April 10, 2012
ISBN: ISBN: 978-0-8129-7095-1
I don't know how other writers are. I've only been myself, and so I can only know how I approach a page. It's rarely the same way twice, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. It is usually some spark in me pushing an idea out there, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. The first draft is usually an unholy mess centered around one seriously vivid scene. And that scene may contain the seed of the story, a whole character, it may just be a point of ignition or the climax, or might end up happening off the page, after all is said and done. Usually there's enough oomph left from that spark to get through the first scene to boost me to the next stage, and the next. (It helps me to have a list of beats through to the end, just so I know where I'm going next, even if it changes.) Maybe this is not a good way to write, or the right way, but it usually works for me, at least in the sense of getting through a draft. So when I came across this book, Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers there's a big part of me that balked. There should not be a code. Writing is art. It's not paint by numbers. Statistics have nothing to do with it. Art is art. It creates itself. By definition, art defies definition. So what's the nerve of this guy James Hall thinking he's got some kind of geiger counter that can turn the art of a best-seller into a code.
For me, even the book's title is, by itself, throwing down the gauntlet. Makes me want to put my fists up and get into some kind of aggressive posture to duke it out, because he can't tell me what works. But then...I started thinking. When you join a group of writers who know what they're doing, whether it is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, or Romance Writers of America or Horror Writers Association, they all tell you read every hot book you can in your specific genre. You do this to learn what works for your target audience and target publisher. Chapter length. Conventions. Voice. All the details that work. Learn the mechanics. Then you come from your reading with a set of tools fully fledged, and can approach your own stories with an eye to how they can be successfully presented. You understand the box--the form-the container that will house your story. It's good advice. It's also the thought process behind what Jack Hall did when putting together his Hit Lit book, but he's asking bigger questions. His research doesn't confine itself to genre; he looks at bestsellers just as most writers look at genre. To see what makes it tick.
And here's the thing--as soon as I picked up the book, I was hooked. The gloves went down, and I was more than ready to read. This isn't a list of do's and don'ts by the annoying guy in the back of the conference who keeps asking the panel of your romance-writing peers when they are going to write "real books." You can tell, as James Hall takes us through his journey into books, that he loves the written word. He lures his reader in through the context of his life, his own reader/writer journey from when he was a boy in a 50's library "frightened out of my skin that I would be spotted by my friends in such a place" to the moment he shared a conspiratorial look with a librarian, "that floats into my mind whenever I am feeling isolated from the human race." He knows firsthand that weird communion of book lovers. James Hall gets it: that books grant you membership into the club of readers who understand that inside each book is a universe.
James Hall condenses his answer into twelve features which he discusses in twelve chapters. He suggests a list of bestsellers to read, and even though they're all books I have read before, I found myself stopping what I was doing at the time to read them again, so I could nod, and agree with the points he makes, as he generalizes across the field. To get the most out of this book, you should do the same. This is the book of someone who gets it, and he gets it from multiple points of view. He gets what is so great about books from being a reader. He gets it as a writer, and he gets it as a teacher of writers. If you're like me, this will be one of those books you have trouble finishing, because you keep going back and re-reading certain parts, and you don't really want it to be over. In fact, I just picked it up as I was writing this review, and I think I'm going to give Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers another read...