Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights; Anna Sewell – Black Beauty; Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind; Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago; JD Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye; Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man; Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar…
What do these authors have in common? They published only one novel. One book whose style and substance has resonated for readers ever since.
Was one book enough for these authors? In some cases, it seems that is the case – to write only one novel was a choice. In other cases, it may be that life intervened; might Margaret Mitchell have published a second novel, after the Pulitzer success of Gone with the Wind, had she not been hit by a car and killed? If we can take anything from the publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee it is that authors can surprise you with a new work, and it is never too late to publish again.
Of course, plenty of authors write more than a single book (some, indeed, become known for being prolific). They write for either or both of the following reasons:
1) A desire to be read (the more books you write, the more you are read)
2) A need to write
The first reason may ebb and flow through a writer’s lifetime, or indeed dissipate entirely if the experience of publishing novels does not marry with expectations. But the latter reason is something entirely different …
It was an article about the author AS Byatt, entitled ‘I Have Not Yet Written Enough’, that made me ponder the question of when enough is enough. The interview asks:
‘Do you feel you’ve written enough?’
To which Byatt, who has been suffering ill health, replies: ‘No… I’ve got this great big book… I shall go on writing it as though I shall live long enough to write it well enough for me to finish it. And if I don’t, I won’t know. There is that.’
She talks also about times in her life when she did not write – for several years after losing her son, for example. But her answer to ‘Have you written enough?’ is a resounding ‘No’.
My feeling is that once you have opened the door to writing, to publishing novels, then that is not a door that is easily closed again. For periods of time, when life intervenes or you need time to reflect and rest and read, the door is ajar. But for most authors, closing the door entirely, and then locking it and throwing away the key – that is like sucking all the oxygen from the room and expecting still to breathe.
I am reminded here of Anaïs Nin’s words: ‘If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.’ We writers do breathe out in writing. When writing is part of who you are, there is no ‘enough’, there is only the desire to keep breathing, keep writing.
Isaac Asimov was one of the most world’s most prolific writers; he wrote or edited more than 500 books. When asked in an interview, ‘What would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?’ he replied, ‘Type faster.’
My own answer to that question would be different, I know – time with family matters more to me than words. But still, I would try to finish my work in progress, to infuse it with the very last of my mortal spirit so that it stands, along with my other books, as a legacy to my family.
As AS Byatt puts it so beautifully in her novel Possession:
‘I am a creature of my pen. My pen is the best of me.’
I do not know that I would be a writer today were it not for fairy tales. I was fortunate to have parents who had a well-stocked library and who believed in reading to their daughters; it was on their knees, as a very young child, that I discovered the Arabian Nights and the folk tales put into print by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson – and into my head burst genies and dragons and princesses and knights and castles and cottages… and loss and darkness and love and light.
It was not only books, however, that awakened in me a fascination with fairy tales. My governess, Zula, harnessed the age-old tradition of oral storytelling (which of course predated the formalisation of fairy tales in print). She could weave a tale from her own imagination that rendered me completely spellbound; her words painted the most captivating scenes in my mind. Over the many years that Zula told me stories, she taught me how to be inspired by an age-old tale and turn it into something new and exciting; in essence, she taught me how to be a writer.
In 2004, writer Christopher Booker published a book on storytelling entitled The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. In this seminal work, he introduces seven core stories that are at the foundation of all stories, from ‘ancient myths and folk tales via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today’. Fairy tales feature prominently: Cinderella, for example, is the core rags to riches story; Beauty and the Beast is a rebirth story; Goldilocks is a tale of voyage and return.
A fairy tale, then, is not a literary form to dismiss as childish or fantastical. It is the foundation for any modern fictional writing. Certainly, readers of my own romance fiction will feel the resonance of the stories of my childhood, and that is where they will find their security, their comfort with the story. They can hold fast to what they know as I take diversions from the old and familiar, to I tell my own story.
