Writing Fiction: Do You Really Want to Write A Blockbuster?
A short review of “Making a Blockbuster” by Albert Zuckerman
The blockbuster book is one that sells hundreds of thousands of hardbacks, according to Zuckerman.
Most conventional wisdom repeats that this is what any ambitious writer wants to achieve. DW Smith has already given me a clue that this isn’t necessarily true.
He once had an editor that gave him the opportunity to be groomed into a Blockbuster author – and turned it down. Because he wouldn’t be able to write the type of fiction he enjoys most.
And enjoyment is the heart of writing.
Further, if “making a living” is your goal as an author, then this is more simply and quickly done by simply(!) cranking out volumes of genre fiction. And that sound is the second shoe dropping. Many, many authors have found themselves cracking six- and even seven-figures without ever mastering the craft of a “blockbuster”
What is a BlockBuster Book, really?
Zuckerman has quite a reputation as an editor. And editors work for the big (corporate) publishing houses in order to keep them profitable. He points out that the corporate publishers can’t survive unless they have several blockbusters each year to offset their losses. Acquiring editors have to find and nurture these authors along to get their required numbers of blockbusters – so they keep their job. (Jane Friedman has a great breakdown of the process here.)
I put Zuckerman’s book off originally, as the prose is stilted. But came back to it once more, as DW Smith recommended it as one of a short list of books to study.
The problem that comes up is in our modern age. The edition I read is a 2016 update. But it’s from someone (as Smith) who got their start in hardcopy published books. The current crop of authors I’ve been studying are making their big incomes by ebooks. Then they spread out into paperbacks and audiobooks to gain a wider base for their income.
Blockbusters might be too narrow an audience.
Zuckerberg defines the audience as: That public, which is affluent (with hardcover novels these days costing between twenty-five and forty dollars) and which comprises no more than 3 percent of our population, also tends to favor stories set in the worlds of characters who are powerful, rich, and famous, as opposed to environments inhabited by convicts, small farmers, blue-collar workers, welfare recipients, or even “average” middle-class families.
Bi-coastal elites, mainly. Very limited audience. (Not the type who made the Harry Potter series into bestsellers.)
Meanwhile, DW Smith points out that “the modern “blockbuster novel” that supports most of traditional publishing didn’t really come around until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and didn’t become part of the traditional publishing business plan until the 1980’s.” And perhaps a dinosaur now.
Also, there is the copy length (word count) that corporate publishers (and editors) expect. The best overall description I’ve found of this is laid out at TheWriteLife.
In short, they think that more is better. (Something to do with an impressive book is a thick hardback book.)
As covered elsewhere (several times) A writer could be publishing the whole book as short stories and being paid while building audience at the same time they would take to write the massive tome which (would probably) never find readers.
Also, that a story only should be as long as it needs to be.
The trick, as usual, is not how long, but how well a book is written.
To write a Damn Good Book (as JA Konrath phrases it) you have to work at it with every chapter, scene, sentence, and word. Takes some practice, and study, obviously.
That is the real use of Zuckerberg’s book – to find out what characteristics are in a blockbuster book. And then bring these into our short stories as serials and series.
The answer is in Chapter 2.
The Elements of a Blockbuster
The first thing to note about a big novel is that what’s at stake is high—for a character, a family, sometimes a whole nation. The life of at least one major character is usually in peril. But more than that, in this type of book the individual at risk often represents not just himself, but a community, a city, an entire country.
In many major women’s novels, however, the principal stake is not life or death but personal fulfillment, as with Scarlett in Gone With the Wind or Meggie in The Thorn Birds. Although this stake—the consummating or the not consummating of a love relationship—may in itself seem mundane, no more than the stuff of everyday life, these heroines’ lusts, longings, and passions are imbued by their creators with such fierce and unrelenting intensity that what is at issue for them strikes the reader as powerfully as mayhem, murder, or national catastrophe.
Characters in fiction, as in life, are defined by what they do, and in big novels the main characters do extraordinary things.
THE DRAMATIC QUESTION (Ongoing Suspense)
The ongoing central conflict around which its major characters interact, the main issue that drives and unites its myriad scenes.
