How to Write a Classic

Dec 10, 2017

I’ve never paid attention to the features of my story which might make it more likely to be a bestseller.

But I’m all grown up now, so I thought I'd best take a closer look at the difference between the novels I've long admired and fiction's bestsellers of the last hundred years to understand what makes one book sell millions, and another thousands.

Not all of these three features need to be present in the one story, but of course 'layering' them up in the winter of our publishing discontent, might be smart.

1. The Extreme Situation



  • extreme locations or landscapes
  • extreme dilemmas
  • extreme danger, murder afoot

'Literary' fiction works the other way round, and deposits an extraordinary person in a normal or 'normalized' situation - think Orwellian or Kafkaesque dystopian nightmares. We have a whole range between classics and bestsellers best exemplified by The Bourne Identity on the one hand which has an extreme situation meet its match with an extraordinary person (bestseller) and John Le Carré's Smiley books or Graham Greene's books which are more literary by virtue of their hero-next-door, bespectacled, ordinary hero - in an extreme situation. There's a broad spectrum. The more 'super powered' or magical the hero, the more the story stacks up as a bestseller.

 2. Magic


A fairy tale of transformation or a story powered by the semi-divine, superhuman, magical qualities and attributes of a character.

3. 'Walk in My Shoes'

This is a way of telling. It eschews rhetorical grandstanding, innovative techniques, stylistic flourishes, and poetic symbolism in favour of the more prosaic 'walk in my shoes.' The style is the substance of experience. We see through the narrator or character's eyes, we touch what they touch, eat what they eat, sleep when they sleep. From the outset of the book. We lose ourselves in the netherworld of another human life. It is the ultimate vacation or voluntary absence, a guided dreaming.

 But let me show you what I mean.


This week I’ve been reading 'The Snow Child' which combines the features above.

Eowyn Ivey's debut novel was published in twenty-six languages, and became an international bestseller. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize 2013, and Eowyn won the International Author of the Year category at the 2012 National Book Awards. 

I rarely read bestsellers so I picked this up, wary of being pulled by my hair through jammy clichés. Not at all. The first chapter is extremely carefully considered and I sat back to think what was working so well. It was 1. The extreme Alaskan landscape 2. The Fairy Tale quality of the story 3. The immersive 'walk in my shoes' technique.

As if to make it very clear how to write this way, Eowyn Ivey dwells on the matter of feet in shoes a number of times.  The terse man of few words 'Jack' is more often than not reaching for his boots. Regularly we feel with Jack and Mabel the snow beneath their boots or their feet cold within their boots. If intimate or revelatory exchanges occur, we are given to understand that Jack is in socked feet. When the source of sadness is revealed, as it pertains to Jack, we are told that;

'He put one foot in front of the other and walked without seeing or feeling.'

The novel's first chapters move with the slow dignity of the Alaskan winter, but we are either in Jack or Mabel's shoes the entire time. 'Descriptions of natural life come over bright and clear.' (The Independent.) And with the 360 degree experience of being present.

Eowyn Ivey was inspired to write this  her first novel, The Snow Child, after she chanced upon a version of a classic Russian fairy-tale in the bookshop where she worked. Please note now that, Ivey, who was raised in Alaska, was named after a character from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings by her mother.

(See the all time bestsellers list below to explain the 'magic' inference of this blessing.) 

‘I was shelving books at the store one winter evening and I came across this little inexpensive children's paperback. It was illustrated very simply with just a couple of sentences on each page. As I read it I got this tingly sensation that I had found the story I had been looking for. I felt a sense of fate or destiny. I'd always wanted to tell a magical story set in Alaska, but I hadn't found the way to get it. I'd been working on a different novel for almost five years, so I set it aside and started writing The Snow Child.’ (Eowyn Ivey)

Ivey chose 'Little Daughter of the Snow', a folk-tale first translated from the Russian by Arthur Ransome, as her springboard. Relocated to Alaska in the 1920s, her story starts with Jack and Mabel, a middle-aged farming couple only just making it in weather where giving up the will to live at times seems like a sensible option. They have an awkward but loving relationship yet miss the children they never had.

