S. J. Kelley

Characteristics of a Best Selling Novel (Part 2)

What can I learn from popular YA series? In the first installment, I discussed three series that were absolutely extraordinary, in my opinion. In this installment, I’ll talk about series that were extremely popular and offer some good pointers, but didn’t live up to the hype in some aspects.

When seventeen-year-old Bella leaves Phoenix to live with her father in Forks, Washington, she meets an exquisitely handsome boy at school for whom she feels an overwhelming attraction and who she comes to realize is not wholly human.

Ah, Twilight. I can never decide if I enjoyed this series or not, but it was clearly a great success, and I admit that it was hard to put the books down. After reading it, I want to keep in mind things to aim for and things to avoid.

  • Aim to:
    • Have constant suspense; keep the reader wondering; end chapters with hooks that make you want to keep reading
    • Fulfill fantasies (while Edward was a flat character to me, the ideal is quite attractive)
    • Have strong conflicts: “Us” vs. “Them” (but have them more nuanced and complicated)
  • Avoid:
    • InstaLove: being attracted to someone is not sufficient to develop a substantive relationship
    • Flat characters; everyone should have flaws
    • Long stretches of solely internal conflicts
    • Lulls in plot action

Sixteen year old Clary Fray discovers, after her mother’s kidnapping, that she belongs to a world of Shadow Hunters, a nephilum force protecting humans from downworlders (vampires, werewolves, and faeries). 

I liked the first book of Mortal Instruments. I enjoyed exploring the storyworld, but felt the cultural and political backdrop was too simplistic. While the series went on to discuss some interesting aspects of the magical system, I thought the relationship between Jace and Clary bordered on ridiculous… SPOILER ALERT: When Clary thought Jace was her brother I laughed out loud; it felt like a desperate plot move.

My favourite part of the series was Magnus Bane; I thought he was a fabulously interesting character, and found his bisexuality was portrayed quite well. If the books were about him they would have been better in my opinion!

At some point in the Mortal Instruments series I gave up reading the books. This is unusual for me, but I just lost all motivation to continue. I’m not sure what it was exactly about the series that led to this; it was supposed to be a trilogy, but was expanded to include 6 books, but the story felt done at the end of book 3.

  • Aim to:
    • Include a few interesting, quirky, eccentric characters, but have them closely involved in the main plot
    • Show an openness and acceptance for minority groups
    • Plan the series-arc ahead of time
      • While I want to outline the first novel and start writing immediately, if I outline all books in the series I can drop hints in books 1 and 2 that will make the series as a whole stronger.
  • Avoid:
    • Plot twists that feel forced; hints should be placed throughout to avoid reader recoil
    • Historical information which feels too far-fetched
    • Information dumps from “mentors”

3) Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan (rickriordan.com)
The Lightening Thief follows the Greek god Poseidon’s 12-year-old half-human son as he embarks on a fantastical quest across modern-day America to save his mother, return Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt and prevent a deadly war between the gods.

Percy Jackson is meant for a younger crowd, and unlike the first two books doesn’t really have a romantic element. I enjoyed reading them, but wouldn’t recommend them to other adult readers. Similar to Harry Potter, Percy Jackson takes place in a rich storyworld. While J.K. Rowling based many of her creatures on mythology, the mythology of Percy Jackson is much more true to the originals. I think some research into folklore and mythology would add complexity to my novels.

4) Maze Runner by James Dashner (jamesdashner.com)
When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade…

Maze Runner was a simple read, but it did an extremely good job of slowly peeling back the layers of the storyworld. In my books, I want my characters to seek out much of their information, and to have as few “information dumps” as possible. Until the very end of the book, I can’t recall a significant information dump in this series!

After discussing points from excellent novels in part 1, and popular but somewhat lacking novels in part 2, I’ve made up a short, simple, and generic list of things to keep in mind when I write my books (see part 3).

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