Friday, January 18, 2013

Book Club: 21st Century Fiction's New Working Definition

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.

" 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?


Dina Sleiman said...

I was excited when I read Maass's take on this too. I hope he's right. Personally, I think Oprah Winfrey should get some credit for this swing towards the literary (don't know if he will address that.) For years, every book on her book club list fell into this category and became an instant best-seller. My favorite was "The Rapture of Canaan" by Sheri Reynolds.

Now, what I want to know is if this trend will come to Christian fiction. I do think a few popular writers like Julie Klassen, Steven James, and Tosca Lee are doing a good job of writing genre fiction with some nice literary elements and crossing the barrier from that side, but so far these potentially high impact books (see Lisa Samson) don't seem to be selling well in CBA.

Patti Hill said...

I have to agree with you, Dina. Oprah does deserve some credit for this new trend. I loved One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gap Creek, Jewel, and so many others. Now, I better read The Rapture of Canaan.

We are beginning to see the trend come to CBA fiction. The authors we will be interviewing this year as part of our Carpe Annum theme certainly fit in that category, but there is room for growth, definitely. And some of us are going independent.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I wonder the same thing about CBA as Dina. This is the kind of novel that I really want to write. I'm so glad to read Maas define it!

I think that Jonathan Safran Foer wrote this type of novel with "Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud". He wrote with such a gorgeous literary sense, yet touched so tenderly on excruciating emotions. I cared about his characters. Loved the way they related to one another.

In my own writing? Goodness. I need to write the kind of book that I want to read. And I'm doing that right now with my WIP. It is very scary to write something while grabbing hold of this year! But it is worth it, no matter what!

Patti Hill said...

Susie: It does take courage to write from that place, and you're doing it. Good for you.

I think we all start out wanting to write the kinds of books we love. What we discover is that "getting there" takes being flayed, and that's scary. Hence the need for courage.

Bonnie Grove said...

Just want to clarify, the authors we will be highlighting on the blog throughout the year are from both CBA and general market.

Anonymous said...

This is it...I want to write a book that MEANS something! I hadn't thought that meaning, that impact, would come through being personal. But, then, where else would it come from?

Marian said...

Just finished "The Father's Tale" by Michael D. O'Brien. This is a story I can relate to on many levels...emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental. O'Brien kept my interest for 1072 pages. He deals with family, and nation, politics and religion, but mostly this is a story of love and refinement by fire. O'Brien describes it as "a modern retelling of the parables of the Good Shepherd and The Prodigal Son." High impact for sure.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

"High impact fiction is highly personal" I think in order to create art that matters, you have to bring that element. Even if it's not your personal story, you're writing from a place as if it were. I agree, it's scary to write with boldness. Self-disclosure and the belief that we have something worthwhile to say don't come easily at times.

Patti Hill said...

Vonilda: To write something that means something is an incredibly noble goal.

Marian: Thanks for telling us about The Father's Tale. Sounds amazing.

Debbie: "Even is it's not your personal story, you're writing from a place as if it were." Well said!

Cherry Odelberg said...

Hooray for "literary/commercial fiction." That's what I want to read and that's what I want to write-now, if I can only write up to the standard.
I lost faith in the NY Times best seller list when I realized you could manipulate it if your tribe is large enough and you can say, "don't buy it now. Everyone buy it on the same day!" Undeniably good strategy, but some things should be credited for consistency over time.

Jennifer Major said...

I want to get to a place where someone reviews my work and says " I cried my eyes out at the injustice of it all and wish I could go back in time and fix things before they happened!"

That's all.

Patti Hill said...

Cherry: It takes time and commitment to refine our craft enough to write the literary/commercial fiction Maass talks about. Google the story about Kathryn Stockett writing The Help. I think it took her five years and innumerable drafts. Persistence is the key to great writing.

Jennifer: We're sharing your dream.

Help4NewMoms said...

