Last night, during our little Twitter chat, which by the way, you should be following, the topic of breakout fiction came up. For those of you who are wondering, this type of fiction, according to Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel, happens when "new work comes along and suddenly the writer's [who may have been only marginally successful prior] book vaults onto the best-seller lists or even achieves a large jump in sales."
I'll give you a few examples:
Once there was a single mother in Scotland, living on benefit, who took a train ride and 'met' a boy with a lightening bolt scar. Nearly twenty years later, said woman has sold roughly 400 million copies of her series worldwide.
And, of course, another instance is Alice Sebold, who writes 'literary fiction.' She twisted expectations and genre by telling the story of Susie Salmon, a fourteen year-old murder victim. This story, however, was told from Susie's point of view after she was murdered.
With Rowling, the publishing industry was turned upside down because she chose to tell her story from a young boy's point of view. She took Campbell and folklore conventions and placed them into the minds of the young. She pulled the boarding school story away from its past and filled it with wizards and witches and all manner of mythical folk and figures. She did this excellently and the result was literary history.
Sebold made a ghost story literary, brought Susie into the fray of critical praise and made no apologies for it. I'll say that again: she turned a ghost story into literary fiction.
Both books left their marks. Both writers wrote the stories they wanted to write, probably, the stories they had to write.
Maas says that what is at the heart of these 'breakout books' generally take publishers by surprise. There is no surefire way to predict which solitary manuscript among the thousands will leap off the shelves. There can be, I believe, a process to it. Quite simply, what could be at the center of the success of a breakout novel is word-of-mouth.
Think of this way, a hundred years ago when I was a teenager, I fell hard for a certain boy band. (Please don't ask me to name them. I could not withstand the humiliation). I watched their infinitesimal climb from mediocrity to international super-stardom. It was slow, but eventually, their first album inched up the charts and they began to warrant larger venues, win Grammies and supersede their own notions of success.
It happened, because little girls like me, with no real concept of what good music was, told her girlfriends and they told theirs and so on and so on. It happened through word-of-mouth.
Granted, I know the publishing and music industries are two very different animals altogether. Writers, sad as it may seem, don't sell out arenas (unless they happen to be that mother from Scotland) and MTV generally doesn't play clips of writers sitting at their keyboards. Still, the process is the same. Word-of-mouth can be essential in turning a great book into a best seller.
It is, as Maass says, "the secret grease of publishing...it is the engine that drives breakouts."
And how can writers, such as yours truly, who are just starting to flirt with publishing, who are just dipping their toes in the deep waters of the industry, benefit from word-of-mouth? Well, it may simply be my humble opinion, but I believe it all starts with you. It starts with me. It starts when we lift one another up. It starts when we take a vested interest in each other. It begins with networking, it begins with supporting one another in the minutest way. Chat, introduce yourself, attend conferences, but most importantly, be willing to learn from one another. Be eager to help each other out.
One day you may be in a position to give a little advice, make an introduction for someone, some writer, who helped you along your way to greatness. And that small word-of-mouth from you could be the difference between the next breakout novel and the book everyone bypasses on their way to the checkout.
"The more I help others to succeed, the more I succeed."