Pundits always tell aspiring authors that that the qualities you need to get published include great storytelling, great characters, a terrific plot and fine writing. I don’t think this is true for the reasons that I will elaborate below.
You certainly don’t need fine writing. Many of the really successful authors, the ones you see in airport bookshops across the world, don’t pay an awful lot of attention to style at all. They concentrate on storytelling because that is why most readers turn to fiction: they like a good story.
It’s the authors of literary fiction who focus on style. Unfortunately, literary fiction, while it happens to be my cup of tea, is for the most part a minority niche in the book trade; the sad truth is that most of its exponents have to do another job to support themselves.
So what about the other factors: great storytelling, a terrific plot and powerful characters? Am I really suggesting that they can be left out of the mix altogether? Well, not most of the time admittedly, but there are always exceptional cases. And exceptions are worth studying because they often point to an important truth.
Take, for example, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer which, as most people know, has sold in container loads all over the world. To be fair, Stephenie Meyer can write well when she wants to. Indeed at the beginning of Twilight she adroitly employs a deceptively simple style to get the reader hooked. But once she’s got your attention she really takes her foot off the gas. The writing becomes repetitive, the descriptions formulaic. The male lead, Edward, is endlessly described as angelic, or godlike; the female lead, Bella, is constantly on the point of fainting away at his mere proximity.
Characters are given one or two signature attributes. Bella is clumsy, her father is easy-going, her friend Jessica is talkative, her unwelcome male suitor Mike is determined. There is no character development beyond this. People stay what they were at the beginning of the book.
Without fine writing or strong characterisation you would expect to find the strong motor of a plot to keep the reader moving through the story. But there isn’t one. Most of it is just girl meets vampire, followed by girl falls in love with vampire. Right near the end the girl gets threatened by another (bad) vampire but that’s not what the book is really about.
No, what the book is about is teenage sexuality and this is where Stephenie Meyer hits all the right buttons. As it happens, I find the messages that her book sends out about gender roles very unattractive. But, hey, it’s not aimed at me. It’s aimed at teenage girls and they have voted with their credit cards, or those of their parents.
The point of this post is not to trash Twilight. It’s not a book I could ever have written, or even one I would want to have written, but it’s a fine example of the one thing you really need in order to be successful: an understanding of your audience. If you don’t have that, all the rest doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. And if you do have that, you can get away with murder.