How (Not) to Write a Mainstream Success

1_4 freezing fog 4We get these freezing fogs in Santa Fe that turn the desert into a fairyland of ice crystals. Just extraordinary to see.

 As every reader delights in, I received several books for Christmas – along with gift cards for even More Books. Two that I specifically asked for (via my wishlist) were Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. On Christmas Eve, my aunt, who wasn’t with us, IM’d my mom to ask if I’d received the Kindle book she’d sent. My mom said she didn’t know, but that she’d gotten me a paper copy of Sharp Objects for my stocking, that my aunt had better not have gotten the same book and what was it? My aunt said “Bossypants!” and my mom was all offended that her sister called her that. My mom didn’t figure out until Christmas morning that this was not a sisterly insult, accurate though it may be, but the title of the Kindle book, which I did, indeed, receive.

Hysterical, I think.

That said, I really enjoyed Bossypants. I admire Tina Fey so much. In fact, I should put her on that list of people interviewers always ask for about which living people I’d like to have dinner with. Right now I’m picturing Tina Fey, Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman at my table.

Too bad they’ll make me look like a blithering idiot.

At any rate, Tina Fey is a sharp, witty and insightful writer. They book is more a collection of essays that all bring insight into how she developed the career she has today. I think people in any field, male or female would be interested, but she has so much to offer females in creative professions – regardless of the medium – that I’d almost call it a must read.

I plan to be quoting various tidbits from it in the future.

But the part that really stood out for me at this moment, that I typed into messenger for one of my writing buddies as soon as I got home, was about her show 30 Rock.

Now, I love 30 Rock. You all know I don’t watch much TV, but I’ve watched as much of 30 Rock as I can (via Netflix). Like Tina, it’s funny, sharp, insightful and full of sly jokes. I would call it one of the best shows on TV, except that I’m so not an arbiter of such things. At any rate, she said this about it:

We weren’t trying to make a low-rated critical darling that snarled in the face of conventionality. We were trying to make Home Improvement and we did it wrong. You know those scientists who were developing a blood-pressure medicine and they accidentally invented Viagra? We were trying to make Viagra and we ended up with blood-pressure medicine. No matter how many times we tried to course-correct the show to make it more accessible – slow the dialogue down, tell fewer stories per episode, stop putting people in blackface – the show would end up careening off the rails again. In my limited experience, shows are like children. You can teach them manners and dress them in little sailor suits, but in the end, they’re going to be who they’re going to be.

And wow – did that hit home for me, as a writer.

It did for my writing buddy too. She and I even had a mission going for a while called “Project Mainstream,” where we each tried to develop a really mainstream, conventional idea for a book, that would be, well, Home Improvement. Project Mainstream did not go well. She’s doing better than I am, however. But we realized several things about ourselves in this effort.

1. She and I make the worst possible coaches for each other in this. We both take stories careening off the rails. Every. Damn. Time.

2. I’m miserable at trying to do this, because every time she’d point out that some plot element wasn’t mainstream, I’d start snarling in the face of conventionality.

3. In our heart of hearts, neither of us *really* wants this. We couldn’t bear dressing our kids in little sailor suits and we don’t fundamentally give a flip about manners. Before long, we were stripped down with them in the mud puddle, making castles.

When I sent her this snippet from Bossypants, her immediate response was, “But isn’t 30 Rock a really successful show?” Which is an interesting point, too. I would certainly have said so. In the world of television though, the ratings barely get them by. She says they had 5 million viewers in the first season. At its height, Friends was getting 25 million viewers per episode.

This is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish from the writing world, no doubt. For contrast, Twilight has sold 100 million copies, all told – equivalent to four episodes of Friends. Hunger Games had an initial print run of 200,000 copies and has sold in the neighborhood of 800,000 copies now. In ten years, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods has sold 1 million copies in 22 languages worldwide.

See what I mean?

I’ve heard the unofficial number of 15,000 copies sold to be considered a successful book in NYC.

It all calls up the question of what we consider to be a successful effort. Tina Fey set out to make Home Improvement. With Project Mainstream, my writing buddy and I were shooting for something similar. Maybe not Twilight, but Hunger Games would be nice. Hell, we’d be delighted with much less.

But in our heart of hearts? It’s castles in the mud that make us the happiest.

3 Replies to “How (Not) to Write a Mainstream Success”

  1. My “no sailor suits ahead” warning sign, now that you mention: I’m thinking about some major quality or plot point in the project in terms of “they don’t [some trope].” Things go better if I know what they do do instead!

    1. Yes, you’re exactly right, Ann. And, while I love the tropes, I seem to have this compulsion to *tweak* them. There lies the dark path…

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