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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Writing the Blockbuster Novel

Albert Zuckerman

Forge Books




This book is for writers—for storytellers who have had a novel published, maybe several; for authors who believe they have wrestled with and mastered the essentials of the craft of fiction but who can’t break into hardcover; for authors whose books have been praised, awarded prizes, yet who can’t earn a living from their work; and for authors who receive advances and royalties that are a fraction of what they feel they deserve.

It will also benefit beginners and veteran writers who have yet to publish a novel. But if you belong in these groups, remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. For a beginner, trying to write a blockbuster novel might be likened to a high school athlete trying to play with the Pittsburgh Steelers or a first-year piano student trying to perform Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. These things sometimes happen, but chances are you’ll stand a better chance getting your first novel published if it’s a work less ambitious in scope and scale—say, a category romance or mystery.

This book is by no means intended for all published novelists. It will offer no help to authors who mean to forge new paths in literature, to dazzle serious readers with a contemporary equivalent of Proust, Joyce, Kafka, or even Faulkner, or who aim to replicate the success of such recent “literary” bestsellers as Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses, or A Visit from the Goon Squad. Rather, it will dissect and hopefully illuminate what in today’s book publishing industry is generally called “the commercial bestseller.”

The creation of any novel that succeeds in stirring the hearts of millions of readers around the world must involve an element of indescribable magic, akin in a way to the human soul. The miracle of divine or evolutionary engineering has resulted in a human body with myriad organs, glands, bones, veins, and tissues that can be x-rayed, sonogrammed, microscopically examined. Science can determine the qualities that set apart the ill from the healthy, the weak from the strong. With popular fiction, too, it is possible to peel away the surfaces of individual words and show how a blockbuster novel—like a watch—is built with a multitude of interlocking parts, all of which are needed precisely to move each other. In the best-loved novels, these parts are designed in ways that are on one hand unique but on the other appear to follow certain rules.

If you aspire to seeing your name on bestseller lists, you probably are familiar with the names of the authors who often appear there. Albert Zuckerman is not one of these. You may ask, Who is this guy? What are his qualifications? What gives him the authority to assert knowledge that many top publishing professionals—writers, editors, agents—freely admit eludes them?

The answer is that I have been midwife to more than a dozen mega-books—New York Times bestsellers, Literary Guild and Book of the Month Club Main Selections, choices of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, novels made into motion pictures and TV miniseries. I’ve worked with their authors from their stories’ initial conception through constructing and reconstructing plot outlines, developing characters and intensifying their relationships, to rebuilding scenes and chapters in first-draft manuscripts, and finally enriching, rewriting, and polishing second and final drafts before delivery to their publishers.

Ken Follett has been generous enough to call me “the best editor in the world.” A great compliment, but I may not be. What is clear, though, is that my working with him has in some measure helped bring about the sale of more than seventy-five million copies of his books. Particularly exciting to me has been working with an unpublished author, and then rocketing him into the publishing industry’s stratosphere. My first such thrill came with Anne Tolstoi Wallach, whose Women’s Work in 1982 garnered a then-record advance for a first novel: $850,000. My talented ex-wife, Eileen Goudge, after producing a bunch of young adult romances, set out in 1986 to write a mainstream women’s novel on which I worked at her side. Garden of Lies, as part of a two-book contract, brought an advance of almost a million dollars, enjoyed nineteen weeks on the New York Times hardcover and paperback bestseller lists, and has been published in seventeen languages.

These large sums help spread the word about a new author and incite a commitment to strong promotion from a publishing house, but you must not conclude that a small advance will necessarily doom your book to a tiny print run and obscurity. Jaws, including the movie income, is reputed to have earned Peter Benchley around ten million dollars. His guarantee from Doubleday was $7,500. For The Godfather, Mario Puzo’s contract with Putnam provided $5,000. Paramount, however, paid him $25,000 (based on an outline and four chapters) for an option on the movie rights. Without that, Puzo could not have afforded to write his book.

Eye of the Needle found no takers among U.S. publishers when I first submitted it in outline form. In the mid-1970s, Follett was supporting a family with two small children and living hand-to-mouth, grinding out genre books and chasing after freelance writing jobs. He managed to get the book commissioned in England as a paperback original for a pittance. In this country, Follett’s outline got no more than a yawn from publishers. But when the first-draft manuscript arrived in the spring of 1977, I got all excited. Here was a crackling thriller that had a shot at becoming a bestseller. To get a new author widely recognized, however, is murder, one of the hardest things in the world. Everything would depend on how well it was published.

