One Bite at a Time

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Conversation With Elaine Ash, Author of Bestseller Metrics

Elaine Ash is a highly-regarded editor and author, though you won’t know her as an author because she writes under a pseudonym. (I know what it is and could tell you, but then Elaine would kill us both, hopefully before her alter ego really fucked us up. I’ve read some of her stuff and she don’t play.)

Her newest work was written with her editor’s hat on, an exploration of not how to write a bestseller, but of what bestsellers have in common, regardless of genre. I could explain it to you, as the book is a quick and easy to understand read; it’s the exercises that will take time. That said, why should I? She’s here and can do it better than I could hope to.

One Bite at a Time: There are few things I hate more than someone asking me to come up with elevator pitches, but let’s start with your hundred-word description of Bestseller Metrics.

Elaine Ash: Bestseller Metrics shows how to structure a novel like a bestseller. Wobbly structure holds back the majority of unpublished manuscripts that I see as an editor. For those writing a first novel of 100,000 words or less, this book shows step-by-step how to structure all genres--mystery, chicklit, horror, fantasy, thrillers, science fiction and more. There are diagrams and drawings to make it clear and visual. A series of simple-to-do tests reveal what your writers' group can't or won't tell you. If you can count to ten you know all the math necessary to understand it.

OBAAT: Ninety-six words. Well done.

There are a million books on how to write, the vast majority of them written by people one has never heard of, which leads me to wonder why they aren’t famous, they know so much about writing. You took a different approach, breaking down successful books to look for the common elements. What gave you the idea to do this kind of analysis?

EA: I have my writer clients to thank. Doctors show patients x-rays. Mechanics present diagnostic tests. I do it with metrics. If you want to write a bestseller, why not look at other bestsellers to figure out how it was done? There's an order to telling a story in a novel, and it's rarely discussed, let alone taught. In order to convince my clients of the changes needed to sell their stories, I looked into the metrics of books by million-selling authors past and present. Agents and publishers responded enthusiastically to the results.

OBAAT: You hooked me in Chapter One with your concept of Imaginary Memory (IM). It’s the kind of idea I sometimes say relates to genius, as it’s something that’s lying right out there in the open for anyone to see, yet as soon as someone points it out it’s so obvious your eyes hurt. (At least mine did.) Where did you get this insight?

EA: Ha! I like the way you said that. When I kept seeing manuscripts with the same problems from hardworking writers who were taking classes, attending writers groups and revising over and over without seeing a different result from the buying market, I knew there had to be a blind spot. I finally figured it was like this: A writer uses all of his/her imagination while crafting a novel, and when it comes time to read over the draft, imagination doesn’t quit. It fills in pictures and details, weaving memories into a seamless and satisfying read for the writer. By the end, the writer feels like he’s just watched a good movie—unaware that IM has edited the movie all the way through—smoothing over missing descriptions, fleshing out skimpy plot points and more. The complete story he thought he read isn’t necessarily the one on the page. Then I asked the question, “What would turn IM off? What kind of test could point to what’s missing?

OBAAT: What I might like best about the book is how you never tell the reader what to do as a writer. I’ve read several books that propose to tell how to write the breakout novel, and all I ever thought of while reading them was this guy wanted to teach me how to write a book I wouldn’t read myself. There was a subtle formula there. What I see in your work is not “Here’s what to do?” but “Here’s what to look for in what you’ve done.” You need the author to have written at least a draft first before you get to work. To me, this helps the author in keeping her own vision of the book and looks for weaknesses and rough edges instead of trying to shoehorn it into someone else’s idea of what will sell. And let’s face it, no one really knows what will sell.

Have I inferred something you didn’t intend, or do I have that about right?

EA: I think you’re spot on. My system details the best way to present your story so another person’s brain can grasp it. I don’t care what your story is—there’s an order and a structure that will get it across more clearly and dramatically than any other way. You’re correct—I don’t interfere with a writer’s vision, I ask them to look within the story and see if certain elements are there. If they are, there’s a good chance that story is ready to market. At least you know what doesn’t need to be revised. There is power in knowing what shouldn’t be changed or touched. One thing that’s always driven me crazy is when a writers’ group clearly tells a writer that a ms needs work—which is a good thing— but nobody can pinpoint exactly what it is. This is the point where an editor should be called in. But often that's not feasible. So the writer tinkers around the edges, rewriting and revising aspects may be great already. A lot of that goes on: fixing what doesn't need to be fixed, when the basic problem is structure. I’d also like to say that you don’t need to have a finished manuscript to learn from Bestseller Metrics. Just reading the book will impart a lot.

OBAAT: The first thing I thought as I got into the book was, “Hot damn. Bill James* for writers.” I’m a seamhead, so I’m wired that way. Have you received any pushback from others who might dismiss—or even resent—trying to quantify an artistic endeavor?

