Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chasing the Latest Literary Trend—Smart, or Not?

    Okay, so vampires are hot. Seems like all you have to do is stick a blood thirsty (literally) vamp in your novel and it will sell like hotcakes. Or so you've been told. Or maybe you're tempted to write a techno-thriller, in the style of Tom Clancy, or a fantasy inspired by Harry Potter's success. Why? Because, again, these genres have sold millions of books, bringing wealth and fame to their authors and agents. Why not cash in on what works?

    Well, there's no reason why anyone shouldn't try. Except…think about it a moment. Is it the genre itself, or the author who spawned it that's the reason for these stories working so well? When a trend begins in the fiction world, it usually happens because of the passion and talent of an individual writer. This writer follows a vision of the novel he/she wishes to create, and often takes a substantial risk that, because it's something new and different, the book may be rejected by publishers who are more interested in safe, tried-and-true types of stories. When a book like Twilight first appears, it's a surprise and takes a while to catch on…but if it does, it has the possibility of becoming a sensation. The possibility. Readers are the ones who decide whether or not a book actually will become a bestseller.

    And what about all the other vampire tales and fantasies that have suddenly appeared in Twilight's and Harry Potter's wake? Aren't they selling well? Many are. Then why shouldn't you, an author trying to break into publishing, benefit from the feeding frenzy and create yet another, say…Dracula clone? Well, there's no reason you can't. But take a look at the scores of vampires and werewolves and shape shifters competing for shelf space in your favorite bookstore. Does your passion for this type of story promise to raise your novel above these as well as the truckloads of similar novels that weigh down literary agents' and editors' desks at this very moment?

    The point is…following a trend seems to work best if you are lucky enough to have a book ready to go in the earliest days of readers' enthusiasm for the new type of story. If it will take you a year or more to write the book you imagine will be the next Twilight, you're probably already too late. Trends are ephemeral things; they burn themselves out. And no one knows what the next one will be, until some lucky editor spots that book that takes fiction in a slightly new direction, and makes an offer on it.

A lot of what goes into coming up with the next literary sensation is luck, but some of it is passion, extraordinary writing, and belief in your story. And, yes, the willingness to risk failure. I love to see an author take a risk, write a magnificent story, then be "discovered" by readers. And I hate to see new writers desperately trying to copy today's hot trends, because I worry that by the time they finish that first novel their market will have evaporated. Then they may give up without ever letting their unique talent shine.

    So, here's a suggestion. Instead of trying to jump on the bandwagon, write from your heart but also take the pulse of your prospective readers. What kind of story would you love to read? Into what sort of novel do you think your friends, co-workers, family might enjoy escaping? No, there aren't any guarantees you'll be rewarded for your effort, but I for one believe your chances of success are better writing something you really care about…rather than slogging away at a borrowed idea or character model with which you have no emotional or artistic connection. Give me, and the world, something marvelous to read, something to take our breath away and make the rest of us writers say, "Damn, I wish I'd written that!"

    Happy writing—Kathryn.

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