Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Writing lessons learned from 50 SHADES OF GREY


Women around the world are obsessed with 50 Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, and swooning over main character Christian Grey. I absolutely loved this book, even with its kinky weirdness. At the root of it all is a cool love story, and I'm a sucker for love stories.

From Amazon:

When literature student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly, innocent Ana is startled to realize she wants this man and, despite his enigmatic reserve, finds she is desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana's quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her, too--but on his own terms.

I know this book isn't for everyone...no book is...but despite the haters out there, I learned plenty of writing lessons from this story. The list is long, so I'll choose my favorites:
  • Bestsellers get away with it: The book opens with Ana looking in the mirror, describing herself. A no-no for sure. There were plenty of other situations where I had to knock my inner editor to the curb, or else I wouldn't have enjoyed the story. The book is both beloved and blasted on Goodreads, a sure sign that it got to people one way or another.
  • Reveal main character through friends: One page 2, Ana admits that her friend Kate can talk her in to doing things she doesn't want to do. This is shown and told. This comes in to play heavily later in the story, and the author did a good job of setting up this character detail.
  • If you want readers to like the creepy guy, give them a good reason: It was difficult for me to pinpoint the antagonist in this story, but I'd say it was Christian Grey himself. Sexy, confident, powerful, and a control freak. In real life, we might not even like a guy this arrogant. But he takes good care of Ana, and I respect him for that. Even Grey calls himself "fifty shades of f-ed." Finding out why he's this way kept me glued to the pages. Like Ana, I have a love/hate relationship with Christian Grey. (mostly love <3)
  • When a character relinquishes control, it creates a strong reaction with readers: Ana definitely gave up some control of her own life in a way that makes most people uncomfortable. I don't know about you, but I can't imagine any of the women in my life handing over this much control to a guy. When Ana does this, it creates a strong, internal reaction in women.
  • Create complicated characters: Without giving too much away, Grey is kind and alluring, but has an extreme dark side. Ana is strong and independent, but she's willing to submit. These complicated characters, and the choices they make, keep things interesting.
  • Hint at a painful memory: Grey won't let Ana touch his chest, and rarely lets her see it. A story was there in those actions, and I was intrigued. His backstory is one of the reasons I couldn't put the book down.
  • Show flirty dialogue through emails: One of my favorite parts of the story was the flirty email exchanges between Ana and Christian Grey. With one short sentence, so much personality was revealed. I felt like a stalker who reads personal emails.
  • Indie authors can hit it big: We all know Amanda Hocking's story, but I was shocked to learn that 50 Shades was originally self-published. I have no idea how many times it was rejected by agents and publishers, but this is an excellent example of readers speaking with their dollars, and calling the shots. *Update: See Jami Gold's comment below. This book wasn't self-published, but it definitely didn't start out the "traditional" way.
What's your opinion of these writing lessons? And fess up, have you read this book? Know of anyone who has? If you read it, did you keep the cover hidden? (I almost did, but in a rare bout of courage, I didn't)

45 comments:

  1. Well now, I've been avoiding this book like the plague, but you've intrigued me, Julie.
    Karen

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    1. Karen, it's definitely NOT for everyone. I guess it's categorized as "erotica," which I don't usually read. But my sister read it and enjoyed it, and I actually did too. I went into it thinking I wouldn't like it, so maybe it's the whole expectations thing.

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  2. Julie, I'm glad to read your post on this. I've not read 50 Shades yet, but because of all the negative reviews I've heard, I'd be prepared not to like it. So, your post will help me approach it with a more open mind. And I truly should know better. After all, I always say w/ my analysis of Rowling that a book doesn't have to be perfect to make it big, but some aspect must be done very, very well. Readers know what they want. :-)
    --Susan

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    1. Susan, I was very apprehensive about reading it, because I had heard what the subject matter was. Once I stopped trying to edit it, (oy) I enjoyed the odd story. I started it on vacation, so I'm not sure if that's why I enjoyed it, but either way, it totally entertained me.

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  3. Really the only things I have been hearing about these books is how poorly they are written. True or False?

