Stories that stand the test of time

In Story Engineering, Mr. Brooks talks about the importance of human psychology. He states that a book that gets psychology right will stand out from the crowd.

I started looking around for examples of this. Being a mom, we read oceans of children’s books. I’ve noticed for a while that my favorite books are really old ones, from the 60s and earlier. With the new angle of human psychology in mind, I started looking at them.

And you know, he’s right.

Look at Little Bear, by Elsa Holmelund Minarik.

LittleBear

Little Bear asks for more and more clothes to wear outside because he’s cold in the snow. At the end, his mother takes away all his clothes and shows him his fur coat. “And he was not cold. What do you think of that?”

Or how about Three to Get Ready, by Betty Boegehold and Mary Chalmers.

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“George was very sorry. George was very sorry for George. He said, “Gigi’s fish looks better than my fish. Ginger’s fish looks better than my fish. They have a better supper than I have.” So George bit Gigi. He scratched Ginger.”

Each little story in Three to Get Ready is a different exploration of a vice–bad temper, greed, or disobedience. Each vice comes with interesting consequences as some adventure befalls each kitten.

The same with Arnold Lobel’s little books, his most famous being Frog and Toad.

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In one book, for example, Toad has a dream that he’s on stage, being famous. Meanwhile his friend, Frog, is in the crowd. Every time Toad does something amazing, Frog shrinks a little more. After a while, Frog is too small to be seen or heard. Toad wakes up in a panic. I’ve posted before about the wonderful story about when Frog and Toad fly a kite.

But there are plenty of others. For instance, Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel, a heartwarming tale about earth works. Or the same author’s book The Little House, (one of my favorites as a kid), a heartwarming story about urban development. The early Berenstein Bears (The Bike Lesson, the Honey Hunt, the Bear’s Picnic) inadvertently says more about marriage than it does about the story. (Seriously. Watch Mama Bear’s face.)

So, I think Larry Brooks is right. We love seeing the outcome of human psychology. It makes for the best stories.

Top Five Fandoms I’m No Longer In

I borrowed this topic from Thrice Read, who did it as part of their Top Five Wednesday theme. I loved the idea of talking about fandoms we’ve loved and abandoned, so here we go:

5. Harry Potter

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I started reading Harry Potter when book 4 came out. The controversy over them was raging, and I’d heard both sides of the argument pretty thoroughly. So I picked up the first Harry Potter and the first Redwall (both of which were very popular at the time). Harry was so much more fun than Redwall. My whole family really got into the Harry books, trying to guess what might happen next, trying to guess who the Half-Blood Prince might be, and so on. But after book 7 … I don’t know. I’m done. I still admire the books for being a great story, but that ship has sailed.

4. World of Warcraft

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I played WoW with my siblings from the first version onward through the first two expansions. I had a top-level character with epic gear, did Heroic Dungeons and raids … and then I burned out. I had babies and less and less free time. Then the fourth expansion came out, which changed the original game … and I don’t know. I never got into it after that. I still buy a month now and then, but it’s such a time sink, I just can’t get back into it.

3. Doctor Who

DOCTOR WHO *embargoed 19th March*

I watched a smattering of Doctors 9 and 10, but I started really watching it with 11. And, let’s face it, the story arc for 11 had some real high points. Trying to guess what River Song would do next, and if she would really kill the Doctor? And the whole arc with the Doctor trying to escape his own death at the hands of the Impossible Astronaut? Silence will fall? The crack in the wall? The Weeping Angels? Oh man, it was amazing.

Then the head writer started writing Sherlock instead, and the brilliance faded. The Eleventh Doctor kind of fell by the wayside, his series ending with a whimper. Then the Twelfth Doctor started up, and instead of the dignity I felt the Doctor should have, he was overly silly. I fell off the Doctor Who wagon and never got back on.

2. His Dark Materials

The-Golden-Compass

A friend gave me the first book when it was still called Northern Lights (it was changed to the Golden Compass later, which annoyed me, because the alethiometer wasn’t a compass). That first book was AWESOME. Then the second book came out, and it was … well, still good, but where was this all going? Then the third book came out. My friend and I read it … and we never spoke of it again. You don’t split up the main characters and take away their powers at the end, man. Growing up isn’t as horrible as all that. But this book makes adulthood into this horrible, horrible thing. Not to mention all the other … uh … issues this author seemed to have. We’ll leave it at that. Talk about disappointing.