I was inspired to think about the appeal of fairy tales this week by a recent news item on the subject. Have you heard that a new Mark Twain fairy tale is to be published in September, on the 150th anniversary of his first book’s publication? The story, entitled ‘The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine’, is described thus in the publisher’s synopsis:
In a hotel in Paris one evening in 1879, Mark Twain sat with his young daughters, who begged their father for a story. After the girls chose a picture from a magazine to get started, Twain began telling them the tale of Johnny, a poor boy in possession of some magical seeds. Later, Twain would jot down some rough notes about the story, but the tale was left unfinished . . . until now.
Plucked from the Mark Twain archive at the University of California at Berkeley, Twain’s notes now form the foundation of a fairy tale picked up over a century later. With only Twain’s fragmentary script and a story that stops partway as his guide, author Philip Stead has written a tale that imagines what might have been if Twain had fully realized this work:
Johnny, forlorn and alone except for his pet chicken, meets a kind woman who gives him seeds that change his fortune, allowing him to speak with animals and sending him on a quest to rescue a stolen prince. In the face of a bullying tyrant king, Johnny and his animal friends come to understand that generosity, empathy, and quiet courage are gifts more precious in this world than power and gold.
Illuminated by Erin Stead’s graceful, humorous, and achingly poignant artwork, this is a story that reaches through time and brings us a new book from America’s most legendary writer, envisioned by two of today’s most important names in children’s literature.
This publication of a newly discovered manuscript by a respected writer of old is following a trend in publishing (I wrote about this last year). It’s fascinating that there is such excitement over a new fairy tale – and not only because it was written by the author of ‘The Great American Novel’.
I think the interest in this new story comes down to a recognition that fairy tales are not ‘just for children’; they are for life. They are the foundations of stories, because the archetypes within them are timeless. More than that, though, they are a source of comfort, solace and strength. A fairy tale transports you back to childhood, when dragons were real and, most importantly, could be defeated.
As Albert Einstein said: ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’
‘What’s the formula for a bestselling book?’ So read an attention-grabbing headline in the Guardian last week.
The article was prompted by a list of those books that have sold more than 250,000 copies in the UK since 2000, compiled by Specsavers for their inaugural ‘Bestseller Awards’ (I confess I am a little bemused as to why an award is required for sales; I would think the sales were reward enough).
The top-50 list is fairly eclectic, ranging from classic fiction like Of Mice and Men to new epics like Game of Thrones; clear blockbusters like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code to quieter word-of-mouth hits like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Kite Runner; long-time children’s favourites like Dear Zoo and The Very Hungry Caterpillar to fresh stories like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Gangsta Granny.
What really stands out in this list is the number of titles that have been explosive sensations, creating a new trend. From Fifty Shades to Twilight to Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to The Alchemist to Gone Girl, these are books that set imaginations on fire and caused readers to say ‘have you read?’ and publishers to say ‘we must find the next [insert bestseller] and quickly capitalise on this trend’.
So what are the common factors of these bestselling books? What’s the formula for emulating their success? Is it about style of writing, type of protagonist, length of book, name of author (gender-neutral seems to do well)? Does success come down to cover and price point and the creativity and budget of the marketing campaign?
No doubt all of these factors play a part, but no one can definitely analyse these books and deduce a formula that writers can follow in order to secure a quarter of a million sales or more.
In fact, in analysing these books only one commonality stands out to me: many of these books (and, I would argue, the best ones) were written with heart – with passion, from a place of authenticity. The writer wrote the book that had to be written, the book that was in them to write; they didn’t write to please the market, to chase or start a trend, to attempt to crack the bestseller formula.
I believe that writing authentically, perfectly in tune with the muse, is the only way to meaningfully connect with readers. No one can predict exactly which books will make evangelists out of readers, forging so powerful a connection that the reader feels compelled to encourage others to read the book as well. Attempting to create such a connection is pointless; it is not within the author’s control.
