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Monday, August 9, 2010

Charlaine Harris and the Secret to Writing Success


Charlaine Harris and the Secret to Writing Success

by Jacqueline Seewald

As an author, I read a variety of publications for writers with avid interest. The July/August issue of Writer’s Digest published an insightful interview with Charlaine Harris. I recommend reading it. Ms. Harris talks about how she reached her stellar position at the top of the bestseller list.

She started out by taking a creative writing course after finishing college—something other successful writers like Sara Paretsky have done. Ms. Harris’s several mystery novel series were successful and reached mid-list status. But pushing fifty, Ms. Harris wasn’t satisfied with this. She wanted to write a book that was unique, the kind of book that only she could write. So she tossed aside the usual rules of mystery writing and simply wrote what she really wanted to create. And this is the secret to her superstar success. Charlaine Harris wasn’t afraid to be different in style and subject and actually have fun with her writing. She enjoys her work and it shows.

What does this say to the rest of us? Well, there’s an old cliché: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, for a writer merely slavishly imitating others, no matter how successful they might be, is a form of intellectual suicide. We shouldn’t strive to merely copy the so-called successful formulas for romance, mystery writing or any other genre. We should want to make our writing do head stands. What Charlaine Harris can teach us is that we should write our own story our own way. Of course that can only happen once we’ve mastered the basic fundamentals of writing. (You do have to walk before you can run.)

Don’t be afraid to be unique, individual and different. Charlaine Harris obviously isn’t, and look where it’s gotten her!

28 comments:

Drue Allen said...

I like that you, and Charlaine, give us permission to reach for the stars! It reminds me of Marianne Williamson's "On the Fear of Excellence." AnyONE (writer or not) who hasn't read it, should. I don't believe we should be aiming for midlist . . . I believe we should be aiming for NYT Bestseller. : )- Nice post, Jacqueline.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Right there with you, Drue! Like Robert Browning said: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp."

Terry Odell said...

Great post, Jacqueline, and as you mentioned, we seem to be on the same wavelength today. My blog post at Terry's Place is also about rule-breaking.

Terry
Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Jacqueline: I haven't read her books, but she's a writer after my own heart. I can't write formulaic and follow the rules. They just don't work for me. I don't mean the craft--good writing is good writing. I mean trying to write a book that will fit into a mold. Characters come in who shouldn't be there, but later, I see that they're vital to the story.Great post here! Glad I'm not alone.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Terry,

Great minds think alike! However, you brought up an important point in your blog that I didn't mention: if you do write for a publisher that demands adherence to formula, then don't submit your work to them unless you're willing to do it their way.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Joyce,

I believe the reason I do like Five Star/Gale as a publisher is because as authors we are allowed artistic freedom to a large extent. Recommendations are made to us. However, Five Star/Gale is open to non-formula writing. So a lot of very talented people get an opportunity to be published and hopefully reviewed.

dkchristi said...

Thanks for the great topic and an opportunity to respond. Not to express an unpopular opinion, but it is easy to tell about one's success when there. It reminds me of those living to 100 who say the secret is a good cigar, a shot of whiskey and bacon and eggs to start the day. It may work for that person; but it's a unique experience, long life. How many times do you read or listen to talented people who have not become successful though they broke all the rules, or followed the rules? No one prints their story. I don't know of many authors who say, "I have no intention of writing a best seller." Most of the people I know are compelled to write; they work at improving their talent; they follow and break the rules, depending on the story they wish to tell and the audience they wish to reach. Success comes to some and not to others by a quirk of fate as much as by talent. "The power of positive thinking is like fool's gold; shiny on the surface, but not the real thing." www.dkchristi.com author of Ghost Orchid, a mystery of love, lies and redemption.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Of course, luck plays a part in any success.
But as Napoleon said: “Luck occurs when preparation meets opportunity.” My thinking is that you have to develop your talent in writing or anything else and try to do something special with it so that you do stand out. Then maybe you'll be lucky enough to get "discovered." Just one writer's opinion! Open to other thoughts...

Pauline B Jones said...

I think you are both right. LOL! I think the key is write what you feel passionate about and find joy in what you do. If the money follows, you can rejoice in that as well. I don't think success follows the UNhappy, but I am aware I could be wrong about that. LOL

And a lot depends on how you define success. I believe I am successful because I am writing the books I want to write and reaching readers. I don't read many NYT bestsellers, so that's probably not going to be my target audience. But I am very happy with where I am right now. I am successful in achieving MY goals.
Pauline Baird Jones
GIRL GONE NOVA
THE KEY
OUT OF TIME
DO WAH DIDDY DIE

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Pauline,

You're right about "success" having more than one definition. Just like beauty being in the eyes of the beholder. I always think about Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Richard Corey" in connection with this. Success and is such an individual thing. I know a woman who felt happy and successful because one of her poems was published in a nonpaying anthology. It all depends on your point of view. But, Pauline, you are certainly successful from any point of view!

