Oct 8, 2012

Is the Literary Blockbuster the Next Frontier?

by Stacy Clark

Is it possible to write a well-crafted, complex, meaningful literary novel that’s also a page-turner and commercial success—even a blockbuster? James Joyce Scholar, Susan Sutliff Brown thinks so.

We met Brown at the San Miguel Writers Conference last February, where she presented to a standing room only crowd her approach to transcending the polarity between literary and commercial fiction.

In Brown’s most popular workshop, James Joyce Meets Judith Krantz, writers are challenged to create a fresh new genre—the literary blockbuster—which merges the goals and devices of serious fiction with those that keep readers up all night.

Speaking later, we agreed that a literary contest aimed at bridging the long-standing divide between these two literary worlds would be a fascinating experiment. Thus, Inkubate’s 2012 Literary Blockbuster Challenge was born.

Brown remains motivated by a key development—the discovery of the blockbuster formula in James W. Hall’s new release: Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers.

Brown explains:

“Creative writing professor James W. Hall has discovered and published the formula common to mega-blockbusters. In a study of bestsellers from Peyton Place, Gone with the Wind, and To Kill a Mockingbird, to Valley of the Dolls, The Godfather, Jaws, and The Da Vinci Code, Hall has identified twelve ingredients common to these strikingly different bestsellers.”

Without compromising content or style, Brown encourages writers to add Hall’s blockbuster “code” to their unpublished literary manuscript. “They’ll want to read Hall’s book, of course, but they’ll also see references to his code in Parts II and III of the PDF guide I created to help writers transform their manuscripts into marketable works of fiction.”

Are you the writer who will bridge the long-standing gap and write something philosophically meaningful that readers will want to take to the beach? If so, “a literary blockbuster is within reach and there are a number of ways to begin,” says Brown.

  • Dust off that beautifully written literary novel you haven’t sold and add the ingredients that make it a page-turner.
  • Confront the hero of your whodunit with an emotional abyss that causes a character change even as the mystery is resolved.
  • Write an entirely new novel that combines the formulas of literary and commercial fiction.

Ready to get started? Need a skilled literary coach? Dive into Susan Brown’s Blockbuster Guide.

And feel free to share it with your friends and colleagues!

You can hear Brown speak in person at the 2013 San Miguel Writers Conference. While there, you can also savor the expertise of many other Inkubate friends, including Ray Bradbury’s goddaughter and presenter, Elizabeth Eve King, award-winning Children’s book author, Dianna Hutts Aston, PEN Mexico's President and contest judge, Jennnifer Clement, and every writer’s favorite literary agent, Oakland-based Andy Ross. You may want to contact Andy now to set up a manuscript review during the San Miguel Writers Conference.

Feb 27, 2012

Erasing the Line Between Literary and Commercial Fiction

by Stacy Clark

Writers loved the workshop I attended, last week, in San Miguel de Allende. Led by Susan Sutliff Brown, Ph.D., a James Joyce Scholar and a top-notch literary coach, “Everything You Need to Know About Creating Great Fiction in 90 Minutes or Less” was a fast-paced literary adventure. We couldn’t get enough of Brown’s anecdotes involving the “hybridization” of fiction.

“Open with a violation of the natural order of things,” Professor Brown directed as we endeavored to write an introductory passage of a hybrid novel, whereby a tantalizing, addictive storyline is delivered with great literary style. “If Henry James had done that, he’d have been so much more readable,” Brown argued.

This hybrid, Brown explained, was pioneered by a new breed of literary fiction writers that emerged in the 1990s, when well-written detective series and mysteries reached best-seller status. “These novels shared three common traits,” Brown outlined—“astute characterization; psychological complexity; and well drawn scenes.” Brown and the standing room only crowd of aspiring authors smiled when she suggested, by way of example, a “page-turning slasher novel with significant psychological importance and literary merit.”

So, who are these hybrid best-sellers? Consider James Lee Burke's Black Cherry Blues and Dennis Lehane's Mystic RiverThe authors, who were teaching creative writing by day, while polishing their own works at night, realized that to actually sell a book they would have to revise, yet again, and incorporate a commercial formula. Lehane and Burke thus set out to blend classic literary themes, such as the distribution of wealth and power, corporate corruption and class conflict with a healthy and unapologetic dose of well-crafted entertainment. And, it worked! And then there is Daniel Woodrell's Give Us A Kiss. Woodrell came out of the prestigious Iowa Writers' School and has approached crime fiction from the point of view of the criminals themsleves. 

How to get started?

Brown suggests reviewing this formula for a successful novel, identified in James Hall's soon-to-be-released book, Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers:

Describe a crime or serious violation on the first page;

Choose a hot-button topic and hook the reader, at the very beginning, with a puzzle, riddle, or unresolved problem;

Create a main character that is rugged and rebellious and likely tired of the status quo and a fictional family that is fractured, non-traditional and conflict-ridden; and then,

Fill the story with insider knowledge and endless minutiae about an unfamiliar world or secret world.

If you would like to attend Brown’s next workshop, she will present “James Joyce Meets Judith Krantz” on Friday, April 20th (9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) at The Woodstock Writers Festival

Stacy Clark, a co-founder of Inkubate, is also an educator, writer and researcher who lives in Dallas, Texas.