I had been an agent for only three years and had placed a fair number of books but nothing with such great potential. How should I handle this? I nervously asked myself, not wanting to screw up my big chance. Traditional wisdom would have had me send out copies to the dozen or so major publishers and sell to the highest bidder. But I saw a danger in that. The big houses, the ones most likely to offer hefty advances, all had (and generally always do have) name authors under contract whose work would inevitably take precedence on their lists over that of an unknown. I wanted a publisher who would push like crazy for Follett and on whose list Eye of the Needle would be the top book.

Arbor House was a dynamic small publisher who, through clever advertising and production, had made a minor bestseller out of a less-than-wonderful biography of Montgomery Clift, which they had acquired from me for an advance of $5,000 after it had been rejected by thirty-nine other houses. What, I asked myself, might this little house be able to do with a strong book? The most Arbor would or could afford was $20,000. I explained to Follett that better up-front deals probably could be had, but I advised him to take this one, and he went along. Eye of the Needle was given an inspired title (in England it was published under its original title, Storm Island). The book was well edited, released in an appropriate and superb jacket, and promoted brilliantly and with fantastic energy. It garnered $700,000 in a paperback auction, lasted more than thirty weeks on the hardcover bestseller list, was made into a feature film, and transformed this author overnight from a poor young man into a rich one.

To get the most from this book now in your hands, read it in conjunction with others. First, the more current bestsellers you acquaint yourself with, the better. More specifically, you will find the following chapters peppered with references and examples from five novels: The Godfather by Mario Puzo, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follett, and The Witness by Nora Roberts. The first three, in my view, are classics of modern popular literature as well as megabestsellers. The latter two, also highly successful, are works whose origins and step-by-step development I can illuminate with a minimum of guesswork, Again, to assist you in translating to your own writing the techniques and processes I’ll be describing, you should read these books and also keep them at your side as you wend your way through this book.

In fact, if you haven’t read one or more of these novels, I suggest that you put this book down after you finish chapter two and pick up The Man from St. Petersburg. If you have already read it, consider refreshing yourself with a rereading. After you complete chapter three, you should acquaint or reacquaint yourself with the other four novels. I will, in the course of these pages, dig deeply into the underpinnings and mechanics of all five novels. For you to derive the fullest benefit from this book, you will need to be familiar with them all.

Now for some caveats. There is, I feel I should point out, an articulate school of thought that maintains that writing fiction cannot be taught. Yet most colleges and universities offer whole menus of fiction-writing courses. In some institutions it can be a field of major concentration; indeed, graduate writing programs such as the one at the University of Iowa have produced dozens of estimable writers, including some Pulitzer Prize winners. Plainly, certain essential aspects of writing fiction can be taught. I know this because I’ve been the teacher, and I’ve enjoyed sharing in the profits, both financial and emotional. But just as a deaf person would have a rough time trying to become a musician, there are brilliant and gifted people who, no matter how hard they work at it, will not become novelists. And there are some vital aspects in the art and craft of fiction that are extremely difficult to teach or to learn.

Keep in mind that learning how to write novels is a process. It takes a lot of time and infinite labor. After only a few months of lessons you would be foolish to conclude that you were unfit to become a concert violinist. With writing novels too, if you have a passion for it, you must give yourself years to practice, to learn to overcome your mistakes, and to prove to yourself that you possess the necessary skills.

One precious quality in the best authors, which I believe is largely innate but is sometimes slowly acquired over time, is what editors and critics call “a voice.” The line-by-line writing of J. D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. Stephen King’s reputation among those unfamiliar with his work seems to rest largely on his bizarre and otherworldly plots, yet he has a sublime gift for the cadences and nuances of small-town American idiomatic speech, rendering its gross and subtle tones and rhythms with a uniqueness and an artistry that, to me, rivals Mozart’s or Van Gogh’s.

The writing of Susan Isaacs (Compromising Positions) is permeated with an acerbic wit, a hip New York jokiness that is emblematic only of her. To point to but a few other popular novelists whose individual prose styles can be picked out within several lines or a page, I would name Tom Wolfe, Anne Tyler, Pat Conroy, and Norman Mailer. The list could go on and on.

This book, if studied carefully, will teach you a great deal about how blockbuster novels are constructed. But a distinctive voice, if you don’t already have one, must grow out of your own special affinity for the English language, out of the rhythms, tones, and nuances you hear and weave into your own mind of people’s speech, out of your own highly personal and somewhat skewed vision of the world. But take heart. This is an issue that should not worry you unduly. While a unique or distinctive voice is an important asset, and often a decisive one in literary fiction, it is a less vital component in blockbuster novels. In fact, quite a few bestsellers are written in voices you would be hard put to categorize or to describe as in any way unique.

