Last week, I mentioned that John Grisham was offering his Do’s and Don’ts for Writing Popular Fiction to the outside world. For free. I provided a link (here:) so that we could all learn from the master’s feet. J.G. is fantastically successful and his advice is worthy of notice. After all, he produces best-sellers like I produce terrific home-cooked meals – once, sometimes twice, a year.
The informational piece was short, under 400 words, and John only had eight suggestions to offer in regards to writing popular fiction. Going over it twice, I found it a ten minute read, tops. Not a bad deal, as far as I was concerned. The New York Times got an exclusive, John squeezed out a little extra newspaper space, and Grisham fans got some free Grisham. Me, I had an excuse to write an extra-short blog, allowing me to get back to my current manuscript. It was a win-win-win from all angles.
This weekend, though, I read the column a third time and decided that Mr. Grisham was playing a shell game. He was offering his advice on writing popular fiction, but his “little pearls” of wisdom were rather bland. To his credit, his opening disclaimer admitted he was providing absolutely zip in the way of originality. These simple and oft-repeated tips had everything to do with producing some kind of novel (in a short two years), and nothing to do with producing a popular novel. That seemed like an important distinction to me, and I had to wonder why he wrote what he did.
I’m still wondering, but there’s a chance the answer was to be found in a different section of the NYT. In his interview there, J.G. shared that his novel sales have slumped – “The biggest change for me has been that I’m selling about half the books I sold before the Great Recession” – so he may have hesitated to share any real wisdom with the outside world. No one wants new competition, and John may have been less than eager to have a thousand would-be Grishams going step-by-step to replicate his success. The secrets he’s learned, he’s keeping. Only a dummy would spill the good stuff.
Which is why it’s so clever of you to come by this website. I absolutely got to where I am as a writer by doing foolish things, and I’m going to do another one here. Since J.G. wasn’t willing to really provide the goods, I will. Better yet, you don’t need a newspaper subscription to read them.
Anne Glynn’s Do’s and Don’ts for Writing Popular Fiction
Grisham started his article with a few disclaimers so I’m going to throw some in mine. The first thing is, there are always exceptions to the rule. The second is: Rules? We don’t need no stinkin’ rules. A lot of successful books don’t touch any of these marks, I know it, you know it, and so what? If you’re a decent writer who actually plants her butt in a chair and gets words written, I believe you’ll find a larger audience if you follow these suggestions.
Also, I’m not a big best-selling author, so you’re right to wonder if you should pay any attention to what I say here. Fair enough.
1. HIGH CONCEPT IS A GOOD THING
John’s first novel, A Time to Kill, had a strong concept: What if a girl’s father killed her assailants? On release, it sold less than five thousand copies. His second novel was high concept: What if a young lawyer found his dream job, only to learn he was working for the Mob – and the Mob killed all of the lawyers who tried to leave the firm? It was the stronger “what if” of the second novel that intrigued the movie studios, insured a bidding war, and launched his career.
The high concept novel I had to buy, the second I heard the story line? Michael Crichton’s JURASSIC PARK.
2. YOU WANT TO BUILD AN AUDIENCE? BUILD A SERIES
Buckets of best-sellers are one-and-done, but others have built an audience more slowly. Robert B. Parker inched his hero, Spenser, onto the best-seller list, one novel at a time. He ended up writing almost forty Spenser novels – and still more were produced after his death, because, as you know, money. Parker went on to create another series character (Sunny Randall) and another (Jesse Stone) and another (Cole and Hitch)…because series sell.
Dean Koontz, a writer who follows publishing trends with an eagle eye, has developed a couple of series characters, too, over the course of his career. According to USA Today, it paid off: “In recent years, his series featuring Odd Thomas – a young fry cook with paranormal powers, including the ability to see the spirits of the ‘lingering dead’ – has been particularly popular.” If he did it, you should think about doing it, too.
3. J.G. DID OFFER THIS LITTLE NUGGET: NO PROLOGUES
The fourth of Grisham’s eight NYT “little pearls” was for writers to avoid offering prologues to their stories. He doesn’t say why, so let me share: Some readers skip them automatically. If the prologue is important to the storyline and the reader didn’t bother with it, confusion will soon follow. On the other hand, if the prologue isn’t important to the storyline, why was it written in the first place?
Agents and small publishers have both told me they don’t want to see prologues, either. You can probably offer a best-selling exception to this rule (for example, William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN), but you should know that the world doesn’t get more excited when a story opens with one. Sometimes that’s all it takes for a would-be reader to put your novel down.
If you think no one will notice if you sneak by using a “foreword” instead of a “prologue”, ding dong, still wrong.
