Tuesday, August 05, 2008

How to Write a Bestseller, Returning Books, and Amy Tan on Creativity

Here's a not-to-be-missed article from Scientific American, called The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love A Good Yarn. The scientific deconstruction of why people love a story. Sounds to me like a surefire way to write a bestseller. (And I'm only 5% joking: it's a good article.)

Oh, man, I think this is a writer's nightmare. (Thanks, Angie!) It's mine, at least. I have, one time only, returned a book because it promised a great read (the beginning was), and then the ending was so ridiculously awful I was so mad I spent $28 dollars on it that I returned it. And I'm very forgiving.

Have you ever felt so jipped you returned a book?

A small part of me also wonders if it's our times. Frankly, how many of those people just couldn't afford a book, and returned it because that's the only way they could read it? Or maybe they were like me: when I returned that one book, I had sacrificed some tight money on it, which is a big part of the reason I'd been outraged. I sacrificed for that book because the beginning was SO spectacular, and I felt the author had jipped me in the end!

I admire Amy Tan. So here she is:

25 bonus scribbles:

Angie 8/05/2008 09:47:00 AM  

Your "writer's nightmare" link goes to the same article as your "secrets of storytelling" link. Paste glitch?

Assuming you're talking about the Twilight issue, though, I strongly doubt that this is just a matter of a bunch of people treating a bookstore like a library because they're cheap. If there were really that many people who were willing to do that, there'd be a lot more bookstore returns on a regular basis. Or at the very least, other hugely anticipated books (like Deathly Hallows, for example) which might've been expected to have been bought by rabid fans who couldn't really afford them would've had similar return issues.

I've read a number of comment threads on the subject and there's serious anger, scorn and outrage over just how bad readers who are (or were) dedicated Twilight fans feel this last book was. Comparisons to "bad fan fiction" came up over and over and over, and most of these people read a lot of fanfic and know the bad stuff from the good stuff, and the difference between both of those and commercial fiction. Others (again, various people in various discussions) said that it looked rushed, like an unedited rough draft, like she'd just banged it out and shipped it off.

Another part of the problem was that the book was so hugely hyped and expectations were incredibly high. So assuming the book was significantly lower in quality than the previous three, the publicity hype would've magnified the natural disappointment of the readers.

I haven't read the book, but I've read several very detailed critical posts, with specific examples and excerpts, and it does sound like Ms. Meyers dropped the ball on this one in a number of ways.

She is a first-time writer, though, and a four-book series -- with a single encompassing story arc, rather than four completly separate, episodic stories -- is a huge and complex project to take on. I don't think it's all that shocking if a baby writer just couldn't keep a grip on the whole thing all the way to the end. Heck, plenty of baby writers can't keep a grip on a short story all the way to the end.

Unfortunately (ironically enough) Ms. Meyers hit it big and it looks like she couldn't live up to her marketing. Maybe it was unfair for her publisher to put this kind of pressure on her at this stage of her career. But there you go, that's how the business works. I hope she can learn from it, though, and come back better next time.


spyscribbler 8/05/2008 10:00:00 AM  

Angie, sorry about that! I fixed the link to you.

I really don't consider someone with five novels plus a novella in the bookstores a new writer. Especially considering her first book was bought, what, five years ago? (Give it a year and a half before publication.) So she'd been writing for some time before that, too.

Whatever the reason, it's definitely one of those things I watch with great fear and sympathy, to tell you the truth. I enjoyed the first one, for sure!

Angie 8/05/2008 10:07:00 AM  

No prob -- I've done the same thing. I have a template line I copy/paste when I want to link to something, and every now and then I forget to paste the actual URL I want over the example URL. :P

I really don't consider someone with five novels plus a novella in the bookstores a new writer. Especially considering her first book was bought, what, five years ago?

