The Literary Sweet Spot

Several days ago, Becky Miller posted over at Speculative Faith on The It Factor,  the elements which make us want to choose one novel out of the enormous sea of potential reads. She listed five factors which often play a role in book selection, and I’d like to add another, one I believe significant–the literary sweet spot.

The term sweet spot originated in the early 20th century and referred to the place it was most effective for a bat to connect with a ball in order to get the best results. Now it’s come to refer to the optimum place for a certain action to occur. This relates to fiction because we all have our sweet spots, those elements in stories which form a strong personal draw, the hooks that are effective to draw us individually toward a tale. We all have books that optimally align with our tastes, positioning us to likely buy them regardless of other factors.

For example, I love fairy tale retellings, especially of Beauty and the Beast. Others may be tired of that story and its renditions, but I enjoy seeing the basic motif taken and explored in a variety of tales. So the mere mention of fairy tale elements or Beauty and the Beast will grab my interest. For others it might be time travel, faeries, dragons, Arthurian lore, or any personally intriguing story element.

This becomes more interesting when many individuals share a sweet spot. The vampire craze illustrates this on a grand scale. Though the market became saturated to the point that many editors and agents became wearied of the subject, readers demanded more and books continued (and still continue) to sell. Vampires became a sweet spot for countless individuals, and it shaped market trends.

So when considering what makes a book stand out to a reader among the vast stacks that exist, I don’t think the personal sweet spot can be ignored.

What about you? What sweet spots do you have? How much do they play a role in your novel reading choices?

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19 Responses to The Literary Sweet Spot

  1. I agree that the sweet spot is important. For me it’s a child in danger, looking for love, trying to survive. I like nice little orphans looking for a place to belong. I also like the promise of adventure.

    Maybe those are too wide to really be sweet spots. I’ll have to think more about why one orphans grabs me and not another or why one adventure grabs me over another. I like language. There are certain voices I love. A storyteller’s voice will draw me in. I love the use of odd words.

    What’s kind of odd is that I don’t write about orphans and I don’t use a storyteller’s voice. Hmm…

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      I don’t think those are too wide, Sally. Voice is an intriguing one. You can’t gauge it as quickly as some of these other elements, but I know that I will read books I wouldn’t normally pick up if I’m hooked by the voice in a sample. I love unusual words also. When a writer is a compelling wordsmith, it adds another layer of depth to the story.

      It’s interesting that your sweet spots don’t show up in the books you write. I wonder how common that is. Although, I’m guessing some do crop up in your tales–like the promise of adventure. I’ve explored some of my sweet spots in my books, but others have gone neglected. I’m not sure what that means, except that I have far more story ideas than time to write them. 🙂

  2. Patrick says:

    I wonder how we get attached to such sweet spots? I know I tend toward youthful protagonists in fantasy worlds on an adventure of some sort. If a book has any one of those elements I’m likely to enjoy it, but so much more if all of those come together. I also seem to have an aversion to horror, mystery, and anything paranormal- ghosts, vampires, zombies, etc… I’d much rather a book make me laugh or even cry than make me afraid to close my eyes at night. I’m not big on too much suspense or drama either. I love an exciting adventure with unexpected twists and surprises along the way- and mostly happy endings. I don’t mind if the protagonist suffers many losses or doesn’t fully achieve their goals as long as it was a great adventure to the end and it ends on an up.

    Sarah, I saw your posting on one of Becky’s blogs last week, and followed the link to your page. I’d never heard of you before, but reading your blog I just have to say I like how you write. And so I’m hoping you could make a recommendation of one of your own books that might hit my sweet-spot? Your bio says you’ve written 5 novels, and I only see 2 listed under “books” and neither with enough info for me to tell if I’d enjoy it or not. Also, if you can recommend something please let me know how to purchase it. I don’t see any purchasing info here. Thank you.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      That’s a good question, Patrick. Sweet spots seem innate, perhaps formed by the combination each person’s unique personality and life experiences. Certain stories resonate while others repulse, even on a conceptual level. Sometimes I can hook it to certain circumstances (intense nightmares leading to an aversion to horror, a sort of inverse sweet spot), but more often I can’t pin down where those preferences found their shape. It’s interesting to consider, though.

      I’m absolutely with you on happy endings. In fact, I wrote a post about it earlier. The bottom line is when I’ve journeyed with the characters and experienced their suffering and loss along the way, I want a sense of hope in the conclusion. If I don’t get it, I’m much less likely to read another book by the same author.

      By the way, have you read Andrew Peterson’s books? If you like youthful protagonists adventuring in a fantasy world, you’d probably enjoy his stories. They have a nice touch of humor also, and they remind me somewhat of Jonathan Rogers’ novels (though they’re set in a completely different type of world).

