The Alchemist

by | March 24, 2015 | General | 12 comments

by Kathleen Bradean

I know a writer–actually, I think every writer is tempted with these thoughts, but let’s pretend it’s just this one guy — who was fairly good at short stories, but he wanted success in the form of a highly acclaimed and commercially successful literary novel. The writer would never admit this out loud, but he secretly believed that there was a formula to creating these rare books, so he spent hours analyzing novels that enjoyed some critical acclaim and commercial success in an attempt to distill the essence of the  magical formula hidden within. He wrote detailed outlines to analyze their pace. He picked apart paragraphs and plots and poked around their insides hoping to discover it. Year after year, he obsessed over this idea. He was looking to turn lead into gold. An alchemist.

I sympathized with the Alchemist. After all, wasn’t I once so frustrated by the publishing landscape and relatively low sales of erotica that I was tempted to try my hand at a romance novel? Not because I thought romance novels were easy to write, but because the market for romance is so huge and back then my definition of success having thousands of readers.* My brilliant plan was thwarted by the fact that I have zero ability to write romance. Believe me, I tried. Anyone who thinks it’s so simple obviously hasn’t sat down and tried to write one. (And anyone who thinks romance is formulaic should consider that murder mysteries are too.)

Then I was struck by an epiphany. I already knew what the literary equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone was. The Alchemist doesn’t need to spend hours trying to find this elusive magical ingredient anymore. *crooks finger* Come closer, and I will share this secret with you.

All he had to do was…

But first, a moment of ‘catty sounding but not really meant that way’ commentary on runaway best sellers such as The Da Vinci Code and Shades of Grey. Books that enjoy wild popularity like that usually aren’t well-written, which is confusing as hell to writers. Why do we struggle with our craft when it appears not to matter?* This odd dichotomy happens because to reach those levels of sales, you have to get non-readers to read the books, and non-readers aren’t as picky about writing quality as habitual readers are. Non-readers may even feel that those books are more accessible because the writing isn’t literary or artistic. They’re light, breezy reads that don’t challenge the reader. (And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sorry. I can’t support snobbery when it come to books.) Then there are books such as the Harry Potter series which are well-written (even though for a while there it was verrrrry fashionable for writers to pooh-pooh their artistic merit too) yet also sell heaps of copies and often to non-readers.

So what are the similarities here?

What’s the big secret to their success?

*Back into whisper mode*

It’s the characters.

Do you feel cheated? That’s no big secret. But if you’re the Alchemist, somehow, you’ve lost sight of this. Something about the characters in those best-selling books we love to hate make the story worth reading. Oh sure, a ripping yarn helps. A fantastic opening paragraph is also important. All the basics of a good story have to be there no matter how mediocre the execution. But I swear that no one would have bothered handing FSOG or Harry Potter off to a friend, saying ‘You have to read this!” if the characters hadn’t spoken to them. Characters are what we read for. We get wrapped up in what’s happening to them. We cry at their losses. So yes, pay attention to your prose, and your plot, but give your readers what they want – someone worth reading about.

What we should study is the way these authors created that spark that made their characters compelling enough to follow around for several hundred pages. For some reason, this is the art of the craft we don’t often talk about. Maybe it’s so obvious that we can’t see it. Or perhaps we feel if we get the grammar and the story structure prefect, it will make the character leap off the page, but I’ve read, and set aside unfinished, too many perfectly polished literary novels with drab characters to believe that’s true. Mary Shelly cut right to the truth of writing when she created an entire novel around the idea of sparking life into an inanimate body!

Oddly enough, the Alchemist already writes fairly compelling characters, so he has to tools to write a successful novel. Now if he’d only stop diagramming sentences of literary masterpieces and just write, maybe he’d turn out a decent novel.

* Success means different things to different writers. Your ideas and goals may change. And don’t let me imply that wanting to be number one the best seller’s list isn’t a perfectly legit dream for a writer, because you know I’d take that spot in a heartbeat.

Kathleen Bradean

Kathleen Bradean’s stories can be found in The Best Women’s Erotica 2007, Haunted Hearths, Garden of the Perverse, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 6, and She’s On Top in print. Clean Sheets and The Erotica Readers and Writer’s Association websites have also featured her stories. Writing as Jay Lygon, her stories can be found in Inside Him, Blue Collar Taste Tests, Toy Box: Floggers, and the novels Chaos Magic, Love Runes, and Personal Demons. Read more about Kathleen Bradean at:


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Yes! Quite so.

    However, there's no formula to creating wonderful characters (so we are back at square one…!) Or at least none that I know of. My best characters have simply popped into my head and grown there, without any authorly intervention on my part.

    Oh, and BTW, I think you HAVE written a romance or two.

    • Kathleen Bradean

      You're right. I don't think there's a formula. It's art and craft, and a bit of magic.

  2. Spencer Dryden

    You make a point I have made many times but not as well.
    " have to get non-readers to read the books, and non-readers aren't as picky about writing quality as habitual readers are. Non-readers may even feel that those books are more accessible because the writing isn't literary or artistic. They're light, breezy reads that don't challenge the reader. (And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that."


