Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The One Thing You Really Need To Become A Successful Author

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.


Dolly said...

What I have learned during my journey as a writer is that most people write stories because they truly want to. There are very few who start with other intentions, so if we follow our instinct, our heart, put the passion in our own stories, I think the chances of hitting the right buttons increases. That is not to say one shouldn't pay attention to practicalities - because obviously someone else has to sell the book, but unless the write happens to be an extremely uniquely weird person totally out of wavelength with rest of the world, I think following your own passion in a story would probably lead on the right path. Of course I could be wrong, in which case I will post about it in a few years :-)

easilydistractedwriter said...

I agree with you about knowing your audience over and above just literary skill, but surely marketing and trends and a bit of luck come into play?

I'm sure there's lots of averagely well-written teen vampire novels sitting on publishers' desks out there. It can't be an exact science about what will work with any given audience, can it?

Brian Keaney said...

I think you're both right and wrong, Dolly. Following your instincts is the only way to write for most of us because you need that passion to motivate you and to keep you working on the difficult task of producing a novel. But not everyone's instincts are going to be in tune with the zeitgeist. I know plenty of people who have poured themselves into novels only to find that the publishing world just isn't interested.

No, Easily Distracted Author, it's not an exact science. I think it's more like another sense, being able to scent the next big thing before it hits the culture big time. And other factors come into play as well. Take Stephenie Meyer. I'm sure her religious convictions underpin much of the book's moral orientation. So it's more a matter of being the right person, in the right place, at the right time and acting on your instinct.

Derek said...

Insight as always, Brian. I suspect that can be the problem with many first novels - they're not usually written with any audience in mind, other than ourselves and our need to express the story that's been burning a hole inside of us. Genre writing is certainly a skill and the more we understand the boundaries the more we can edge towards them and delight our readers by stepping across every once in a while. But first we need to know the terrain.

Damian Harvey said...

I agree with you Brian - though it does sometimes make you want to grind your teeth - now if only we could guess what the publishers, readers and bookshop buyers wanted next we'd have it made.

Jon Paul said...

Brian--Having just finished "Twilight" myself (read as a "what is this phenomenon all about?" science project), I've been at sixes and sevens trying to characterize its draw in my own mind. Your discussion hits the nail on the head:give them what they think they want, and a lot of "craft" can be left out.

Nice post! Thanks for putting it up.

Ee Leen Lee said...

Readers don;t want fine writing per se , but they do want fine stories.

Brian Keaney said...

Actually, I think some readers do want fine writing per se. How else do you explain the success of someone like Anne Michaels? I think people are dazzled by her poetic writing into thinking that they're reading a good novel when structurally her work is all over the place. But that's just my opinion, of course. However, I do take your point in general. What one really wants is an organic relationship between style and content.

Jon Paul said...

Brian--I liked this one so much, I included it in my Link Love post today. Thanks for putting it up.

Brian Keaney said...

Thanks, Jon Paul. I appreciate that.