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How to Write a Best-Seller Pt. I

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to Write a Best-Seller Pt. I

Probably should do this now before I forget what I read and have to read the fucking thing again.

How to Write a Best-Seller Pt. I: Nicholas Sparks, The Last Song

First, let me say it wasn't awful.  It was no worse than your average reality TV show. No worse than your first holiday with a girlfriend's family.  It was an ordinary Tuesday, which ends much the way it began, with neither bang nor whimper.  Just a disinterested sigh, knowing a lot more of these are in store before anything spectacular comes your way.  In other words, mediocre.

Which is actually an improvement over what I thought I'd get.  The hardest part of reading this was just knowing I was reading Nicholas Sparks, adored by the same masses I despise (grrrrr).  But truth is, the guy can tell a story.  Anyone who's tried to write a book knows this isn't as easy as it sounds.  You need A to add up to B before you can get to C.  Writers usually have A.  They sometimes have C.  They seldom have B.  But B is the really important part, the one that validates the other two.  You don't get B right and it's all for naught.

Of course, we hold our literature to a higher standard.  At least the people I call friends, associates, equals, and that is the big problem here.  Like Chris Rock once joked about white people who say they don't like rap: It's not for you.  And this book was not written for people like me, the...fringe element.  The Last Song is broad consumption mass appeal salt-of-the-earth.  When you live on the coasts, which I almost always have, you forget that 90% of this country is elsewhere.  Local poet Bucky Sinister has a piece where he says as far as most Californians are concerned, America ends somewhere in Nevada before picking up again on the East Coast.

Or like they say in AA: water seeks its own level.  And that's fine, knowing I wasn't the target audience.  The trick is going to be how to take what was written for a populace I largely loathe and glean what I can to write a hit of my own.  And there is much I learned.

So let's break that fucker down, bullet style:

  • They Are Who We Thought They Were
          Which is a little tricky, since we are used to people not being what they seem, which makes them what they seem, which makes being what they seem not what they seem.  (Who's dizzy?)  In The Last Song, the kid with the tattoos who lights stuff on fire is bad.  The kid from the good family with the athletic thighs is good. This is Sparks's world.  Sparks's protagonist (which according to the introduction was specifically written with that goofy-looking Miley Cyrus in mind) is a little rough around the edges, but I mean that in the most impotent way possible.  Her parents are divorced.  Which made her shoplift once.  But it made her feel bad. Now she is rigidly self-righteous.  And annoying.  But, oh, so good hearted. Everyone in this book is good hearted.  Except the bad kid with tattoos who lights things (and people) on fire.

  • Morality
         Served hot and warm with a generous helping of all the patriotic nutritional groups: God, Mom, Apple Pie.  Now, again, Sparks is talented enough a writer (you don't sell as many books as this guy has without having talent.  Might not be my "thing," but in no way can you simply say, "He sucks, Beavis") that he is able to weave an engaging narrative, with characters you care (mildly) about, and have it all hold together.  And the glue he uses to do that is mainstream morality.  Respect your elders.  Don't steal. Do the right thing.  Tell the truth.  All that crap.  The exact opposite of what fringe types want to hear (even if they largely practice these virtues, which are the correct virtues to practice) but which is comforting to the frumpy shapeless hausfrau in Des Moines (and, no, I don't know why large Germans live in Des Moines).

  • Tell the Story
         This is the one I can use.  If I encounter one consistently bad characteristic repeatedly in trying to run my reading series, Lip Service West, it's submissions where the writer can't get out of his or her way.  People like stories.  We've been telling the damn things since we first invented fire.  Nobody wants to read 18 page ruminations about why wasps in your grandmother's attic made such an impression on you when you were six.  If you're going to try to pull that shit off you better be named Delillo or Foster-Wallace.  Which brings us to

  • Tell the Story Pt. II: Better Make It a Love Story
          Most of my writer friends hate writing the fucking things.  But women read books, and women like them.  So give them a fucking love story.  

That's it.  I planned on giving you some schmaltzy examples of Sparks's worst lines, like "He's glimpsed a surprising tenderness beneath her rebellious exterior, and it piqued his curiosity," or the funeral scene, when "[t]he sun flooded though the glass, splitting into hundred of jewel-like prisms of glorious, richly colored light" and Ronnie "whispers...'Hi, Daddy...I knew you'd come."  (Insert gagging sound here.)

But that'd be stupid and petty, because I honestly can say I admire Nicholas Sparks. He cranks out these books, which sell millions, and I'd rather have that than respect of my peers or integrity, which are loose concepts at best anyway.  You write from your heart, and hope it leads to your wallet.  Not.  Easy.  To.  Do.


At July 21, 2011 at 1:12 PM , Blogger Sean Craven said...

Heh. You know how I can tell you aren't fucking around here? The growing, grudging respect for Sparks. When you get serious about the arts, you can get a really strange love/hate affair going with hacks.

At July 21, 2011 at 1:22 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

No, I'm definitely not fucking around. The easiest thing to do here would be to dismiss a guy like Sparks; he's an easy target. And I'd do it. Except for one thing. MILLIONS UPON MILLIONS by his books. He's six or seven of them made into films. And, yes, the average man is an idiot (we live in a country where 17% of the people think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife). Still... you've got to be able to learn what you can, where you can. And Sparks is doing something right. Do I "like" it? Fuck no. Some of the writing makes my skin crawl. But I respect him, which is more than I can say about a lot of writers...

At July 21, 2011 at 2:32 PM , Blogger Sean Craven said...

You know what I'm looking for? The things I can say to the monkeymass with clean hands and composure. You can't sell big unless you can hit audiences on either side of the intelligence bell curve, and there is no shame in doing so honestly.

But damn.


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