Pauline B Jones said...

That's very kind of you, Jacqueline! I have seen many authors, at varying levels of financial success, and I have to say, lots of money has nothing to do with happiness.

You really need to figure out what you want THAT YOU CAN ACTUALLY CONTROL (cause there is a lot NOT in our hands) and then use that as your anchor and your springboard. IMHO.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

So true, Pauline! Realistically, we not all going to write a bestseller or a literary masterpiece. But I believe there is something unique and special in all of us that we can communicate.

A teacher who I worked with once asked me to help him with the writing of his mother's biography. She wanted her grandchildren and great grandchildren to read it someday and know who she really was.

J.M.Cornwell said...

Because what Ms. Harris wrote was so different, something no one had done before, she had a hard time selling her book and the concept. For two years, her agent and publisher refused to publish the book, until along came Anita Blake by Laurell K. Hamilton and she opened the way for Ms. Harris.

June said...

Great information. Thank you for sharing it with us, Jacqueline.

Pauline B Jones said...

Most "overnight successes" have a really, really long night before that success. (wry grin)

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks for the added info, J.M. As you and Pauline observe, becoming a bestselling writer may not be as easy as we hope for--even with something unique to offer publishers.

djginsberg said...

Great article! While reading this, I got the idea to try taking another creative writing class, just for fun, although I already satisfied all my English credits as far as I know.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Don't know where you live "d" but there are some outstanding writers teaching writing courses these days and some of them will connect you with first-rate agents if they like your work.

Megan Rose said...

I've been toying with the idea of a creative writing class for some time...I think your blog has just given me the push I need. Sharing ideas and getting a helping hand is always a good idea, no matter what we are doing in life. Great blog :)

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks for the compliment on the blog, Megan!

I do think the right kind of teacher can be very beneficial to aspiring writers. For another thing, you begin to network with others who are writing and can encourage and help each other.

crhat23 said...

Interesting post. Obviously one cannot stick to a rigid formula and hope to consistently produce creative works. But sometimes, I consider the basic limits of the mystery genre (there should be a crime, dialogue is good, most everything should be in-scene) to be helpful guides when I'm writing. It helps me create something I would like to read, which for me is always the ultimate goal.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I agree with you that good mystery writing requires certain guides. But I believe that Ms. Harris's point is well-taken: once you have mastered the craft, honed your craft, you should perhaps take some liberties with the genre and make it your own.

Terry W. Ervin II said...

Writing stories that you want to tell, even if they don't fit the mold can work. Maybe it'll break out. Maybe it'll have additional difficulty even finding a publisher, even thought quality isn't lacking.

My fantasy novel didn't quite fit the mold: Epic Fantasy adventure--but set in a world where dragons and Stukas combat each other in the sky over a battle field. Fallen angels zombies, giants and wizards in the mix.

Made it out of the slush pile three times before Flank Hawk eventually found a publisher. It was its uniqueness that they thought would enable it to sell. Nowhere near a NY Times Best Seller, but it's done well enough so that my publisher is asking for the sequel.

Would something more conventionally written have sold? Maybe, maybe not. There is the luck factor mentioned in this thread.

I guess, in the end, write the stories you'd like to find on the shelf, even if you hadn't written them.

Earl Staggs said...

I've always said there is only one rule in writing: "Whatever works." It's good to see success come to those who, rather than break or bend so-called "rules," write new ones.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Terry, congrats on the publication of your novel and the sale of the sequel. Obviously,
your original approach within the fantasy genre is paying off!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Earl,

I like your take on writing. Makes good sense!
Thanks for stopping by.

Molly said...

I like your Napoleon quotation, Jacqueline. It's easy to pass off an author's success by saying "she was in the right place at the right time," but what that off-hand remark doesn't account for is the author having put herself in the right place in the first place.

Thanks for a great post. You're definitely an author who has put herself in the right place!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Molly,

Just caught your comment today! Glad you enjoyed the quote. Napoleon said a lot of interesting things. Whatever else he might have been, he wasn't dull. He certainly inspired a lot of books, fiction, nonfiction and bios.