Number 1: The Raven Boys.
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I picked up the first book when it came out because I had liked Shiver so much and I wanted to read more of the author’s work. Raven Boys took me on a wild romp with preppy school boys, psychics, a treasure hunt, leylines, ghosts, and all kinds of fantastic magical realism stuff that flirted with real magic. The second book, Dream Thieves, was even better. Then the author started talking on Twitter about the directions she was taking the characters … directions I honestly didn’t think worked for the characters … and then book 4 came out .. and all I had to do was read the reviews. Very disappointed reviews. The big reveal was a bust. The big reversal was flubbed. It was like getting to the ending of LOST and going, “What, did the author run out of ideas or something?”

So there’s my top five no-longer-fandoms. How about you? Do you have any fandoms that you jumped into and then left later on?

When a reader loves a dragon

I recently joined an online book club that one of my friends started. I’ve tried a few book clubs before, but they tended to read books I didn’t care for.

This club carefully vets books and has a panel of judges who decide what book we shall lavish our adoration upon that month. Then we readers get to vote on what cover art we like best. (Tongue firmly in cheek, here.)

Anyway, this month, we picked Dragonfriend by Marc Secchia.

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Dragonfriend on Amazon!

See what I mean about voting pretty much because of the cover art? Hee hee. Anyway, it’s upwards of 500 pages and I read it in about two days. It’s amaaaaaaazing. It’s the sort of thing I expected Pern to be. (I went into Pern as a wide-eyed teen who didn’t really like sex or politics all that much, BUT THAT’S WHAT I GOT BOY HOWDY).

In Dragonfriend, Lia is an adopted princess who gets diced up and tossed off an airship by the bad guy who just took over her kingdom. She’s saved from landing in a volcano by a tiny dragonet who sort of parachutes her into a tree. The dragonet, Flicker, falls in love with Lia, and they become close friends, even though humans aren’t allowed on the sacred Dragon Isle.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that all the islands stick up out of the Cloud Sea, which is made of poison clouds. Nobody goes into them and lives to tell the tale.

There are magic-wielding martial-arts monks. There is a big, bad, blue dragon named Grandion. There are hints of a coming apocalypse. There are deep conversations about love and belonging. There is self-sacrifice. It’s beautiful.

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Mt. Roraima, inspiration for an island in the Cloudlands

Marc came around to show us pictures of Ethiopia where he lives, tell fun backstory bits, and drop cool pictures.

So that’s where I’ve been lately. Got walloped with tonsillitis and then laryngitis, which means that basically all I can do is lay around and read. I certainly don’t have any voice to do anything with.

Come join our book club and read amazing books with us! The authors come schmooze and post cool backstory bits and giveaways.

The secret ingredient to true love

I once stood at the window of our apartment, watching this guy and girl have a terrible fight in the rain. She was trying to leave, but the car was locked and he wouldn’t give her the keys. He was raging about how she had disrespected him. She refused to admit any wrongdoing, blaming him for his lack of love. To his credit, he never punched her, although she hit him a couple of times. Eventually, he stormed off and she called someone to pick her up.

It was fascinating. If the woman refuses to respect her man, he withholds the love that she craves. The relationship goes into a death spiral.

In our culture, women have been elevated to goddesses. But they are also not held accountable for their lack of respect. Very rarely is that addressed in fiction: women are always princesses and men are always Prince Charming. Except relationships don’t work that way. There has to be respect on both sides.

A while back, I got on a young adult fantasy kick. I read stacks of the things, mostly pulled at random off the library shelves. I’d pick up titles I’d seen on blogs, I’d read them for their pretty covers, I’d read them if they featured any monster but vampires.

I despise vampires. Blame it on some really, really awful fanfiction I read as a teen.

One thing I noticed over and over was that these authors seemed to have no idea what a healthy relationship looks like. The characters have random sex, love triangles, and abuse each other mercilessly. Respect is hard to find. And don’t get me started on the relationships these characters had with their parents.

Ugh.

Paranormal romance always follows the Beauty and the Beast formula. Girl is forced by circumstances into monster’s miserable world. She can free him from his prison, but it’s going to take a lot of effort on both their parts.

Corollary: the girl can join him in his miserable world instead of redeeming him (aka becoming a vampire), but it’s not as satisfying to the reader.

As a culture, we’ve lost the true meaning of love, which is self-sacrifice. Instead, we try to glorify this selfish, grasping, possessive, unhealthy thing and call it love.