High Impact, Huh? I define High Impact as a book that I can't wait to get back to, that has a few well-places twists, and that I end up thinking about for a week after I have finished reading it. For me this year, that book was Televenge by Pamela King Cable. Clearly not a well-known author...yet...but her writing is divine, her story is compelling, and the book had me off the couch more times than I care to admit. it reminded me a bit of Kingsolvers' Poisonwood Bible in its writing style and sheer entertainment value. I hope this one gets picked up by a few more so that the author can write a sequel...It is rare that I rip through a book but I simply had to find out what happened to the main character, Andie! You can tell from the first few paragraphs that The author gave her heart and soul to this book.

Patti Hill said...

Help4NewMoms: Thank you for demonstrating what a high-impact story does for a reader. We all want to write like that.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Isn't it wonderful how God made a finite frame for the universe (quantum physics again) but made infinite variety in personalities. Therefore we all tell the story differently. Even the gospel writers who wrote incontestable truth differed in perspective and details observed.
Perhaps we are passing from the age that saw machines as the answer to everything and the imitation of machines by humans as the solution to war and poverty etc.
Grinding out formula novels would be an example of imitation of machines. Pouring personhood and heart into a plot would be the opposite.

Patti Hill said...

Beautifully said, Henrietta. We are "fearfully and wonderfully made," the mark of the Creator on us, His nature within us. To create is divine.

Lynn Dean said...

Okay, the book of my heart would, I think, be such a book. It's based loosely on a true incident: a man, bitter against his sister for "shaming the family", domineers his own wife and children. When his daughter, hungry for acceptance and affirmation, falls prey to the sweet words of a drifter and winds up pregnant, the father retaliates in a fit of religious piety--and his pride causes far more damage than any of the others' sins.

Trouble is, though I can feel the story clearly in my head, I'm insecure about where to start it and about my own abilities to "make it real." Scary thing, outing one's feelings. I think sometimes we hold back because it's preferable to doing a story injustice. If people criticize a story I was never fully invested in, it doesn't hurt as badly, you know?

Patti Hill said...

Lynn: Thanks for your honesty. You're so right. I often tell new writers that writing true is a bit like flashing. It's scary. It sounds to me like you have the integrity to do it and to do it well. Stay with us. Your story wants out.

Megan Sayer said...

Writing true, writing personal can be scary, but I've discovered the coolest thing ever just recently: the more true and the more personal you write, the more often people won't see the writer's truth at all, they see their own.
Sure, some people are exceptions, and they do pick up on all kinds of stuff, but quite often they're so busy hiding their own secrets that when they read them in a novel it touches them so profoundly that they see it only as a mirror, not as a portrait of the artist.
Discovering this, watching people read MY most deeply personal work and not seeing me in it at all, has been incredibly freeing, and empowered me to get bolder, freer, truer...
That in itself is a tad scary. but fun. I'm a crazy-brave kind of soul after all.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I love this book already. Bravo, Donald Maas for writing it, and hooray Patti for taking us through it. I've been intrigued for years with this very concept, the idea of a "sweet spot" between commercial and literary fiction. That's where, as a writer, I hope to dwell. :-)

Patti Hill said...

Megan: What a profound insight! This should free us all to go more deeply, more honest, more personal. Thanks!

Karen: Your vote means a lot to me, Karen. On to chapter two.

Josey Bozzo said...

Well I'm not completely sure that her books fit Maass's definition of high-impact fiction. But I have read two books by Erica Bauermeister "The School of Essential Ingredients" and "Joy for Beginners". After reading "The School of Essential Ingredients" the only way I could describe it to people was sensual. And I don't mean that in a sexual way. I mean it engaged me completely and I was completely taken in with the story and characters. I did't think she could do it again with "Joy for Beginners" but she did.
I don't know how she does it, but I would love to be able to do it to.

And one other book that came to mind, and it's not a fiction book. But Ann Voscamp's 1,000 gifts is written in such a poetic and literary way that you almost forget that it is non-fiction.

Just my opinion, not sure if I am right.

Patti Hill said...

Josey: I've heard great things about all three of those books. And you've made me want to read them. Oh boy, must find room on the nightstand.