This novelistic foundation is its suspense factor, which I call the dramatic question.
(M)ysteries and romances are also structured on a straightforward dramatic question: Will the sleuth track down the killer? Will the heroine get together with the man of her dreams?
High concept, if you are not familiar with the term, is in essence a radical or even somewhat outlandish premise.
(They) need to be built on highly dramatic situations, plots that include bizarre and surprising actions and that lead to one powerful confrontation after the next.
Combine “high concept” with a strong dramatic question and you may have an even better chance
MULTIPLE POINTS OF VIEW
Another important facet of the big novel is that it involves the reader emotionally with more than one character. It contains multiple points of view.
Readers of popular books enjoy escaping into the minds, hearts, and vicissitudes of fictional characters, but they also like to be drawn into new, unfamiliar, and even exotic environments.
Background information derived from personal knowledge or from research is clearly valuable and in some books vital; but if it is not carefully woven into the fabric of the story, it can also deaden a book. Readers these days, accustomed to films and television, have little patience with long descriptive passages, especially at the start of a work before character interest has been established and the beginnings of the plot set in motion.
What these Blockbuster Elements Tell Us
You’ll find these more easily produced in Fantasy and Science Fiction works. Because it’s easier to make up the entire world than to research our existing. Under these, Romance sub-genres would then bring additional elements into play.
See that referenced blog post mentioned first above. I’ve already been here as far as detail of what you need to study and put into your stories.
You can have a blockbuster by building it up one short story at a time as serials. They each have to have “dramatic question” (suspense) and cliffhangers to get the reader wanting the next one.
If you hold to the concept of his six points above, and work in them through your book, then by the wrap up story (or specially written epilogue) you’ll have your blockbuster-based book. Dickens wrote several this way.
And if you want to study pacing, pick up authors who routinely wrote perennial bestsellers like Louis L’Amour, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and others. Verne especially wrote these elements above into his Science Fiction. Even his “Around the World in 80 Days.” It can be done, by anyone.
Don’t Mix Money With Enjoyment
Another perfectly valid point is in mixing up monetary or sales goals with your writing and publishing. Many authors quit because they aren’t seeing the results. That’s just thinking the End is more important than the journey. You write because you love it, you get joy out of it.
Loving what you do is more important that anything else. Earl Nightingale points out that money follows success. Write and publish your best successfully. Then income will come your way.
You’re playing a very long game. Decades long. Sure, get paid for it meanwhile, but keep publishing and make the next book better than what you published before.
As one author wrote (I paraphrase) “Sure I write and publish crap. But today’s crap isn’t as horrible as yesterday’s.”
Several people have said that “there are only so many bad books in you.” And that is true, as long as you are constantly working to improve your craft.
I picked up someone recently who was a “big name” in the pulp fiction days. Then he quit writing, only to pick it up a few decades later. The big surprise? He still wrote at the same quality as when he had quit.
Second surprise? That his books sold at all, since reader tastes are much different now. Looking up his two most memorable hits found that these wouldn’t necessarily sell today. Not perennials at all. Sure, they’ve been brought back, but have sales of one per month or so on Amazon. Essentially, he had a few hits, but quit learning to improve his craft. He was a hack(neyed) writer who wrote one type of story that filled the pulp magazines at the time. Never moved on.
That then adds to our three habits of reading, writing, promotion – professional studies. Learn from the best and constantly learn through every keyboard stroke how you could write the next one even better.
Again: it’s not length, it’s quality.
It can be done. You can do it.
It takes only a few points:
- Love what you’re reading. Study the best. Discard any that don’t transport you in the first few pages.
- Write what you love to read. Write the books you wish you could find. Enjoy every second of writing.
- Keep your books selling. That last part of Heinlein’s Rules. Means promoting them so people can find them.
- Constantly work to improve your craft by seeking out and studying books on craft by people who actually mastered them (not editors and not academics.)
- Enjoy every second of your writing just for the pure joy it brings. If you’re not excited and entranced by what you’re writing, then your readers won’t be, either. Chase down any false expectations that are keeping you from your inherent happiness. Let them go. Get back to writing great stuff, like you’ve always been meant to do.
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Also published on Medium.