‘What’s the formula for a bestselling book?’ My answer: there isn’t one. The more important question is this: ‘What’s the formula for writing a book that moves a reader?’ Writing a bestseller shouldn’t be the aim of an author; that’s writing with hunger – for riches, for fame, for glory – rather than writing because you are a writer, because writing is as necessary as breathing.
The true goal of an author must be to write a book that moves readers – to wonder, to tears, to laughter, to love. How does an author do this? By being courageously, starkly honest on the page, and then leaving the rest to fate, chance, the universe, serendipity, God, whatever force you believe in.
… so wrote playwright Christopher Marlowe in this speech for Doctor Faustus:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips sucks forth my soul, see where it flies!
Come Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena!
These lines date from the sixteenth century, and yet their meaning resonates to this day. For a kiss can be so soulful: remember ‘Soul meets soul on lovers’ lips’ (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound). A kiss is also of pivotal importance in a love story, whether at the beginning, at the end or as a turning point.
Recently, TLC television network conducted research of 2,000 adults in the UK to discover the nation’s favourite on-screen kiss. In first place was Rose and Jack’s kiss in Titanic. The top of the list is as follows:
1. Titanic (on the front deck of the Titanic)
2. Lady and the Tramp (kiss over spaghetti)
3. Ghost (Sam and Molly’s last kiss)
4. Pretty Woman (kiss on the fire escape)
5. Dirty Dancing (kiss at the end)
6. Bridget Jones’s Diary (kiss in the snow)
7. Spider Man (the upside kiss)
8. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (kiss in the rain)
9. Gone with the Wind (‘You need kissing badly’)
10. The Empire Strikes Back (Han Solo and Princess Leia’s kiss)
11. The Notebook (kiss in the rain)
12. An Officer and a Gentleman (Richard Gere and Debra Winger)
My personal favourite has to be Gone with the Wind, although I think I prefer the scene in which Rhett and Scarlett almost kiss, but Rhett declares: ‘No, I don’t think I will kiss you, although you need kissing, badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.’
Which is your favourite on-screen kiss?
I confess, while I love to watch movies, and go to the theatre, I am far more likely to be found immersed in a literary world, and consequently when I consider kisses in love stories it is fiction that springs at once to mind.
Take a look at this excerpt from the novel Gone with the Wind:
“Scarlett O’Hara, you’re a fool!”
Before she could withdraw her mind from its far places, his arms were around her, as sure and hard as on the dark road to Tara, so long ago. She felt again the rush of helplessness, the sinking yielding, the surging tide of warmth that left her limp. And the quiet face of Ashley Wilkes was blurred and drowned to nothingness. He bent back her head across his arm and kissed her, softly at first, and then with a swift gradation of intensity that made her cling to him as the only solid thing in a dizzy swaying world. His insistent mouth was parting her shaking lips, sending wild tremors along her nerves, evoking from her sensations she had never known she was capable of feeling. And before a swimming giddiness spun her round and round, she knew that she was kissing him back.
“Stop–please, I’m faint!” she whispered, trying to turn her head weakly from him. He pressed her head back hard against his shoulder and she had a dizzy glimpse of his face. His eyes were wide and blazing queerly and the tremor in his arms frightened her.
“I want to make you faint. I will make you faint. You’ve had this coming to you for years. None of the fools you’ve known have kissed you like this–have they? Your precious Charles or Frank or your stupid Ashley–”
“I said your stupid Ashley. Gentlemen all–what do they know about women? What did they know about you? I know you.”
Phew! Now that’s a memorable kiss, don’t you think? For me, it’s a much more poignant and stirring than the visual version.
One of the best things about being a romance novelist is that you have free licence to daydream about kissing – a lot. My absolute favourite part of writing a novel is putting on paper the first kiss. Usually, as in my latest novel Legacy, I build up to it slowly: a polite peck on the cheek that lingers a little too long, lips pressed to the back of the hand in a courtly fashion, a night-time dream that is so vivid the heroine can almost feel his lips on hers.
