Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Making of a Best Seller: Chris Colfer and the Glee Effect

Last Sunday, my teenage daughter stood outside the local bookstore with more than 300 fans–adults, parents, teenagers, tweens, and others–excitedly waiting for Glee television actor Chris Colfer to show up to sign their purchased copy of The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell. The book is Colfer’s first novel, and it’s a best seller.

I have to admit, my heart sank a bit. Here, I have been toiling for more than two decades to improve and refine the craft of storytelling through my young adult novels, and I’m barely able to get out amazon.com’s cellar even with excellent reviews. The vast majority of authors are lucky to sell 300 copies of their books in a year, let alone one day. Colfer comes along with his first book and becomes an instant bestselling novelist. It’s easy to get jaded.

Colfer, however, deserves every penny he earns. And it’s not because his book is awesome, paradigm shifting, innovative or any more creative than my books or any of the books written by dozens of authors I know who have probably penned much better books. In fact, even though I haven’t read The Land of Stories, I’m sure it’s pretty good. (My daughter is a voracious reader and says it’s surprisingly good.)

What does Colfer have that gets him to the top of the best seller list that I (or my peers) don’t? Quite simply: a marketing platform.

No matter how excellent my stories are, how layered my characters are, or how much action I squeeze into my young adult novels, I don’t have anywhere near the breadth or size of the marketing platform that jettisoned Colfer to bestseller status. Colfer has 1.5 million followers on twitter. I have…somewhere significantly fewer than 1.5 million.

Jealousy and envy sometimes gets the better of those of us who are less successful. Colfer may have written a good novel, some may say, but he didn’t pay his dues. He didn’t hone his craft. He parlayed his celebrity into a book deal with a major publishing house with scads of editors who can poor over his manuscript to make sure it was worthy of an international book marketing program. Hundreds of thousands of dollars will likely be spent shuttling Colfer around to book signings, launching advertising campaigns, and leveraging social networking sites.

Didn’t Colfer just luck into being a best selling author? No. In fact, emphatically no. There is nothing about Colfer’s success that is purely a result of chance. He’s paid his dues. He just paid them in a different medium: television and film.

Colfer is a golden-globe winning actor on a television show that is an international pheonomenon. He has created on the silver screen a character that is as unique, layered and interesting as any created in a novel. While some element of luck clearly has played into Colfer’s hand, the reality is that Colfer still had to play the hand. He had to have the talent, skills, commitment, tenacity, and courage to take advantage of the opportunities when they were presented. Moreover, he had to have the personal and professional wherewithal to recognize that an idea could become a book that might, if played just right, launch his career in a new direction. I know of few successful authorst that are overnight successes, and the same is true for actors.

As a result, Colfer has a marketing platform that was capable of launching his first book to bestseller status. Call it the “Glee Effect.” That’s the real reason for his commercial success in the literarary market place, not necessarily fine prose, an innovative voice or creative story telling. And that’s fine. Why shouldn’t Colfer receive the same kinds of accolades we bestow on our peers in the writing community when they become commercially successful? Like any astute professional, Colfer has tapped into the value of a marketing platform that he developed, using the resources at his disposal and seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. After all, he didn’t have to have a twitter account. He could be a recluse, the proverbial artist who hypernates between projects and eschews contact with his fans. I can’t begrudge him for using that platform or a publisher from taking advantage of it. (I might think differently if he had written a bad book, but I don’t think that is the case.)

So, even with my books falling short of New York Times best seller status–for now–I am both impressed and pleased to see his success. Hats off to Mr. Colfer, and welcome to the literary world. May we all learn from your successes. And, I will read your book. As soon as my daughter finishes it.

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Competence, Craftsmanship and Art in Writing

In preparation for a talk on writing at Tallahass Community College last spring, I gave a lot of thought to writing and how writing improves over time. I’ve been a “professional” writer–I’ve been paid to write–for more than two decades now, and my writing abilities have improved dramatically.

