Larry Brooks is a published author and owner of a terrific, maybe essential, blog for writers: Storyfix. Larry has a great way of helping you plot a novel, and he should know. IN addition to his great how-to books on writing, he’s published several novels, to great acclaim. Larry writes thrillers, and they’re page turners. When I wrote my NaNoWriMo novel in November, that’s what I wanted it to be. Not a thriller – I haven’t the first idea about how to write a fight scene – but a page turner. So before November 1, I followed his plan for structuring a novel. And it worked.
Now here’s his take on going viral:
It is the Holy Grail of instant success as an author. The elusive grand slam home run of literary home runs. It is better – beyond – getting published, or even making a bestseller list.
It is the dream. Bigger than your highest vision of The Dream.
It is called “going viral.”
For in the Luddites among us… going viral means that word-of-mouth and the media, especially the internet – which in this case are simply responding to an initial word-of-mouth phenomena — conspire in a dance of co-dependent cause and effect to explode a book beyond the bestseller lists into a feeding frenzy of attention, demand, praise and bookstore waiting lists.
For most readers, this sudden attention is the first time they’ll hear about the title, or its author.
Think The DaVinci Code, Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Lovely Bones, The Help, The Bridges of Madison County… books that seemingly appear out of nowhere and sell millions within a few weeks, and more millions afterward, almost always resulting in a movie and a sequel.
People who wouldn’t have been interested before are now clicking onto Amazon to pick up a copy, in some cases simply because they want to see what all the buzz is about.
How did they do that? How can we do that?
Good news and bad news: we can enter the game, we can go for it, but once qualified and out there, it’s a total crap-shoot. One over which you have, after meeting the criteria for viral consideration, absolutely no control.
It is beyond social media. You can’t tweet or Facebook yourself into viral status. Your publisher can’t even make it happen. It rarely happens to the common A-list author names – they became A-listers after their viral debut – it’s usually something fresh, from a fresh face.
And yet, going viral is a paradox.
It is something you can wish for, but once the book has been written, cannot create or execute. The best you can do is write a book that is positioned – that delivers the right stuff – to be discovered, ignited and launched on a viral journey at the scale required to wear this name tag.
Many books qualify. Few hear their name called.
The paradox is this:
The criteria for putting your book into a position to go viral is almost exactly that associated with getting published in the first place. The book has to work. Really, really well.
That said, viral books tend to do a couple of specific things really well:
They are often “high concept” (rather than character-driven, even though they introduce great characters), with exceptional execution across all of the Six Core Competencies.
They also deliver something else, almost without exception: they seize the inherent compelling power of underlying story physics in way that exceeds the competition.
These two realms of story – compelling concept, with exceptionally strong underlying essences, is what gets you into the viral game.
And if that sounds underwhelming, welcome to the paradox. Doesn’t everybody try for a compelling concept and the blowing of their story physics out of the water?
Answer: not really. Mostly because they don’t address these as goals. Some authors just write their story, write it well, let it unspool organically, and hope somebody out there gets it. This may get them published, but it doesn’t usually get them on Good Morning America.
If you want to go viral, you should address high concept and the optimization of story physics in the story development process. You should be aware of their inherent compelling power, or not. And if the latter, jack it higher.
The Latest Example of the Viral Dream Come True
Just this morning Good Morning America did a feature on the latest viral sensation in the book world. It described a mad frenzy of word-of-mouth obsession, and during the segment the GMA anchors were literally grabbing the book from each others’ hands to swoon over randomly selected sentences.
Not because the sentences were astoundingly eloquent. Rather, because the sentences deliver more than one of the basic elements of story physics like a bullet to the brain.
The book is called “50 Shades of Grey,” dubbed an erotic novel (part of a trilogy) by a little known English author named E.L. James. As I write this, a mere four hours after the GMA love fest, less than two weeks after initial release, it resides at #1 on the Amazon Kindle list, and #4 on the overall bestselling books list.
Almost all because of reader word-of-mouth. And media that listens and jumps on board.
Interestingly, it isn’t yet registering on the New York Times bestseller list. Why? Because that’s an insider industry list based on wholesale distribution to bookstores and a lagging nod to digital books, and 50 Shades of Grey is barely in bookstores and is too new to crack the old boy network that the NYT represents.
But wait ‘til next week. It’ll be there, and probably at #1.
Let me tell you why this book has gone viral.
And in doing so, identify the simple elements of story physics that this book delivers. Read and learn, this is your ticket not only to the viral world, but to finding a publisher and a readership, as well.
The book is about a young woman who has an affair with a billionaire. In one reader’s words, it is full of sex, money and clothes. It is Sex in the City times ten.
One interviewed reader calls it “mommy porn.” A guilty pleasure perfectly suited to the anonymity of a Kindle in a crowded mall.
High concept? Not particularly. But here’s what it does do well:
It is fueled by two things, both of them among the short list of essential story physics that capture readers:
The book is driven by hero empathy, while delivering a vicarious ride.
Read that again. It isn’t the plot, and it isn’t character. No, this is about the reader. This strategy shoots for the result of what you’ve written, the impact on a reader that creates a reading experience beyond the intellectual curiosity of plot, the reward of laughter or any marveling at great art.
It’s about the reader transporting themselves into this world… going on this ride… feeling it… wanting to be the hero… wishing it was them… the reader completely engaging in this journey on a personal level.
You may enjoy the heck out of the latest detective thriller, but really, is this something you want to actually do? To actually feel? No, that’s a voyeuristic read. 50 Shades of Grey, while perhaps voyeuristic, is actually more masturbatory and vicarious in nature. It delivers an emotional experience that taps into something deep and forbidden and unavailable.
It mines pure gold from the power of its underlying story physics.
That’s it. Do this, and do it within a compelling premise with professional-level execution, and you are in a position to go viral.
And if you don’t happen to win that particular lottery, at least you’ll have increased your chances at publication or digital success exponentially.
For now, ask yourself what about your story delivers a vicarious ride, where your story takes the reader, and at what level your story makes the reader feel and actually become a part of the story in a vicarious and personally empathetic way… rather than sitting in the literary grandstands and watching it all go down.