Here’s an exclusive peek at that heady first kiss in Legacy, which has been a long time coming for both Luna and Ruy:
Before she knew it, he had taken her in his arms, his mouth closing over hers with all the pent-up fire that had burnt them both since they had first met. Unable to resist, she responded with equal fever. He pushed his body against her until she was backed up against the wall of the summerhouse. Flames erupted between them as their lips, hands and bodies tried to satiate the craving that had tortured their days and nights. The hard pressure of his arousal pushed against the curve of her thigh and pleasure surged through her like white, liquid heat. His tongue found hers, plunging into her mouth and retreating over and over again in such a wildly suggestive rhythm that she thought she would go mad. In that moment, with the whole of the world shut out, only the two of them existed.
That, I think, is the very essence of why a kiss is so important: it creates a moment in which only she and he exist. The world, with all its clamour and cynicism, falls away, and there is only sensation and soul.
I will leave you with my favourite poetic rendering of a kiss, taken from Lord Byron’s Don Juan (Canto II):
They look’d up to the sky, whose floating glow
Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright;
They gazed upon the glittering sea below,
Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight;
They heard the wave’s splash, and the wind so low,
And saw each other’s dark eyes darting light
Into each other – and, beholding this,
Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;
A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
And beauty, all concentrating like rays
Into one focus, kindled from above;
Such kisses as belong to early days,
Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,
And the blood’s lava, and the pulse a blaze,
Each kiss a heart-quake, for a kiss’s strength,
I think, it much be reckon’d by its length.
By length I mean duration; theirs endured
Heaven knows how long – no doubt they never reckon’d’
And if they had, they could not have secured
The sum of their sensations to a second:
They had not spoken; but they felt allured,
As if their souls and lips each other beckon’d,
Which, being join’d, like swarming bees they clung –
Their hearts the flowers from whence the honey sprung.
Recently, the arts news has been full of a major comeback: that of the vinyl record. In 2016, vinyl sales in the UK reached 3.2 million, which is the highest figure for 25 years, and represents a 53 per cent increase on the previous year. Most interesting is that this surge of vinyl sales has pushed past digital downloads, making the physical, ‘real’ record the more popular format.
No doubt the death of several prominent artists like David Bowie in part prompted vinyl sales, as fans looked to purchase lasting mementos. But the most compelling and most resonant reasons behind the impetus to choose vinyl over digital come down to authenticity, tangibility, quality and nature of the sound, and the ‘art’ of music creation and listening. Listeners want to turn back time and go back to basics. Music lovers enjoy the sound of vinyl and the experience of playing on a record player, and appreciate the record and its sleeve art as an objet d’art to be treasured.
Are you connecting the dots already between music and literature? There is no denying that a parallel can be drawn between the music industry and the publishing industry. Digital in both arenas has empowered creators to seek out their own audiences, and has opened up new ways for consumers to discover music/books. However, digital has driven down prices, and in doing so it has devalued the actual, tangible art – the books and the CDs or vinyl.
Now, just as music listeners are returned to vinyl, will readers who embraced ebooks make about turns and return to print?
Back in August last year, Market Watch reported that print sales in the US were on the rise. According to US Census Bureau statistics, print sales declined from 2009, but rose 6 per cent in the first half of 2016. The Guardian in the UK reported a similar story: ebook sales falling and print rising – not remotely at the level of vinyl, but certainly notable.
Readers, authors and publishers alike were shocked last week when popular distributor AllRomanceebooks.com suddenly announced its abrupt closure, after a decade of trading. The reason cited? ‘Growing concern over the state of the eBook market going into 2017’ (source: Bustle).
Do you have an ereader, an iPad or a Kindle or a Kobo? Do you enjoy reading on it, or is there a (growing?) disquiet about the format? Do you feel in a pull to print – if you have the choice, do you opt for a print book in your hands over an ebook? If I gift you one of my novels, is that more meaningful and special with a paperback or hardback for your shelf, or an ebook on your device?
I would love to hear your thoughts.