Monday, 5 November 2012

Is the idea more important than the words?

As a writer, published or unpublished, do you react negatively when the name Stephanie Meyer is mentioned?  How about J K Rowling?  E L James?

All three are best sellers with the most simple of ideas; the vampire romance, the epic story of the wizard boy and basic erotica.  These are not new ideas, so what makes these so different from the others?

I grew up on a series of books called The Worst Witch which told of Mildred, a young witch attending witching school, and her adventures.  Ok, so she was just clumsy rather than being prophesised, she wasn’t going to save the world but I still couldn’t put the books down.  Does anyone remember these books?  They certainly didn’t make headlines.

When I hit the dreaded teens I lapped up vampire romance books.  I can’t remember any off hand but I do remember loving them, pouring over them, soaking them in.  The fact that I can’t remember them shows that they definitely didn’t make headlines.

I’ve read quite a bit of erotica in my time too.  Mills and Boon, Black Lace, My Secret Garden, all of which are well known, none of which have commanded the headlines that Fifty Shades of Grey have. 
There are a number of theories as to why Harry Potter, Fifty Shades and Twilight made it big when similar ideas have gone fairly unnoticed.

Luck is a major factor.  No one can really know that their book will be a bestseller.  They just put it out there and if the cosmos wills it, they will have released it just as the world’s readers want that story.
Marketing is also important.  I recently read an article about the importance of titles and it’s very true – if Fifty Shades of Grey had been given a normal, erotica title then it would not have been the success it is today.

Another article I read recently made a worrying point, however, about the quality of these books.  It is well known that Fifty Shades is not particularly well written, you only have to read the Amazon reviews to get a hint at the quality of the writing.  The first Harry Potter book is not exactly writing gold, as J K Rowling recently admitted (which made me like her – she’s acknowledged just how much she’s grown).  Does this mean that ideas are more important that quality writing?

What would this mean for all of the amateur writers out there?  We who scour the internet in our procrastinating moments, looking for hints, tips and rules to perfect our writing, and pour for hours over our manuscripts, working each sentence to near perfection.  Is it all a waste of time?  Should we instead be thinking up new angles and original plot lines and to hell with the writing?

I don’t know about you but this thought terrifies me.  Then it occurred to me that Twilight isn’t original.  The basic plot has been told over and over.  There’s nothing new about it so what makes it so special?  Harry Potter and Fifty Shades, I can understand.  The epic boy wizard and the taboo of sadistic sex, but what is so special about the girl who falls in love with a vampire?

Perhaps in this case, the story is just what teenagers (the target audience) wants.  I spent a lot of time at school writing the girl meets vampire story for my friends (and myself).  Maybe if I’d just put that little bit of extra effort in, I could have penned Twilight.  But then, who can’t say that?  It seems to me that Twilight’s success is purely down to tapping into teenage desires and nothing more.  Following along that line of thought, Fifty Shades of Grey must tap into the taboo thoughts of some women, especially as it is basically Twilight fan fiction.  Fifty Shades is the adults Twilight, which explains a lot of its success (although doesn't excuse it, in my opinion).

Because I can’t contemplate the notion that ideas are worth more than good writing (both should be equally important, surely) and because I want to be able to give mainstream readers some credit in taste, I like to think that luck is the real reason these three bestselling ideas made it big.

You can’t predetermine what will be a bestseller, but if mainstream readers are after ideas, whether original or not, over quality writing, I hope to never be included among them.  I would rather be a good writer with compelling words and ideas, than a bestseller.

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