Every time someone becomes spectacularly successful, especially if success bursts upon the public, many people ponder why. Most of us do this idly, out of curiosity. A few (especially in the film business) do so hoping they can duplicate the blockbuster. Literary agents and publishers may do so hoping to improve their ability to recognize a possible bestseller when it comes their way.
And we writers think wistfully about Jo Rowling's near billions and Stephanie Meyer's millions. Why couldn't it have been us? Can it be us?
Those trying to manufacture a hit can succeed. Much more often they fail; there are several obstacles to success.
One is that a hit sometimes depends on the times. Introducing a depressing book or movie in depressing times, or a light work in happy times, may not be a good tactic. If "Star Wars" had arrived a few years earlier or later it might have been seen as just another silly adolescent fantasy, with lots of hot-rod racing set (of all places) in SPACE.
Another is that previous works may have mined out an idea or area of ideas. If you write another Twilight-like saga today it might be ignored. Or maybe not. Before Twilight there came hundreds of human-vamp teen love stories. What Stephanie Meyer did was to come up with an approach that felt new, not an imitation.
Another problem is that we may look at a success and only see the superficial aspects, not the deeper more primal parts of a successful story. Is the fact that Edward is a vampire crucial? Or could his part have been filled by some other powerful supernatural being? Or even a powerful and charismatic but dangerous human?
The Twilight stories show another side of failing to see deeper aspects of a success. The sight of a lot of teen girl jumping up and down and screaming on red carpets can lead us to assume they are the only fans. But the books were written by a married mother of three for her own enjoyment, not for teenagers, and many of the Twifans are the mothers and grandmothers of the most obvious fans.
Further, a third of Twifans are boys and men. To many of us the Twilight books are pretty good superhero action-adventure stories. We skim the romance parts to get to the GOOD stuff.
The Twilight series can also be read as horror stories. Those Volturi Italian vamps are SCARY.
__________________________________________So how does one come to write a bestseller?
Much of the process is described in accounts of how Tolkien created his Ring trilogy. And several biographies of Jo Rowling.
Circumstances differ. Tolkien wrote before the quick communication of the internet, and his success came much slower. Rowling wrote when the internet was mature.
Stephanie Meyer's experience is the most recent. She describes it in the following Web page. As you read it you might want to think about how it compares with your own writing experience.
There are several aspects of Meyer's creation of Twilight that are common to the working processes of other successful writers.
She started with something that fascinated her, something she enjoyed exploring and expanding upon. And something that stayed fascinating, so that it sustained her all the way through the long, hard process of writing a book. Even though she was the mother of three young children (one recently born) - which anyone who has had even one child knows is a more-than-full-time, difficult job.
This implies a major DO for the rest of us. Find our own inspiration, one which will remain inspiring. It doesn't have to be a situation, as it was for Meyer. It could be an image, a character, an action or set of them, a setting, or many other things.
Meyer was writing for herself, not for a group of readers, for a "demographic," a "market segment." This suggests we DO NOT write for others - unless we are part of those others. Do not write for horror readers, for instance, unless we are a horror reader. Do not write for the kind of children who love Harry Potter - unless we have remained in touch with the child within us.
Meyer's experience suggests another DO NOT - don't be straitjacketed by the ideas and experiences of others. Meyer was a great reader, including fantasy and SF. But she did not read horror, and the only vampire story she can remember was an Anne Rice book she read years before. Thus she was able to conceive and write about vampires who could go about during the day, and had other aspects unique to her vision of vampires.
Ignorance of convention can help, as it did Meyer. But you could just as easily be an expert on all vamp stories and be stubborn enough to ignore convention, or even fight against it.
This "do not" is the flip side of the advice to write what you know - which for fantafiction (F&SF) writers means that we invent our imaginary realities in such detail that they feel real to us and thus (we must hope) will feel real to our readers.
I could go on about other lessons learned from Stephanie Meyer's (and Jo Rowland's and J. R. R. Tolkien's) experience. But the most important one seems to be this: success can not be manufactured by following a few (or a few thousand) rules. Follow them we may - many of them are sensible, even wise. But success is a benison given by others. We can only write what we love the best we can. And be satisfied with the process of writing and the products we create which we at least love reading.