Hazel McHaffie

Gillian Flynn

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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Gone Girl

Gone GirlGone Girl is one of those much-hyped books that hit the headlines big time. OK, OK, I know, I know!  I’m way behind the curve here; it did indeed come out in 2012 and I did buy my hardback copy ages ago, but I’ve only just got around to reading it this week. It’s attracted thousands of reviews (with its fair share of negative ones it must be admitted), won prestigious awards, and was dubbed ‘thriller of the year’. In my case I selected it now to serve a dual purpose: to psych myself gradually back into work mode after a couple of weeks of family priorities; and to hopefully counteract a recent run of disappointing reads.

So what did I make of it? Well, I can quite see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but my agenda as a writer is probably atypical, and I found it gripping.

The book is divided into three parts, each one combining all the ingredients of a psychological thriller with the intense dissection of a marriage, each one taking us deeper and further into the conundrum of a relationship and the dark capabilities of the human mind. It’s ingeniously constructed, smoothly paced, with unreliable narrators providing contradictions and plot twists to keep the reader guessing right to the end. Nothing is as it seems.

It begins well with two very distinctive narrator voices – Nick Dunne (American magazine writer until computers took over the world and the economy went down the plughole) and his wife Amy (writer of personality quizzes and reluctant model for a series of books about Amazing Amy). One paragraph in each voice to give a flavour:

Nick: My morning breath warmed the pillow, and I changed the subject in my mind. Today was not a day for second-guessing or regret, it was a day for doing. Downstairs, I could hear the return of a long-lost sound: Amy making breakfast. Banging wooden cupboards (rump-thump!), rattling containers of tin and glass (ding-ring!), shuffling and sorting a collection of metal pots and iron pans (ruzz-shuzz!). A culinary orchestra tuning up, clattering vigorously toward a finale, a cakepan drum rolling along the floor, hitting the wall with a cymballic crash. Something impressive was being created, probably a crepe, because crepes are special, and today Amy would want to cook something special.
It was our five-year anniversary.

 Amy: Tra and la! I am smiling a big adopted-orphan smile as I write this. I am embarrassed at how happy I am, like some Technicolor comic of a teenage girl talking on the phone with my hair in a ponytail, the bubble above my head saying: I met a boy!
But I did. This is a technical, empirical truth. I met a boy, a great, gorgeous dude, a funny, cool-ass guy.

She is the woman that every American girl (allegedly) aspires to be – beautiful, brilliant, inspiring, and very wealthy. He is the guy that all American men (allegedly) admire – handsome, funny, bright and charming. But on 5 July, their seemingly perfect world comes crashing down when Amy Elliott Dunne disappears, leaving behind a scene of overturned furniture and hastily mopped up blood, the iron still switched on, a half-pressed dress still on the board. It’s their fifth wedding anniversary.

They’ve had their problems: redundancy, ill parents, financial reversals, but Nick is appalled and bewildered (allegedly) when evidence mounts against him, clear motives are identified, and he becomes chief suspect in Amy’s supposed murder. Every year on their anniversary Amy has prepared a treasure hunt reflecting their in-jokes and secret knowledge of each other; this year the clues seem weighted in a sinister and damning way. The police, the press, friends, family, neighbours watch mesmerized as the Dunne’s seemingly charmed lives unravel to reveal a very different reality.

Any author skilled enough to hold all those timelines and lies and plot twists together and unpack a story as deviously compelling as this, deserves enormous admiration. I was constantly checking and double checking and worrying about links far less complicated than this in my own books, so it was no surprise to read that Gillian Flynn had pieces of paper and index cards taped all over the walls of her office as she wrote Gone Girl, and by the time she’d finished the room ‘looked like the lair of a serial killer‘ with ‘crazy words and questions fluttering from every surface‘. The end result is so tight and assured and beautifully dovetailed because of this meticulous attention to detail and thorough cross-checking. Top marks there.

Gone Girl DVDI rarely watch films of books I’ve read – they never match with my imagined characters and places, and usually miss out vital components, but in this case I made an exception. Given the complexity of the story, surely no film could do justice to the printed version, all the unreliable elements, all the deceptions. But it can and it does*. Perhaps that’s in no small measure a tribute to the author who herself contributed to the screenplay. Her parents were both community-college professors – her mother teaching reading; her father, film, and according to her website Gillian ‘spent an inordinate amount of her youth nosing through books and watching movies‘. That could explain a lot. Whatever, Gillian Flynn certainly has an amazing talent; she’s indisputably a master of ‘dark and nasty‘!

I am now absorbed in the tactic of unreliable narrator …

*NB. The filmmakers need to take lessons in the properties of blood! The scenes involving copious amounts of it are entirely unconvincing.

 

 

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