sounds kinda cool, actually – I haven’t read it.  I’m sure it’s terrific.  I’m just suggesting that we look closely at the hype to understand how you might position your story against market trends plays a role in how it may be received.  It’s a two-edged sword that can backfire on you – ask anyone who’s submitted a religious thriller in the last 10 years.

Like me.  More than a few readers said that was better than The DaVinci Code, too.

Beware the suddenly wise-waxing phenom.

I’m sure Ms. Morgenstern is a terrific writer, a certifiable prodigy about to turn proven literary genius. 

In fact, she sounds like one, and this is what’s dangerous here for newer writers. 

Because she’s a painter.  An artist.  She claims to write like she paints, by throwing colors at a canvas to see what happens.  To just “write and write and write and revise*” until, well, she has the next Big Thing on her hands.

Yeah, like that always works.

Remember when your kid learned to ride a bike?  They just rode and rode and rode and rode, until they got it.  And once the got it, they remained upright.

Score one for the pantsers, it really can work. 

And if it doesn’t result in the Next Big Thing, it certainly can lead one to an effective story.

But don’t be fooled.  This is like telling a young surgeon to just cut and cut and cut until they find that pesky lump that’s causing all the problems.

But wait, the resistant, validated pantser says.  That’s not a fair analogy. 

No?  This is commercial storytelling, not experimental art.  It’s craft.  It’s not finger painting, you’re not reinventing the form.  It’s more like those galleries in the mall, and you’re looking for the next dogs-playing-poker phenomenon.  There are standards in play – find the lump and cut it out without maiming the patient – and all the slashing in the world won’t change the effectiveness of the end result, nor is it required to achieve it.

Unless it’s a cadaver… and cadavers don’t get up and do book signings.

I promise you, old hands like – insert your favorite author here – don’t “write and write and write and then revise”… because they don’t have to.  They don’t need to.  They already know what the end-product – yeah, it’s a product – looks like when it works.  So even if they don’t plan it, they write toward it, and from the standards that define it.

That profile, that architecture, is available to all.  Or you can figure it out on your own, or maybe like Morgenstern, stumble upon it with the application of your innate genius self.

The reason this fortunate new author writes and writes and writes, and then – pay attention to the fact that she tossed this in –revises, is because she didn’t know better.  She wasn’t sure what she was writing relative to what it needed to look like at the end of the process.   And who knows how long that took.

And then, she didn’t know what to revise until she had written something and realized it could, and should, be different than it was when it was splashed all over the pages like a spilled jigsaw puzzle.

Writers who know their craft revise less because the first cut comes closer to what it should be.  That’s just flat-out true.  Bragging about doing it otherwise is… well, ironic.  The pre-release hype of Morgenstern’s novel has nothing at all to do with the efficiency – or the romantic suffering – of her process.

And as for effectiveness… well, even a cadaver can look good with the right make-up.  That’s what words are – make-up applied to a story to make it the best it can be. 

However we discover our stories is a good thing. 

No, it’s not cheating to know what you’re doing. 

Don’t be seduced by successful authors who claim that their story somehow emerged from a pile of random, directionless and criteria-ignorant writing.  The only thing that emerges from such a pile is, if you’re lucky, an awareness of what isn’t working, and what the story could become once you’ve cleaned up and reorganized the pile.

Either way.  Whatever works for you.   

I wish Ms. Morgenstern great success.  Sounds like it’s hers to lose, at this point.

But I’ll bet you money her next book is written from a different process.

(*from USA Today’s article by Carol Memmott and Brian Truitt)

Please see the previous post about my FREE eBOOK offer, and three newly republished novels that are not remotely Potteresque and were written from a plan.  A plan based on proven principles.  And yes, the critics loved ‘em.



Filed under Book reviews for writers

14 Responses to Just Possibly the “Next Big Thing” Novel

  1. I’ve always been somewhat against the whole pantsing method because of how inefficient it is. I admire your willingness to stand by what you teach, which is story architecture.