I don't see time as a major factor, though. I've known people who've been writing for decades whose skill level and understanding are still at what I'd call "baby writer" level. Maybe I need a new set of terms? [wry smile]

And aren't all her published works part of the same series? So in effect, she's still working on (or has just finished publishing) her first writing project. And like I said, it was a huge, complex one. I'm not going to read the whole series just so I can have a first-hand opinion about the last book :) but it still wouldn't shock me if she really did stumble right before the finish line. It's just a shame she had so many spotlights on her when she did.

If you do keep reading, post and let us know what you think of the last book?


Angie 8/05/2008 10:13:00 AM  

PS -- just finished the Storytelling article, and enjoyed it very much. The idea that our responses to fiction and what sorts of stories we like is hard-coded in the brain is very interesting. [ponder]


Melanie Avila 8/05/2008 01:06:00 PM  

Wow, that would suck beyond belief. How demoralizing! But the point is a good one - if you return it, the author may actually get the message. Unless the book burnings got back to her, she'd never know how unhappy her readers were.

But ouch!

StarvingWriteNow 8/05/2008 02:10:00 PM  

I don't think I've ever returned a book. But the way publishing is going, you never know.

Zoe Winters 8/05/2008 02:38:00 PM  

Didn't they have the book at the library?

This is part of why I think podcasts are such a good idea for novels. Some readers get the book for free in one format and then want to buy it in the other. Some love it but can't afford to buy it, but they still get exposed to it, and likely tell their friends about it.

Not every reader is a paying customer and I think that's okay.

spyscribbler 8/05/2008 03:18:00 PM  

Angie, you're right. (Although she did write another novel unrelated to the Twilight universe.) It sure is a complex one! Any series is a mess to manage, I swear!

Fascinating article, I agree. I need to read it again and think about it again.

spyscribbler 8/05/2008 03:20:00 PM  

Melanie, I keep thinking if I were her, I'd be in my house under the covers. But it seems the publicity is going well. Lots of parties and such. So at least it's not a mass uprising, yet!

Still that's a lot of returns!

spyscribbler 8/05/2008 03:21:00 PM  

Writenow, it's my only one. Except for a couple I've bought two of. Which I've actually done quite often!

spyscribbler 8/05/2008 03:38:00 PM  

Zoe, I don't know. I'm sure everyone that bought the copy actually wanted to own it. They were just so outraged by the ending, they wanted their money back.

It was the same with me. I loved the book; I wanted to own it. I'd read the first half in Borders. The opening was fantastic. I don't know what the hell happened at the end. It was a plain lazy writing ending, totally ridiculous lack of character development in the father. It was a horrible ending.

That said, I'm giving her second book a chance because it was charming and I was told the ridiculous ending would've been better if I was English. I don't know. We'll see. Hopefully she's gotten better!

Edie 8/05/2008 08:14:00 PM  

Interesting article. My favorite line was "romance--not just sex--has a biological basis in the brain."

I've never returned a book, but I normally don't buy hardcovers. I usually read the hardcovers from the library and wait until the book is out in paperback to buy it.

It's hard for me to believe all those people are returning it to get a free read. If they're such fans they can't wait to get it for free from their library, I'd think their intent is to read a book they love asap and keep it. I'm assuming most of them hated the ending so much they're returning it.

Robin 8/05/2008 08:58:00 PM  

I didn't know you could return a book if you didn't like the ending. That's crazy. It's like returning a dress if you don't get enough compliments.

Angie 8/05/2008 09:16:00 PM  

Robin -- from the comments I've read, it's not a matter of not liking the ending so much as it's a matter of believing the book was just that badly written.

It's less like returning a dress for not getting enough compliments as it is returning a dress because you wore it to a party and halfway through the evening a badly-sewn seam ripped out. The issue is poor craftsmanship.

Whether readers should have the right to protest poor craftsmanship by returning the product is another issue, but I don't think it's something which should be dismissed automatically.


spyscribbler 8/05/2008 09:22:00 PM  

Oh gosh, Zoe. I forgot what it's called. It's the English/Chick Lit Breakfast at Tiffany's spin-off. Gosh. Let me think, and when it comes to me, I'll email you.

spyscribbler 8/05/2008 09:24:00 PM  

Edie, I think you're right. It was just a stab, really, at hoping things weren't so bad for the author, LOL. I just couldn't bear the thought!

