Sunday, August 11, 2013

How to Write a Mainstream Success - or Not

Have to throw out one more plug for the Thunder on the Battlefield: Sword & Sorcery volumes! Sister Whore Marcella has a story in Sword and I have one in Sorcery. Marcella did an amusing post on Friday comparing us to Donny and Marie Osmond. The two-volume anthology was edited by former Whore James R. Tuck and is available in digital as below. Print editions should follow soon.

Thunder on the Battlefield: Sword Kindle version Nook version
Thunder on the Battlefield: Sorcery Kindle version Nook version 


It's a brand-new week here in the bordello. The Whores are sitting around in various level of dishabille, recovering from all that outrageous marketing last week, clutching their coffees and reading to discuss this week's topic: What makes a story 'too quirky' vs a mainstream hit?

Ah, the elusive mainstream hit. 

Who wouldn't love to have one? A mainstream hit can make a writer's career - or very nearly so - both with income and fame. A good example of the latter, when Robert Galbraith was outed as being the pen name of J.K. Rowling, "on, sales soared more than 507,000%." Note that that is a comma, not a period. Not 507%, but 507 THOUSAND percent, on name recognition alone.

Every time there's a phenom, like Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight or Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, or even break-out hits from authors who unexpectedly become all the rage, it's easy to gaze upon their blazing success and blow out a little sigh of envy. Sometimes we might even comment to friends and family, wow, I'd love to have a hit like that.

But, would we?

Sure - on our own terms. We'd love for something we wrote and loved and labored over to hit it big. But there are other, sometimes hidden, costs.

Let's look at a couple of examples.

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins set up a fascinating post-apocalyptic world. The book can be read as a savvy allegory for much of our current political climate, which is partly why it's so effective. Collins sets up rules about how the tribute system works, how the lottery draws two contestants from each district to fight in the games and then how the survivor/winner of the games can bring special benefits to their home district. These world-building rules are important, because they drive almost all of the motivation in the book. This system, and how everyone deals with it, is what the story is about. The book was a hit and she wrote two more. Because... of course you write two more! But in book 2, Catching Fire, and this could be a spoiler, so take note, the book opens with all the rules being thrown away. How do you write a sequel when the heroine is out of peril and she's won a permanent victory, after all? By changing the world rules - and making it so she has to go back and fight again.

Now, clearly, a lot of readers didn't mind this. The trilogy went on to rule the bestseller lists, more movies are coming. Much love and praise. But that beginning to the sequel offended me so much that I stopped reading right there. To me there are few greater sins a storyteller can make than violating the rules of their own world, especially just to preserve success.

And this may be a problem for me - because that's a hidden cost I would be unlikely to pay.

Another good example is Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series, which the greater non-reading public knows as the HBO True Blood series. The final book in that series, #13, just released in May. A couple of things happened there. One, Harris continued to write the books long after she felt "done" with them. She came out and said so. This came as no surprise to all the readers who remarked on how the quality had fallen off over time. I read up through book 6, myself, before I grew tired of it. So, why did Harris keep writing when she didn't want to? That kind of money is hard to walk away from. When it comes to weighing artistic considerations against millions of dollars - how would we each decide?

Further to her story, when the final book released this spring, fans were so unhappy with the conclusion to Sookie's story that Harris received death threats. Literally. Quite a bit of the anger stemmed from strong feelings about the characters as portrayed in the TV series, something that I wondered if Harris took into account. When a story becomes that much a part of popular culture, in many ways the author ceases to exclusively own it.

Another hidden cost.

Yesterday, in the monthly meeting of my local chapter of RWA, the Land of Enchantment Romance Authors (LERA), we got into an extended discussion of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. One multi-published (traditional publishing) author with a 20-year career said that she writes the books she does in order to target commercial success. The self-published books that do tremendously well tend to be tailored this way, to be mainstream hits. She noted that she has all kinds of quirky ideas for books that she's never written, because she knows they're too quirky - and they wouldn't sell well as self-published either. But, if she did self-publish, it would be for the joy of writing that quirky story and she wouldn't care how well it sold.

I'm not sure it's fair to put artistic choices on one of the scale and commercial success on the other. I do think it's possible to follow one's own creative demands and still be successful. In fact, I think it could be argued that every one of my examples started out that way. None of those authors likely anticipated the kind of success they'd eventually enjoy.

It's those later choices that get thorny.

I'd be willing to tackle them. ;-)


  1. Great post!
    And I'm so agreeing on Catching Fire

    1. I think you're the ONLY other person who agrees with me, Sullivan! *SOLIDARITY*

  2. See now, I took the beginning of Catching Fire as an example of how unstable the rules they had to live by actually were. As if the bullies in charge were saying, 'neener neener, you thought you could win, but you can't because we changed the rules'. :shrug: So, I got past that and then she ticked me off with Mockingjay.

    Ahem, but that isn't what you posted about... Of course, I'd love a mainstream hit. Or rather, I'd love for whatever quirky thing I write to connect with enough people to become a mainstream hit. I don't think I could have a hit any other way. But at this point, I'll just be happy with a someone out there in the Land of Publishing to want to read my work. I'll worry about hits after that.

    1. Excellent point on order of priorities! I'd be interested to know what bothered you in Mockingjay - was it a similar kind of contract-breaking?

    2. She killed off a character unnecessarily. That's a deal breaker for me. Sometimes characters have to die, but there has to be a reason beyond ripping your reader's heart out and stomping on it for fun.

    3. Ah, yeah. That's a fine line, for sure. Bad when the reader feels like it was only to increase dramatic tension.