Hazel McHaffie

Kate Summerscale

Creating a bestseller

I think I’m pretty realistic about my own potential as a novelist but it doesn’t stop me exploring the reasons for other writers’ phenomenal success. So I was intrigued by an article by Debbie Taylor, founder and editorial director of the women writers’ journal Mslexia, in the June/July/August edition. What is it about certain books that appeals to so many people that they become runaway bestsellers, she wanted to know? Ears pricked. Eyes wide open. Brain in gear. Is there any hope …?

Well, apparently researchers have textually analysed 20,000 published novels using a bank of 1000 computers (mind spins into boggle-mode) and come up with some answers. And such is the accuracy of their findings that editors and agents all over the world are apparently sitting up and taking notice. Well, you would, wouldn’t you, when ‘of the 55,000 new novels published in the US each year … just 200 reach the New York Times bestseller lists (0.3 percent) and only four will stay there long enough to sell a million copies (0.007 per cent)‘. An algorithm to improve on the odds? What’s not to like?

Ahhh, well … of course, there’s bound to be a strong cohort of discerning professionals in the real book world who’re understandably sniffy about an inanimate piece of kit being a better judge of literary merit than their finely honed, expertly trained, clever human brains. But Debbie T has stirred the pot and tipped in findings from a number of research teams and spread out a number of conclusions for us to taste and test.

OK, so what does make a runaway success? Four main characteristics to start with it transpires:

  1. One signature topic per author
  2. One of the additional topics should be in conflict with the central theme
  3. A recognisably realistic setting/characters
  4. Emotional closeness between the main protagonists.

Hmmm. Nothing revolutionary there, I’d say. Moving on … What about the plot? A variety of aspects can be compelling, it seems:

  1. Emotional roller-coasters for the characters and readers
  2. Plenty of peaks and troughs to maintain suspense
  3. A protagonist with conflicting impulses
  4. Larger than life characters
  5. A central dramatic quest
  6. High life-and-death stakes
  7. Several intimate viewpoints
  8. An interesting setting
  9. A high-concept what-if premise

In short, authors need ‘to think about what readers want‘.

  1. Stimulation.
  2. Entertainment.
  3. Emotional engagement.
  4. Hooks and cliff-hangers. The kind of breathless ups and downs that films and TV series are made of.

And if that isn’t all too depressingly obvious, you don’t even need to be able to string a sentence together elegantly. Staccato sentences, limited vocabulary, predictable plots, can make it to the mega-bestseller list because … and here’s the nub … if it’s to sell in its millions a book has to be read by people who don’t read much as well as by confirmed bookworms. Intellectual readers might sniff at the poor structure and lack of literary brio but as long as they’re addicted they’ll all want more of the same.

It’s a cruel unjust world out there, guys!!

Elsewhere in the same journal, novelist and short-story judge, Deborah Levy gives her personal take on why one writer’s work is more compelling than another: ‘In the end, it is about the mystery of that thing called Voice … it’s about the particularity of the writer’s attention: how she is looking and listening.‘ Yes, indeedy. A slippery something but we like to think we’ll know it when we see it.

Oh, and I must remember to drop a few hints in appropriate quarters … according to this same edition of my literary magazine,  Kate Summerscale‘s publisher sent her ‘an extraordinary profusion of flowers‘ to congratulate her on a new book deal! Hello? VelvetEthics Press are you listening?

Chance would be a fine thing!!

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Eyes closed but wide awake

Life chez nous is becoming very scrambled this spring.  Three weddings and a couple of conferences all involving long car journeys (of the several-hundred-miles-in-one-hop variety) … looming literary appointments … elderly folk needing tlc … family commitments … amongst the usual hmdrum responsibilities. Which is a long-winded way of saying, not much time to sit writing novels.

As far as the current story (about a family whose lives are devastated by a car crash) goes, I know I need to lift the mood somewhat. And I’ve identified the way forward: another secondary narrative thread. But it requires a lot of concentration to hang on to which of my characters is doing what, where and in what time frame; to place enough cues strategically without losing pace or flow. So, with everything else going on, it’s left to the deep recesses of the night-time brain to develop this new storyline.

Which reminds me of the narrator in the fictional Diary of an Ex-Detective (1959): ‘When I am deeply perplexed it is my practice to go to bed, and lie there till I have solved my doubts and perplexities. With my eyes closed, but wide awake, and nothing to disturb me, I can work out my problems.’ quoted in the The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I’m doing a fair bit of problem-solving with my eyes closed these days, not just during the long watches of the night, but also on those aforementioned long journeys – not, I hasten to add, when I’m in the driving seat.

But for those of you who haven’t made the acquaintance of late great Mr Whicher, here’s a summary. One summer night in 1860 the well-to-do Kent family went to sleep in an elegant Georgian house in Wiltshire. Mr and the second Mrs Samuel Kent, their children, their domestic staff. Next morning their world is blown apart by the discovery of the gruesome murder of one of the children. What’s more it seems that the perpetrator of the crime must be someone within the household.

The celebrated detective Jack Whicher from Scotland Yard is brought in to investigate but his conclusions fly in the face of the verdicts of the local police and others. He believes the daughter of Samuel Kent’s first marriage is to blame, but almost everyone else comes into the frame at some stage. And so powerful are the voices raised in opposition that Mr Whicher’s mighty reputation crumbles and he fades into obscurity. The true story only evolves gradually over many years.

The Suspicions of Mr WhicherThe book is a reconstruction of a real case but begins like a novel. Whatever its later shortcomings, hats off to Kate Summerscale for her meticulously detailed research. She weaves in the work of authors of the time, historical landmarks, other notorious cases, alongside her account of who said what, who did what, and when. Rather too many deviations, in my view, detracting from the pace of the main storyline. Probably why she needs to repeat points so often to remind the reader of the salient facts of this case. But in the process she brings into stark relief the harsh and capricious nature of the legal system of the day, with all its limitations. There’s no DNA evidence, no CCTV documentation, no sophisticated pathology result, to substantiate the circumstantial suspicions. The death penalty is meted out after short brutal trials. Public hangings are still a spectator sport.

And the class structure still divides. Whicher himself is seen by some as a greedy and inept working class fellow, meddling in middle class affairs. But by others as a fearless pursuer of the truth irrespective of class distinctions. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.

His investigation certainly shines a light into a closed-up house, into the secretive world beneath the veneer of well-to-do respectability, into the divided loyalties above and below stairs, into the complex emotions of step-relations. Police procedure involves measuring breasts, examining night attire for bodily fluids, asking indelicate questions of nice young ladies – all in a context of Victorian prudery and secrecy. Sensational stuff for its age. It attracts huge media attention. And the echoes and repercussions go on for decades.

I enjoyed the clever piecing together of the fragments of a story from many sources. And the unravelling of a family’s life during that era. A clever idea adroitly executed. I wasn’t so keen on the time it took to tell the story and the repetitive elements. But it made me appreciate the fact that at least any false trails I might lay won’t lead to the gallows.

Hmmm, clutching at straws comes to mind!

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