    • Kathleen Bradean

      It's hard to say it without sounding condescending, isn't it?

    • Donna

      Kathleen's point about the involvement of non-readers explains so much so elegantly. The same is true of music and Broadway plays and so on–to catch on with a huge audience you need to be accessible and avoid snobbery. I've been noticing that a lot of literary fiction requires you to stand back and say, "What an unusual image! What a clever crafting of a sentence!" Many people would just find this boring and pretentious. I like that sort of thing myself, so what I can relate to personally is the desire to read something light and entertaining. If life is stressing you, why seek out stories that jerk you around with depressing literary cliches–dysfunctional families, bad sex, ambivalent endings. We get enough of that in life and it's usually more compelling than what you get in fiction.

      Double agreement on the importance of characters. FSOG is all about Grey and Steele and their relationship. All the rest is forgettable. I'd guess that the only way to create memorable characters is if you are intrigued by them yourself. I think they also need to take over. If you're planning, plotting and analyzing based on a composite of what sells, they'll be dead on the page.

    • Kathleen Bradean

      Donna – I think you've nailed it right there. The writer has to be emotionally involved in their characters, and that has to show on the page. There's no formula for that.

    • Desmond X Torres

      Not for nothing, you didn’t come across condescending at all. And I’m a sensitive New Age kinda guy (until I stick my foot in it). I’ve been knocking around this blog post for the past couple of hours b/c it’s so damn good. And because it’s pertinent to what I’m reading on the craft currently- a book by Dwight Swain that’s 50 years old and coulda’ been written yesterday.

      I find your post so striking because you did a great job explaining the stunning success of books that don’t appeal to many, many people. I like how you broadened the scope by including Brown. Back in the 60’s the FSOG of that era was Valley of the Dolls, by the late Jacqueline Susann. Now THAT woman was despised overtly by many of the NYC literati. The biggest disappointment for me was how even Stephen King, forty years after the woman passed away slagged her work in On Writing.

      Unlike FSOG or Brown’s works, I enjoyed just about every one of Susann’s books. Go figure.

      Your post and my reflections on your ideas caused a question to pop into my head. I wonder… how many people who read and enjoyed those books that have enjoyed monumental success went on to become regular readers? I mean how many of James’, Brown’s or Susann’s readership continued on with reading for entertainment? How many new readers did those books bring into the marketplace?

      If my own experience at the age of 12 or so, reading my first thick book (Valley of The Dolls) is valid… it’s a lot.

      As an indie author doing well enough to earn a pretty good living at it… I think I very well might owe a debt of gratitude to James et al.

      Dynamite post.

    • Kathleen Bradean

      I feel that JK Rowlings single-handedly saved an entire generation of readers. I was reading the first HP while getting my teeth cleaned because I could not put it down. Next time I was in, the dental hygienist told me she'd bought it for her son who hated reading. He disappeared into his room with it and didn't come out until he' finished it. And he asked if there was another. She was crying, she was so grateful for that book. So yes, I think a book a person enjoys can turn them into a reader.

  3. Desmond X Torres

    This is PERFECT.

    HP was a watershed for me. No, not insofar as JK's work had any impact on my reading experience- far from it. No lie, I couldn't get past page 10 or so before DNF'g it.

    The watershed was that it was the book… the first artistic achievement .. in which I stopped judging holistically (izzat a word?) and realized my own … limitations maybe.

    What I'm trying to say is that when I DNF'd HP, I didn't say "This sucks!" You know that exclamation…. God knows I've said it before. No… when I put the HP book on the shelf I said 'Nope. Not for me.'

    Big… huuuuge difference.

    I'm laughing as I'm typing… b/c in a way… I kinda grew up BECAUSE of Harry Potter. In rejecting JKR's work as an entertainment… I became more tolerant of different tastes.

    As long as nobody slags my favorite novel that is! LOL

    Cool discussion.

    • Kathleen Bradean

      That's a great point. Not every book is for every reader. And not liking something is as valid as liking it.

  4. Remittance Girl

    "My brilliant plan was thwarted by the fact that I have zero ability to write romance. Believe me, I tried. Anyone who thinks it's so simple obviously hasn't sat down and tried to write one. "

    Amen. Me too. I simply cannot write one. And then I asked myself if I enjoyed reading them and decided that, no, I don't. So, that might have something to do with it. 😛 I think to produce a good romance it helps a great deal if you love the genre and the HEA emotionally resonates with you.

    If I am truly honest, the idea of writing something that becomes a best seller comes close to a nightmarish proposition for me. I think it would take all the joy out of writing for me the moment I was under pressure to come up with a 'book that was as good as the last one'. I write to explore ideas. And once I've done that, I'm done. Sure, I like to do it with a few dozen readers, but I'm actually pretty elitist about who I want those readers to be. It matters to me that they aren't morons who are going to try bloodplay because they read it in my book.

    The truth is, I'm an incredibly elitist dilettante. For a long time I didn't want to admit it. I didn't want to be ugly to myself. But it's what I am. And I've gotten old enough to learn to own it.

    • Kathleen Bradean

      I'm too weird to write a bestseller. You have to be able to think like a normal person to write a story that appeals to normal people. That's beyond me.

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