E.L. James’ writing tips may not be a template you want to follow. Her work has been sneered at, criticised and made fun of.
But, her success cannot be denied.
She had never written a book before. But when she did, her success launched her to the top of the Forbes list of highest-earning authors.
Her debut novel Fifty Shades of Grey was even quoted as being “bigger than the bible.”
How it all started
After becoming obsessed with the Twilight series in 2008, E.L. James (real name Erika Mitchell) decided to write the Fifty Shades trilogy. She describes it as her:
“my midlife crisis, writ large. All my fantasies in there, and that’s it.”
James’ claims that the trilogy is based on a combination of her personal experiences and imagination. Here’s more on what she has to say on the subject:
Why her success is fifty shades of surprising
About this heading – I couldn’t help myself. #sorrynotsorry
But on a more serious note, there are so many red flags surrounding this author’s work that her success is truly fascinating.
Aside from the fact that E.L. James had never written a novel before:
- She wrote the Fifty Shades trilogy from a young person’s perspective. Even much of the language is teenagery. And yet, so many adults loved it.
- Competition from the already-saturated genre of erotic literature didn’t stop her success.
- She didn’t go down the traditional publishing route with the first novel and instead, self-published.
- Despite receiving heavy criticism she still sold over 70 million copies.
Seriously, how did she do it?
#1 She broke the rules
Her trilogy is scattered with grammatical errors, adverbs and repetition. The basic rules that us writers wouldn’t dare to break.
But this didn’t stop its success.
Maybe this is because breaking the rules is okay – sometimes. After all, people have been doing it for years, even Shakespeare.
While James’s success might not reach as far as Shakespeare’s, she has proved that mainstream readers are more interested in the content than the technicalities. And if they are engrossed in a story, they’ll be forgiving of technical issues.
#2 People hating your work isn’t always a bad thing
“a cut-price Mr Darcy with nipple clamps…the joke is taken too far…creepy doesn’t even begin to cover it.” Bryony Gordon, author of The Wrong Knickers.
“Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t just a literary copycat of Twilight, but a cultural copycat, as well.” Jenny Trout, a contributor on Huffpost.
“I’ve been thinking of alternate titles…Something succinct like: ’50 Shades of Grey’, ‘7 Shades of Scarlet’, & ‘372 Pages of Dumb.’ Or maybe: ‘120 Days of Boredom.'” reader review on Dear Author.
These are just a few of the criticisms of James’s work.
Even J.K. Rowling had something to say:
“Think how many books I could have sold if Harry had been more creative with his wand.”
It didn’t stop there.
Hashtags were created in her honour – #BritishwritingisnotallGrey (Fiction Uncovered).
Alternative books were inspired:
So, how did the Fifty Shades trilogy develop such an immunity to bad press?
One word. Curiosity.
A naughty novel is something that can sell through word of mouth but James’s success was about more than that. It seemed that everyone had something to say about her work – good or bad. And this made people want to find out for themselves.
Zoe Williams’s acknowledges this in her article Why women love Fifty Shades of Grey’. Her opinion of the first novel isn’t too scathing but Williams’s describes the second volume as being “a bald and rushed go at monetising the brand.” She goes on to write, “The third in the series, Fifty Shades Freed, is … Oh what am I doing? You’re going to read it. Of course you’re going to read it. You’ve probably already read it.”
Moral of the story? As Dan Brown also demonstrates, writing about something that sparks curiosity and evokes controversy is a good start for a bestselling novel.
#3 The bestseller algorithm
Would you believe that a computer can calculate the chances of a manuscript being a bestseller?
Jodi Archer and Matthew L. Jockers do. So much so, that they developed an algorithm and even wrote a book on the DNA of a bestseller.
Let’s see whether E.L. James has it.
Here are some examples of the elements of a bestseller taken from their book:
Shorter sentences – James’s trilogy is full of short, staccato sentences.
Voice-driven narratives – the novel is told from the perspective of Anastasia Steele. She not only tells us every thought she has and every move she makes, but we even get a narrative between her and her ‘inner goddess’.
Less erudite vocabulary – James has written these books not only from a young person’s perspective but in teenager-style language. Her language is simple, easy to scan and not very provoking. The reader very rarely needs to read between the lines.
An emotional beat – Archer and Jockers state that many bestsellers have a series of emotional highs and lows. We can’t deny that the Fifty Shades trilogy has this in bucket loads.
Human closeness – their algorithm concludes that ‘how humans relate to each other in intimate moments’ is the most popular topic. Anastasia Steele gives a constant narrative of hers and other people’s reactions to intimate moments. In fact, it is the cornerstone of the narrative.
Archer used the algorithm to plot the ’emotional beat’ of Fifty Shades of Grey and The Da Vinci Code.
She found that “They were the only two out of the thousands of novels we studied that had this up and down plot at the right pace.”
Did E.L. James write a bestseller on purpose?
As she was writing Fifty Shades of Grey I am sure that E.L. James had several daydreams about it being a big hit. But did she write strategically to create a bestseller? I doubt it.
If she had, I am certain that she would have had it professionally edited – at least.
In my opinion, she found the formula to writing a bestseller by:
- Tapping into fantasies that many women may have
- Choosing a controversial subject
- Using the age-old concept of falling for a loveable bad boy who ultimately changes his ways
What do you think?
See more in the Learn From The Best blog series: