Sunday, February 22, 2009

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Dreams

Accidental Author? How did she do it?

You’ve already heard all the hype that preceded the movie, Twilight, which had sold out before it even opened weeks before. Her books have now been translated into 38 different languages, and counting. The movie was a great success and there will be movie sequels and of course, more books. That’s the short of it folks and here’s the million dollar question:

How did a stay-at-home mom with 3 kids manage to write her first novel, get it published and literally become an overnight sensation? In a word, or two, High Concept.  That’s the magic buzz word that leads to fame and fortune in the publishing/filmmaking business—period. It’s your ticket to success in a business that never guarantees success of any kind, and there are plenty of horror stories out there, as you have already heard.

Let’s face it, 99.9 percent of writers will fail to even get anything published, let alone, make it big as a writer of any kind. So what separates the exceptions, like Stephenie Meyer and David Wroblewski, of Edgar Sawtelle fame? High Concept, of course. Don’t look for anything else under the sun folks. I’ve been saying it forever now, if you don’t write from a high concept idea, you’re never going to enjoy this kind of success. High concepts sell. Mediocre concepts wane, and bad concepts die before they’re even born. Where do you want to fit in?  I don’t know about you, but I’m all for the high concept. Okay, so let’s define what a high concept is and what it is not.

A high concept is an idea that when you hear it, you get it all at once. In other words, it’s an idea that captures a specific feeling.  For example, the idea behind Twilight is this:  When you can live forever, what do you live for? That’s a damn good question, and therefore, a high concept that propels this story into the deepest recesses of your mind, as you search for your own personal answer. It’s a question that matters because it is profound and universal, yet very personal to each of us. Everything hinges off that one dramatic story question. And so, we search for an answer wherever we can find it. In books, however long, in movies, however shallow, under a rock, wherever. A high concept is, in essence, the engine, the spark that drives any story, from beginning to end.

In the Sawtelle story, the dramatic story question is found in its fascinating prologue. Who is the mysterious figure that procures this bizarre poison and who will he kill with it, and why? Specifically; What motivates people to kill? What drives them? All good questions, and we get great answers along the way. Over six hundred pages worth of good answers. Never mind that the story is modeled after Shakespeare's, Hamlet. Its plot and its characters often surprise us and the story's central premise, the spine of the story, a motive for murder, moves us and drives us in search for answers throughout the volume of pages.

But even high concepts have their limitations. However, a high concept of any kind will always be favored and considered in the media, whether it be for publicity in publishing or film making. And with so many great high concepts floating around, why should publishers or film studios limit their financial possibilities? They go for the big money. The monster deals that will yield bigger dollars. Why not? Why settle for less?

You get the point. Mainstream High Concepts are the way to go. Publishers and filmmakers will take care of the rest. And by that I mean, publicity and promotion of your book or screenplay. And casting, star performances, musical score, and special effects, which are some of the most important elements that will either make or break a movie. In a book, the reader supplies all of these things with their imagination, of course you already knew that, and I only mention it because it’s easy to forget that is indeed the case. Which is, BTW why writers are advised not to go overboard with character description. In fact, if you’re writing literary fiction, character description is all but not there. Romance novels, like Harlequin, are a different breed where description is a must, and not so much because the writer is inclined to do it, but because publishers require it.

Okay, have I gone off topic far enough?  Well, sort of, but not really because all these things play into the high concept arena. But a high concept is not enough and it cannot exist in a vacuum. A great idea is not enough. You must also execute its details, its dialogue, its plotting and its themes to perfection. Nothing else will do. It’s an orchestration of many disciplines which all hinge on the spine of the story, its premise. Its amazing high concept. A universal idea that sells, on contact.

Okay, so here’s what a high concept is not:  it is not any idea, even a good idea such as, an important person dying of cancer. That’s not enough. It’s an idea but nothing more. Now if you take that same basic idea and add another element, let’s say an important person dying of cancer whose last wish is to donate their body to science in hopes they find a cure for cancer, while they are still alive!  Now you’re getting somewhere. See the difference? In the first example, there’s nothing at stake, nothing to lose “except a life” and lives are lost every day, even important lives. But in the second example, we’ve taken the same basic idea and fused it with a high concept:  A cancer patient donating their body to science, while they’re still alive. Do you see how you can suddenly see this book or movie unfold in fantastic ways? BTW, I just made that high concept story up, off-the-cuff, but feel free to make millions off it if you like. All you have to do is take a few years to write it―maybe more. Good luck with that. (Can I get any more pompous?)

Let’s get back to Meyers’ books.  First of all, Stephenie Meyer has said and claims on numerous occasions that she had never written a novel before. Yet, she is being hailed as a talented storyteller. And I believe she is. I think she’s a natural. (Does her success have shades of Truman Capote as ghost writer for Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird?) In Meyer’s case, it would be her editor that might have given her a helping hand along the way. Who really knows? I can’t say if Meyer works off her editor’s outline for a story, turns in a first draft and that’s it, maybe ghost writers take care of the rest. But it sure seems that way, at one long book per year. 

Heck, it’s virtually impossible to write anything that fast, let alone something good. (Can we sequester Stephenie Meyer, lock her up in a small room with nothing but a computer and ask her to, just write?) Okay, okay, let’s give Meyer the benefit of the doubt and look at another angle. You’ve heard that writers are born with talent. That good syntax, sparkling adjectives, and brilliant storylines, ooze from their pores and that writing cannot be taught. Well, let’s settle the record straight--shall we?

Can writing be taught? Sure it can. Anyone can learn to write just as anyone can learn to paint in oils or build furniture. Just about anyone can learn the mechanics of writing. And that is to say, plotting a story, foreshadowing its events, crafting sub-text and dialogue, and so on. Heck, you can even learn how to develop high concept ideas that can sell for millions. You get the idea. These are known as skill-sets. Techniques you can learn and even master if you practice long and hard and smart enough. I think we can all agree on that. Now here’s the part that cannot be taught. The magic of stories. And by that I mean what Hemingway called “the magic dust on butterfly wings”. Careful not to rub it off, because it will never fly, as you know. Can we define that magic dust that Hemingway alluded to? 

Or is it just as illusive as the wind itself. And how does it apply to screenplays? Movies are of course a visual medium that depend largely on images and emotional performances buy A-List actors. So there is another dimension to writing for film that one must master, namely scenes loaded with sub-text. And sometimes, stories can either get lost in the shuffle or be enhanced by the performance of an actor, but the magic is there, scene-by-scene, and moment by moment, which when edited into a seamless work of art, it either flies with magic dust, or it does not. Books and movies such as, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Shawshank Redemtion, soar with that kind of magic while so many others do not.

And, as it happened to Stephenie Meyer, she dreamed of a story that spoke to her subconscious, she wrote it down as it came to her, page after page and before she knew it, she had an almost 600 page novel she could try to sell. She mailed out 15 queries, (which she learned how to write on the internet) and she got about 10 rejections, 4 no-replies, and one interested publisher--just one. But that’s all it takes. The rest, as they say, is vampire history. But what makes Meyer’s vampires so different and so human is just that, their humanity.  Her vampires are not cartoon character cut-outs that merely sink their fangs into every Jane, Sallie, and Mary they come across. They are beautiful and they are powerful “beyond belief”. They are villain superheroes with a twist. They are young, sexy, and extremely likable characters.  And they are trying to do what all human beings do—they are seeking meaningful, fulfilling lives. Hence; the things they will live for. Good marketing.

Stephenie Meyer's story is the quintessential success story in publishing and certainly an exception. We don't have all the insider details that led to publishing Twilight, and probably never will, athough, she has been candid about her success and dismisses it as a fluke.  And not to make a comparison, but Toni Morrison never intended to become a writer either. She dreamed of becoming a dancer, and we all know how her dancing dreams turned out. In other words, dreaming is not enough. Somewhere along the line, sooner rather than later, you must take appropriate action if you want your dreams to become reality.

It appears then, that some people fall into certain careers by accident and become hugely successful at what they do, overnight. But that's usually not the case. It is the subconscious that gravitates people towards their deepest desires, and before they know it, they've accumulated specific knowledge and they apply it towards their hidden goals. And finally one day, it all comes together, like magic. But it is anything but magic. That being said, we are all wired for something, but not for everything. 

The Twilight movie has of course helped book sales tremendously, not that the books needed the help, but let’s face it, a well-produced movie will always bump-up book sales and usually lead to a series of books. Which BTW, the covers for these books are very provocative and curious, as well as beautiful in a very simple way. I was immediately attracted to the twilight cover even though I’m not a hard core vampire or sci-fi fan. For me, the cover was enough to make me curious about the story, and that is certainly part of the lure and desire to acquire this series of books. As far as reading them, that’s difficult because they are competing with more than a hundred other books on my wish list. I too need the eternal life of a vampire to read everything I like.

And the cycle of life for books like these will endure forever, if that’s what the public wants. It can certainly endure as a TV series, like Buffy, or stage plays, like Phantom of the Opera, and so on. I’m sure that all those options are being considered and in the works. Not to mention all the merchandising from hundreds of products.

So, in other words, we can sum this up as follows. Vampire dreams lead to even bigger mega-dollar dreams of fame and fortune, realized because a housewife with three children believed in herself, and believed in her story, and against all defying odds, she was published in grand style.  She took a chance and listened to her inner voice that asked the question, what do I have to lose?

And the answer came back:  Magic dust on butterfly wings.


Next Monday's Post 3/2:  Finally, Back Cover Book Blurbs Revealed

In this Post, I'm going to demystify the secret to writing powerful blurbs for your back cover. What's the real purpose of a blurb?  Find out next Monday, March 2nd. The answers may not only surprise you, but they may blow every neuron in your brain. Check with your doctor before reading this Post.


March 9th Post: Part One -  Book Buzz, Trust, and Sales DNA

Ever wonder what it really takes to promote your novel successfully? Well you're going to latch on to this Post like a hungry puppy because I'm going to milk the ground rules to what I call Sales DNA 101. You don't want to miss this bizarre Two Part Post. It just doesn't get any freakier than this folks. Mark your calendar and check it out March 9th.


March 16th Post: Part Two - Sales DNA 101

This of course is the continuation of the above article and since it's the grand finale for this Post, its the best part. It's a monstrosity of deft proportions and I just had to break it up. I think I'm almost back to my neurotic self again. Good Lord.