Hit Lit

by Barb, winding down her days in Key West

I’m reading a fascinating book called Hit Lit by Edgar-award winner James W. Hall, the author of fourteen mystery novels featuring Thorn, an off-the-grid loner in Key Largo. Hall teaches writing and literature at Florida International University and he was one of Sherry Harris’s first writing teachers. Knowing that, I went to hear him speak at the Key West Library last year.

His latest book is a thriller with a female protagonist and is published by Thomas and Mercer, the Amazon imprint. I found both of these choices interesting–the female protagonist and the publisher. But I found the premise of his book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers even more intriguing. Over years of teaching popular fiction, Hall and his students investigated what elements made a book a mega-bestseller. They took the books apart and put them together again, looking for commonalities and differences.

In Hit Lit, Hall examines twelve of them. None of these books are ordinary bestsellers. Most have sold tens of millions of copies. They are

  • Gone with the Wind, 1936, Margaret Mitchell
  • Peyton Place, 1956, Grace Metlalious
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960, Harper Lee
  • The Valley of the Dolls, 1966, Jacqueline Susann
  • The Godfather, 1969, Mario Puzo
  • The Exorcist, 1971, William Peter Blatty
  • Jaws, 1974, Peter Benchley
  • The Dead Zone, 1979, Stephen King
  • The Hunt for Red October, 1984, Tom Clancy
  • The Firm, 1991 John Grisham
  • The Bridges of Madison County, 1992, Robert James Waller
  • The Da Vinci Code, 2003, Dan Brown

So already the list is interesting, right? Because some of these giant bestsellers are still with us, whereas others I would guess are rarely read. Despite the inclusion of The Da Vinci Code, Hit Lit, which was published in 2012, focuses on bestsellers of the 20th century, which is perhaps why there is no mention of J.K Rowling. Or maybe Hall didn’t think it would be interesting to have his students analyze books they probably already knew well. In fact, there’s no fantasy on the list at all, though The Dead Zone is about pre-cognition and The Exorcist is about satanic possession.

Hall finds twelve features that all these books have. I won’t go through them all, just a few that I found the most interesting.

  • The “protagonists share a high level of emotional intensity that results in gutsy and surprising deeds. These actions may not always take the form of swashbuckling heroics, but rest assured, not one of these heroes or heroines sits idly on the sidelines pondering or strikes endless matches to watch them burn while stewing about the great issues of the universe…Our heroes and heroines act. They act decisively.”

This isn’t much of a revelation and indeed it’s one of the early observations of the book. Almost a gimmee. I’ve thought about this a lot in the context of cozy mysteries. I have noticed in my own writing and in others that once the protagonist commits to the hunt, the book comes alive. Her relentless forward motion drives the same in the book. When I critique manuscripts for unpublished writers the most common issue I see is an amateur would-be sleuth wandering through her day, “observing” things that will later become clues, but not driving the action of the story. These manuscripts are always flat.

The idea of relentless forward motion goes along with Hall’s twin observation about emotional intensity. The protagonists in these books believe in something intensely and are willing to fight for it. We may not agree with Scarlett’s romantic notions of antebellum plantation life, but we get the idea of home and why that’s worth fighting for.

  • These books tell a human story set against a sweeping backdrop. The story itself may be on a small scale–an immigrant family making it in the new world, a young girl coming of age in a small southern town, a top Harvard Law grad starting his first job. But while the story is small, the canvas is big–organized crime, racial upheaval, the “greed is good” ethos of the 1980s.

I thought this was a fascinating observation. It reminded me of a more recent bestseller, Gone Girl. The book is inextricably anchored in the aftermath of the recent recession. Both lead characters are journalists, and junk journalists at that. The dislocation of the move from print media to digital, accelerated and exacerbated by the recession, results in both losing their jobs at the same time Amy’s parents lose their money and hers. Since both main characters are journalists, they knew how to manipulate the media, as it goes through its own changes. Small story. Huge backdrop.

