The Devoir Challenge. How to write like an American Bestseller

When the books editor of Le Devoir, Catherine Lalonde, called to ask if my lab would supply a data-driven guide on how to write like a bestseller, I enthusiastically said yes. But I expected everyone else would say no. Surely writers will be allergic to data. And surely Quebecois and Canadian writers won’t want to write like an American bestseller! But this turns out not to be the case. The volunteers lined up, including this year’s Giller Prize winner. Here is a link to the final interview.

The reason I love this experiment is because it challenges our assumptions about data, creativity and culture. Understanding the tropes and tricks of bestselling writing offered a way for these writers to play with words and conventions. Writing a story, in this view, doesn’t start with the imaginary blank page (the way creative writing is often depicted in movies). Instead, it starts with explicit knowledge about how words always precede us before we begin to create something new. Data can be an instigation.

The same could be said with the cultural mash-up of asking francophone writers to write like American bestsellers. Its an exercise in mental travel, something we do physically here all the time, since so many of us live so close to the U.S. border. These kinds of cultural border crossings are important. They are about trying to think our way into the conventions of other people. The world would be better off if all of us did this more often. For our part in the lab, we’re going to look at more than just U.S. bestsellers next time. What are the different popular cultures of reading that exist around the globe? This is something we want to know more about.

The results of the experiment have been delightful to read — funny, clever, urgent. They take some of the bestseller’s love of emergency and give it a thought-provoking spin. One is about a writer trying to break through the constraints of writing by talking to herself. One is about a girl storming her home after a terrible day like it’s Star Wars. Another reads like a classic mystery in miniature, wealthy manor and all. One is about a man shifting his gender towards being a woman, and finally, the most recent is a complex allegory about sheep and an obsession with coffee and lost property (“sheepish” is wryly translated by André Alexis literally into French as “moutonnière,” once again showing us his brilliant thinking through animals). Each story, in its own way, boils down to a sense of identity in peril, something out of kilter or uncertain. You can still hear the pulse of Quebec beneath the thrum of l’américaine.

But did they succeed, you might be asking yourself. For the curious, we went ahead and asked the computer to predict which of the five stories sounded most like an “American bestseller”. As you will see, three of the five stories succeeded, with “Annie courait” by Daniel Grenier the most likely to be a bestseller. This doesn’t mean the others aren’t excellent in their own way. It just means that M. Grenier was able to mimic the conventions in incredibly droll ways. Then again, this could be one test where failing is a good thing!

If we take a quick look at Grenier’s story, we see how he does all the right things. He focuses on body parts like heads and faces; he conveys a sense of urgency through phrases like “La porte allait se refermer d’une seconde à l’autre” or “Soudain, elle fut stoppée net dans sa fuite.” He uses a lot of dialogue and has short, choppy sentences (“Rien. Silence Radio.”). And of course, there is a gun.

But he also plays with these mundane rules, too. The dialogue is actually Annie talking to herself. And her obsession is with breaking through a door — the door of “8,000 signs,” which we gradually learn is the story she can’t finish. This is a story about constraint, the constraint of a newspaper imposing strict word limits, about being handed a list of do’s and don’ts that were generated by a computer, about all those little voices in our head telling us what we should do in life. “You are going to do more with less, Annie,” she says to herself pointing the gun at the table of multiple columns of the 8,000 signs.

This is the breakthrough we are all hoping for: the discovery of something new and exciting, more from less.


The Devoir Challenge

Story Score
Annie courait par Daniel Grenier 83%
On ne rit pas par Monique Proulx 65%
Millionnaire fauché par Stéphane Dompierre 33%
Les sécrétions magnifiques par Marie Hélène Poitras 71%
Au Mouton Grincheux par André Alexis 46%

* Scores are based on the probability that the computer expected the story to be a bestseller. Results are based on a sample of 44,270 passages of bestselling and random novels.