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.

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.