      Also, thanks for inquiring about my books and for your kind words! I wish I could point you to purchasing links, but like Sally, my books are currently unpublished. I’ve been meaning to add a note to the books page for some time since I suspected that might be unclear, and you’ve confirmed the need. Once my books find a publishing home I will certainly broadcast the information on my blog, as well as add a great deal more to flesh out the books page (sample chapters and the like). Right now, I mostly wanted to give people an idea of what I’m working on.

  3. My sweet spot is books with a good romance and satisfying ending. Of course it’s hard to tell the ending before you read it, but… I try 🙂

    Just wanted to let you know that I awarded you the “One Lovely Blog Award” today. Stop by to claim it. 🙂

    http://www.sherisalatin.com/2011/09/14/one-lovely-blog-award/

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks for the award, Sheri! I’m with you in wanting a satisfying ending. If the conclusion is lacking, it taints the entire reading experience to an extent. I’ve been known to imagine my own endings for unsatisfying stories. 🙂

  4. Kessie says:

    Hmm, this one made me ponder. I think I’ve had various sweet spots over the years as my tastes have evolved. When I was in the single and low double digits, I loved this book called Kavik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey. I read it so many times I wore the cover off and had to buy a new one. I was just intrigued by Kavik’s determination to get home that made him travel 2000 miles. Kind of like The Incredible Journey, only with wolves. What’s not to like? 🙂

    Then I read the Black Stallion books, and for some reason, The Island Stallion was a sweet spot. They find those old Spanish catacombs on that island, and get lost underground, and finally find the hidden paradise in the center of the island, and there’s all the old artifacts all over the place, along with the fantastic horses.

    Later on, as I was dabbling in fantasy and science fiction, I happened across Starswarm, by Jerry Pournelle. A kid with an AI in his head? An alien planet? Alien plants that think like computers? Yes, please!

    Then there was Frank Peretti’s juvie fiction series with the Coopers, which was Indiana Jones with a dad and two kids.

    Right now Diana Wynne Jones has hit my sweet spot, with her modern fantasy settings, alternate worlds, interesting, likeable characters (Chrestomanci is win and awesome, all the way down to his snobby jokes and fancy dressing gowns). Unfortunately I’ve now read all her books and am looking for something new.

    I think you’re right about certain things hitting a lot of people’s sweet spots, like vampires and werewolves. And I’m glad you mentioned Beauty and the Beast, because that’s another classic that never gets old. (Kind of like Phantom of the Opera–how many times have they made movies of it?)

    …wow, I think this comment is long enough. I’ll stop now. 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      My sweet spots have evolved some over the years as well. I also loved the Black Stallion books and found The Island Stallion fascinating. At a certain age, most horse-centered novels hit my sweet spot (and that’s definitely changed). In fact, I enjoyed most books featuring animals, like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH or the Brer Rabbit stories. Though I think what intrigued me about those sorts of stories was the sense of a getting different perspective on life (from the POV of different creatures), almost of being in another world, which is one of the things that drew me so strongly to fantasy.

      Then there are the books that have remained enduring favorites from childhood on, the books by Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald and the like. And I’ve always loved fairy tales and folklore. So my tastes haven’t completely changed.

      I confess I’ve never read Diana Wynne Jones, but quirky, compelling characters can make a book for me. Perhaps another sweet spot, but not one so easily defined, since what makes a compelling character can vary so much from person to person.

      And no worries about long comments–I enjoy the conversation. 🙂

  5. Oh, man. Island Stallion hits such a sweet spot with that paradise in the middle of the island. Years and years later I read Bethany House’s version of George MacDonald’s The Laird’s Inheritance and it kind of reminded me of Island Stallion. It’s nothing like that book, but the hidden place was a sweet spot. Mysterious Island had the same attraction for me.

    And this makes me think of anther sweet spot: characters who are wrongly accused or who are very good and yet they suffer abuse: Count of Monte Cristo and Eoin Colfer’s Airman, and Sara Crewe.

    Patrick I saw you post at Becky Miller’s blog the other day. Are you the same Patrick who used to post at Jonathan’s Roger’s blog? I’m trying to figure out how we know each other.

    • Patrick says:

      Yes, Sally. I love that friendly bunch over there, and I’m still very grateful to a sweet lady who edited a short story for me. I would still post at Jonathan’s if he’d blog more, but I understand he’s busy. I’m also the Patrick who responded to your post YA Warriors at Novel Rocket, and I think that is also where I read the first chapter of your book when you won a contest there. As I asked Sarah, I’m also wondering how to get your book too. I see I can continue on to the second chapter on your blog, but don’t see anything about purchasing a book. I promise I’m not stalking you, Sally. Funny how many of the same blogs we are following though. See you around!

