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.