This thing that we’ve become
Might look like love to some
All the lies you’ve fed to me
Leave me standing empty
With nothing to say

–The Huntress, The Echoing Green

I mean, nothing’s more romantic than Edward sneaking into Bella’s room at night to watch her sleep, right? Right? Or how about the werewolf growling, “MINE!”

twilight-vs-tangled

Yeah, right. Girls, this behavior is a warning sign, not something to seek out.

So I decided to try my hand at writing the whole teen paranormal romance thing. I had a few questions in mind that I wanted to explore in a story.

1. Can you love someone if you have no emotions?

2. What does a respectful, self-sacrificing relationship look like?

3. Can love redeem a monster?

The answers I eventually came up with:

1: Yes, because love is an act of will

2. Smoking hot

3. It helps the monster take responsibility for seeking his own redemption. No human being can really save another.

After reading so much fiction where love is basically elaborate lust, I needed to see what true romance looks like. So I cracked open the Song of Solomon.

Hoo boy. Song is HOT. I needed a cold shower after I finished.

What I learned, though, is that real romance happens not only when two people are attracted to each other, but when they highly respect each other. They’re willing to do anything for the other. And the longing. So much longing. In the Song, he leaves flowers on her door, so she runs out into the streets looking for him, and wanders until the city guards send her home. It’s a long time until she finds him. When she does, their joy (and intimate times) are so great that only metaphor can describe it.

As I wrote the Malevolent trilogy, I kept this in mind, ramping up the respect and self-sacrifice in each book. In book 1, we deal with the awkwardness of Mal and Libby meeting and figuring out Mal’s secrets. In book 2, they have an established relationship and their shared secrets are slowly killing them. Monsterhood comes at a high price.

The result is a super-hot romance, heavy on the feels, that has almost no physical contact. I think they kiss once in each book. Even the telepathy stuff is shown to be a bad thing after a while.

I kept coming back to respect. Respect respect respect. This is harder for women than for men. Women naturally give love and affection, while men naturally give respect.

If you can get this right–as well as the occasional failings, when they forget to respect each other and cause trouble instead–you can have a romance that is far more satisfying than just characters jumping into the sack together. I hope Malcontent is a decent picture of what this looks like. You know, if you were telepathically chained to a soulless monster. 😉

Malcontent has officially launched! Now you can continue Mal and Libby’s story, as well as their deeper dive into danger.

Love, Lies and Hocus Pocus (why you should read it)

Yep, this is a book review. Of a really fun book. You ready?

No, I did not just say that in a WWE wrestler’s voice.

Anyway, here’s the official summary:

By day, book-loving wizard Lily Singer manages library archives. By night? She sleeps, of course. In between, she studies magic and tries to keep her witch friend Sebastian out of trouble. Much to her displeasure, he finds it anyway and drags her along with him.

From unmaking ancient curses to rescuing a town lost in time, Lily and Sebastian fight to avert magical mayhem. Meanwhile, Lily’s mysterious past begins to unfold–a past hidden from her by those she trusts most. Will she be able to discover the truth despite them?

And now for my review.

This isn’t really urban fantasy, not if you take UF to mean clever wizards as the underdogs in a massive struggle against an overpowering evil force against the backdrop of a rainy city. This is more like what I think of as contemporary fantasy (and might be at home on a shelf of paranormal cozy mysteries): Girl and guy solve mysteries. They have chemistry. They exchange witty banter. They drink tea. Oh, and occasionally they do some really interesting magic.

I think that’s one thing that attracted me to the book in the first place. The magic system is based on Sumerian cuneiform (which has always intrigued me). It smacks of frontiers. The heroine, Lily, is always learning some new spell by examining an ancient artifact. It thrills my little paleontologist/archeologist heart.

The hero, Sebastian, is a witch. But he’s a witch in the sense that his magic comes from trading favors with other beings. And the beings he prefers to deal with are fairies. So there’s lots of him bribing various fairies and pixies with booze. It’s hilarious and not very witchy. It’s like the lighter moments in the Dresden books when Harry bribes the pixies with pizza.

The book is laid out kind of oddly–it’s basically three novellas rolled into one book. So in Story 1, you meet Lily and see how she deals with a haunted house. In Story 2, you follow Sebastian into the seamy underworld of Alabama and see how his fairies help him take on a drug ring. In the third story, the artifact of note in story 2 has been used to freeze a whole town in a time loop. Think Groundhog Day.

It’s kind of odd reading three stories in one book. But they’re all heavily interconnected. The shorter length makes for quick reading (again, like a cozy mystery).

Since I’m always in the market for light, fluffy reading, this book hit the spot. I’m also reading the second book, which is supposed to take the metaplot a little deeper. There’s also a kickstarter going for books 3 and 4, which will be out soon (yay!).

What are you waiting for? Go grab a copy!

2016 TBR Book Shaming post

I saw this on another blog and thought it was hilarious. Here is a list of all the books I didn’t read (but meant to!) in 2016. In fact, these are all books I paid cold, hard cash for, and still didn’t read. Mostly, I just forgot about them. Some of them I’m going, “Ooh, ooh, I need to read that!” Some of them I’m going, “Why do I even have this?” And I’m not going to list the dozens of samples I downloaded of books I was interested in trying before buying.

In order of oldest to newest, here we go:

The Heir, by Avily Jerome (why haven’t I read this? I’m pretty sure it has dragons in it.)

Agatha H. and the Voice of the Castle (Girl Genius book 3) by Phil and Kaja Foglio. (Why haven’t I read this? It’s an adapt of the comic, and it happens to be my favorite storyline to date. I just … didn’t.)

Wilde Omens by Bree Lawrence

Starship Eternal by M.R. Forbes

No Such Thing As Werewolves by Chris Fox

Thaddeus Whiskers and the Dragon by H.L. Burke

Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m A Supervillain by Richard Roberts

One Good Dragon Deserves Another by Rachel Aaron (which I didn’t read because I was afraid this title meant that the main couple broke up. I found out later that they didn’t, but I still never read it. Shame on me.)

RealmScapes A Sciencefiction and Fantasy Anthology by Realm Makers (I don’t do well with short story anthologies).

The Timeless Trilogy by Holly Hook (her books are always fast-paced edge of your seat, and I haven’t been up for that kind of thrill recently.)

Dragon of Ash and Stars by H. Leighton Dickson

The Chronothon by Nathan Van Coops

Love, Lies and Hocus Pocus by Lydia Sherrer

Water Gambit by Juliann Whicker

Space Carrier Avalon by Glynn Steward

Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Everything Marc Secchia has written

So there you have it. All my books that I haven’t read. Any books you would recommend me reading first? Any I should strike from the list? Any I should add? 😀

 

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The Wise One by VampirePrincess007

 

 

Top mystery/fantasy books of 2016 (and how most of them are series)

It’s January of 2017–time for all the lists! Top ten EVERYTHING! Top fifty! Top 100! Stuff we learned last year! WOOHOO!

So, as I’ve been looking at these lists with the casual interest of a reader, I’ve noticed a few things.

Namely, a bunch of these books are way far into a series. Like, book 3. Book 6. Book 9. Book 12.I’m mostly looking at the Goodreads top 2016 lists, because they’re so beautifully easy to navigate. The Kobo ones are pretty similar.

Let me show you. I’ve taken the liberty of marking each book’s place in a series with a big fat number.

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You can tell which ones are the thrillers. They tend to not be in a series, because most characters in thrillers don’t survive anyway.

Next up: Fantasy!

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Very few stand-alones here. Every book 1 is also the beginning of a series, with the exception of one book, which is a short story anthology (that tiger one).

Next up: Young Adult Fantasy:

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Series are a big deal in this genre. The only book 1s are all series starters from authors who have established themselves with other series/trilogies.

It’s interesting to look at the spread here. If you want to hit a bestseller list, you’ve got to write series. Kevin Hearn’s Iron Druid is up to book 8 now. I spy a book 10 of another series. One of those mystery series is at book 42! These authors have been at this for a LONG time. The young adult authors seem to crank out trilogies, but sometimes they run longer than that. Even Stephen King is up there with a book 3!

As authors, I guess we can expect to plug away at this for book after book–so pick a genre that you like an awful lot. Unless you’re a thriller writer, then you can write boatloads of book 1s.

If you’d like to look at the other Top Goodreads genres, it’s here. And hey, maybe you’ll even find something new to read. 😀

My top (and bottom) reads of 2016

It’s that time of year again–time to access what we did last year. What we ate, what we accomplished, and most importantly, what we read. What did we love? What did we hate? Well, without further ado, here’s mine!

The top fantasy books that I loved:

Number 3:


Southern Spirits by Angie Fox.

A girl who has lost her family home in the deep South accidentally gets herself haunted by an ancestor who happens to be a gangster from the 20s. He also knows the location of all kinds of buried money that she could use to buy back her house. So it turns into a combination ghost buster/treasure hunt/murder mystery, and it’s a fantastic read. I enjoyed it hugely.

