What Makes "The Secret Life of Bees" a Bestseller First Novel?

Updated on January 5, 2018
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I teach creative writing to adults and I love helping my students improve their writing skills.

Runny honey. The sweet taste of success.
Runny honey. The sweet taste of success. | Source

How to Write a Bestseller

There is no sure-fire recipe for success as an author. You will need skill, determination and a little bit of luck to make it big. I find it useful to read the work of successful writers and try and tease out from the writing how such terrific sales were achieved.

American author Sue Monk Kidd gathered admiring headlines when her first novel The Secret Life of Bees sold millions of copies “overnight”. It is the story of a teenager searching for the truth about her mother’s death. Set in the American South of the 1960’s, there are sub-plots of racial tension interwoven with forbidden adolescent love. The characterization, plot and subplot are all linked together with references to the way a bee colony operates and life in a beehive is sustained.

The Secret Life of Bees spent more than one hundred weeks in the New York Times bestseller list and (by 2017) has sold nearly six million copies. A movie was made in 2009 based on this page-turner of a novel.

Movie Trailer For The Secret Life of Bees

This book was my perfect cup of tea. It had enough drama to not get annoyed. Enough romance to keep the story in its path. and it had enough plot line to keep me on my toes. I usually don't like or finish books assigned for school but gee whiz this book was wonderful.

— Vyvyen on YouTube

Could You Write a Bestselling First Novel?

In the video below Jonny Geller, a literary agent for more than 20 years, examines what lies behind some of the most successful books of recent years. He looks at the patterns and trends underlying their popularity and describes what a literary agent looks for in a writer. He says the real power behind the bestseller book lists are the readers. Talking about a book and recommending it to your friends is the spark that ignites an author's popularity.

What Makes a Bestseller?

A Successful Writing Career Takes Determination and Hard Work

The Secret Life of Bees may have been Sue Monk Kidd’s first published novel, but it was not her first published book. She wrote several non-fiction books on spiritual and religious subjects before she tried her hand at writing fiction. She gained confidence and improved her writing skills by attending creative writing courses and writer’s conferences. Her “overnight” success was actually more like 30 years in the making.

Every writer starts out as a beginner. Those that achieve success do so through persistence and hard work. Being a writer can be tough, you need an inner resilience and self-confidence to succeed. You also need to be able to deal with rejection and false praise. Be prepared to listen to other writers and to learn from them.

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Great Writers Appeal to All Ages and Backgrounds

Your writing skills will be improved by reading both fiction and non-fiction books. The Secret Lives of Bees demonstrates how to engage with your readers. Monk Kidd’s writing has much to teach an aspiring author. I particularly like the simplicity of her writing paired with multiple plotlines. The book can be read and enjoyed by everyone. She uses simple sentence structures and does not use long complex words where a short one would do. Her writing is accessible to all. You do not have to have a college degree to understand the story. Sue honed her inbuilt creativity by practicing her craft for many years. She wrote articles, short stories and non-fiction before achieving success for fiction in creative writing competitions.

Attending practical writing courses and workshops can help a novice writer improve the structure and presentation of their work. If you do not have the time or the money to attend a writing workshop or course in person, I recommend “Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School” by Gotham Writers’ Workshop. This course is written by a group of successful authors who have encountered and overcome the same problems you may experience in your writing endeavors. Their advice is helpful and real.

Creating honey takes time and effort but is worth doing.
Creating honey takes time and effort but is worth doing. | Source

Writing For Money

Few authors achieve financial security purely through the sales of their novels. Most will supplement their income in other ways, for example through teaching or facilitating creative writing workshops. Publishers can pick and choose the one manuscript they wish to promote from hundreds of thousands of unsolicited manuscripts they receive every year. If you are hoping to live off the proceeds of selling fiction, then think again. You may be successful, but it is far more likely you will need to write for love rather than money.

If you are having fun as you write, that will show in your writing. There is a fluency of language that only comes when you really understand the topic you are writing about. If you have a particular hobby or interest, your enthusiasm will be infectious. People will want to read what you write as they know you are speaking from experience.

Sue Monk Kidd writes about beekeeping and bee colonies with confidence. She must either have kept bees herself or have done some excellent hands-on research to make her writing so convincing. If she had merely skim-read the subject on Wikipedia, you the reader, would have called her out. When a writer loses the trust of her reader, the book is put aside and remains unread.

Honeybees entering a beehive. Bees work hard for their honey.
Honeybees entering a beehive. Bees work hard for their honey. | Source

Writers are different from ordinary mortals. Like a detective they’re always asking why, searching for answers, for truth.

So don’t simply plod through your days, don’t merely exist, don’t just go through the motions. Trace what lies beneath the problems you wrestle with.

Question your beliefs. Analyse what you think of greed, dishonesty, adultery.

Ask yourself where your passions lie. Ask yourself about the roads you never travelled, the risks not taken. Write about issues that keep you awake

— Jessica Page Morrell - Author


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  • Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

    Beth Eaglescliffe 9 months ago from UK

    Thanks Nell. This is one of those books that was really hard to put down. Each chapter left me wanting to know what would happen next. The story focuses on just a few key characters and the action takes place over a very short time frame. I think that helped to maintain the momentum. I'm sure you'll enjoy reading it.

    Good luck with your Gypsy novel. I hope you'll come back and tell us about it on LetterPile when it's finished.

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 9 months ago from England

    I loved this! just when I needed it to! I have written a couple of short stories in ebook, but I am on the long one now, its about Gypsies. so any help is great! I have never read the secret life of bees, but watched the video here, it looks great! I will definitely get it, thanks!