Do you Want to Write a Blockbuster?

I’m still reading Zuckerman’s book and have come to an important realisation: I don’t want to write a blockbuster. I’ve always known that, but it’s good to have a reason for what has just been a feeling up to now.

The book is full of gems, no doubt about that, and Zuckerman advises that if I want only gems, I should skip the next chapter, which I probably shall, for it is a comparison between several outlines of a Follett novel. I’ve tried doing that kind of thing before and no doubt it is a brilliant exercise and I’m a dull student, but I shall probably pass on.

Here and there, however, he’s said things which make me tense up. For example, ‘For a writer attempting a blockbuster novel, I would not recommend a historical setting.’ He does say elsewhere he’s writing in 1993 and things could change. Certainly back then I was forever being told ‘historicals don’t sell’. Ha! And we always had the example of Joanna Trollope dangled in front of us, who began with historicals but suddenly saw sense and began to make a fortune writing contemporary fiction set in cathedral closes. And then there was Edith Pargeter, who stopped writing authentic stories set in the past, sensibly changed her name to Ellis Peters and created an anachronistic monk-detective.

So I’ve always known that, unless I see the error of my ways, I’ll never be rich and famous. But now I really know why.

It’s this: I write books I would like to read and I don’t like reading blockbusters. I suddenly realised that I’ve never read a blockbuster, not since Harold Robbin’s The Carpet Baggers when I was about 13 (I’d been told that there were a couple of pages in there that would answer all my questions).  And it was Mr Zuckerman who revealed to me why I haven’t when he said that, in order to write one, you need to create some larger-than-life characters and put them in extreme situations. Well, give me a choice in whether to watch the Godfather or Downton Abbey, I’d have no difficulty. I’ve never seen the Godfather and probably never shall. I’ve never read John Grisham, Stephen King, Robert Ludlum etc. etc. Am I a literary snob? Nope, just a type. We’re all a type, and there’s probably a dozen types to choose from.

But in principle Zuckerman is right, because thinking of Downton Abbey, as I am now (if you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of masters and servants in an English country house just before WWI), I have to say that the characters are larger than life, and the core situation is extreme.

The fact is, there are some principles in writing good fiction, and we need to know what they are. But it’s also useful to know where you stand in the spectrum that has Virginia Woolf at one end and Dan Brown at the other (no, I haven’t read him, either). I always tell my students, aim for the middle and a good story well told. You have to start somewhere…

14 thoughts on “Do you Want to Write a Blockbuster?

  1. Linda,
    I have recently been following your blog as I am (slowly) writing a historical fiction novel (my first). I have to say that your comments are informative and thought-provoking. My question to you is do you think it is possible to create an authentic character in a historical fiction novel that is “larger-than-life characters and put them in extreme situations” while remaining true to the time period and maintaining your integrity as an author? I guess I’m asking because I want my cake and eat it too! I want to write a great book but I wouldn’t mind at all if lots of people read it!

    Anthony

    • Anthony, that’s such a good question that I hardly dare begin to answer it. I think there’s going to be as many answers as there are authors of historical fiction which, let’s face it, covers a very broad spectrum. But I can answer for myself: I personally put truth and integrity first (to the absolute detriment of writing a blockbuster). I guess the trick is to find those characters in history who really were larger than life and did indeed find themselves in extreme situations. In my first novel it’s Lorenzo de’ Medici, who would rather be a poet and philosopher than a banker-statesman: his world is shattered by an assassination attempt. In my second it’s the poet, Poliziano, who was under the most extreme psychological attack by Lorenzo’s wife. In the third, it’s Savonarola. As the books were all written in first person, none of these was the main protagonist, but the narrator, poor love, although not larger than life, certainly suffered from extreme situations, mostly at his author’s behest. ‘Sorry, matey,’ I said, as I killed his loves ones and threw him into Savonarola’s monastery. It doesn’t pay to be a character in a novel, no matter how uplifting the final resolution!