    I, too, hope that people won’t see that the next worldwide phenomenon was written by a pantser and then ditch everything you’re teaching here.

    Thanks for sticking to your guns, Larry.

  2. I can tell you because I’ve tried it several times, winging your way through writing a novel doesn’t work. You need a plan, just like Larry talks about in “Story Engineering,” which is sitting in its customary spot on my writing desk right now.

    I don’t know the book referred to in this post or the author, but my gut tells me writing celebrities, just like pop celebrities, are often manufactured. They have the right look for TV interviews, or the right attitude, or their book is about the right things. Or it’s a damn good knock-off of something else that was a big hit. Decent writing helps too.

    I don’t know, but I’ve heard that the NYT list is pretty much made-up bullshit too. That the Times only checks a small number of stores for sales figures, stores the Big 6 knows well and can push their books in. I have heard — again, no proof — that a book can get on the NYT list with sales of only 15,000 or 20,000 copies IN THE RIGHT STORES.

    Selling books now has much less to do with the book than it does with marketing the package.

    But back to writing by the seat of your pants or by outline, it’s crazy to just start typing and hope the story pops out of you. I’m at my most creative when I’m outlining. I use a simple four-part structure, like STORY ENGINEERING. I have for a long time, and I’ve got four NY published books and a produced movie.

    I also use a map or GPS when I’m trying to get somewhere I’ve never been before. I don’t just drive and drive and drive and hope for the best:)

  3. One last comment, about painters. Not all of them throw colors at a canvas to see what happens. I’m pretty sure Leonardo had some definite ideas in his head and some sketches on hand when he painted THE LAST SUPPER (to keep up with The Da Vinci Code motif.)

    Same with Michelangelo. I bet he didn’t throw colors at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel until something popped out.

  4. Thank you for the post, Larry. Great to see another writer, pantser or planner, break out of the pack. The bottom line is that we all want the same end result: a story that leaves the world breathless… Peace, LL

  5. @Chuck — love ya, man. So much to share with us.

    @Lake — I agree, nothing wrong with being in the right place at the right time with the right book, good for her.

    @J.J. — ‘preciate the kind words. Pantser or planner, we all end up doing some of both along the road, and whatever we do, it’s always hard and always worth it. L.

  6. Ha ha I always love the surgeon analogies with the random cutting. Works so well.
    Since I’m a die hard outliner, I completely agree with everything said. With all the competition in writing, success for a story pantsed is rare. Work out all the kinks in your outline, and then sit down to write.

  7. Irving Stone’s novel about Michelangelo, _The Agony and the Ecstacy_ fits in here just by the title.

    Larry can’t beat a dead horse here, because the most efficient way to produce commercially-viable work is with a live horse. You don’t hook a horse up to a sleigh and tell it, “Take me to Grandmother’s house.” Won’t work. You’ve got to train the horse to accept direction, tolerate a harness, pull the sleigh and all that stuff. Maybe after several trips to Grandma’s house, he might know the way. But that would be based on a lot of patient work, not just hopping aboard and hoping for the best.

    How much agony do we want? Do artists have to “suffer” to produce good art? If no one knows or cares about your “art”, you can agonize all you want; there won’t be much ecstacy. If your “art” doesn’t communicate, it won’t sell and even fewer people will give a hoot in a hollow. The more Craft you use, the better chance your art/creativity has to shine through and actually communicate to your readers.

    My first novel was pretty much pantsed to start. After about a month of writing, I figured out where the story should go and where I wanted the first novel to end. The further I went into the series, the more planning I did. The actual writing got easier because I knew what needed to be covered in the specific scene I was working on.

    No, I knew nothing about story structure and that probably shows. There’s very little overt conflict. Not much character arc. Did I say I didn’t know much about the basics of the Craft?

    So the agony goes on. I’ve just spent hours doing scene lists so I can see what I can salvage. Now there’s the re-write/revision and all that agony which goes with it. However, this time around I’m a lot craftier (pun intended), mainly because of Larry’s works.