    Like you said, with how well they are selling, she must have done something right!

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    1. Julie, the writing style reminded me very much of Twilight, but with a totally adult subject. I was surprised by the editing. Once I got past the writing style, which definitely has "issues" I let go and enjoyed the book.

      Funny thing is I saw an interview with the author, where she said how surprised she was by the success, because she said something like, "I'm not even a good writer."

      But she had a fascinating (and...unusual) story to tell :)

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  4. I won't ever read this book simply because of the poor writing but it's nice to know you learned something from it. I have two of those elements in my own novel: the female character who relinquishes control & a complicated, dark (anti) hero. I can only dream there might be a lesson there somewhere. As for your post, I've enjoyed your honesty and, quite frankly, your bravery in expressing your favorable opinion about a book so widely slammed by writers, yet beloved by so many readers. You are a kindly generous reader!

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    1. Nancy, it's cool that your book has those two elements in it. The whole "control" thing made me very uncomfortable, and in my opinion, causing that type of reaction in a reader is a good thing. And a dark anti-hero? Awesome!

      My curiosity got the best of me...I had to read what all the fuss was about...the good AND bad :)

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  5. Julie, I haven't read and probably won't read the book simply because it's not my thing. But I am impressed that a writer of your caliber has such an open mind that you not only read the book, but also saw the good in it. And like SP Sipal said, "Readers know what they want." It is mainly the professional writer who can't turn off that internal editor in order to enjoy a good story. The average reader just wants to either be entertained, educated, or enlightened by a good story.

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    1. Linda, how right you are. My sister, who adored this book, will probably crack up when she sees us talking about the "writing." All she wanted was an entertaining story, and she definitely got that.

      I definitely had to set my writer self aside...or at least tell her to simmer down. Not an easy task, for sure.

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  6. I haven't read this book either - but it's sure generated strong reactions (both positive and negative) in readers! Nice to see an indie author hit it big. Intriguing backstory is a great reason to read on! :)

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    1. Jemi, strong reactions is right! I had no idea that so many people hated it. I had only heard about people loving it. I can see both sides...the readers who adore the story for the story itself, and writers who had a problem with the writing style.

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  7. No, don't think I'm really the audience for this book. But love it or hate it, the book's made the author a lot of money.
    Painful memory or backstory is something I use throughout all three of my books.

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    1. Alex, that's one thing I learned from this book...better backstory. Heck, there are still unanswered questions, and I'm reading book #2 just to figure it all out. How weird is that??

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    2. Okay, Alex's res ponse cracked me up. No he's probably not the target audience. :)

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  8. I'm not the audience for this book (any book that has the heroine saying in all seriousness "please don't hit me" when the hero is angry strikes my "abusive relationship" trigger), but I think you did a good job of touching on what people *are* enjoying about this book.

    One note, however, James was never indie/self published, she never submitted to agents or traditionally published authors, and she never got rejections. This story started out as fan fiction, and she found a vanity publisher in Australia that specializes in publishing fan fiction with names changed (Twilight's Bella to Ana and Edward to Christian), called Writers Coffee Shop. The closest she got to self-publishing was when she had the Bella/Edward version shared on her blog.

    She's a fan fiction success story, not an indie publishing success story. Some who don't know the history are spreading the latter, but that's not quite accurate, as it was her Twilight fan fiction fans spreading the word and posting reviews about the Writer's Coffee Shop version that got her the Vintage deal. That's not the same route an indie published author would take, so I wanted to clear up the confusion. :)

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    1. Oh, I'm so glad you cleared that up! In that case, it makes total sense why this book had such a Twilight feel to it.

      See? We can always count on you for great information :)

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  9. *duh* ...she never submitted to agents or traditional publishers... :)

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  10. Hi, Julie. So you read it, huh? My wife did, too, and just couldn't stop telling me about it. She's a teacher and really only gets to read during the summer. I keep trying to get her onto Goodreads so she can see what everybody is reading. She's always looking for something to read during this time. This author hit the proverbial home run in that Goodreads wasn't necessary to get the word out. Good for her. I'm able to visit this morning because I'm on vacation for two weeks. *Does Happy Dance*
    Please don't tell anyone I did that just now. It usually takes a sip of an adult beverage to get me to dance. It'll ruin my street cred. ;)
    Take care, dear friend.

