Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.
On a whim, I downloaded Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland a couple weeks ago. I had never heard of it, but there were lots of reviews, I have an obsession with outlines (which is a bit strange since by nature I'm not an outliner), and I had an Amazon gift card.
As you might guess from the "million dollar" part, this book focused on writing a story that would make you some serious money. I was fascinated by the way he looked at different markets of story (movies, video games, books, and TV) and analyzed the common traits of stories that sold well.
There were lots of interesting tidbits from his research, but I found it particularly interesting that bestsellers tend to be "other worlds" stories. In this book, he suggested that your setting should be a place your reader wants to go.
This idea had never occurred to me. I knew readers should like the characters they were going to spend time with, and that plot mattered. But the setting? Readers care?
I'm still turning this idea over, to be honest, and figuring out how deeply I agree.
If you think about the number one reason people say they love to read - to escape - it makes sense. If you're looking at two books and they both have a character that sounds interesting, a plot that sounds interesting, but one takes place in Paris and the other in Mucky, Oklahoma ... for most of us, Paris would win out. I would certainly rather escape to Paris than I would Oklahoma.
If you look at contemporary YA novels that have done well sales-wise, many of them are set in cool places that we would all want to go. The Gossip Girl books are in New York City, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants is set all over (as you might guess), The Princess Diaries is New York City (except for the movies, where it's inexplicably in San Francisco. Maybe Disney thought NYC is overdone?), Anna and The French Kiss is set in Paris, Lola and the Boy Next Door is in San Francisco.
Of course many successful contemporary YA authors don't set their stories in very interesting locations. Sarah Dessen's novels, for example, all take place in one of two rather nondescript towns in North Carolina.
But of course location isn't everything for a setting. Lots of books are set in New York City, but they have a very different feel. Why? Because the character's situation within the setting matters too.
Gossip Girl isn't just set in Manhattan. It's set on the Upper East side, where the wealthiest of the wealthy live. Harry Potter isn't just set in England. It's set in Hogwarts. Anna and the French Kiss doesn't just take place in Paris, but in a boarding school in Paris. Readers don't simply want to go to a place - they want to go with your character into their life situation.
But I do agree that it's wise for your setting and situation to be a place your reader would want to visit if they could. Not all of it, necessarily. The example David Farland gave in Million Dollar Outlines is Tolkein's Middle Earth. While much of the land is a place you would avoid, the Shire certainly isn't. Nor is where the elves live. Those are places the reader wants to go and spend time, and they're places the reader wants to protect.
Or with The Hunger Games and District 12. It's not exactly where I'd want to raise my family, but Collins provides the reader with a sanctuary - the land outside the fences where Katniss and Gale hunt.
Where's your story located, and what's the character's situation within that location? Have you provided a sanctuary for your reader? Do you think setting factors in to how many copies a book will sell?