Now that I’ve polished up my synopsis for Laps I want to share some of what I learned at the Storymakers Conference last week. Besides participating in Boot Camp and hearing a couple of panel discussions (one on the writing process and the other featuring two national agents and an editor), I had signed up for four different workshops–all of which were two-parters. In other words, I received a deluge of information and will try to share what I can here.
Let me begin with the last workshop, featuring well-known author, David Wolverton (or Dave Farland, as he’s better known to his fantasy readers). I will try and encapsulate his two-hour presentation in several salient points:
1) If we want to be successful (i.e., bestselling) writers, we need to understand what makes people want to read…and then design our stories to fulfill their desires. We need to understand what our audiences are looking for. A NYT bestselling author knows how to write to a wide audience, while a midlist author doesn’t know how or doesn’t care.
2) Why do people read? There are lots of reasons (following fads, addicted to stories, escaping real life, etc.), but the one he emphasized was rather scientifically based: In large part, we read to de-stress. Reading can sedate you, releasing endorphins which block pain…or it can excite you, releasing cortisol and adrenaline…and if you’re going through a lot of stress in your personal life and you pick up a page-turner that transports you into a world full of much greater danger and stress, your life seems easy in comparison, and when you’re done with the book, you are below your initial stress-line level. The better the book, the lower you end up below that initial level. He called it the “stress reduction and induction method of storytelling.”
3) As writers, we must recognize that each reader has his own unique comfort zone. Some are afraid of heights, others of relationships, others can’t stand conflict or violence, etc. That is why there is no novel that everyone will like.
4) However, every good story (whether it’s a book or a film) that proves to attract a wide audience has all of the following:
- It takes you to another time and/or another place. It transports you.
- It has a huge potential audience, with characters appealing to young and old, male and female, in different parts of the globe.
- It scores high on what he called “the emotional Richter scale” (laughter, fright, tears, passion, etc.)
- It has conflicts that appeal to a wide, global audience.
5) To back up these points, he used James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic as examples (along with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series). Both of Cameron’s stories transport the viewer to another time and place. Both feature young and old, male and female. Both score high emotionally. And both present conflicts that are common around the world. (He noted that China, Brazil, and the Pacific Northwest all get the message in Avatar…taking care of the earth, rather than destroying it for technology’s sake; and any country who has had a downtrodden minority would also appreciate that conflict in the story.) He did allow that, of the 50 top grossing films of all time, only “The Godfather” seemed to limit its scope to men, excluding women…but they marketed it to women, as well as men, by featuring the dancing at the wedding scene in all the trailers.
6) As a writer, then, you need to know your readers and have appropriate main characters and appropriate emotions for that audience.
- For YA Fiction, you need a sense of wonder (which carries over from children’s fiction to YA and even to adult fiction). Kids like horror, too, as long as the wonder is a bit stronger than the horror. (Think Lemony Snickett…Goosebumps…Harry Potter.) Humor is huge with YA, as is adventure. So, for readers aged 2-12: wonder, humor, horror (depending on age), and adventure.
- Once hormones hit at age 12, romance becomes important to girls…sex (not romance) and adventure to boys.
- By age 35, the biggest draws for women become drama and mystery (generally, by then, they are settled with their families).
- Men stay with sex and adventure until their mid to late 40’s…then they turn to drama, too.
7) If you’re writing for adults, realize that 32% of men are incapable of getting into the head of a female protagonist. YA novels all feature main characters who are 16. Middle grade novels all feature 11-12-year-olds. Romance novels feature a main character in her mid-20’s. You have to write to your audience.
8) If you want a wide audience, follow the example of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. Have characters that will appeal to young and old, male and female.
9) Consider how your story and characters will play in different parts of the world. James Cameron intentionally focused on characters from different countries in Titanic to widen his audience globally. Think about giving your protagonist a foreign name. To appeal to Asians, focus on their sense of honor and respect for elders, etc. You never know in what part of the U.S. or in which foreign country your book might start selling big…so be careful with selling your foreign rights.
10) Finally, he really emphasized how important it was for authors to hang on to their foreign rights. The biggest major markets around the world in publishing are: U.S., U.K./Australia, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. If you can break into the German market, then you’ll begin to hit other eastern European markets. If you can make it big in the Japanese market, you’ll hit other Asian markets.
As you can tell, he gave me a lot to think about, particularly for my next project.