  • The Golden country. The idea of a beautiful home, a beautiful time and an inevitable exile. Tara before the war. Michael Corleone in Sicily. Scout’s innocent summer days with Gem and Dill.

The Eden story is never far away, and all of these books include an element of it. I wondered how, in more recent books, where the action must start right away, authors painted this picture. As Hall tells us, in The Firm, Grisham begins with the protagonist Mitch McDeere’s wife returning to their law school student apartment. He tells her of his great (too great, as it turns out) job offer. They eat Chinese food and drink white wine. This all happens in a few paragraphs. The call back in the book to this Eden is a single sentence, when Mitch says to his wife, “I think we were happier in the two-room student apartment in Cambridge.” It’s brief, but it is there.

In cozies the Eden is our communities before the murder, which may play out in chapters or a half a scene. The murder upends that and the hero must find the snake and chase him out. Though we know things will never quite be the same.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed Hit Lit and may have more things to say on it another time. It’s written in a highly accessible style and packed with examples. At times, Hall really has to strain to prove all twelve books have all twelve elements, but I forgave that because I was buying what he was selling.

Readers: What do you think? Do mega-bestsellers have common elements? Remember it’s not about whether you liked the books, it’s about why they sold.

Better

By Sherry — wishing you all a lovely day

I’m still thinking about the release of A Good Day To Buy which came out last week. With every book that comes out I think, “the next book has to be better.” Most writers (at least I hope it isn’t only me) have a tiny voice in their heads telling us we are frauds, fakes, and phonies. It’s the voice I have to shove aside or I’d never write another word. Every time a book comes out I’m afraid I’ll see a comment that says, “It wasn’t as good as the last one.” Or everyone will be thinking, “well she had a good run.” Yes, my head can be a very scary place to live some days.

To counteract those voices I’ve been reading two books on writing. The first one is Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of The Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall. Barbara Ross knew I was a Hall fan. She saw him speak in Key West, told him I was now published, and had him sign a copy for me.

Between 2000 and 2003 I lived in the panhandle of Florida. At the time Florida International University was running a fabulous writing conference there every fall. One year Hall (who writers thrillers) was one of the teachers and he was working on this book.

One of the things I’ve never forgotten was when he talked about what does make a book last through the years. He said people want to learn something and thought perhaps this might go back to our puritanical work ethic. Fast forward to the present and it’s made me wonder if that is one of the reason cozy mysteries are so popular. Not only do readers get to go an adventure and try to solve the mystery, but they learn something. It might be a new recipe, yard sale tip, knitting pattern, or craft – the variety is endless.

In Hit Lit, Hall says, “The fierce loyalty readers feel for a certain characters grows out of a shared connection with the character’s emotional journey.” That resonates with me, the books I love be they mysteries, thrillers, romances, or literary, are all about the characters. Everything else is icing on the cake.

The second book is The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write Beneath the Surface by Donald Maass. Author Leslie Budewitz mentioned it on Facebook – thank you, Leslie! Maass says, “What shapes us and gives our lives meaning are not the things that happen to us but their significance.” Down a few paragraphs he says, “We are stories. Plot happens outside but story happens inside. Readers won’t get the true story, though, unless you put it on the page—both the big meaning of small events and the overlooked implications of large plot turns.”

I work with Barb Goffman who is an independent editor. After I’ve written the first draft I send it off to her. The first book we worked together on was The Longest Yard Sale – there were many notes in that one that said, “What is Sarah thinking?” or “Let us see how Sarah reacts.” I’ve had less of those comments as time has passed but it’s a valuable lesson in developing characters. It’s something I easily see in manuscripts when I edit but not always in my own.

It’s interesting that both Hall and Maass use some of the same authors as examples in their books like Stephen King and Harper Lee. I have hard copies of both books so I can mark them up, put in tabs, and refer back to passages. I’m only about a quarter of the way through each book, but I already know that they will make my writing better.

Readers: Is there an emotionally significant event in a book that has stuck with you? Please try to avoid spoilers — maybe mention a title or character that affected you. Writers: Do you have a favorite writing conference? I’d love to go to another great writing conference!