The Faina, a beautiful feral child, shyly enters their lives. Mabel believes that she is the embodiment of a snow child the couple had made previously in a rare moment of leisure and levity. Jack knows that Faina's drunken father has just died and that she had lost her mother when she was a baby. The final truth about her stays a mystery.

One of the suggestively transformative or magic occurrences of the novel is when the neighbour Esther gives Mabel sourdough starter for her baking, and this is what I'd like to offer you as a writer. Until the middle ages, sourdough starter was an essential part of breadmaking. If you wanted your dough to rise, this culture of flour, water and wild yeasts was what did the lifting. As a living ingredient, starter needs to be looked after – even fed occasionally. The bread it produces has more flavour, lasts longer and is easier to digest.

 Consider using a fairy tale as your story starter. If Tolstoy and Dickens shamelessly plundered the genre, then many have followed in their glass-slippered footsteps, and you'll probably want to begin with a look at the genre broken down into the key types of tale by the wonderful Maria Tatar.

The Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar looks at the re-telling of famous tales by authors such as Perrault, Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, James Thurber, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter and Roald Dahl.

You should not miss Angela Carter's Bloody Chamber. Though the lusty and fabulous gore of her short stories cannot be sustained over the course of a novel, it will prove inspiring. The title story is a re-telling of the horror story cum fairy tale that is Bluebeard, which it now occurs to me runs as a slight undercurrent in my forthcoming novel.

This anthology for budding feminists, Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales, might well get your dough rising. Carter has taken fairy tales from across the globe including Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Arctic, Scandinavia and the Caribbean. Several of the stories are written in a local dialect. The main characters in each chapter are usually female and find themselves in situations good, bad and ugly... 


The 10 Bestsellers of the last 100 years.

You will note that some books use all three of the features above, and some a combination. Where a single factor is used, the sales ranking is boosted either by 'zeitgeist' being of the moment, or belonging to a rising cohort or speaking for a readership demographic, or by that old-fashioned quality - great writing.

1. The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkein 150 million +

 Continuing the story begun in The Hobbit, Sauron, the Dark Lord, has gathered to him all the Rings of Power – the means by which he intends to rule Middle-earth. All he lacks in his plans for dominion is the One Ring – the ring that rules them all – which has fallen into the hands of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.

In a sleepy village in the Shire, young Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as the Ring is entrusted to his care. He must leave his home and make a perilous journey across the realms of Middle-earth to the Crack of Doom, deep inside the territories of the Dark Lord. There he must destroy the Ring forever and foil the Dark Lord in his evil purpose.

2 The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho - 150 million +

The Alchemist was published in 1988, and it is about Santiago, a young Spanish boy who has a dream that urges him to go to Egypt. Before he sets out, he learns about the Personal Legend, which is something that someone always wanted to do with their life. If someone decides to follow their own Personal Legend, then the universe will try to help them. And the universe is a very powerful ally. If the universe will bend to help a person on their Personal Legend, then it’s possible to do the impossible, like alchemy, the process of turning lead into gold.

3 The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: 140+ Million

The Little Prince looks like a children’s book, but it actually has a lot of keen observations and insights regarding human nature and relationships. The book is about a pilot who crashes in the Sahara desert and meets a young boy with curly blond hair. The boy tells the pilot that he’s a prince that fell from a small planet called Asteroid 325, however on Earth we call it Asteroid B-612. The Prince left his home after he fell in love with a rose and he caught her in a lie, so he is traveling across the universe to cure his loneliness.

