Did you miss me?
It always takes me awhile to get back into the swing of things once I get home from a trip.Â But now I’m back at my desk and thinking about what a great time I had at the San Francisco Writers Conference — and what a terrific town San Francisco is.Â Ages ago I went to medical school there, and every time I go back, I’m reminded that there’s no place like it in the country.Â Â How many towns can boast a female chief of police AND a female fire chief?Â Then I opened up the local newspaper and on the front page was an article about a local official’s boyfriend, who’dÂ set fire to their residence.Â Â It wasn’t until a few paragraphs into the article that I realized the “local official” was a man.Â Oops!Â In San Francisco, you can’t assume anything.Â The town is full of surprises — and delights.
The Writers Conference was another delight.Â Â Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen have built it into a classy event that covers a wide range of topics.Â One of the sessions I was anxious to attend wasÂ the talk “writing the breakout novel”Â by literary agent Donald Maass.Â I’d been hearing about Donald Maass for some years, from people who’d raved about his how-to course on writing bestsellingÂ novels.Â Even though I do happen to write bestselling novels, I’ve always wondered if I really knowÂ the “secret”.Â Most of the time I think I’m just operating onÂ my storytellerÂ instincts, with a lot of luck thrown in.Â Could Maass help me pin down exactly what makes a bestseller?Â Or is it all just fairy dust?
When I finally did catch my first glimpse ofÂ Maass, I was surprised he was so young.Â I’d been hearing about him for so many years, I’d expected a gray-haired gentleman.Â He read off the titles on the current New York Times fiction bestsellers list and challenged the audience to list what those bestsellers had in common.Â The result?Â Not a lot.Â There were thrillers and literary novels, books with heroes and books with heroines, a book set in Afghanistan and a bookÂ set inÂ Jersey, books with high stakes and books with quietly personal stakes.Â As he pointed out, you can’t predict which topic or which plot will hit the list.
But you can find certain things that bestsellers have in common:Â characters you care about, stakes that matter to them,Â andÂ what he referred to as continuous “microtension” –Â a story with a high level of conflict, an underlyingÂ sense that something importantÂ is always about to happen, or could happen.Â He also said something that I myself have concluded (and in fact blogged about sometime ago): action, in and of itself, is not tension.Â In fact, it can be downright boring.
I found myself nodding in agreement with everything he said.Â He managed to verbalize what I’ve tended to do by instinct.Â Wow, I thought; there really is an algorithm for writing a bestselling novel!Â