The Importance of Passion

By Mary Gillgannon

One of the mysteries of life is what makes a bestseller. A lot of the list is made up of books by writers who’ve been writing for years and have finally garnered a big enough following to reach that pinnacle. But there are also books written by unknown, and some cases, previously unpublished authors, books that suddenly grab the public’s interest and become wildly popular. Their success is completely unpredictable. They are often not the most well-written books, although they may offer an original twist on a well-known and popular plot. I would also argue that in most instances, they are books the author felt passionately about.

A case in point would be Fifty Shades of Grey. No matter what you may think about the book, no one can argue with the fact that this was a book of the heart. E.L. James didn’t write it with the intention of writing a bestseller, or even with the goal of getting it published. She wrote it because she had become obsessed with the book Twilight and found herself reading it over and over. So she decided to write her own story and began posting it on fan fiction sites. Other Twilight fans read her chapters and encouraged and critiqued and became invested in her story. She did the opposite of what most authors do and developed a fan base before she ever approached a publisher.

There is no doubt her fan base helped catapult this book to its phenomenal success. But I personally think that’s not the only key to its amazing sales history. I think that Ms. James’s passion for her story comes through to readers and that’s why the book has affected so many people, who in turn, have recommended it to other readers and so on.

Part of my reasoning has to do with another runaway bestseller. At the time my first books were coming out, the publishing phenomenon was The Bridges of Madison County. It was the book everyone was talking about. The book that defied the critics and industry prognosticators (and like Fifty Shades of Grey, made a lot of authors absolutely crazy). I remember reading The Bridges of Madison County and thinking, “What’s the big deal?” I discussed the book with my then editor, and when I started to criticize the story and (gnash my teeth over the writing) she said, “I think the book has a lot of passion and readers respond to that.”

That concept was driven home to me a few months later when I went back to my class reunion in Iowa and set up a booksigning in the closest town that had a bookstore. Despite my efforts to promote myself as “a hometown girl makes good”, my booksigning was only a moderate success. The book store manager, perhaps sensing my discouragement, told me that I was actually doing pretty well. She recalled a booksigning with Robert James Waller, years before he wrote The Bridges of Madison County. He had published a book of essays and had a signing at this store. And he sat there all day and didn’t sell a single book. “Look at him now,” she said. “He’s a best-selling author. Maybe that will happen to you.”

Obviously, it didn’t. But I’ve never forgotten the picture the book store manager painted, of an author who endured years of rejection and yet never lost faith in his vision. An author who felt passionately about his story. An author who wrote a book that most critics hated but that millions of readers found compelling.

I know what you’re thinking. You’ve written a book (or books) that you believe in passionately and (pick one): it’s not a bestseller, it sells modestly, it has gone nowhere, no one would even publish it. I have written a several true books of the heart.  The first one (and my first book) did get me my first publishing contract, but none of the others have come anywhere close to turning my passion to gold.

Writing a book you feel passionately about is not a sure pathway to best seller status. But in many cases, it is a key ingredient. Readers can tell. They can feel what you’ve invested in a story. They may not love your book and recommend it to their friends, because the magic doesn’t always happen. In fact, it practically never does. But if your book lacks passion, then I believe it has very little chance of rising to the top.

Mary Gillgannon
Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library.

She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

10 thoughts on “The Importance of Passion

  1. Wonderful post, Mary. I believe it’s called “being there at the right time and place” when a book jumps to the top. If a book can move me to tears, joy, and sorrow, then it’s a bestseller on my list. 😉

  2. Such good advice, Mary. I remember complaining about Fifty Shades to someone who had read and liked it and she told me “it did what I want a book to do, it gave me a character that I could be interested in and want to know more about”. Clearly the author’s passion came through and that helped me understand why it was so popular.

  3. I haven’t read the James books, and likely won’t., but there is a book for every person, to fit their individual needs. If I can reach one person with my writing, I feel vindicated for the time I spent at the keyboard. I think Stephen King made a comment that the most important thing any person can do is create. A book, a dance, a movie – the medium doesn’t matter. Creation is an art form that makes the world a better place, a more passionate (and compassionate) world. Thanks for the post.

  4. Excellent post Mary and a really good point. I will do this as long as I love it and have stories in my head that I would like to read myself. 🙂

  5. I haven’t read the book but enjoyed your post. It made me wonder: What AM I really passionate about? Does it show through? Or, looking at it from the inside out, instead of outside in, what does my work show me that I’m passionate about? I’ll have to reread some writing in this light.

  6. Great post – and a great reminder that a writer’s passion is what really matters. I haven’t read ’50 Shades’ and am unlikely to do so, but she seems to have hit the mark with a huge amount of readers. My stories are character motivated, and I do get very passionate about them – even while I’m putting them through hell (LOL) and I can only hope some of that passion comes across in my writing.

  7. I agree with Hywela. I have to love my characters or it doesn’t work. If we’re not writing with passion then our time is wasted. We don’t know what the outcome will be but I can’t write with my eye on the outcome. I have to write from within. Thanks for this, Mary. It reminded me of the reason I started writing.

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