    I started fiction writing in 2005. Learned almost all of the Craft elements _after_ everything was done. Still lots of “agony” to go through before I’m anywhere near satisfied.

    If you don’t have the time to do it the most nearly right the first time, when are you going to have the time to fix it? Yes, your drummer might not be putting the precision beats needed for a marching band, but you’d best have the most Craft in there you can.

  8. Here I am, an innocent subscriber to Larry’s storyfix.com, picking up writing tips and secrets, and using them to write a better story. And who shows up but Chuck Hustmyre.

    Larry, are you friends with Chuck? Other commenters, have you visited Chuck’s page? Look at his work on 225.

    Here’s what I learned: when two guys who look like they kick butt with ease tell you to do something, do it. If one of them calls Baton Rouge home, he probably has a few good ideas. (And if he agrees that TJ Ribs serves the best food either side of the Mississippi, listen hard.)

    Thanks Larry

  9. As a horse owner I’d just like to say that anything a horse does other than graze in a pasture is due to the hard work of the owner/trainer. From personal experience there is nothing like step-by-step preparation and hours of practice when you come around the corner in the hunter ring to face a line of fences.

    Larry Brooks and Randy Ingermanson have saved my writing life. I, like many aspiring authors, have files full of good starts that petered out because I didn’t know where I was supposed to take the story. The lightbulb started blazing following one of Larry’s workshops at the Willamette Writers Conference and it’s been on ever since.

    If it wasn’t for the first-book-hype we wouldn’t have the sophomore slump. 🙂

  10. @David,

    Yes, TJ Ribs does have good food:)

    Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you liked my work for 225 Magazine. That is a magazine with guts. I know that ’cause they gave me free rein and took the heat I brought them because they believed in my articles.

    By the way, I even outline my articles. Nothing fancy, more like a grocery list of topics and where they go in the story. But it’s an outline.

    Pantsing even a feature article can get you lost.


  11. Pingback: Successful Writing - It’s Not Cheating to Know What You’re Doing | The Passive Voice

  12. Let’s not forget that we’re not young, attractive women who live in Salem Mass and write about “witchy” things. Erin has that whole mystic background package going for her and I’m sure that has a lot to do with marketing this book, which has a good hook to begin with.

    To top things off, writing is mostly a woman’s market, which loves romance, so there you have it. This kind of story is a no-brainer for agents and publishers who drool over this kind of mainstream stuff with shades of so many other novels.

    Talk about ordained…this sounds custom made (written) for the market. You never know. Many agents do make story suggestions to emerging writers. This could be one of them.

    Either way, a nice job all around. Cheers to Erin.

  13. BTW, Larry, got your book “Story Engineering” and inhaled it digitally like cheap paint fumes. Best book about story structure I’ve ever read. Totally hooked. Cheers!

  14. What struck me about Ms. Morgenstern’s technique as you described it is this – she learned to write the way a musician learns to play by ear.

    That can work. Someone can even get brilliant that way, reach a wide audience, get famous, even be famous long past their lifetime. It happens in many different arts.

    I think when that’s balanced with technical craft, it’s easier to get there. It’s also easier to handle it that other time when things go wrong – you can see what went wrong and how to steer it back on course.

    One thing you said was heartening. That an experienced writer needs to revise less by getting it right the first time around. I’m working toward that, except for a few artifacts of process. I need to fix grammar after freewriting because I punctuate by breath as if I’m speaking – but I type faster than I can speak. So my rough drafts have all the words in the right order with a lot of run-on sentences.

    Big deal, that’s an easy fix in one editing pass. It’s not the same level of problem as running into a dead end in a middle chapter and having to ditch two or three chapters to get back to the wrong turn and get it back on course.

    So there’s my thought on it. Your book sounds good and one of these times I’ll have the money to get it. I bought Bait and Switch already so I’ve got a basis to understand your style and technique, it’s a good book.