And this one case, I'd chosen this one hardcover over three paperbacks I'd wanted. Which is why, when the ending was a lazy, plot-hole-ridden, terrible mess, I was so mad I returned it.

spyscribbler 8/05/2008 09:26:00 PM  

LOL, Robin. I gotta gang up on you with Angie, on this one. ;-) It's more like buying a dress, and taking it home and finding the inside liner on the dress has a rip down the middle.

I don't know about Breaking Dawn, but the book I returned had a certain quality of storytelling and writing at the beginning, and then at the end? So not there. :-) I felt like I'd been promised a certain product and a different one had delivered!

spyscribbler 8/05/2008 09:28:00 PM  

Angie, you can do it for a movie. I've never tried, but one time I walked halfway out through a movie because it was more violence than I could take, and the girl was chatting with me and said people get refunds for such things all the time.

They don't let it get around, though, because some people would take total advantage.

Angie 8/06/2008 03:39:00 AM  

SS -- that makes sense. [nod] Figure, if people don't think about being able to do it, then they'll usually just suck it up. If a book isn't quite what you expected, you trade it in at a used bookstore. If a movie is disappointing, you just shrug and wish for your two hours and ten bucks back. In that sort of environment, people will only ask for refunds if they're seriously angry with how awful the thing was.

This is getting around, though, and I'm curious about how the social environment around things like books and movies might change once people become generally aware that you can get your money back on a bad book. In the Amazon forum discussion, a number of people said that the chains will all refund your money no questions asked if you bring the book back and it's still in new condition. If too many people realize this is an option, though, and start abusing it, I imagine that would change. :/

To me, the main party who messed up here is Ms. Meyer's publisher. We expect the publishers to be the gatekeepers of the book industry, and to let through only books which display a certain level of craftsmanship. We might not like what writers have to say or what they have their characters do, but the execution is supposed to be at least decent. It sounds like this wasn't and I'm wondering what her editor was thinking, letting this get by without squawking it and asking for rewrites.

If all that comes of this is that bookstores stop taking returns, that'd be unfortunate. If publishers learn that they can't rush whatever crap out the door, no matter how popular the author or the series, I'd consider that a win for pretty much everyone.


Bernita 8/06/2008 08:21:00 AM  

Nope. Have never returned a book. I'm the caveat emptor sort and accept the gamble and shrug if it sucks.

spyscribbler 8/06/2008 12:20:00 PM  

Angie, I people have every right to return if they feel they didn't get their money's worth. I know they DO, lol. I get returns, even on ebooks.

spyscribbler 8/06/2008 12:22:00 PM  

It is a gamble, Bernita. I keep the ones I shrugged at, but the one that made me angry, I didn't. And since I buy books already at home in my TBR pile ALL the time, I return those.

Robin 8/06/2008 01:20:00 PM  

Angie and Spy: OK. I'm partly convinced. If the dress was poorly made it's fair to return it. Yet, I think of all the shitty books I've read and wonder if I should have returned them. I've read the poorly written, the stinky ending, the bored and can't finish it...always assuming that it's a matter of taste, and up to me to find writers I like. I guess what these readers are saying is that she was a writer they liked, and she didn't give them the product she promised. So, you can't return the first book, but you can return the sequel. That's my conclusion.
If anyone returns my book I'm going to cry.

spyscribbler 8/06/2008 01:30:00 PM  

Awww, hugs, Robin! I'm told we get a few returns, sometimes. Maybe even on the ebooks, I'm not sure. Supposedly. Luckily, they don't tell me exactly how many; they just give me the total royalties. I just know that some books are returned, but I don't know whether they're mine, the other authors, or how many.

That's a very good thing. :-)