  2. I would set out to write a blockbuster. If it becomes one, all well and good but the chances of that are pretty much zilch. And I’d rather be infamous than famous. That way at least I would be remembered for something. No, I write books I hope others will enjoy reading. I write books in the hope it will one day leave me well-off enough to be comfortable, prefably in a warmer climate than GB. I’ve read blockbusters. Most of them have failed to deliver, a load of twaddle, and more a success of a good marketing ploy. I only wish I could work out what that ploy is.

  3. Scrap that first sentence above in my previous comment. It should read “I would not set out to write a blockbuster.” mmm. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t succeeded. Fingers work faster than brain!

    • We all have that dream, Kit, but in this world of extremes it seems to work out as all or nothing. I wonder if the simple truth is that, if we don’t write blockbusters, then we must write for the love of writing, because we can’t help but write. My advice to the younger ones is, get a job where you can go freelance, a job that will feed your work and not leave you exhausted at the end of the week.

  4. Thanks, Helen, and oh, Celia, dream on! I think most of us would settle for that. One wonders how many celebrities are playing the game only to get work. A friend of mine who was a really brilliant actress became a star, took to drink, fell from grace. Sounds like the plot of a novel…

  5. Thank you for saying what I’ve been thinking. I recently refused to write a complimentary review for someone who churned out a “thriller”. Her only goal was to crack the Amazon best seller list, and she did that, if only for a day or so. But the book itself? Meh! I couldn’t see anything of value in it besides its ability to earn the author a few bucks. If that’s what it takes to produce a blockbuster, I’ll pass!

  6. I have never had aspirations to be on the New York Times bestseller list. I often wonder if I am strange for never wanting that.

    I’m not one to read a lot of blockbusters, either, and I certainly don’t write blockbusters. And I think that’s ok. My stories, set in WW2, are (hopefully) quietly powerful. That’s the way I want it. I don’t want to change who I am as a writer just to be a “blockbuster” author.

  7. I use that quote: “For a writer attempting a blockbuster novel, I would not recommend a historical setting.” in my PowerPoint presentation on historical novels. Things certainly have changed, and a number of historical novels have had nice runs on the NYT bestseller list in recent years. Wolf Hall, for example, qualifies as a blockbuster. In general, though, the historical novels that hit the bestseller list tend to be thinner novels (I mean in the sense of content, though many of them are also thinner physically) that I find unsatisfing. By thin, I guess I mean that the characters think, act and feel in simplified ways that fit the way we would like people to be rather than the way they really are. The “nice” characters are kinder, more patient, more forgiving, more obedient (or in the case of a feminist novel, more “spirited”) than real people, and the “bad guys” more purely evil – perhaps what Zuckerman means by “larger than life,” although I think one could also take the position that characters, literary or otherwise, are more appealing for readers when they are like real people with all their quirks and flaws and graces, but amplified in a way that makes them seem to leap off the page for readers.

    Zuckerman, if I remember correctly, does advise doing some mixing of flaws and graces so both protagonists and antagonists come off as rounded rather than stereotyped, but in general, the books that have tended to be more wildly popular with the public stop short of full realism, because so many readers prefer novels that push their comfort zones only to a certain point and no farther. Still, I think it’s valuable to consider guides like Zuckerman’s (one I like better is Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel with its companion workbook), because they include a lot of ideas that can be incorporated into fiction at the more literary end of the spectrum that will make it more compelling and exciting for readers who prefer literary fiction, as well. For example, Maass makes a superb suggestion in regard to descriptive passages, which often seem flat and make the story feel like it has come to a full halt in the work of unskilled writers: by using active verbs and other techniques which suggest that what is being described is on the brink of or in the process of transition, writers add a sense of movement and suspense to descriptive passages that can keep readers engrossed. A lot of literary writers do this really well, I think, whether as a conscious technique, or because their interest in whatever they may be describing is inherently related to their sense of its mutability.

  8. Many thanks, Margaret, for that very informed and inspiring response. Everyone should print it out and stick it on their wall. The point about using active verbs is so important – I’ll do a whole post on it tomorrow. Meanwhile my monitor died on me last night and I am, by grace and favour, on David’s computer and not to stay too long!

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