The Realities of Getting Real

Fair readers, sometimes I love things that are not good for me. We’ve all been guilty of this, I know, but it’s something I needed to say. You see, I’m not just talking about my obsession with The Vampire Diaries or my desire to wrap all foods in bacon. No, I’m talking about something far more detrimental: Contemporary Fiction.

(I’ll wait for your gasps to die down and the thunder and lightning to stop.)

I know what you’re thinking, “You seem so intelligent, Sarah! Why would you devote yourself to something that will never bring you happiness or wealth?”

It’s true. I’ve often wondered this about myself too, but friends… I just can’t stop. I love contemporary fiction and I need to continue my quest of saving it from the vampires, demons, and shapeshifters, even if it means starving to death or wearing clothes from last season.

Contemporary fiction (also known as realistic fiction) is a tough sell, made tougher by a surge of paranormal hits and a lousy economy. (Yes, the economy, and publishing, have both recovered significantly since 2008, but, well… you know publishing. Slow, slow, slow.) Publishers just aren’t taking as many chances with real life anymore. I’m specifically talking about contemporary YA here, but it’s true on the adult side as well. Real life just isn’t exciting enough… or something. Well wait – we all know that isn’t true. So what is it about contemporary life that makes publishers back away?

Well, for starters, there’s usually very little “wow” factor in real life, and when money is tight (as it’s been in publishing, particularly in the last three years), you don’t waste your time and funds on something that won’t draw a massive crowd. Remember that authors need to earn back their advances before anyone sees any real profit, so choosing who to give those advances to is a much more difficult decision than it used to be.

Does this mean you should make your main character have super powers instead of athletic ability? Or make the love interest a demon hunter from another dimension? No! Absolutely not.

Contemporary fiction, even in YA, is on its way back to the mainstream. Debut authors like Steph Bowe (Girl Saves Boy), Kody Keplinger (The Duff and the upcoming Shut Out), and Kirsten Hubbard (Like Mandarin) are all examples of really great realistic fiction for teens. And yes, I said debut! And yes they received real advances for their first novels! There are others like them too. This gives me hope for the genre, but these novels are not yet the standard. Rather than taking their place beside the wide selection of similar titles on bookshelves, these books still fall under the category of “defying the odds.”

So how can you defy the odds? I’ve written before about how to reap all the benefits of a paranormal bestseller without actually writing one. But there are other ways to make your realistic novel stand out just by focusing on the way you write it.

1. Boil your plot down to one sentence. Maybe two.
Plot answers the question “What is your book about? Be able to answer this question in one sentence. Ideas, themes, character development, and even narrative are not plot. Plot is just what happens. Keeping your one-sentence plot in mind, build a story around it. This is where you can be as commercial or as literary as you like. Want to throw around $100 words and write lavish nature scenes in which the rain is a mirror for the main character’s soul? Do it! It will probably be beautiful. Just remember to stay on point and not stray too far from that one magic sentence – your plot. (The magic part of the sentence is also called your “hook,” a word I hate, but one that is very necessary in regards to how your novel is perceived.)

Note: Ideas, themes, and character development might not be considered part of the plot, but they can be used in your 1-3 sentence pitch to give it a little pizazz 🙂

2. Have an original concept.
This sounds like the type of advice that should go without saying, but “coming-of-age” stories (for example) tend to center around very similar topics: loss of a parent, going on a “life-changing” trip, losing one’s virginity, growing out of your former BFF and meeting a new BFF… these have all been done and done and done. This doesn’t mean they can’t still be done. But it does mean you’re going to have to find a really fresh angle from which to tell this story. Sometimes this means an inventive writing style or unique settling. Most other times it means having a truly memorable character that literature cannot live without, no matter how “common” his or her story is.

Remember when I told you it’s OK to not be so original? Think of the above-mentioned plot scenarios as outlines. Your main character attempts self-discovery by going against a shy, quiet nature and heads to the Australian outback for spring break. He or she meets someone amazing [friend or love interest]. What else happens? Give your character an amazing adventure/purpose that highlights what this experience means.

