Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Talkable Tales

For some time now, the de facto standards for measuring a novel’s quality has been in terms of whether it is a page turner or the reader couldn’t put it down. The formula for creating such a book is simple. Never satisfy the reader’s curiosity until the final page. But I don’t want to talk about that. Instead, I want to walk about how non-page-turner, poorly written books can make it to the top of the bestseller lists.

Several months ago, I visited a forum and someone asked the question, “Has anyone read The Shack? What did you think of it?” I hadn’t heard of it at the time, so I did a little looking around and discovered that it was self-published and yet it had the appearance of a book that was going to do well. At the time, it hadn’t hit the top of any charts yet, but it was on its way up. I bought a copy, just so I would be knowledgeable enough to discuss it. I don’t mean to discuss the ills of The Shack here, other than to say that it is no great surprise that the major Christian publishers didn’t publish it. But there it sits on the bestseller list, high above books with better stories, written by highly skilled authors.

People read books because they fulfill a need. How to books often tell you what need they fill, right there in the title. How to Weave Baskets Underwater, etc. With novels, we might say they fulfill the need for entertainment and we would be right, but there is a need that we tend to overlook and it is the most important need that a novel fulfills. Novels give people something to talk about. It doesn’t matter how well something is written, if it ain’t talkable, it ain’t gonna sell. People want to tell their friends about a book they have read. People want to write reviews.

Someone want to tell me how to write talkable tales? If we are doing our job as writers, we need to give our readers something they can talk about. But it also has to be about the right things. It’s like a preacher. He wants his congregation to talk about his sermon on the way home. He could stand behind the pulpit naked and they would all talk, but it wouldn’t be about his sermon. We want a talkable tale, while staying true to what we believe the story should be. That’s hard.