Indeed, I remember my first English paper in Freshman composition at Colby College “earned” a D+ and the not so helpful comments that my writing was “unorganized and incoherent.” Fortunately, that just spurred me on to work on my writing, always opting for written assignments. Now, I have successfully published hundreds of articles, five nonfiction books, and three novels. At least the editors at these newspapers and publishers think my writing has improved!

But what is good writing? When aspiring authors ask published writers for advice, our answer is inevitably: Write! And write some more!

This advice is spot on, and it’s worth delving a little bit more into why learning to write well depends critically on writing a lot.

Let’s start with Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and a post I wrote earlier about when to approach literary agents (Nov 10, 2011). Gladwell talks about investing 10,000 hours in an activity (about 5 years working full time) before you can become expert in the field, and literary agent Ann Rittenberg translated that into writing. In short, don’t go to her with your first novel, unless you’ve already been writing for years before hand.

The point is that practice at a new skill or activity is essential to master it. Rarely does one become a great writer right outside the womb. I’ve lost count of the number of published novelists who have one, two, three or more unpublished manuscripts sitting in a dresser drawer because they weren’t good enough to publish. (I have one complete one, and two incomplete manuscripts.) Even in nonfiction, successful authors usually have a background as a writer–either writing lots of professional articles or, more commonly, working as newspaper reporters or editors.

This activity is essential to build up basic skills, or competence in writing. And it can’t be learned through osmosis or reading, both of which are passive activities. Good writing comes from active engagement in the activity of writing–testing out stories, logic, characters, plots, etc. Failures are much more common than successes.

Once basic skills are learned–remember learning basic lab skills in high school science before conducting real experiments?–then the writer can build on this basic skills to weave more complex stories, insight, or layers to characters. This is where the author becomes a craftsman; the writer can take a basic story, theme, or character, and add nuance and complexity to create something unique and different beyond the basic structure learned in the classroom (or on their own).

Once a writer develops their craft, they might be able to elevate their storytelling to an art form. This is where something truly unique and different emerges. Defining art is difficult, but you can usually detect art when your reaction is something along the lines of: “Wow, that was great, and I coudn’t have done that.” An artist creates something that can’t be duplicated because their style, perspective, and approach is so different that no one else shares enough of their personal DNA to reproduce it.

Authors who have raised their writing to an art form don’t rely on a formula even though formulas can create commercial succcess. Most successful authors are amazing craftsman, but they aren’t necessarily raising their craft to the level of art. And, to be fair, many authors aren’t interested in art.

Nevertheless, this framework for thinking about writing–going from competence to craftsmanship to art–may be useful for those embarking on a new found writing career.

This framework also helps explain why the admonition write, write, write is so important, and why successful writers are the ones that persevere.

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Is Violence Necessary in Children’s Literature?

Conflict is the essence of story, but does conflict need to include violence and physical aggression in children’s and young-adult literature? I’ve discussed this issue before in a youtube video and take the issue up in print over at Blogging Authors in a guest post published today. My short answer is “yes.”

As much as we may want to purge violence from our lives and our kids lives, the truth is that violence is a part of our reality. The recent shocking videos of bullying ranging from Karen Kleiner bus monitor case in Greece, New York to an ambush of a kid in Chillicothe, Ohio High School are ample evidence of this. But, it’s not just bullying–child soldiers populate rebel armies in Africa, children are being massacred in Syria, the drug trade ravages inner-city neighborhoods in the US as well as abroad. Systematically ignoring this violence when it is part of our every day lives does a disservice to our readers.

I know this might sound self-serving–after all I write young adult novels about pirates, bullies and martial arts–but I also think the forthright way in which my stories grapple with real world violence is one of the reasons why readers (and parents) appreciate them. Indeed, several of the reviews of A Warrior’s Soul have recognized that the main theme is that violence is not the answer.

Dealing with violence is inevitable if authors want to seriously address real issues facing kids (and their families). Our responsibility as authors is to embrace this as fact and deal with it in an ethically and morally responsible way by writing engaging stories with characters that either make the right decisions or face the consequences of making the wrong ones.

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