3. Kill your darlings.
You wrote amazingly realistic scenes involving your main character and people who are less important to the plot. Your dialogue between characters is funny, moving, and real in a way that makes Aaron Sorkin himself weep with jealousy. Your settings are eloquently presented, your subplot can stand on its own, and your seemingly tangential character quirks rival the likes of David Foster Wallace and his footnotes.

But does any of that gorgeous writing slow down the pace? Make character development get lost in a sea of words? Create a subplot that never connects to the main plot?

Tightening up your narrative is the best way to make your story come through, but tightening language in this particular way can be hard, especially when you know you wrote something that’s really, really good. (I hate when I have to do this to my clients!) Making your manuscript stand out in a largely ignored genre means making sacrifices.

I’ve met several editors who share my love of the contemporary, but even still, it’s not always up to just them. Your manuscript goes through a lot of hoops, and many of those upper-tier rings still have “high concept!” “paranormal!” “dystopian!” on their brains. I fight on the side of realistic fiction, and it makes me, and other lovers of the contemporary, underdogs. I love my paranormal still too, don’t get me wrong. But there’s just something about real life that never stops being compelling, even when it seems mundane. So, no, this quest will never make me rich. And, yes, I’m setting myself up for lots of disappointment down the road. Like I said, sometimes I love things that are not good for me. But whatever, bacon is delicious.

12 thoughts on “The Realities of Getting Real

  1. As an author of a Contemporary Fiction set mainly in China and partly in the US, I hope that Book Publishers will realize that Contemporary Fiction can put a lot of money in their pockets if they will market it well.


  2. I love contemporary. I think what makes or breaks it for me is the characters and the voice of the writer. I love Lauren Barnholdt's voice, she makes me laugh out loud and Sarah Ockler uses such beautiful language that I actually SLOW down when I read her. I'm so sick of standing in the YA section of Barnes and Noble to see more than half of the books paranormal. I'm just waiting for the pendulum to shift the other way…


  3. Yeah, I'm an old dude. I'm not sure they had YA when I was a teen. Actually, I'm as old as S.E. Hinton so I guess it was just starting to happen and I've never been on a cusp. Anyway, I discovered YA later while hanging out in the library waiting on my kids to come up with a book.

    I remember finding these two. They were both about homeless kids, one a group of kids in the city, one a young girl with her mom. They were short and had this terrific fresh voice, and those were the ones that really got me into the genre. They were about the issues of uncertainty and who your friends are and stuff. All very cool and real.

    So, fight the good fight. It's worth it.


  4. I love this! I'm watching Friday Night Lights as I post this comment, and I keep thinking, I'd much rather read or write a Friday Night Lights story over the big concept stories. I live in a “Friday Night Lights” kind of town, and a lot of the kids wonder where are their stories and the kids “like them.”


  5. Love this, love this, love this! This is why John Green and Courtney Summers are two of my fave authors–they deal with real issues, and they make me care about their characters. I long for the days where something as simple but beautiful as Catcher in the Rye can get the same attention as dystopian novels. Of course, I'm a complete fangirl of Cassandra Clare–and I can't put down Divergent–but realistic fiction will always be my first love.


  6. I'm excited about this shift ever since I read John Green's Paper Towns earlier this year (and I just finished An Abundance of Katherines). I ADORE these books. They're about real people figuring out life, with some quirks and great sidekicks. I've read a few dystopian YA books, and some were great, others OK. I'm not psyched to go out and read all of them. There's something refreshing about a story with no otherwordly monsters that cause EPIC DRAMA.

    I'm reading a Sarah Dessen novel now. I'm enjoying the simplicity, even though I know what's really going on is probably not simple at all.


  7. Wonderful blog post! Thank you so much for sharing it. I'm one of those girls who's heart will always be contemporary. I love real world. Every book that has truly affected me on a deep, emotional level is a contemp. Yes, I read and love paranormal, but my first love of reading and writing will always be contemporary.


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