Another skill of the very best writers and one that, again, is more instinctive than acquired is an eye for detail. But not for all details, only the most telling ones. The great storyteller has an acuity of perception as sharp as that of a visual artist and can make music in words. Not only in dialogue, but in characters’ thoughts and emotions, in visual perceptions, sounds, smells, palpable sensations, visceral reactions. Some of us are born with the literary equivalents of 20/20 eyesight and perfect pitch; a few can learn to develop these; some cannot.

A cold person, a dyed-in-the-wool cynic, a misanthrope, a misogynist, a homophobe, any man or woman who is not brimming with love and admiration for at least some of the people in his or her own life will find it difficult, if not impossible, to create fictional characters deeply involved with each other; and it’s only about such characters that readers care. And for a novel to become popular and to live on, we the readers must care.

Long after the twists and turns of a wonderful story such as Gone With the Wind fade from our memories, we remember Scarlett O’Hara and her unquenchable passion. Anton Chekhov wrote short stories, novels, and four great plays—The Seagull, The Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard—all of which are populated by large extended families with mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and in-laws, but in not one of them is there a father. Chekhov hated his own father, recognized that he could not render such a character sympathetically, and so chose never to include one.

Energy, willpower, and grit are also qualities of the novelist that cannot be taught. Anyone who thinks writing novels may be an easy way to make a buck is kidding himself. Perseverance and determination to climb not one lofty mountain, but peak after exhausting peak, a whole range of mountains—that’s the doggedness it takes to complete a blockbuster novel. The author who cannot set aside a completed five- or eight-hundred-page draft and start all over from page one, throwing out scenes and entire chapters, altering and enriching relationships, characters, and locales, intensifying conflicts and climaxes, is also unlikely to attain the high level of sustained drama contained in most bestselling novels.

Nor is there much place in the ranks of top popular novelists for writers who are defensive or protective about their plot notions, oddball characters, first drafts, favorite scenes, bons mots, and so on. The most widely read authors are almost invariably those most open to suggestions and constructive criticism from trusted editors, agents, and fellow professional writers. But the author in the end must also possess her own keen critical sense, so she can accurately judge which suggestions to take up and which to reject. She must also be her own harshest critic, ruthless in anatomizing her text and seeking out ways, again and again, to strengthen it.

A final crucial and unteachable (at least in a book such as this) element in a leading novelist’s toolbox is culture, widespread general knowledge, rich and varied life experience. The writer who has a close acquaintance with the works of Plato, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, and Hemingway, to name a few, has an invaluable resource of plots, dramatic situations, formulations of character, insights into human nature, exquisite metaphors, and other brilliant uses of language. A familiarity with history, politics, the mores of the rich and famous, or of gangsters, athletes, and cowboys, the hotels, restaurants, shops, and clubs of the great cities of the world, the inner workings of corporations, hospitals, law firms, bureaucracies, military units, and high-tech weapons systems will enable the writer to weave a seamless background of hard fact that helps compel the reader to suspend disbelief and to accept the authenticity of the novelist’s imaginatively created world.

In its essence, however, a novel is emotion. A novelist’s true lode, his font of inspiration, if you will, is in the feelings, passions, sufferings, and ecstasies that he himself has experienced and that, in the process of writing, he transmutes through his characters. Françoise Sagan with Bonjour Tristesse wrote perhaps the best-known coming-of-age novel of the twentieth century. She herself was at the time a teenage girl and rendered sublimely the angst, pain, and tenderness of that difficult period of life. But she would have fared less well, I believe, if she, as a postadolescent, had tried to bring alive a mother’s passion for her child or, say, a husband’s feeling for his dying wife. In Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, a wonderful strand is made up of the domestic jealousies and conflicts within the family of a newly married couple, each of whom has children by previous liaisons. There is no such element in Follett’s six previous bestsellers. But when writing Pillars, he, a father of two, was well into his second marriage to a lady with three children. I’m certain it never occurred to him deliberately to use this aspect of his life in his novel. But as he personally experienced these familial bickerings and tensions on a daily basis, they literally had become a part of him, and it is this soaking up of everyday emotion that becomes the unconscious wellspring from which every novelist must draw.

To look at this more simplistically, female authors generally do a better job with the pangs of childbirth and male authors with the tensions and horrors of battle; and it is novelists who are forty or older who usually succeed best with both mature and young characters.

All right, I’ve laid out some limiting factors that may or may not apply to you, certain aspects of the novelist’s art and craft that I doubt can readily be taught or learned overnight. But don’t be discouraged. If you’re reading this book, many of you already possess, I would hope, some or all of these attributes. And if you do not, there is nothing to prevent you from setting about, little by little, to acquire them. Regardless of your current stage of development as a writer, you should find the approaches and techniques contained in the following chapters to be of solid value.

Copyright © 1994 by Albert Zuckerman

New and expanded edition © 2016 by Albert Zuckerman