The Secret to an Awesome Novel? Science Knows. Kinda.

Rest assured, plebeian writers of Earth: science can now solve all your problems!
That’s right: Science has cracked the code to a best-selling novel! And the answer is…
Wait, this can’t be right. The answer is…” heavy use of conjunctions such as “and” and “but” and large numbers of nouns and adjectives.”
The Telegraph reported on this story, which says that Stony Brook University in New York used science to analyze the best-selling novels (and even poetry!) to analyze what factors led to one book becoming successful over another. They found their analysis could predict with an 84 percent accuracy whether or not a book was successful.
But it’s pretty hard to take this and figure out what, exactly, made one book successful (perhaps–dare I say?–authoring is more art than science?).
The article says the secret to success was “range of factors determine whether or not a book will enjoy success, including “interestingness”, novelty, style of writing, and how engaging the storyline is, but admit that external factors such as luck can also play a role.”
So is there anything useful to authors here, in terms of boiling down the magic to success? Well, maybe.
First, it’s probably not a good idea to write Jaws except with a whale, but it still eats people and the boat is still too small. Being completely original (or “novel”) is certainly a challenge, but it pays off.
There’s no note on how “style of writing” or which style of writing leads to success, but that can be seen as another way of saying “develop your own voice.” Chuck Wendig’s writing “sounds” very different from Joe Hill’s. The only real way to do that is by writing.
“Engaging” and “interestingness” might be ways of saying “keep things moving.” That can be a struggle in some stories, but as you edit, be sure to ask yourself “does this move the story along, or is this scene filler”? I’ve been playing through the “LEGO Lord of the Rings” game and it has made me realize how, while the background story is very basic, Tolkien really kept throwing new perils at the little Hobbits (oh, you managed to survive that horde of orcs? Great. How about an Oliphant?!)
Regarding the “heavy use of conjunctions”: that sounds like “complex writing” to me. It means using advanced writing forms, rather than a series of simple sentences. That takes skill and, again, practice. You could take a class in this (or hire a good editor to help connect the dots), but the best thing you can do is just keep doing it. And read the good stuff; you’ll pick up on the rhythms subconsciously.
It’s great that they acknowledge luck. I’m very grateful for that, because too often a lot of “how to write” books make it sound like you really can boil down some sort of methodology and it comes across as a get-rich-quick scam. It’s not. Just keep chugging.
I am not particularly worried that an agent, editor or publisher is going to start running manuscripts through the SuccessCalculator5000 anytime soon, so this study gives me a rudimentary baseline: Do good work, and keep doing it.


Filed under Publishing, writing

3 responses to “The Secret to an Awesome Novel? Science Knows. Kinda.

  1. Yay! Another LEGO games fan. The LOTR one is quite fun, though I haven’t finished all the minikits yet.

    Do you think luck accounts for those bestsellers that rehash old ideas, are full of plot holes and use simplistic language? Because sadly, those are also out there…

    • Those best selling but terrible books are quite the double-edged sword, aren’t they? On the one hand, this book got published despite being terrible, what?! On the other, if a terrible book can make it, you can feel better about your great one!

      Yay LEGO! Some of the best games on the market!

  2. I had to laugh while reading this. If anyone had ever figured out the true “code” to writing a bestseller, there would be nothing but bestsellers out there. I loved the tongue in cheek way you wrote this. Here’s hoping we all figure it out!

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