Each Sunday, I scan the NY Times Best Seller List that is reprinted in my hometown newspaper on what our paper overstates as its book page. If you lean toward the love of literary writing, and we do here, the list seems contrived, doesn't it? But if you're someone entrenched in the publishing biz, the list tells an important story. As a big-time literary agent, Donald Maass, brings decades of list watching and the lessons the list provides to Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.
At first, I wasn't sure another book club on a writing book would fit into our theme of the year, Carpe Annum. After all, our goal is to take charge of our creativity, not to bow to yet another must-do list that guarantees success if only...well, if only.
Truthfully, I haven't read the whole book. To keep this experience fresh and surprising, I'm not reading ahead. Maass may say some bonehead things about writing and creativity in the chapters ahead. If he does, all the better for a discussion.
For now, he's introducing his idea of a high impact novel, and I must say that what he says so far matches with our goals beautifully. In fact, I'm praying he's a prophet.
Let's get started.
Back to the best-sellers list. I don't pay much attention because it's consistently populated by the same twenty or so authors week after interminable week. Stephen King. Danielle Steele. Nicholas Sparks. David Baldacci. James Patterson, James Patterson, and JAMES PATTERSON! Reading the list is better than counting sheep.
According to Maass, literary books are showing up, and when they do, they stay and stay on the list, outselling, and, more importantly, out-impacting the commercial fiction.
"...in our new century, literary fiction is selling the way that commercial fiction are supposed to." Donald Maass
So what's changing?
Stories like The Help, Water for Elephants, and The Art of Racing in the Rain have two things in common. First, they're great stories. Second, the writing is beautiful. According to Maass, the result is a high-impact novel.
The authors of these stories have learned to do it all well--plot, structure, characters, language, and so much more. These types of books are starting to turn up often enough that the industry has coined a new term: literary/commercial fiction. (When we first started this blog, we called this category Up Market Fiction. Unfortunately, none of us are very influential in the NY publishing biz, so they came up with their own name. We are not bitter.)
This is the future!
"It's an approach to novel writing that eschews both snobby pretense and genre dogma. It is personal, impassioned, and even downright quirky, yet through its rebellious refusal to please, it paradoxically achieves universal appeal. It panders to no one. It speaks to everyone." Donald Maass
Cue "The Hallelujah Chorus!"
To support Maass's point, an illustration. My father-in-law and I could not have more divergent reading preferences. Give Dad a craggy midshipman's tale--usually self-published--told from the deck of a WWII destroyer, and he's in heaven. We hear snippets of the story for weeks at the Sunday dinner table.
But Dad and I both adored Water for Elephants, a literary novel that swings to the past, where a young man is swept into the drama of circus life and back to the present where the man is now too old to remember if he's 91 or 93.
And Water for Elephants fits Maas's description of the 21st century novel perfectly. The language is straight forward yet beautiful; the story is achingly human and wonderfully surprising. The author, Sara Gruen, stares down her mortality through her character Jacob, inviting us to do the same. There's nothing much more personal or universal than that. The circus is a world unto itself. Nothing is too ruthless to insure its survival. Quirky? A circus is nothing if not quirky, rebellious, and self-governing yet lawless. What a setting!
Sara Gruen manages to write a larger-than-life story about a man who gets a second chance at adventure and purpose when the rest of the world is asking for the bed pan. No wonder the book outlasted commercial books on the bestsellers list by impacting the reading world so powerfully.
So what's changing? According to Maass, fiction is changing.
"The characters who resonate most widely today don't merely reflect our times, they reflect ourselves, moving beyond what is easy and comfortable to write what is hard and even painful to face." Donald Maass
Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, grew up in the South, white with a black housekeeper who was also her nanny. Of her white character, Skeeter, she said, "Skeeter was the hardest to write because she was constantly stepping across that line I was taught not to cross. Growing up, there was a hard and firm rule that you did not discuss issues of color. You changed the subject if someone brought it up, and you changed the channel when it was on television." Kathryn Stockett
moved beyond what was easy to tell to a story of heartbreaking universal appeal.
"To infuse a novel with significance that speaks to many requires, paradoxically, that you ignore what the public wants (Carpe Annum!) and focus instead on what matters to you. High impact fiction is highly personal." Donald Maass
By the way, Donald Maass isn't the only one saying it has to be personal:
I've prattled on long enough. Let's start talking.
What novels have you read lately that would fit Maass's definition of high-impact fiction? What does he mean when he says "high impact fiction is highly personal?" How did the author of the novel you liked make the story personal and universal? What kinds of changes will you have to face in your writing to make it more personal? How scary is that?