The secret recipe for a great novel? Does it even exist?

drop in water - recipe for a great novelWhat is the secret recipe for a great novel? And the secret recipe for a bestseller? Above all, do these recipes even exist?

Questions like these are of interest to writers and readers alike.

In fact, while writers are always on the lookout for new ways to make their stories more and more compelling, and sellable, readers are forever sifting through the oceanic offer of books they have at their disposal to zero in on those with just the right features to turn an otherwise normal reading session into a deeply rewarding experience.

As a result, at first blush for both camps having such recipes at their disposal would probably be a good thing.

Writers would finally churn out a bestseller masterpiece after the other, and readers would have their pile of to-read books composed only by great works.

Luckily, and I mean it, in real life such recipes don’t exist. The reasons for such a glaring hole in the fabric of the universe are various.

First of all, with seven billion people going around on the surface of the planet

Complexity still means something

First of all it’s naive to think a magic formula or algorithm can take a process as complex and nuanced as that of writing a novel and turn it into a mechanical process anyone can replicate at will.

Indeed, you just have to check out the number of books and courses devoted to creative writing available on line to realize that creative writing is in no way easy to be described and analyzed.

Sure, writing isn’t difficult once you’ve grasped the basics. And writing well is only a bit more difficult, according to some authors. But writing is like cement for an architect. You still need to go a long way before you can say you have actually built something.

In fact, writing a page of decent prose is way more easier than writing a full length book. Just like a wall of bricks is easier to lay down than a whole cathedral.

In The Bestseller Code Jodie Archer and Matt Jockers claim to have developed some algorithms that can predict whether or not a book will be a bestseller with notable reliability.

But this claim present a big problem. One is that such algorithms work on the book that have already been printed and are out in the wild, so to speak.

As a result, if you wrote only books in accordance to the rules of such algorithm you would end up with more and more of the same books. And in no time whatever was fashionable would turn into just another mind-numbing reiteration of the same thing.

After all there is a reason a writer is considered a creative person. And this has to do exactly with their willingness to try out new techniques, new approaches.

Real writers aren’t necessarily only those who sell a lot of books but all those who write consistently and take seriously what they do.

In short we can say that at the moment algorithms are like cameras. You can point them and take a snapshot of what is out there. But what is out there is what writers and creatives in general have created and keep creating.

So many people, so many heads

In principle, the idea of finding a way to invariably come up with a bestseller can be enticing. But I think this is also the result of a misconception.

In fact, if politicians all over the world–who are, or should be, representative of the citizens–pass most of their time arguing about just about everything, then it follows that the seven billion of people at the moment going about on the planet’s surface are bound to hold many different opinions also about what constitutes a great book and what makes up a bestseller.

Now, even if we divided these people in groups of ten millions, we would end up with 700 groups, each most likely holding quite different ideas.

Also, given that a book can be considered a huge success when it sells 200.000 copies, it’s apparent that for any book adequately written it’s more a matter of marketing it to the right audience (niche) than of plot tricks and rhetorical devices.

And do note that I’m saying this even if I gently loathe marketing. Very gently.

A false case of dualism

Some people might also argue that literary complexity and nuance rarely marry effectively with thrilling stories and romances. As a result any algorithm for writing a bestseller must necessarily work only for hacks.

I think otherwise: such algorithms don’t work for anyone. As I said before, at best they can give us some interesting insights only on what has already been done, not top point us in new directions. And indeed many bestsellers become such to the surprise of their own publishers.

Just imagine if a book about vampires (choose the one you prefer) had been fed to such algorithms thirty years ago. I cannot know for sure, but I believe it would have scored pretty poorly.

Yet nowadays vampires are everywhere!


The next post will be on the secret recipe for a bestseller… Or rather, all those features I like to find in a book.


Pictures: gimonoCDRowell 

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