4. YOUR HERO SHOULD BE AMAZING. ALSO, AMUSINGLY IMPERFECT
The Spenser character that Robert B. Parker created? He’s a skilled fighter, a terrific amateur chef, a gifted lover, and catnip to almost all of the women he meets (Glynn doesn’t remember a single Spenser novel where one woman or another doesn’t lust for the detective upon meeting him), yet he’s cursed with an inability to stop offering funny quips at the wrong time. Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz’s guy, can see spirits, but he also knows everything about every gun ever produced, as well as being an incredible shot…but he’s also a quirky optimist, undeterred by the misery of his visions.
That’s what Glynn has told me on those two characters. Me, I favor Sherlock Holmes (supernaturally brilliant, not so good with people, enjoys cocaine maybe a bit much) and Hercule Poirot (genius detective, humorously fussy, and there’s the egg-shaped head thing), but they fit into this category, too. One of the bold, underlined points here is, your hero has to be close to perfect but with a flaw or two. These shouldn’t be an unpleasant flaws.
What do I mean by an unpleasant flaw? In real life, the Good Witch knew a very handsome fellow (so far, so good), who was also a gifted sculptor (even better), but he unfortunately had a habit of picking his nose in public. She said he indulged in this so frequently, it almost seemed like his hobby. If you want to write popular fiction, keep the handsome, keep the sculptor, lose the nose hockey.
5. YOUR HEROINE? AMAZING, BUT ALSO JAW-DROPPINGLY BEAUTIFUL. SOMEHOW, SHE DOESN’T REALIZE THIS
That Dean Koontz best-selling writer guy? He’ll happily create a hero who is fairly ordinary in looks (yet nearly a superhero in other aspects of life), but darned if the hero’s significant other can be anything less than a supermodel in appearance. She somehow can’t know this, because vanity is an unappealing feature in people, but everyone else is quite aware of her beauty. It makes me laugh each time I see this in one of his novels, but I keep reading.
Glynn can be a little less agreeable about such things, though. He’d only started Jeffery Deaver’s THE STEEL KISS when he threw the paperback into the donate pile. One of the main characters, Amelia Sachs, is an ace detective and championship marksman (therefore, amazing) who used to be a high fashion model. She’s a cop, but remains a breath-taking redhead (jaw-dropping beauty) even while hunting the bad guys.
“Baloney, baloney, baloney,” Glynn told me, not using the word ‘baloney’, “never happen!” I’m telling you, if you want to collect Jeffery Deaver-like royalties, your heroine needs to be a knock-out.
6. AVOID A FRAGMENTED NARRATIVE
If you’re hoping to reach the largest possible number of readers, you want to provide a clean storyline that goes from beginning to middle to end. Throw in a few flashbacks (or, God help you, a flash forward or two), and there’s a certain part of the audience that will abandon you. They want their stories to go from A to B to C, without a sharp, surprising return to B a little later on, or a sudden swing forward to Q. They don’t want to struggle to understand the narrative.
Think of it this way: When you were little, and your father carried a book into your room at bedtime, you couldn’t wait to hear the story he was about to tell. When Dad sat at your bedside, reading “The Three Little Pigs”, you felt the tension building as the Wolf prepared to blow the first pig’s house down. You wished he’d turn the pages faster, so that you could hear what happened next. But if Dad interrupted the narrative flow to say, “As he prepared to huff and puff, Wolf couldn’t help but remember when he was 15 and on the junior varsity track team. As a young athlete, he hadn’t built his lung capacity as he should have, causing him to embarrass himself during the big track meet. Let us go now to his days at Franklin High,” you’d lose interest. The next time he carried in a book, you’d hope it would be “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”.
Don’t give your readers the opportunity to lose interest.
7. TELL THE STORY FROM A SINGLE POINT OF VIEW
This is almost 6-B, and the bit of advice you’re most likely to discard. Feel free to do so, but know that you’ll lose some of your audience along the way. When you flip the P.O.V., there are a tiny percentage of people who will get confused. A tiny percentage of that tiny percentage will leave the story then (or offer a review that includes, “It gets confusing at times, but…” which is deadly for new sales).
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
8. A HAPPY ENDING IS A GOOD THING
Glynn hates it when people flip to the back of one of our books to see how the story ends. Stephen King hates this kind of thing, too, so my guy is in good company. It turns out, there are a lot of writers who feel the same way. They’re all in the wrong, mind you, because they’ve forgotten the most important thing. Once a manuscript is in print, it’s the reader who is king (sorry, Steve).
When I pick up a novel, I read the pitch on the dustjacket or from the back of the paperback. If the storyline intrigues me, I flip through the first few pages to see if I like the writing. If that keeps me interested, I turn to the last chapter. If the story appears to end unhappily – love is lost, life is lost, the heroine loses – I put down the book and walk away.
There are a lot of people who feel the same way. In real life, justice doesn’t always prevail, the good guys sometimes lose, and we’ve all shed too many tears. That’s real life. When it comes to fiction, most of us welcome a victory. No one has ever turned to the back of a book, read the ending, and said, “I’m worried this will leave me feeling good. I’d better not get it.”
See you next week.