When Ernest Cline pitched his debut novel Ready Player One in 2011, it went to a bidding war, immediately sold novel and movie rights, rapidly advanced to bestseller lists, and ultimately signed Spielberg to direct the movie which releases next month.
The novel is set in 2045, a dystopian world where the only escape is to a virtual reality called the Oasis, created by computer game guru James Halliday. When Halliday died, players raced to win control of the Oasis by attempting to be the first to solve a series of Easter eggs (hidden gates) buried in the game. Faced with massive poverty, the desire to win – especially before a single corporate team does – drives players to devote their lives to the virtual hunt.
It’s easy to imagine the novel’s appeal to science fiction fans, as well as those who grew up playing the 1980s video games so many Oasis settings are based on. I first heard of the novel from my tween son who’d heard it lauded by gamers on YouTube.
But how do you explain a debut novel that blasts beyond its expected niche to stay on bestseller lists for months, to be included on major recommended reading lists, to win an Alex Award from the American Library Association and a Prometheus Award? What had this author done to create that kind of breakout?
If you haven’t heard of WU’s Breakout Novel Dissection group, we get together online four times a year to answer just this question about breakout novels. With a format compiled from Don Maass’s writings, we look at key criteria to determine what makes some books larger than life, rising to breakout success.