Writers like to speculate about what it takes to write a smash hit. We pour over the year’s best-sellers, read manuals and books on the subject, take classes, cruise websites such as this one, searching for an edge.
But while that’s all to the good, Ray Charles said it best: “Ain’t no son of a bitch knows what’s gonna hit.”
That’s the plain truth. No one knows for sure what’s going to prove popular this month, this year. The landscape is littered with failed imitations of yesterday’s hits.
When a publisher or a movie producer says, “Give me something like The Hunger Games, it’s what young audiences want,” what she means is: “I believe that’s what young audiences want.” She can’t know for sure.
There are many reasons why a specific story proves popular. Remove or misplace one element and you could end up with a dud.
Hugh Howey’s Wool seemed like just another post-apocalyptic story — people kept in the dark about the real situation beyond the confines of their silos. But something about the visceral way the story starts, the way we are drawn into the mind of the lead character caught the readers’ imagination. Wool shot to #1 in its category on Amazon, and Hugh Howey became the indie writer’s poster child.
Juno seemed like a non-starter. Ostensibly about a teenage girl who gets pregnant, the story seemed destined to wallow at the bottom of the slash pile. Yet, the integrity, freshness, and passion behind the writing drove the movie to an Oscar for best original screenplay.
So, amid all the seemingly contradictory advise, what’s a writer to do? Emulate the formula and risk being yesterday’s news? Write something so original he has to wait ten years for audiences to catch up?
Here’s John Truby on the subject: “Write a screenplay [or story] that will change your life. If you don’t sell it, at least you will have changed your life.”
Chances are if your story is something you care deeply about, others will too. If not, you will, at least, have explored a subject close to your heart. It’s far better than grinding your teeth and writing something you think readers want, only to discover they don’t.
Insulate yourself against failure by writing stories that you feel passionate and excited about.
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Image: Bill Brooks