      • OK. Good to bump into you again. I wondered why you were familiar with my book.

        The book is not published. I am in the process of working on revisions that my agent asked for. But when it is published, if it is published, everyone withing a 3000 miles will hear me hollering out the good news, I’m pretty sure.

        I’d like to hear more about what you’re working on, too. Are you still blogging?

        • Patrick says:

          I actually stopped blogging a few months ago. Life is full and busy, and routines are easily broken when their value is questionable. Shifted my focus to reading for now. I need to get into a routine for writing my novel though, and plan to start that soon. Only writing when inspiration and free time are in alignment is clearly not the most efficient way to work. I’ll likely pick the blog back up eventually, just not sure when. I try not to have too many projects going at once.

          When your book is published you won’t have to yell too loud for me to hear about it. I can’t wait!

          Hope Sarah doesn’t mind us using her blog for personal conversation. Look forward to more of your posts wherever you may be posting!

          • Sarah Sawyer says:

            Sally, I look forward to the day when you have good news to share about your book. I know I’ll be in line to purchase it.

            And Patrick, I don’t mind the conversation at all. I enjoy getting to know everyone a bit better! Best of luck as you resume writing your novel. 🙂

  6. Emily says:

    Great post, Sarah! Definitely made me ponder about my sweet spot… and realize that there are TONS of books I could say fall under my sweet spot. I have a vast range of genres that I enjoy, such as children’s classics, Jane Austen-style books, fairy tale re-tellings, and even the occasional suspense (if it’s not TOO suspenseful :)), to name a few. I guess those are all pretty broad, though, and if I wanted to get even broader I’d say I enjoy most Christian fantasy novels too. 🙂

    So, all that to say, it’s difficult for me to list a sweet spot of mine, as I enjoy many, many different styles and genres of books.

    A personal favorite series of mine, though, is The Chronicles of Narnia. That definitely falls under my sweet spot.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks, Emily! I have a wide range of genres that I enjoy also (though fantasy is my favorite). What’s really interesting is what books across genres can share in common that makes them fall into our sweet spots. I’ve been thinking about that a little the last few days. For example, the humorous tone of Jane Austen’s stories might also be found in certain fantasy novels. It’s those extra elements that really draw us in (though genre certainly qualifies as a sweet spot too).

      The Chronicles of Narnia effectively hit the sweet spot for many people. It also has the nobility factor and the something different factor that Becky mentioned in her original post. And then there’s that special sense of wonder Narnia holds that’s hard to break down and analyze, but permeates every book.

      • Emily says:

        I think one thing that tends to draw me in is being surprised. I like to feel like the author is keeping me on my toes, while at the same time, I prefer to feel like I at least know some of what’s going on. It rather bothers me when I feel as though I’ve no clue what the author is getting at, and the whole background is kept secret while I journey with the characters through something I’m not even sure of until the very last page. So while books that hold an element of surprise and/or suspense tend to hit my sweet spot, I don’t like so much suspense that I feel lost from page one. I guess that makes me a pretty picky reader. 🙂

        Books also hit my sweet spot when the author has a certain wit about their writing, humor seeming to flow quite naturally throughout the book. That, I love. I thoroughly enjoy it when a book makes me actually laugh out loud. 🙂

        Also, as Becky stated below, quests definitely fall under my sweet spot; I’d probably even consider them one of my favorite sort of books. Rarely do they fail to capture my attention.

        • Sarah Sawyer says:

          I’m a rather picky reader too, so I understand! I don’t mind the uncertainty as I go along, but I want things to become clear by the end. That moment when everything clicks is so satisfying. 🙂

          Oh, I love it when a book makes me laugh also. It’s interesting what Sally mentioned earlier about not writing some of the things you enjoy reading. The stories I write don’t tend to have humorous tones, but I find books that do uniquely entertaining.

  7. I guess I’m a sucker for quests. I love a hero going for the golden fleece or to destroy the one ring or find the horcruxes. Usually when I see a map in the front of a book I sigh with contentment and happily settle down with the book, expecting to be lost within its pages.

    And yes to the Island Stallion books. The whole finding something secret is definitely part of my sweet spot. I love the unexpected and unpredictable. I love mysteries (but not suspense as a genre).

    Thanks for this interesting post, Sarah, and for the link.

    Becky

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Ah yes, quests and maps, the staples of epic fantasy. They point to a whole new world, which in turn hints at the unexpected and unpredictable–that sense of being swept into a unknown realms,where all manner of unimagined treasures await discovery. It’s a big part of what makes fantasy so compelling, I think.

      It’s been fascinating to me to see the responses on this, and I think it helps shed light on why reading is such a subjective experience.

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