Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, February 22, 2010

BPA

I was talking about books with someone recently. When he discovered I was a writer, he asked, “Do you think Stephenie Meyer is a good writer?”

That’s an interesting question. Not just because it’s always fun to discuss the merits (and demerits) of various writers. But because there is an inherent assumption to this particular question that Ms. Meyer must have succeeded beyond her talent. There are so many people who mock Twilight, and the book has sold so many copies, that lots of people who haven’t even read her work make the assumption the author must be “lucky” to have sold so many books. Her sales must be far in excess of her writing ability.

Is it true? Well of course almost no one “deserves” to sell millions of books. Many people write great books that sell minimally. And, if we’re going to be perfectly honest, luck plays a huge role not only in how many books you sell, but in even getting published in the first place. As much as I love Dan Brown novels, for instance, it is not his quality of writing that sells so many copies. And yet, can we simply write off the Twilight series as luck? Did millions and millions of girls, women, and Rob Wells, really buy and read the Meyer’s books (in some cases over and over dozens of times) because of the hype?

Before we run into estrogen overload, I think it’s time for a sports analogy. It’s nearly time for the NFL draft. For those of you who don’t follow football, this is where professional teams choose from the top college players. (Think picking teams for dodge ball, where I was never picked last—thanks to the kid who refused to play even if he was picked. He’d just sit off to the side and watch the horizon whether he was picked or not.) Anyway, as teams decide who they should pick, they often have to decide between a position they need to fill (quarterback, defense, running back, safety, etc) versus the BPA. BPA stands for best player available. It’s when a team says, “Well we already have a fullback, but this kid is such an incredible player, we just have to take him.”

How does football apply to writing? (Other than the fact that football can be applied to anything in life?) Well, like all of us, there are things Ms. Meyer could probably improve on in her writing. People like to make fun of how she uses certain actions or descriptions over and over. But, as I told my friend, she managed to create characters so real to her readers that they literally went to war over who Bella should chose. They bought shirts, started web sites, argued, cried, even made death threats—all because, to them, Bella, Edward, and Jacob were real people. Her characters—and the emotions they evoked—were so strong that Twilight readers were willing to over look any flaws in her writing because they were hooked on Bella, Edward, Jacob, etc.

As writers, we all have strengths and weaknesses. I know some authors whose writing is so beautiful I would read page after page even if nothing was happening. Others have imaginations so powerful that I am pulled into their books on the strength of the story alone. JK Rowling has the ability not only to create fantastic worlds, but to make even the most minor character interesting. The more experienced we become as writers, the more we can work to improve to improve our weaknesses. The guy who is strong on story learns to create characters with more depth. The woman who creates beautiful prose, learns to beef up her plot. But we also need to be aware of what it is that makes our writing strong.

If a quarterback has a strong arm, he needs to use it. If a receiver is blazingly fast, he needs to outrun the cornerback covering him. Stephenie Myer played to her strength. She wrote a series that was heavy on character. Even the biggest conflicts were character based. Although she was writing a book about vampires and werewolves, she did not write an action adventure. She wrote about a girl choosing between two men and the men competing for her affection. When you chose the type of story, you need to play to your strengths. If you are good at dialog, you might steer toward romance or mystery. If your imagination is out of this world, try steering toward fantasy or SciFi. If you are best at action, maybe go toward thrillers.

There’s a reason editors and agents want you to know your genre. You need to know who you are writing to, what they like to read, and why you are the best person to write that kind of book. If you’re not sure what your strength is, try two things. Ask people what they like best about your writing, and ask yourself what parts of writing you enjoy most. Most of the time, you will find that they are one and the same.

Of course one of the great things about writing is that you can have powerful characters in many types of books. And a mystery can be set in outer space as easily as a living room. Just because you are great at characters doesn’t mean you need to write a coming of age story. But if you know your strength is plot, try and come up with a plot that has so many cool twists and turns no one can put it down.

The answer I gave to my friend is that Stephenie Meyer is a great writer in the areas she needed to be great. She sold millions upon millions of books because her writing rang true to the people who enjoy her kind of writing. If you want to be great, play to your strengths and make yourself the BPA when it comes time for an agent or editor to choose which story to go with.