EA: Not so far, knock on wood. And that "Bill James for writers" analogy really gave me hope when I was wandering the wilderness, not really sure if I was on a crazy train. Keep in mind that although the book has less than 50,000 words of text, I wrote at least 120,000 words and drew dozens of sketches and compiled tables that got thrown out. At one point, the second half of the book got thrown out (reserved, actually) because it was deemed too advanced by readers I trust.

Literary critics are used to looking at books in a certain way. Everybody thinks in terms of beginning, middle, end. But start slicing a novel into percentages and new patterns emerge. As you said earlier, everything has been sitting out in plain sight for ages. I’m just the one who decided to look at the parts mathematically. As an editor, I also knew what the numbers were revealing, and how to interpret them. (Hopefully, I'm not making myself sound like an oracle picking through chicken entrails...)

In 2016, The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Bestseller was published. Jody Archer and Matthew L. Jockers looked at algorithms and did a “big picture” analysis of 20,000 novels. I had a number of people contact me immediately, worried there might be a conflict or overlap. After my heart stopped thumping in time to Flight of the Bumblebee, I realized that the authors didn’t go into how numbers could benefit “small picture” applications. Here's a wacky and imperfect analogy: They looked at the whole elephant. I look at the bones giving the elephant its shape.

Finally, in my circle of several hundred people in the writing and publishing world, I’m already known as the person who invented the serial-killing-monkey genre—and it’s been successful. So once you’ve done something off the wall that’s worked, people are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. They’re willing to wait and see before they dismiss you out of hand. Getting thoughtful and favorable reviews from people such as yourself also adds a layer of Teflon.

OBAAT: The two books you broke down the most are The Big Sleep and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which shows how your evidence transcends mere genre. You also looked at books as diverse as Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Hunger Games, The Shining, Confederacy of Dunces and probably a dozen more. Aside from the fact all sold like banana splits at the beach, what made you select the books you did?

EA: I wanted to deconstruct worthy books that had huge and different readerships. Because my information transcends genre, I wanted to reach writers in every corner of the fiction universe with titles they knew and loved hard. Nothing connects the list titles except zillions of sales and most being made into movies. I felt these books were worth poring over to find out what makes them tick.

OBAAT: That’s an excellent point. The IM section alone reminded me that I have to keep that in mind, especially since I write a series, which make it important for me not only not to assume the reader knows what I’m talking about, but not to assume she’s read any of the previous books.

It occurs to me this may seem to readers all well and good in a New Agey yet analytical sort of way, sort of a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance meets Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but there’s no hook for them. Can you show us a digested example of what you’re talking about? Maybe a piece of one of the charts with a brief explanation?

EA: Sure! Let’s look at Table 2, which is the first comprehensive table in the book.

What you’re looking at here, from left to right, is the title of the book, then the author, and that middle column shows the total number of characters appearing in the first quarter of the book. As you can see, the numbers range from 25 for Kill Shot by Vice Flynn to 53 for Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. That’s a pretty narrow range when you consider that those numbers seem to have nothing to do with the age, genre, or total word count of the book! Interview with the Vampire (1976) by Anne Rice is about 130,000 words long but has only 30 characters in the first quarter. Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding is 64,000 words long with 41 characters in the first quarter. How can these first-quarter character counts squeeze into such a narrow range? Answer: Our brains process stories, particularly the beginnings of stories, the same way they did in Aristotle’s time. When you start to look at these types of similarities among mega-successful books, a shiny new lightbulb goes on in terms of novel writing.

There is a caveat, however. Epics and sagas such as George R.R. Martin’s 280,000-word-plus A Game of Thrones novels, have their own rules of structure. Massive word count changes structure. Therefore, one has to be careful about applying the metrics shown here to the “literary leviathans.” My promise to the aspiring author is that if you are writing an average-sized novel of 100,000 words or less, my guidelines will help you craft a story with sound structure. Since structure is the number one challenge to most unsold manuscripts, this is good news.

OBAAT: How has Bestseller Metrics been received so far?

EA:  Enthusiastically and respectfully. I did have a few old-timers laugh out loud when I first mentioned finding mathematical patterns in novels, but they weren’t being mean. They laughed because it was so foreign to anything they’d heard before. Once people get a look at the system, it seems like they’re not only ready, but eager to dig in, they’ve been looking for something like this a long time. I have so many offers to speak and teach that it's a struggle to keep up. I’m concentrating on following users—the writers actually testing their manuscripts and taking note of what they have to say as they go along. It has to be user-friendly and it has to work. I’m sure there are improvements and adjustments I can make for the next release.

OBAAT: With this episode of heavy lifting behind you, what’s next? More fiction, or looking into what you’ve done here in more detail?

EA: Workshops, an online course, developing materials for teachers to use in classrooms, and software development. I’m in the process of sourcing textbook distributors, and nonfiction distributors. It’s a long list and I’m just one person, so it’s a long workday, everyday. I need help, so if anybody has any bright ideas and wants in on the ground floor, I’d love to hear from you.

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