Number 2:

Caliban’s War, by James S. A. Corey

The sequel to Leviathan Wakes, this was hands down one of the most entertaining space operas I’ve ever read. (Of course, I haven’t read a ton of them, but …) The alien protomoloecule has been weaponized. Our heroes from book 1 are trying to help a scientist find his kidnapped daughter, but are plunged into an ever-deepening conspiracy about the protomolecule. Meanwhile, on Venus … some new terror is constantly happening. The book is 624 pages, and I read it in one weekend. Couldn’t put it down. SO GOOD.

Number 1:

Aranya by Marc Secchia

In a fantasy world where everybody lives on islands above a sea of poison clouds, dragons are extinct. It’s illegal even to talk about them. Aranya is a princess of a beaten nation who is being taken hostage by their conquerors to ensure her father’s good behavior. While trapped in a tower with a bunch of other spunky princesses, she makes friends, enemies, and a boyfriend. Except when she uses her (spoilers!) dragon powers on an evil soldier, her penalty is to be dropped into the poison clouds. On the way down, she turns into a dragon. Surprise! Aranya is a dragon shapeshifter. Once she learns how to be a dragon, she declares a one-dragon war on the nation who captured her and tried to kill her. AWESOMENESS ENSUES. Loved, loved this book. Must get the rest very soon!

And now … the moment you’ve been waiting for.

People only read these lists for the list of worst books, right? So, without further ado, here’s the books I read this year that I disliked:

No affiliate links for these guys, sorry:

Number 3:

Uprooted by Naomi Novik.

Naomi, I love you, and I love your books. But you can’t write romance. Srsly.

The premise of this book is great. Every few years the Dragon takes a maiden from the village. Except the Dragon is the name of a wizard. And the maidens he takes get the My Fair Lady treatment, and after receiving a great education, move away to the big city. The Dragon has to do all kinds of magic to keep the evil Wood from consuming the village and the farmlands. The heroine gets picked one year, and she has MAGIC and they have to work together to stop the evil wood.

Sounds great. That part of it was. You can see the romance coming a mile away, except … it never did. I reached the end so disappointed that I got on Goodreads and wrote my own ending where he finally tells her that he loves her. *frustrated grappling motions in midair*

Number 2:

The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

This book has been on the top Amazon sellers for at least a year. I finally picked it up. It’s about a world that is vaguely late-1800s England (steampunk?) where magic can only be performed on man-made materials. The girl is bonded to paper, a medium she didn’t want, and put under the oversight of a benevolent paper magician. He’s adorable in a Howl’s Moving Castle kind of way (except less of a jerk). She learns how to fold paper in all kinds of ways to do different kinds of illusion magic.

Then, halfway through the book, the body horror starts. An evil wizard comes in who cando magic with the human body, and she slices out the magician’s heart. She also somehow traps the heroine inside it. Now the heroine roams from chamber to chamber inside a living, beating heart, and kind of doing this virtual tour of his memories at the same time. It was gross. And not what I expected. And just … what the HECKBERRIES.

Number 1:

Nameless by A.C. Williams

“It’s a space opera!” I was told as I picked this book up. “A girl with amnesia is trying to find her way back to her home planet!” So I scooped it up and tried to read it.

First off, this book is about how sex is evil. The heroine works in a brothel. When she gets out of the brothel, she’s randomly assaulted/leered at/groped/propositioned on EVERY PLANET SHE VISITS. Finally she hooks up with the cast of Firefly and things get slightly better (they only make lewd comments about her and don’t actually assault her, despite embarrassing shower scenes). I couldn’t take any more at that point, so I put it down. Maybe I quit before it got good, I don’t know. Just … after the excellence that was James Corey, I couldn’t do the SEX ABUSE IN SPACE thing.


So there you have it. My top and bottom reads of 2016! What are your favorite/least fave books of the year?

Dragons and fairies – interview with Ralene Burke

Today I’m interviewing Ralene Burke, author of the fantasy novel Bellanok. I just finished reading it, and it was a fun, gentle romp through a fantasyland with a heaping helping of faith. Here’s the interview!

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 1.  Welcome to the blog, Ralene! Thanks for joining us! First, tell us about your book. What genre/age group is it for? And what’s the story about?
Bellanok is a contemporary fantasy geared toward readers in their 20s. Although, I’ve heard from readers of all ages, including YA readers, who have enjoyed the story. Here’s the blurb:
A haven for myths and legends . . . until evil discovers a way in.

