I’m not trying to tell you what I know to be true. Far from it. I’m just thinking out loud, trying to figure it out for myself. What better way to figure something out than to think about it, and if I’m going to bother thinking about it, why not write down my thoughts just in case anything useful comes from them?
I want to be a bestselling novelist, and if you’re reading this, you probably want to be a bestselling novelist too. You might be one of those writers who’s content just to put your work out there, and that’s great . . . but come on. Deep down, you have hopes of overwhelming success just like the rest of us. Right? No??? Why wouldn’t you?
Everyone wants to be good at the thing they do, and good is a quality determined by the market, the critics, the prize committees, etc. It’s a major accomplishment just writing a novel, but it’s an even greater achievement to earn massive sales, critical acclaim, and prestigious awards. If you want to be good at something, don’t you, by extension, want to be among the best?
So what’s the right idea? What is it about successful novels that make them successful?
Let’s take a practical look at the process. If you’re seeking traditional publication, your first goal is to earn the faith of a literary agent–or maybe a literary agent’s assistant, who then passes the manuscript along. After that, the book has to appeal to an editor at a publishing house. That editor might have to get a second editor to sign on in order to take it upstairs to a senior editor. It’s quite possible that before you receive an offer of publication, half a dozen people have to fall in love with your book. Half a dozen people. In a row.
What the hell kind of book wins over half a dozen people in a row? What captures their attention and ensures them it will make money?
It gets even worse. Let’s say you do manage to land a book deal–one with a sizable advance. Your book still has to go on to captivate reviewers all across the country, then millions of readers.
What universal quality must reside within the pages of this book?
Perhaps just that: a universal quality. The portrayal of something at once familiar and enlightening that any random reader is likely to relate to and learn from. Or characters the average reader is likely to love. Or a fresh and riveting plot with unique twists and turns.
Shit. Universal quality sounds like the answer, doesn’t it? The only problem is this: what the hell does universal quality actually mean? In order to sell millions of books, your book has to appeal to millions of readers? Well great. Glad we solved that mystery.
I read a lot of unpublished novels. One after another. Perspective after perspective. Unique writing style after unique writing style. Each book is completely its own, even when I’ve read half a dozen other books telling pretty much the same story, books that are clearly the author’s attempt to write a specific kind of story. Even then, each one is not like the others, because none of us can escape ourselves.
Sometimes I sit back and think, It’s all about luck. One-hundred thousand people write a book, and one of those people is lucky to have accidentally written the right book at the right time. They become famous and their “voice” is embraced by the masses as familiar and welcome, which opens the door for repeat success.
Other times, I think, Any one of these books could be the book as long as the author masters its voice.
Maybe both of these are correct. Maybe neither.
But I’ve read books that make me feel like the author is truly connecting with themselves, along with a small handful of books that make me feel like the author is connecting with something beyond themselves–an abstraction of the self, perhaps. Something disembodied, something more akin to a dream (or nightmare) that brilliantly portrays some vital aspect of the human experience. Something that speaks to a universal truth. Something at once selfish and selfless. Something so special that my attempts to define it are one big disaster.
What’s the right idea? Honestly, I have no freakin’ clue. It’s something like authenticity. Something like, “The world will listen to any voice if that voice is honest and true.”
Fine, I quit.