More Fiction Questions
January 3, 2009 | Written by admin
Happy New Year! I hope you had a fun-filled celebration, got home safely, and this morning you're probably asking the same question I am: What in the world is ABC thinking by having Dick Clark on the air? Look, I loved Dick Clark's American Bandstand. He's an iconic figure in American music, and looked 25 for roughly 40 years. But…the man had a stroke, for goodness' sake. You can't understand him. He's lost his voice. He sometimes can't think of the word he wants. He screwed up the countdown as the ball dropped (how hard is it to count down from 30?). It's like watching somebody's ancient grandpa on TV. Yikes. It makes you sad just to watch him. Why doesn't somebody put their arm around the man and say, "Times up, Mr. Clark. You've had a great run. Now we're going to let Ryan Seacrest run it on his own…"
And with that happy opening, I've had a bunch more fiction questions come in…
Patricia wrote and asked, "What's the difference between a fiction 'series' and a 'trilogy'? I understand in a series each book must stand alone, but what about a trilogy? It's all one big story broken up into sections, therefore each book does not stand alone. If you pick up the second or third book in a trilogy, you'll be lost because you need to start from the beginning…like the Lord of the Rings."
A series is a list of books that generally have a continuing character, though sometimes it's the place that continues, or it's a family saga with various characters all related. John D. MacDonald's wonderful Travis McGee series is a great example, featuring the yacht-living fixer getting in and out of scrapes. Sherlock Holmes, Jules Maigret, and Adam Dalgleish are other well-known examples of series characters, as are the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Nick Carter, Perry Mason, etc. The 82nd Precinct series uses a setting for its series, and the characters come and go over time. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia is a series, yet it's not presented in a chronological manner (The Magician's Nephew is one of the last books, but it takes place ages before all the others). With each of these books, you can pull any one out, read it, and enjoy the story. Reading the other books is not necessary to enjoy the one you've got.
A trilogy is nothing more than a three-book series. Sometimes the story has three separate parts, such as Ludlum's Bourne trilogy or Auster's New York trilogy, but in those cases each story stands on its own. In a few cases a story is simply too long to tell in one volume, so the publisher has to release the novel in two or three volumes…but that's becoming very rare. In the real world of publishing and selling books, each book must stand on its own, and be able to be read and enjoyed without reading the others in series. And I'm sorry to say you use faulty logic in pointing out Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. That was not written as a trilogy — it was a prologue and six books, plus an appendix. It's got a fascinating history — it was only published in three volumes because of the paper shortages in Britain after the war. I don't believe Tolkien referred to the books as a "trilogy."
Pam asked, "Is it true that fiction publishers prefer series for kids over a series for adults?"
While there's no hard and fast rule about this, I think it's fair to say that, in the real world, it's easier to sell a kids series than an adult series. That's because the investment in a kids series is smaller, and the publisher is hoping to get kids hooked on a series of sales. Much tougher to get adults to buy into a series — in fact, I know some publishers have a policy of not going beyond three books with any particular character.
Ty wrote and noted, "Every now and then you'll see a debut novelist in the general market pop out of nowhere with a six-figure advance after a fierce bidding war. How does that happen? Where does the buzz come from to create a frenzy like that for someone unknown?"
The reason it makes the headlines is because it's so rare, Ty. Sometimes a publisher gets a story that has huge potential. The storyline, the writing, the expected audience are all viewed as extremely strong. When I was a publisher with Time-Warner, we could pick two titles per year and call them a "make-book" — projects that were going to get a lot of marketing and publicity helps, and were going to be pushed by our sales staff, even though the author was unknown. Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian was a make-book (though I had nothing to do with that one), and it got so much pre-publication buzz it became the first ever debut novel to release as a New York Times #1 bestseller. And yes, the author was paid a king's ransom — a $2 million advance. That said, Kostova worked on her novel for ten years, and created a fascinating story. Still, it was the publisher who decided to make it a cause ce'le'bre. A similar thing happend a few years earlier at Time-Warner, when they paid $1 million to Nicholas Sparks for his debut novel, The Notebook.
A couple thoughts on these and other, similar, stories: This doesn't happen often. When it does, the story is always big and captivating. The writing always shines (and while I may not be the biggest Nick Sparks fan, I'm certainly willing to concede he writes a story that is readable and emotional). The publishing house really gets behind it and decides they are going to make this project a best-seller. They spend a lot of time, effort, and money on creating buzz for the book before it releases, then they support it with a ton of marketing after it releases. That's where these make-books come from. And you should know that they're risky — they don't always work; and when one fails, some editor somewhere is going to take the heat for costing the company so much money.
Don and James wrote to ask, "Why do some people edit fiction with the wisdom of Obi Wan Kanobi, but when they write their own novels they have the mentality of Forest Gump?"
Because editing and writing are two different skills. They are related, but not the same. A great songwriter isn't necessarily a great singer. A world famous choreographer may not be one of the best dancers. I know you're a sports fan, and one of the things we've seen in sports is that a great player generally makes a lousy coach (in fact, in football and basketball, the best coaches were normally average or below-average players — perhaps because the game did not come easy to them, they needed to study the fundamentals more, and thus became better at thinking through the game). So a great editor, one who really understands what it takes to work on a good manuscript and make it even better, may not be able to write a great novelist herself. And there's no shame in that. I'm 50, and as I've gotten older, I've developed a much better sense of the work it takes to become great at anything. Malcolm Gladwell has surmised that it takes about 10,000 hours to become really great at anything. So (to go back to our coaching analogy) you can bet the guy coaching and winning with a professional sports team really knows his stuff — and, in fact, knows much more than all those dipstick fans writing letters to the editor and complaining about his team. The people making a living at singing are blessed by God with incredible voice and talent, and probably worked as hard as anyone else who becomes successful in a chosen career. I know that the people who dance professionally are SO good they expose the rest of us amateur hoofers. I've said it before — the editors who last in this business are generally VERY good at what they do. Listen to them…even if they've never published a book.