With evil darkening the mountains to the north, the fairy queen, Fauna, must journey from the island realm of Bellanok to the modern world to find the man the Creator appointed to save their kingdom. A man she has been dreaming of her whole life.

Brian is a down-on-his-luck pastor on the verge of giving up on God. He’s tired and frustrated–a failure. No sooner does he make a decision that jeopardizes his career than an unusual blonde woman shows up and tries to convince him he is some kind of savior.

Fauna must open Brian’s eyes to a different reality, and Brian needs to embrace the haven’s secrets. If neither of them succeeds, Bellanok will succumb to evil and the world will lose all trace of innocence.

2. What made you want to write this particular story?
It all started with a prayer. I was asking God for guidance on where to go after finishing edits on a WIP. The first chapter of Bellanok popped into my head. After a couple of days with that chapter demanding to be written, I sat down and cranked it out. That seemed to alleviate the urgency while I finished the current WIP, but the story was still building in the back of my mind. Once I had time, I was able to start cranking out the story.

3. What was your favorite part to write?
Any part with Roman in it? Seriously, Roman was my favorite character to write—mostly because he’s just so different from me. But he says many things that I wish I had the guts to say. Ha!

4. What was the hardest part to write?
I can’t tell you that without revealing a major plot point in the story. I will say, bring out the tissues! The second hardest part to write was the end. For several scenes in the final battles, Fauna and Brian are in separate places with different dangers around them.

5. This book was originally written in serial format. What are the pros and cons of writing that way?
Ah, yes, the serial project was an interesting experience. I had fun with it and would totally try to do it again (though I would change a few things).
Pros: The serial format allowed me to keep putting my name/story out in front of readers with each release, thus helping to build a following more quickly.
The serial forced me to think on my feet and make a cohesive story without being able to go back and change things. So it was a great exercise for stretching my writing muscles.
Cons: Ideally, each part of the serial would have released about 6-8 weeks apart. Due to life, that didn’t happen. So while the serial format did help to build a following, it wasn’t as effective as it should have been.
I don’t like not being able to go back to previous parts and change details or plot lines. Of course, that could be solved by writing the whole thing first—but that would have taken too long!

6. The theme of Bellanok is a journey back into faith. Why is this important to you?
It’s important to me because much of Brian’s journey is mine as well. I’ve always been a believer, but it wasn’t until my 20s that I reached a time when my faith was challenged, where I felt that I just couldn’t connect with God.
While it didn’t take me journeying to a mystical island to save unicorns to find that connection, God did have to bring me to my knees before I was able to see the problems.
I think many people go through the same kind of challenges—each unique to the person—but with the same struggles and desperation. Bellanok helps readers to sort through the coinciding emotions and thoughts while escaping with Brian to fight the battle and save the world.

Thank you for joining us on the blog today, Ralene! Best of luck with Bellanok and all future books!

Check out Bellanok on Amazon!

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RALENE BURKE BIO:
Whether she’s wielding a fantasy writer’s pen, a freelance editor’s sword, or a social media wand, Ralene Burke always has her head in some dreamer’s world. And her goal is to help everyone SHINE BEYOND! She has worked for a variety of groups, including Realm Makers, The Christian PEN, Kentucky Christian Writers Conference, and as an editor for several freelance clients. Her first novel, Bellanok, is available on Amazon!
When her head’s not in the publishing world, she is wife to a veteran and homeschooling mama to their three kids. Her Pinterest board would have you believe she is a master chef, excellent seamstress, and all around crafty diva. If she only had the time . . .
You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, or at her website.

The Bestseller Code (or why everyone wants high concept)

In my circulation around the internet, I keep hearing about this book called the Bestseller Code. It’s not out yet, but a chapter of it is available for free on Amazon. Ever curious, I grabbed it and read it.

bestsellercode-cover

Here’s the summary:


This sneak peek teaser – featuring literary giants John Grisham and Danielle Steele – from Chapter 2 of The Bestseller Code, a groundbreaking book about what a computer algorithm can teach us about blockbuster books, stories, and reading, reveals the importance of topic and theme in bestselling fiction according to percentages assigned by the what the authors refer to as the “bestseller-ometer.”

Although 55,000 novels are published every year, only about 200 hit the lists, a commercial success rate of less than half a percent. When the computer was asked to “blindly” select the most likely bestsellers out 5000 books published over the past thirty years based only on theme, it discovered two possible candidates: The Accident by Danielle Steel and The Associate by John Grisham.

