Write a Paranormal Bestseller W/out the Paranormal

So you wanna write a bestseller…

Only trouble is you don’t even like vampires, let alone want to write about them. I feel your pain, realistic fiction writers. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good paranormal story, but there’s a certain timelessness to realistic fiction whose story remains true generation after generation. I’d love to see a strong return to the realistic, adult or YA. There are some great realistic titles on the bestseller list now, but the charts are still largely dominated by paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with that… but for those of us who think real life still has an important place on the bestseller list, here are some tips for cashing in on that paranormal success without ever mentioning the V-word:

1) Write a vampire/werewolf/zombie/angel novel without using vampires, werewolves, zombies, or angels. There will always be people who cling to these creatures, whether they’re biting people, romancing people, or being comically self-referential. But when these novels reach bestseller status, it’s safe to assume they are being read by more than your typical genre fan. What “the masses” are responding to within these characters are not their supernatural abilities or folklore, but rather what they represent. Vampires seduce us, yet suck us dry. Werewolves are wild and have the power to make us just like them. Zombies are mindless followers out to destroy those with free will. Angels are our saviors in whatever crisis we face. We all know people like them in our lives, and they don’t always come from another realm of existence.

2) Get adult/YA crossover fans without being creepy. Twilight Moms freak me out. Taken literally, these desperate housewives lust after teenage boys who can literally tear them apart with their teeth. That’s wrong on many levels. However, Twilight Moms, much like adult fans of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, are not to be taken literally. To the crossover fans, these novels are more than just cool spells, hot teens, and kickass heroines. They’re about choices and battles and taking on more than you’re ready for. They speak to our senses of responsibility, memories of falling in love, and feeling as if the fate of the entire world is in our hands.

3) Want artistic recognition? Think Kafka. Gregor Samsa woke up one morning and found himself transformed into a giant insect. Hilarity does not exactly ensue. Instead, his family hides him and he slowly loses his humanity. The question on every English major’s mind is, “what does it mean?” and it should be the question on yours when you go to write. Addiction? Sexual identity? Divorce? Death? Insanity? What is your character hiding, and what has he become?

4) Buffy Doesn’t Always Have to Stake Things. Your female lead doesn’t need a man to kill things for her, whether those things are vampires or spiders. She’s vulnerable, yes, and sometimes she makes really poor choices, but don’t we all? Write a heroine who’s realistic and fallible, but who can still completely hold her own in a so-called “man’s world” without resorting to cheap flirtation or playing the damsel.

5) You Don’t Need an Apocalypse to Prove that Life Sucks. The world is going to end in a fiery blaze of concentrated evil and we will all be left to face the consequences, possibly resort to cannibalism or turn into a zombie, and finally we’ll be forced to form a small band of survivors intent on saving us from ourselves. Or, in other words, we are going to go through some serious shit at some point in our lives, stuff that could potentially destroy our very essence if we allow it to consume us. So, let’s not do that and learn to live again, maybe with the help of a close friend or love interest, but not necessarily.

Go forth and write the next bestseller… and get real.

10 thoughts on “Write a Paranormal Bestseller W/out the Paranormal

  1. Great post, Sarah. I was raised on realistic fiction. You're absolutely correct about the timelessness of it. There is something about all those stories I read as a kid that has shaped me into who I am today. But then I got my hands on a little book called, Lord of the Rings, and it changed my entire view on books. Regardless, if I ever write fantasy, I still put it in a setting as realistic as possible, and I think that's because of those books I incessantly read before LOTR. Thanks for the post, Sarah.


  2. What a fantastic post! I love your analysis and your conclusion that it's not the paranormal per se that engages hearts and souls (and consequently sells well) but the humanity it represents. Great advice.


  3. What a great post! It's reassuring to know that agents are still out to find awesome realistic fiction, YA or otherwise. Thanks for reminding us of the bigger picture: layered characters and compelling plots are what make books great, whether they include paranormal creatures and the coming apocalypse or not. 🙂


  4. Sarah,

    It's refreshing to hear an agent say they not only want to see something other than paranormal fiction, but that they can sell it, too–if done properly. However, I have a selfish question, as it relates to my WIP: What about humor? If realistic, mainstream fiction is a tough sell, the rule of thumb is that humor is tougher. Any advice/words of encouragement for a guy who wants to crack the Chris Moore genre (without the supernatural plot elements)?


  5. I was so excited to read your post today. Recently, I decided to do exactly what you’re recommending. It seems to me that YA is a very hot-selling genre right now. Nine times out of ten when I see a new announcement that a debut author’s signed with an agent or landed a publishing deal or a movie deal or a foreign rights deal, it’s for YA. But I can’t write something like Twilight. Just can’t do it. My heart would never be in it. I love reading and writing realistic and literary fiction, and also serious science fiction and fantasy fiction (including some YA fantasy – I enjoyed reading Holly Black’s YA fantasy fiction, for example). So I sat down and tried to figure out how I could tell a serious story in the YA Fantasy genre. Finally, I had an idea to write a serious story about a fishing town devastated by an oil spill, told through the eyes of three teenagers who find an unconscious mermaid washed up on shore following the oil spill. That really worked for me. My heart is so into telling this story!

    Giving me extra incentive to write this novel is the news that keeps pouring in about the real-world oil spill. In my novel, I have the military keeping people away from the beach where the oil spill happened. Today, I saw this in the news: Fed claims you need a permit to dig in the sand. Eerie.


  6. This post is great because it applies to everyone and I love that. Those are values every character should have and steps every writer should take whether its paranormal, fantasy, or real fiction. Awesome! (love love love the Buffy reference too.)


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