The Value of Promotion vs. the Value of Story

First, the announcement. After our first CSFF Top Blogger Award run-off, Rachel Starr Thomson garnered 55% of the vote to secure the April Tour honors. Congratulations to both her and Brandon Barr for superb posts during the Blaggard’s Moon tour.

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In case you missed it, on Friday Novel Journey posted an interview with contributor Jessica Dotta and uber-agent, Donald Maass. Half way through, the discussion turned to promotion.

Jessica noted that Mr. Maass is credited with saying that promotion and marketing play a small role in the success of a book. In fact, in Writing the Breakout Novel he calls these ideas about promotion and marketing myths authors continue to believe. When Jessic asked (in question five) if authors shouldn’t strive for the best marketing possible, Mr. Maass replied with a succinct analogy:

Great stories are the engine. Promotion may be the gasoline but gasoline won’t propel a two-cylinder putt-putt very fast–or push a broken engine very far down the road.

Jessica expanded the discussion, pointing to a handful of successful debut novels that snagged reviews in elite media sources and then went to the top of the best selling charts. But Mr. Maass insisted that great storytelling explained the success:

Why does media get excited about a novel? What starts the bandwagon rolling? Publisher hype? That’s a prod, obviously, but media far more often than not take a pass. What gets them excited is the same thing that gets word of mouth going: a great story. It all comes back to that. Up and down the ladder it all starts there.

As you might expect, Mr. Maass also believes that a writer should take the time to get the story right. Apparently this is a point he strongly makes in his new book The Fire in Fiction (which I am anxiously waiting to arrive from Writer’s Digest), prompting this exchange:

[Jessica] One of the elements I loved about The Fire in Fiction was your encouragement to work until the book is right. As writers, we often hear that in order to survive we must be capable of producing one or more books a year—lest we lose our audience and future contracts. But what if it takes an author two to five years to craft a good book?

[Donald Maass] Writing a great novel at a book-a-year pace is extremely difficult. I watch clients struggle with that challenge. One empowering thing to know is that the bigger the impact a novel has, the longer readers will wait for the next one.
– emphasis mine

I have to admit, that last line might be my favorite. Well, what do you expect from a writer of a four-book epic fantasy? 😉 I mean, isn’t it important for readers to have time to spread the word if book one gripped them? Even in this technological age, that doesn’t really happen over night. Or necessarily in three months. I didn’t read my first Harry Potter book until the third one was out, and they were not flying off the presses every six months.

For the most part, the word builds and the promotion builds because the story demands it. Yes, there may be some mysterious exceptions. I think of G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer which burst on the scene in 2004 as another book coming out of the UK with a huge following. Americans dutifully lined up and bought the book, and it did indeed hit the best selling list.

But today the lifetime sales on Amazon of the Creation House edition is over 450,000. What’s worse, the book that followed, Wormwood, is 250,000 places higher. Since I haven’t read Shadowmancer, I am going by the reports I’ve heard from writer friends (but the lion’s share of the Amazon reviews bear out their opinion)—this was not a good story.

Maybe this is the exception that proves the rule. On occasion the media will jump on a book bandwagon built by hype not substance. The result may be great sales, but the public, when fooled once, won’t likely be fooled twice by the same author.

Making Characters Memorable

So I’m trying to decide if I should spend $200 dollars and go the one day BookExpo America, held by Writer’s Digest Books in Los Angeles. Tomorrow. The biggest draw for me is Donald Maass, agent extraordinaire, and author of Writing the Breakout Novel. What I’d really like is to attend one of his ripping Breakout Novel Intensive Seminars, but there’s not one remotely close this year.

So instead, I could pay $200 to hear him speak/teach for one hour on “Fire in Fiction.” Of course, James Scott Bell is also teaching and could make the time worthwhile, but I’m getting off track.

One reason I would like to hear from Donald Maass and to have him rip apart my writing is because I think he’s identified the keys to creating memorable characters. And it isn’t through research. He doesn’t say this, to be sure, and I suspect he would actually advocate a writer becoming a student of human nature.

However, I suspect he would frown on pulling a list of characteristics from the Myers-Briggs personality test results and plugging them into a character. Rather this method would seem to be the antithesis of his idea that “larger-than-life” characters are, in part, quirky, willing to say or do what average people are afraid to.

Interestingly, Maass does not include “fatal flaw” or even “harmful flaw” as one of the needed elements to create the next Scarlet O’Hara or Bilbo Baggins. You don’t hear that in many Christian writing conferences … at least not the ones I’ve attended. What Maass does say is the character must have an inner conflict.

Which brings to mind a recent discussion on a writers’ email loop about the new breed of hero, the Jack Bauer and Batman types. The interesting thing to me is that Jack Bauer (of the television program 24) is always experiencing inner conflict. His choices are moral in the sense that he adheres to his over arching purpose—to preserve democracy and make the world safe. He struggles, though, against evil leaders, threats to his family, friends who lose sight of that central goal, and against the need to violate another person’s freedoms in order to preserve the lives and freedom of the greater population

In other words, he is god. He becomes the final authority to judge who is an agent of good and how good. But his decisions cost him, which is why he struggles internally.

And thus he becomes larger than life, a hero we remember and cheer, even as we lament his moral choices.

How much better to create that kind of character (memorable) than to take a list of traits from some personality model and formulate a character (type-cast). I’m not saying there isn’t truth in these professional observations of human nature. But I think writers need to do better, to see people as unique and capable of breaking the mold. Because a test identifies them as a “guardian” or “introverted” or “analytic” doesn’t need to mean the character must therefore behave in a patterned way according to the trait list presented.

In essence, this is where art must overrule science—at least if the characters are to be memorable. And memorable is one thing I’ve decided I what from my characters. Which is why I would like Donald Maass to rip apart my manuscript.

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