The computer recognized quantifiable patterns in their seemingly opposite, but undeniably successful writing careers with legal thrillers and romance. In Chapter 2, Archer and Jockers analyze this data and divulge the most and least likely to best sell topics and themes in fiction with a human discussion of the “why” behind these results.

The Bestseller Code is big-idea book about the relationship between creativity and technology. At heart it is a celebration of books for readers and writers—a compelling investigation into how successful writing works.


Intriguing idea, right? How can a computer algorithm pick out bestsellers?

Well, when you dig into it, it’s really stuff that readers know intuitively, but never really articulated. Here’s some excerpts:


If we compute an average proportion for each topic in all the books by each of these authors, it certainly seems that Steel and Grisham learned something from the old maxim “write what you know.” The author who dreamed of baseball but then became an attorney has “Lawyers and the Law” as his most prevalent theme, followed by “American Team Sports.Steel, who has been through five marriages, raised nine children and lost one, writes mostly about “Domestic Life,” “Love,” and “Maternal Roles.”

Roughly a third of all the paragraphs Grisham has ever written deal directly with the legal system, and similarly Steel has given almost an exact mathematical third of her pages over the years to the theme of domestic life, or even more specifically “time spent inside the home.”

Grisham and Steel each have only one signature theme, not two, that takes up a whole third (on average) of each of their novels. This likely helps with their branding. All the many other topics each writer employs are used in tiny percentages. Grisham’s second-most-used topic across his canon is American sports, but it is the subject of only 4 percent of his pages, and this average is no doubt as large as it is because it gets a big bump from his non-legal thriller Calico Joe— a book that is entirely set in a world of baseball. Many of Grisham’s other secondary themes are no big surprise: money (3 percent), cops (2 percent), and government intelligence (2 percent).

The less immediately obvious topic, at almost 4 percent of all of Grisham’s pages, is a topic we call “everyday moments.” The name is deliberately vague and undramatic. The scenes in which this topic shows up prominently may involve two people chatting, or sitting on a sofa watching TV, or walking down the street. Not much is going on but day-to-day living. Its presence as number three in Grisham, after law and sports, is important if only to indicate a writer who is aware of pace. Everyday interactions between characters are there in order to vary the pace of the drama and avoid melodrama. It is the kind of topic no one would likely think they read for, but if these scenes that offer breath and reflection are totally absent, a reader is almost guaranteed to complain.

There are other minor topics in Grisham, though, ones that we would have been less likely to guess immediately. These topics, with similar proportions to cops and courts, deal with people in their domestic environments (a top topic for Steel), kids enjoying summer at home (with words like “porch” and “bike”), scenes about relationships (also very important in Steel), and family.

Steel’s top few themes appear to put her characters and those of Grisham in very different worlds. After time spent in the home— a topic whose specific nouns suggest the home of a typical nuclear family— she gives 5 percent more of her storytelling to a similar theme we called “family time.” The nouns in this word group suggest a family at home, engaged in everyday activities: dinner, conversation, rest, love, weekends. So far it is all quite low drama. Her third most used topic, though, deals with hospitals and medical care. This topic is made up of words like “nurses,” “doctors,” “ambulance,” “emergency,” and “accident.” It suggests not the long-term stay of a patient with a chronic disease, but instead the sudden and unexpected event that threatens the domestic contentment of Steel’s primary themes.


There’s a lot more in this vein–analyzing the topics in the proportions. It boils down to “people like reading about people interacting in casual, friendly, intimate ways.” Oh, but sex doesn’t sell.


If we take a cross section of almost five thousand novels— five hundred of which are bestsellers and the rest are not— and measure the presence of five hundred different themes across all of them, then the proportion of the whole taken up by sex is just about a thousandth of a percent. If you then measure the content of bestselling novels (and we will explain how this is done in just a moment), this fraction for sex goes down to 0.0009 percent.

It’s hard to believe. Who would have thought that sex does not sell? We tell people and still they do not believe us. But the truth is this: sex, or perhaps more precisely erotica, sells, and it sells in notable quantities, but only within a niche market. Titles within that genre rarely break out enough to win the attention of the mainstream reading market that creates bestsellers.

We know what you are thinking: “What about Fifty Shades of Grey?” Well, that novel (or those novels if you count the whole series) is one quite rare example of an erotic story that hit the lists. … Contrary to what you might expect given the prominence of sex in TV, movies, and the media, the U.S. reading public public of the past thirty years has demonstrated a preference for other topics.