11 Comments:

At 2/23/2010 3:52 AM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

Excellent points. I wanted to say something else profound, but alas, I can't think of anything. Just that I am definitely team Sirius, rather than Jacob or Edward.

 
At 2/23/2010 4:56 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

Attributing that kind of success to luck really is a stretch.

Stephanie Meyer hit the genre right on the nose, and under that kind of blow, even the biggest stagger backward at least a little.

In her case, those strengths you mentioned gave her a punching arm mean enough to impact even those without direct interest.

(It took me months before I decided to read them, just long enough for my ears to start ringing from the noise.)

 
At 2/23/2010 2:00 PM, Blogger Karlene said...

Amen.

 
At 2/23/2010 2:39 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

The premise of a book can be the million dollar tag. I thought Meyer's "The Host" was very well-written but it didn't sell nearly that of Twilight (don't get me wrong, The Host still topped charts, but wasn't a phenomenon). Maybe the premise wasn't as universally appealing.

 
At 2/23/2010 4:09 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

So, Jeff, what's your favorite part of writing? I thought maybe it was SASEs, but my friend says you must enjoy writing cliffhanger endings that don't get resolved for YEARS. (Still unresolved, I think.)

My wife and I watched Twilight over Valentine's Day weekend. It was pretty sappy, and melodramatic, and (insert all of the criticisms I've heard and yet I watched it anyway.) Overall, though, it was fairly entertaining. There's some pleasure to be had just making fun of it. I don't have any desire to read the book, though.

 
At 2/23/2010 5:05 PM, Blogger Charlie Moore said...

Sales are normally publicity driven more so than talent driven. Advertising sells the product. Of course, in the long run there needs to be something to the product because it then becomes word of mouth that often causes sells to explode or implode. Luck may play a part, but if Meyer had not been beating the streets trying to find representation for her work then luck would have had no place. There had to be a vessel for luck to attach itself to. Maybe it was something as simple as the Lord simply blessing her with a means to help support her family and the blessing blossomed. I could accept that as much as she had luck on her side.

Charlie

 
At 2/23/2010 5:45 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

Thanks for all the great comments. To those of you who took exception to the role that luck plays in getting published and selling books, believe it. I have a good friend who sold a book that was scheduled to get very little promotion. It just so happened that a similar book really took off about the same time and the publisher decided to promote this author's book.

My first book happened to arrive when the publisher was looking for "guy" books.

The truth of the matter is that once you reach a certain level of writing expertise, it's all about getting the right work into the right hands at the right time. Call that luck, fate, an answer to prayers or what you will.

As for advertising selling books, if that's all it took publishers could create their own bestsellers any time they wanted. Books with huge advances and lots of advertising fail all the time, while books like Hunger Games that received very little advertising when it first came out take off. Harry Potter's first print run was somewhere around 500 copies. Think that got a big ad campaign?

And Jon, yes I do like writing cliff hangers. And since I know you are waiting on pins and needles, the next Shandra book is scheduled for June release. Thanks for asking!

 
At 2/23/2010 6:02 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

I'll add my testimonial to Luck. My first manuscript just happened to land at Covenant right when they were looking for a humor writer. My editor even told me that my writing abilities at the time weren't as good as they wanted, but the genre was perfect so they were willing to work with me. (And, hopefully, my writing has improved.)

(Of course, from a gospel perspective, there's no such thing as luck. D&C 59:21. So, instead of saying "publishing depends on luck", we should probably say "publishing depends on a lot of things you have absolutely no control over".)

Also: I wonder who is supposed to blog on Tuesdays? It's always so quiet around here...

 
At 2/23/2010 7:19 PM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

Well said, Jeff. Well said. =]

 
At 2/24/2010 1:05 AM, Blogger Tauhid said...

I liked this post! I wish I had more input but I got mono and my brain isn't functioning like it should be haha

 
At 2/24/2010 11:36 PM, Blogger UTMomof4 said...

S.M. must be excellent at her genre. She can't be a "bad" writer for as well as her books have done, and I don't think it could all be luck either. I did enjoy The Host more than the Twilight Saga.
Excellent post, Mr. Savage.

 

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