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 River. The 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.