Hazel McHaffie

Fifty Shades of Grey

Writing by numbers?!

Why do some books instantly capture the imagination of millions, fly off the shelves, become the talking point of after-dinner conversation and train travel, feature largely on chat shows and book festivals? Is it even possible to analyse and quantify the magic that makes them so appealing? To predict which manuscripts will go on to become mega-bestsellers?

Well, Archer and Jockers claim to have done exactly that. Archer and Jockers? Me neither.

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

They’re the authors of a new book out this week: The Bestseller Code. (Sounds vaguely Dan Brownish, doesn’t it?) Their bestseller-ometer was fine-tuned on over 20,000 contemporary novels, analyzing themes, plot, character, setting, and style; using an algorithm alleged to be right about 80% of the time. OK, I’m listening. So what are the secret ingredients of success? Become a journalist before you write your first book; focus on just two or three issues, no more; include at least one close human relationship; maintain a roller-coaster of emotions; use very active verbs … Sounding familiar?

But a predictor of success? Really?

Hang on a minute, though, isn’t this exactly what any writer wants? A winning recipe, a DIY measuring kit, a ticket to stardom. Or … well … no … on reflection … isn’t it want any publisher wants? A commercial shortcut to selection.

Before you start getting excited about the possibilities, though, it has to be said that reviews to date have been lukewarm to say the least. A ‘fascinating but ultimately futile use of multi-variate analysis‘ about sums it up.

Well, I guess it depends what you’re trying to do. And in fairness the authors don’t claim this tool identifies good books, just popular ones. Big difference. If your sole aim is to be another Danielle Steel or John Grisham or Gillian Flynn, then maybe there’s mileage in studying the list of factors that send those peaks soaring on the graph of readers’ engagement. But thankfully, lots of authors have higher aims. And good literature is based on more than commercial success. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey consistently featured in the analysis of Archers and Jockers as exemplars, but neither of these books is generally rated as a good book in the literary sense. Nor does either make the world a better place. Nor encourage quiet reflective thinking and empathy with people struggling with life’s big dilemmas.

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

As a writer myself, I’d be lying if I said I had no ambition to sell more of my own books – don’t we all? – but not at the expense of my principles; my reason for writing them in the first place. I just have to accept that my preferred subject areas and modus operandi are most unlikely not going to appeal to the masses. And try to be glad for those writers who do make the big time with or without the bestseller-ometer.

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Boosting brain power

What are you reading at the moment? Nothing trashy I hope! As if!

Pride and PrejudiceMaybe it’s a spot of Jane Austen, as this week we’re celebrating 200 years since she published Pride and Prejudice, surely one of the best loved classics of all time. And certainly a great favourite with me.

But hey, did you know that perusing classical writing such as Shakespeare, TS Eliot and Wordsworth (the unabridged genuine article, I mean, none of your noddy versions) can give your grey cells a rocket-boost? Research has shown it’s so. And remember … in these dark days of economic austerity, somebody somewhere forked out good money – lots of it – to fund this study. (No sniffing on the back row.) Anyway, academics at Liverpool University with yards of degrees used up-to-the-minute technology with MRI brain scanners to study this phenomenon, so who am I to argue? The beneficial effect apparently comes when the reader happens upon unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structures. Bits of the brain light up, and the brain shifts into a higher gear which primes the mind to attend more closely and encourages further reading and self-reflection.

Try reading one of the test passages from King Lear yourself:King Lear

‘A father and a gracious aged man: him have you madded.’  Did you light up?

Now substitute a modern word: ‘A father and a gracious aged man: him have you enraged’. Feel the difference?

Apparently the former is better for you. Roll on enlightenment, huh?

D’you reckon that’s why 7,000 copies of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey were left behind in Travelodges last year? Not enough brain-buzz?

Has anyone seen my copy of Notes upon some of the obscure Passages in Shakespeare’s Plays; with Remarks upon the Explanations and Amendments of the Commentators in the Editions of 1785, 1790, 1793? If you were the guilty party wot borrowed it, please return it forthwith.

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A canter round the journals

Time for another round up of snippets from the journals. All of them taken from the latest two editions of Mslexia.

How about this for a marketing strategy?

Bethan Jones of Harvill Secker ran the publicity campaign for Erin Morgenstein‘s debut novel, The Night Circus (which I blogged about a while ago). She gave herself nine months to promote it (wow! nine months!). Early proofs were sent out packaged in the trademark black and white of the night circus, with nothing but a circus calling card attached. A second copy followed with a bag of themed sweets. Pre-publication events included a circus tent at a Festival, circus acts outside bookshops, an online game created to appeal to young adults. Bethan Jones met with editors of glossy magazines, leading to features in Marie Claire and Vogue. She even stayed up one night sewing 50 red scarves (such as those worn by circus fans in the novel) for staff in Waterstones to wear on publication day. Booksellers elsewhere were encouraged to play on the circus theme and many did.

The Night Circus became the second bestselling fiction debut of 2011. What imagination and flair! Wouldn’t we all like someone like that on our side?

An encouraging word for women writers everywhere

Danuta Keane (Books Editor of Mslexia) writes:

Published or unpublished, every woman writer I know juggles her day-to-day responsibilities of job, house and family with writing. Their commitment to their craft is evidenced by the hours they keep; rising with the summer sun or staying up late to fill in the crack in their schedule with creative writing. Yet, rarely have I found one who would agree that she is a marvel. Instead we berate ourselves for not being ‘good enough’ mothers, partners, workers, writers… We seem unable to celebrate what we do. But we should! … So pour yourself a glass of wine and sit back and enjoy a well-earned moment to recharge your batteries ...’

Comforting, huh?

Unreliable narrators – should I? shouldn’t I?

Playwright and novelist Lesley Glaisters recommends considering a protagonist who can’t be relied upon to give a true perspective. She points to three brilliant examples – all taken from books that impressed me greatly when I read them.

Notes on a ScandalBarbara in Notes on a Scandal, presents herself as an unselfish, balanced colleague of schoolteacher Sheba who has had an affair with a male pupil, but is in reality a needy predator herself.

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverEva in We Need to Talk about Kevin is writing letters to her husband, Franklin, about their son, Kevin, who has committed acts of great brutality. In fact Franklin in dead.

Jack, in Room, is a five-year-old boy who has been incarcerated in a 11 foot square shed with his mother all his life. She teaches him that this bare and cramped room is the whole world, and Jack’s perspective is distorted by the reality she has created.

Three chillingly complex characters who give the reader pause for thought: all is clearly not as it seems to be, but the truth emerges subtly and cleverly.

I’m much taken with the idea of an unreliable narrator – but could I pull it off?

Get out in the garden to improve your writing

Scientists have discovered that bacteria in soil work in a similar way to antidepressants. Getting your hands dirty can be better than Prozac! So if your enthusiasm for writing has waned, try weeding!

Beat this!

A hotel in Cumbria has swapped Gideon Bibles for copies of EL James Fifty Shades of Grey. Cultural commentators and demographers have predicted a baby boom next spring after a summer of sexual fantasy!

So there we go. A few tasters for you. Something to ponder. But can you feel the pent up ire fizzing through this week’s blog?  At a critical moment the computer decided to throw a teenage tantrum and wiped out every single one of my electronic links and editorial changes. And I hadn’t provoked it in any way, honestly I hadn’t. I’d like to be able to report that I maintained gentle maternal calm, but it wouldn’t be true. I had my own little hissy fit. Then it was back to the drawing board for me.

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