If you use Facebook with any regularity, you’ve seen a number of trends take over your news feed in the past few years. We’ve had “change your profile picture to a picture of your celebrity lookalike” week, “change your status to the fruit that corresponds to your relationship status in a bizarre and completely non-effective attempt to raise awareness for breast cancer” month, and the recent ALS ice bucket challenge during which we all enjoyed the sight of our employers, friends, and celebrity crushes being doused in ice water to raise money for ALS research.
Trending now on Facebook is a status which challenges users to post a list of the 10 most influential books they’ve ever read. Not their favorite books, necessarily, just the first 10 books that come to mind when thinking about the books that shaped their thinking, their attitude toward reading, or their taste in literature. When 130,000 people’s lists were compared and studied, a list of the 20 most frequently listed titles was revealed.
Now, obviously, this isn’t a scientifically perfect list– everyone’s definition of “books that stayed with you” is different– but it’s obvious that the authors who ended up on this list managed to connect with readers in a way that left an impression. As any good writing resource will tell you, there isn’t one way to write a great book (or a memorable one, or a significant one, or… etc.), but as we see from this list, there are factors that several of these influential authors have in common that are worth thinking about if you aspire to join them on this list when this trend resurfaces in 50 years or so.
- Write more than one book. Almost none of the works in the top 20 titles were the author’s first novel. Jane Austen wrote drafts of Lady Susan, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey before Pride and Prejudice was completed, Margaret Mitchell wrote at least three (unpublished) novels before beginning Gone with the Wind, and Suzanne Collins wrote and published an entire separate series before finding insane fame as the author of The Hunger Games. The takeaway here is, if you’ve worked and slaved over your first manuscript for years and still haven’t found huge publishing or sales success, don’t give up on that first work entirely, but for heaven’s sake, start writing something else! Novel-writing is like any other art; the more you do it, the better at it you get.
- Write the story you want to write. If C. S. Lewis were writing today, he’d probably be told that his Christian themes were too strong for a general market children’s series. Tolkien might have been discouraged from writing fantasy because it’s not currently “trending.” Harper Lee might have been advised to use an adult protagonist if she wanted adults to read her book. If you have a story you want to write, write THAT story without worrying about which box it might or might not fit into. You can let an agent/editor worry about that down the road, but you’ll write a better book if you let the story and not the market drive your writing.
- Write for children. Of the top 20, seven of the titles that were most often cited as staying with the reader are books which are classified as children’s or young adult. The books a person reads when he is young shape his view of reading, his taste, his worldview, his beliefs, and the likelihood that he will continue to read as an adult. As evidenced by this not-so-scientific list, a book that connects to a young readership will be remembered long after the flavor-of-the-week erotica-disguised-as-romance or suspense thriller on the “adult” bestseller list.
- Write books that are just fun to read, period. Two words: Harry Potter.
As always, these elements should be taken as more descriptive of influential writing than prescriptive– obviously, if your story is a depression-era family saga, you shouldn’t re-work it to make it “fun to read” (see: “write the story you want to write”), but it’s interesting to look at these titles and see what elements they have in common that you may be able to harness in your own writing.
Have you posted your list of “10 books that have stayed with you?” What titles were on yours that were missed from the “top 100?” Were any of your titles books for children/young adults?