    -Jimmy

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    1. Jimmy! Enjoy your vacation. You deserve it :)

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  11. I've been on the fence about this book for quite a while. And it's not just the bad reviews or the things I've heard about the writing from other authors, but I think it's mostly because I don't agree with selling fan fiction. There's a line of morality there for me as far as using characters that someone else created, and the 50 Shades books definitely crossed it for me.
    However, with that being said, I will never say never on reading it, especially since you have done such a great job in pointing out that we can absolutely *learn* from these books. :)

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    1. Melinda, this is fascinating to me...I didn't realize it was fan fiction! Now that Jami told me that, I can totally see the resemblance.

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  12. I probably won't read it, mainly because I've already read Twilight and I don't usually read erotica. But, like you, of course, the curiosity is there. I strongly dislike when writers slam other writers - I don't care if the writing is bad or how they came to fame. I couldn't believe how writers made fun of Twilight and thought it was okay, so I refuse to take part in this next skewering.

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    1. Laura, I know how you feel. I try to think how I would feel if I were the author reading the posts. Honest but fair, that's how we can "try" to be.

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  13. Wow Jami and Julie - interesting stuff. Ah, the many roads to publishing. Haven't read this. Julie, I appreciate how you point out the fact that "no-nos" still turn up in bestsellers.

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    1. Yeah, I was surprised. I have no idea what type of meat grinder it went through, or if they just put a new cover on it...

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  14. Since I'm under eighteen (and...um...), I'll probably won't be reading this book for a long, long time. But I'm sharing this article anyways.

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    1. LOL! Yeah, it's definitely not for non-adults. Heck, I wonder if I was even old enough :/

      Thanks for the share!

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  15. Haven't read but you've given me some interesting lessons to look into.

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    1. Thanks, Traci! I suppose it's not so much a book writers will read :/

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  16. Thanks for the review. I haven't read yet...but the pilots and Seattle critics have said she didn't do her homework. But when there is sex involved, I think readers read beyond the rest. Thanks for sharing your review. Will be reading soon.

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    1. LOL! Yeah, piloting details definitely took a back seat ;)

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  17. The writing lesson I learned from this whole debacle is that if you want to write a bestseller, you should publish fanfiction of an existing bestseller...

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    1. Sophia, I had no idea this book was fan fiction! Interesting...

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  18. I'm the last person on the planet who hasn't read these books--LOL! So I very much appreciate you sharing your writing lessons with me. I've been wondering--LOL!

    *sigh*

    It's that crazy Twilight story. Is it the Romeo & Juliet? Is it the Wuthering Heights? There's some magical chemistry there that drives the ladies wild. :D <3

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    1. Leigh, you're totally right about chemistry. When it's right, it's right, and yowza!

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  19. Now you have my interest piqued. I'd heard this was terribly written so I was steering away from it. But you have a great point. There is often a lot we can learn by shutting off our internal editor.

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    1. Heather, in my opinion, we can always learn something!

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  20. I haven't read it, except for an excerpt from the MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE version (before it was updated and repackaged as 50 Shades)and I have to say, agreeing with some others, the fan-fic aspect really bothers me. Also, I had a hard time with the writing in just that snippet I read. Not for me. You have such an open mind, and I'm glad you can see the value in all books whether we learn things to strive for or avoid.

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    1. So....it appears I'm the most clueless reader of all. I read it and loved it without knowing it was fan fiction!

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  21. FYI. I referenced this post on my blog today. :)

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  22. I won't be reading this book, but the writing lessons learned are good ones. And most readers aren't writers or editors so they don't care about all those finicky writing rules.

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  23. Oh I couldn't resist the curiosity. I wasn't as fond of it as you are, but the bestselling book like ever means it struck a chord!

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