The algorithm actually came up with a list of things that didn’t sell–at least, not on that snapshot of the New York Times Bestseller list. This is where all my spec fic friends are going to cry foul.


Two notable sets of under-performing topics are all things fantastical and otherworldly. Made-up languages, fantasy creatures, settings that don’t exist, space battles, and starships are all statistically far less likely to succeed on a mass scale than the topics of realism in today’s market.

Still, in the many topics that suggest a realistic world, there are some that are winners and others that are losers. Among the good, the popular, and (for writers) the go-for-its: marriage, death, taxes (yes, really). Also technologies— preferably modern and vaguely threatening technologies— funerals, guns, doctors, work, schools, presidents, newspapers, kids, moms, and the media.

By contrast, among the bad and unpopular, we already have sex, drugs, and rock and roll. To that add seduction, making love, the body described in any terms other than in pain or at a crime scene. (These latter two bodily experiences, readers seem to quite enjoy.) No also to cigarettes and alcohol, the gods, big emotions like passionate love and desperate grief, revolutions, wheeling and dealing, existential or philosophical sojourns, dinner parties, playing cards, very dressed up women, and dancing. (Sorry.) Firearms and the FBI beat fun and frivolity by a considerable percentage. The reading public prefers to see the stock market described more so than the human face. It likes a laboratory over a church, spirituality over religion, and college more than partying. And, when it comes to that one, big, perennially important question, the readers are clear in their preference for dogs and not cats.


Ouch!

This is where I start thinking about the data we’ve been presented. Of course, this is all based on one chapter of a very deep book, and I’m no statistician. But I am a reader, and I have a few theories about why these books sell.

First off, for the lack of speculative fiction in the algorithm–this was based off a snapshot of the 2014 NYT bestseller list. This was, I believe, right after the NYT changed its rules to keep indie published books off the list. (Otherwise it would have been pretty much dominated by picture books.)

The indie market has been killing it in speculative fiction. I mean, the Martian was indie–Andy Weir wrote it on his blog and dumped it to Amazon for a buck afterward. Traditional publishers have declared Urban Fantasy a dead genre. Meanwhile, on Amazon, UF is one of the big hot genres. Watch out, Jim Butcher, here comes Domino Finn and a bunch of others, out to steal your crown.

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The Dresden Files characters by wildcard24

Science fiction, especially space opera, its going bonkers in the indie realm. So is epic fantasy–dragons, wizards, magic, all that jazz. Over on the kboards forum, writers of speculative regularly report being able to live off their earnings in those genres.

Now comes the speculation. This study found a few big things.

An author spends 1/3rd of the book solidly focused on genre tropes. If it’s a Grisham, people want law shenanigans. If it’s romance, they want relationships. If it’s fantasy, they want the fantastic. If it’s space opera, they want space ships and aliens. If it’s Harry Potter, they want Hogwarts.

This is all fine and dandy. But what separates the winners from the rest of the pack is that “human interactions” thing. We don’t read Harry Potter for the epic battles against the forces of Voldemort–we want to hang out with the Weasleys. “We’re not dumb. We know our names are Gred and Forge.”

In the Expanse trilogy by Corey, the heroes spend a LOT of time hanging out in the canteen of the ship, drinking bad space-coffee and debating what to do. There’s a ton of human interaction along the way.

After Harry Potter came out, I read a lot of the copycats that launched around the same time. They were all big on the action and weak on the heartwarming, cozy human interaction moments. They lacked staying power as a result. Out of the whole pack, I think only Percy Jackson managed to rise to popularity.

The Mitford books by Jan Karon were big on human interaction. Each book is pretty much “Father Tim wanders around a little town and talks to people”. There will always be a mystery to solve or an over-arching conflict to face, but at its heart, it’s just a cozy story. I think that’s why it sold like crazy.

Human interactions, marriage, death, taxes, moms, kids, and all the rest of things that feature in bestsellers–those are all what we call high concept. That is, something that everybody can relate to. We all have families. We all have laundry and taxes and death in the family.

So, basically, if you want to write a book that people want to read, you have to write about people dealing with common topics. But the fun of it is setting it in different genres. (In the second Expanse book, one of the main characters is trying to find his kidnapped daughter. So he crowdfunds his search. The resulting donations and trolling he gets ring absolutely true, whether here on Earth or roaming the moons of Saturn.)

As a reader, I know that I love the quiet moments where the characters spend time with other characters. Seems that I’m not the only one.

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HW: Hushan capital ships by MK01