The main thing about Stephenie Meyer, aside from her being a megaselling author and probably more popular than the Beatles when the Beatles were bigger than Jesus? She's making my life really hard.
Four years ago I became a literary agent, and ever since then, writers have made certain charitable assumptions about me. They expect me to know things. They ask questions. They invite me to appear at conferences to share my expertise. Occasionally I even teach an online course called, ambitiously, How to Get Published. The #1 question I am asked by these aspiring writers? “How do I break in?”
A loaded question, if ever there was one, but over time I came up with a nearly airtight answer. I quoted Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 Hours of Practice rule. I told of the 100-some rejection letters F. Scott Fitzgerald nailed to the wall of his office before having his first story accepted. I dilated upon the image of a young Ben Franklin, rewriting articles from the Spectator as poetry and back into crystal-clear prose late into the night. I extolled virtues so stolid they sounded like 17th-century Pilgrim names: Patience! Diligence! Faith! I imagined my listeners, teary-eyed and chastised, readying themselves for years of persistent toil before the golden day of their first acceptance by the grace of an editor or agent.
And then I learned the story of how Stephenie Meyer broke in.
Are you familiar with the Twilight origin story? Articulated on the bio section of Meyer's Web site, it is a tale that nearly beggars belief, containing echoes of beginner's luck, Don Larsen throwing a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, and Sarah Palin almost becoming vice-president: a combination of inexperience, mediocrity, and success so spectacular as to turn all received wisdom on its head.
It goes something like this: one night Meyer had a dream, feverishly wrote the complete manuscript of Twilight over the next three months, sent it to several literary agencies, accepted representation from one of the biggest in New York, sold her series at auction for a then-unprecedented $750,000 advance, in due course knocked J.K. Rowling from her top spot on the bestseller list, and in the space of four years became the world's most popular author.
Here is a list of common tropes conspicuously absent from that story: learning how to write; persistence in the face of rejection; years of unrewarded toil; invaluable help from a critique group; hard work; a moment in which the author Does Some Soul Searching and Nearly Quits. Also, editing.
This last omission is probably the most remarkable, the crowning way in which Meyer and Twilight have proven the exception to nearly every so-called rule of the publishing business. With a self-effacing chuckle and a grateful nod to their editors, most famous writers later explain how their early drafts were overwritten, melodramatic, flatly characterized, heavily expository and indifferently written, only to emerge as being of recognizable quality in the late editorial stages. Meyer has sidestepped this inconveniently collaborative process by simply having her early drafts published, warts and all, and to no obvious disadvantage.
Given the phenomenal success of Meyer's series, the passion her work inspires in fans, and her unusual rise to the top, it becomes clear that Stephenie Meyer—how best to say this?—knows something we don't. You first see it in her author photo (seated, couch), which captures a look somewhat reminiscent of da Vinci's Mona Lisa: the close-mouthed, mysterious smile; the wise eyes hinting at possession of some enigma that cannot be divulged. Whatever it is, it's better than The Secret and more optimistic than He's Just Not That into You. Meyer can make immortal vampires love clumsy, awkward teenage girls; 800-page hardcovers profitable; and independent film adaptations compete with the likes of Titanic at the box office. Is there anything she can't do?
Which brings me back to that nagging problem I mentioned earlier. Every time an unpublished writer asks me for advice on how to break into the business now, I have a new response, but it's such a lame hedge that I'm afraid I'm going to bomb at conferences. “Read till you nearly go blind; write till your fingers are numb. Be ready to face years of rejection.” And after a pause and a sigh, I add: “Or just wait for a dream to hit you and transcribe a phenomenal worldwide bestseller in three months' time. Either way.” It's the best answer I've got, these days.