Here's the first draft of something I just banged out in an hour.
I think it could help a lot of people, myself, but I'm just worried the whole thing might seem like it was written by
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but I think I’ve come up with a basic formula for artists.
It’s something along the lines of:
Success = Novelty + Accessibility + Artist’s Capability
If your novel flopped or your erstwhile favorite band “sucks now,” it’s probably because it never had one of those elements, or it lost one along the way. If an artist you hate gets popular, it’s probably because they had all these elements, but for a different audience.
It’s also worth noting that, just as different types of art are popular with different crowds, there’s no objective way to measure any of these things.
...Is pretty self-explanatory. Nobody wants to read the same book more than a few times, no matter who’s writing it.
If your book can easily be described as “just another ‘insert genre here’ book,” people are going to be less likely to read it.
It should be clarified that I’m not saying your idea must be no one’s ever done before - those don’t exist either - just that your specific audience shouldn’t have too many other places to easily find what you’re selling.
I’ve noticed that almost all mega-popular things are unique in their time. For example: yes, Anne Rice wrote vampire romances in the ‘70s, but very few people - if any - were doing it in the YA field around the same time as Twilight. During its making, Star Wars was looked at by a lot of people as being just too damn weird to ever be a success.
I’ve yet to see any other television shows about time-traveling aliens, either. Or fantasy quintologies about British wizards saving the world from two-faced overlords. Or video games about plumbers stomping sentient mushrooms.
If there are - a lot of popular things are shameless rip-offs of other series when it comes to the bare plot elements and characters - they’re probably entirely different in tone. The first one was a horror, this one’s a comedy. Or maybe they just had the capability to pull it off in a way the guy who wrote the first thing didn’t. But the overall idea is, at the time, no one was doing that.
Continuing to be novel while maintaining the other two elements seems to be the key to what critics so haughtily call “staying relevant” as you age.
Pop music is legendary for the here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of the people who make it, largely because they either lack novelty, or that’s all they had. Either they blindly stumbled across something people liked once, but couldn’t figure out how to do it again, or they just studied the market to see what was already popular and cynically slapped together a song they knew the teenagers would buy.
...And in both cases, they usually tried to keep doing it over and over again while wondering why the audience was starting to boo.
This is also behind the popularity polynomial. Ten years ago, everyone was sick of Pokemon. But some time went by without it, and by about 2008, we’d gone long enough without hearing it for it to make a comeback.
A twofold component.
Half of it just means your audience can easily find your thing. Maybe your favorite band is just as good as they’ve ever been, it’s just that they’ve gotten sick of the executives and decided to only release through indie labels with no marketing douchebags and tour around to tiny clubs instead of stadiums, so you’d never know what they’re up to these days unless you follow the lead singer’s blog.
This is also where novelty comes in. If your book has generic title and a generically pretty person not doing much of anything on its cover, no one will have any idea why they should pick it out from the ones surrounding it.
The other half means your audience can get into it.
If your book’s 900 pages long, fewer readers will want to be assed with it, unless the prose is amazing or they’re already dedicated fans. You don’t listen to someone talk that long unless you love ‘em.
Some artists fail because they ignore accessibility, or just stop caring what the audience is willing to sit through and let their own ego make the decisions.
For example, people generally expect songs to be between three and ten minutes long, with rhythm, identifiable instruments, and a melody they can follow, unless you’re aiming for the ambient or experimental crowd, in which case, they’ll have their own predefined expectations, and won’t take kindly to being played Beatles songs.
Like it or not, while knowing what will play to your audience isn’t more important than your personal creative vision, I think it’s equally important if you want them to give you their time, positive attention, or money.
Note that I said “capability,” not talent.
In other words, this doesn’t mean that you’re an objectively good artist - there’s no such thing as one of those, either - it means that you have enough knowledge of your subject matter to pull off the specific thing you’re trying to write.
This is the trickiest element.
Maybe your favorite band “sucks now” because they decided they’d go from rock to synthpop - because it was novel and people were into it, making it accessible - but they found that while they were awesome with guitars, they knew jack shit about keyboard models, sample sequencing, and what tones are overused, making their latest album sound like a bunch of Casio presets from the ‘80s.
Getting back to Twilight for a second, Stephenie Meyer’s prose might make critics and lit enthusiasts want to vomit up ten feet of intestine, but she was very capable of writing a book with the tropes that would make it accessible to a specific audience. An audience without much experience in judging the eloquence of word combinations. As long as there were no obvious misspellings for grammar mistakes to make them feel stupid for enjoying it, they’d probably be fine.
In my opinion, everything else artists make a big deal out of - style, image, projecting an "attitude," establishing an identity, using social media effectively, whatever - are incidental, or stem from, those three elements.
Having exceptional amounts of one or two elements can make up for lack of a third, but only for a limited period of time. How long that is depends on how much of the other two elements you have.
For example, like Meyer, the guys who make Call of Duty are very capable when it comes to making an accessible product. And Modern Warfare was a hugely influential smash because it had novelty, circa 2007. Modern Warfare two and three, however, were just popular games. Modern Warfares 4 through 500 will probably sell less with each installment.
If you’re missing an element, there’s no amount of rationalization or whining about how you’re doing it for the art and those stupid sheeple just didn’t get it that can magick your stuff popular.
But it might explain why audiences fifty years from now might like it more.