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone - JK Rowling 107million +

Harry Potter has never even heard of Hogwarts when the letters start dropping on the doormat at number four, Privet Drive. Addressed in green ink on yellowish parchment with a purple seal, they are swiftly confiscated by his grisly aunt and uncle. Then, on Harry's eleventh birthday, a great beetle-eyed giant of a man called Rubeus Hagrid bursts in with some astonishing news: Harry Potter is a wizard, and he has a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. (The other books in the series also feature in the top bestsellers of all time - hats off to JK - but I thought it would be tedious to list them here.)

5. The Hobbit JRR Tolkein 100 million +

The Hobbit is the story of Bilbo, a peace-loving hobbit, who embarks on a strange and magical adventure. See the video above for Tolkein's account of it's humble beginnings.

Bilbo Baggins enjoys a quiet and contented life, with no desire to travel far from the comforts of home; then one day the wizard Gandalf and a band of dwarves arrive unexpectedly and enlist his services – as a burglar – on a dangerous expedition to raid the treasure-hoard of Smaug the dragon. Bilbo’s life is never to be the same again.

6. And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie 100 m +

A group of people are lured into coming to an island under different pretexts, e.g., offers of employment, to enjoy a late summer holiday, or to meet old friends. All have been complicit in the deaths of other human beings, but either escaped justice or committed an act that was not subject to legal sanction. The guests and two servants who are present are charged with their respective crimes by a gramophone recording after dinner the first night, and informed that they have been brought to the island to pay for their actions. They are the only people on the island, and cannot escape due to the distance from the mainland and the inclement weather, and gradually all ten are killed in turn, each in a manner that seems to parallel the deaths in the nursery rhyme. Nobody else seems to be left alive on the island by the time of the apparent last death. A confession, in the form of a postscript to the novel, unveils how the killings took place and who was responsible. 

7. Fifty Shades of Grey E.L. James 100m+

The first instalment in the Fifty Shades trilogy traces the deepening relationship between a college graduate, Anastasia Steele, and a young business magnate, Christian Grey. It is notable for its explicitly erotic scenes.The Fifty Shades trilogy was developed from a Twilight fan fiction series. 'The story is less a booster for bondage than a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. At the end of her saga, when all the whips have been sheathed and the harnesses have been unstrung, Anastasia Steele has tamed and wedded her beast, given birth to one of his children, and conceived another.' (New Republic.)

8. The Lion, The With and The Wardobe - C.S. Lewis 85 million +

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe takes place in 1940 and tells the tale of four English siblings who are sent to the English countryside because of the Blitz. While there, they discover a magical wardrobe that is a gateway to another world, Narnia, which is full of talking animals and magical creatures. When the children arrive, the world is in perpetual winter because the White Witch has cast a spell to keep Narnia frozen. To help their friends in Narnia, the children must work together to defeat the White Witch and break her spell.

9. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown 80 Million +

A murder in the halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ. The victim is a high-ranking agent of this ancient society who, in the moments before his death, manages to leave gruesome clues at the scene that only his granddaughter, noted cryptographer Sophie Neveu, and Robert Langdon, a famed symbologist, can untangle. 

 10. The Catcher in the Rye. JD Salinger 65 million +

The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. Holden Caulfield's voice is distinctive, the writing is great, and for three days the reader walks in his shoes. 

 Out of interest....

C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were in a writing group called The Inklings. While both writers were working on fantasy novels—Lewis on Narnia and Tolkien on The Lord of the Rings—they met every Monday morning to talk about writing. Others started to join them, and soon the group swelled to 19 men, so they started meeting on Thursday evenings to share and discuss their work.

The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe' is based on Hans Christian Anderson's 'The Snow Queen.'

Tolkien didn’t like 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe''.

Some say it’s because Tolkien didn’t like how Lewis mixed different mythologies together. Another theory is that Tolkien was threatened by the speed with which Lewis assembled his world, when Tolkien was so meticulous in his invention of Middle-earth.

Tolkien said in a letter: "It is sad that 'Narnia' and all that part of C.S. Lewis's work should remain outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his.”

Come and find out how to write a bestselling classic with the Classic fiction writing course at The Novelry.



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