The Trend Games

This weekend, like so many of you, I went to see The Hunger Games. (It’s good; go see it if you haven’t already!)

The hype around this movie has been insane. It’s everywhere. Like with Twilight, as big as the book was, a movie adaptation makes it even bigger. Teens who don’t usually read suddenly pick up the book in anticipation of the movie. Adults who don’t read YA want to see what all the fuss is about. These types of readers are rarely changed for life. They likely won’t pick up another YA until the next HUGE THING gets optioned for a movie.

For writers, something similar happens. There are YA writers who suddenly decide to write in the movie’s genre or Adult writers who give YA a go because YA breeds the biggest hits right now. The problem with this mentality is that the book world and the film world are two different things.

There’s an episode of Scrubs in which, on a slow day at the hospital, the gang sees an announcement on the news for a Sars-like epidemic. Suddenly, the hospital is flooded with hypochondriacs who think they have symptoms of the disease. This is what movie adaptations of popular books is like.

It’s no surprise that I love Harry Potter. I love it not only because the books are well-written and the story is timeless, but also because of what this series meant to literature. Yes, Young Adult existed – just barely – before Harry Potter was published in 1998, and (as I’ve pointed out before) there were certainly popular YA titles in the late ’90s and early ’00s. But it wasn’t until the overwhelming, Beatle-mania-level popularity of Harry Potter that YA became a legitimate force in literature, complete with its own section in the bookstore and bestseller list in the New York Times
Unfortunately, there is one thing I can’t quite forgive J.K. Rowling for, and that’s her creation of “the trend.” More than in adult fiction – and perhaps because teens themselves latch onto trends more than adults – the YA market is often built around one huge concept. Before Harry, YA was full of stories about teens finding their voices. Some novels took more chances than others, some were darker, some were genre fiction gems, but for the most part they were contemporary stories that came of age with the term Young Adult itself.

Harry showed the world that YA could go beneath the surface of what being a teen is like. Taking us to a land of magic and showing us the powers of family and friendship, YA was able to become a more nuanced genre. The formerly quiet Young Adult market needed a while to get a hold of what Harry did to it, and once it recovered the timing was right for Twilight to take over. In the book world, The Boy Who Lived was so five minutes ago by 2005. While the rest of the world enjoyed our wizards, we book dwellers found vampires. Not the vampires adults were used to. YA needed their turn with them, so enter Twilight. For better or worse, YA was all about cute dead boys and the girls who loved them. As followers of the publishing industry, you don’t need to be told what happened next: Paranormal Romance Overload.

After a few adaptations of the books that started our obsession with vamps, werewolves, and all those paranormal dreamboats, the book industry was once again ready to move on. So in the midst of the later Twilight books and the early Twilight movies, readers moved on to the next next big thing – The Hunger Games – and it’s been all dystopia all the time ever since.

Which brings me back to the The Hunger Games movie. Despite claims of following agents on Twitter and reading industry blogs, it seems every querying writer who writes in a trend consciously ignores our insider knowledge that the market is too saturated for them to join the club. The justification that I most often see in queries is “because of the success of the movies…” What trend-hoppers don’t realize is that the popularity of a movie does not effect their likelihood of getting – or not getting – published. That’s not to say movies don’t help immensely with sales of already-published books within the genre. They also can help start trends within the movie industry. But, we don’t work in the movie industry.
When a book like Harry, Twilight, or The Hunger Games becomes so big that it single-handedly creates a trend, the next logical step is for that book to become a movie. Writers should think of film adaptations as the equivalent of your parents joining Facebook. Millions of people were already enjoying it, but anything exclusive or cool about it is over the second it crosses over to a different audience. Books start trends; films end them.

Twilight wasn’t fantasy and The Hunger Games wasn’t paranormal romance. The Next Big Thing won’t be in the same genre as the current trend, so jump off the train, start something new, and be what’s next.

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.

Once More Upon A Time

You may have noticed that fairytales are hot right now (putting the “Hansel” in Hansel & Gretel, if you will). Hollywood, after dabbling in Wonderland and red riding hoods, is currently fighting over who will release versions of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty first, fall TV line-ups are including several magically realized dramas, and the buzz around Bologna was fairytale, fairytale, fairytale.

Personally, I am thrilled over this. I’ve always been a huge fan of fairytales, the more fractured the better. They are strange and fantastic and wonderful, and the real, folklore kind are dark. Why we ever decided children would love them is a strange, sadistic mystery.

But now they are back, and thank goodness for that. There is a downside though. Fairytales are now that dreaded word: trend. With trends comes lots and lots of competition, and if you haven’t noticed, it’s already pretty rough out there.

I would never, ever, ever recommend to any writer that they jump on a trend bandwagon. But, if you have a story that wasn’t right at a certain time, or one that you’ve been putting off writing for whatever reason, then now might be the time to put it back on your priority list.

With great competition comes great responsibility. How will you stand out in a sea of thousands? Well, the short answer is simply to have an amazing story. But like all good followers of the publishing industry, we know there is always more to it than just that. So before deciding to marry the prince, walk into the woods, or whisk your characters off to lands far, far away, consider the following.

Pick a fairytale you love and know well.
Like with any topic, if you write about something you are passionate about, you are more likely to get others passionate about it too. Choosing a favorite fairytale will have the same effect. Knowing a story inside and out means you are more likely to find whatever specific element is necessary to make it stand out.

For example, lots of little girls take away one of two things from Cinderella – feeling like an outcast who wants a different life or wishing for fancy gowns and becoming a princess. The average reader would take away those same things. The unaverage reader, the one who knows and loves Cinderella and continues to revisit it is able to find something deeper in the story that’s worth exploring. Maybe ol’ Cindy isn’t even the real star. Maybe the evil stepsisters are misunderstood. Maybe they need someone to tell their story and  the “average” reader just isn’t qualified.

Decide why that fairytale is still relevant today.
Fairytales originated in ancient folklore and were the science fiction and fantasy novels of their time. And like all good sci-fi and fantasy, they are rooted in either social commentary or cautionary tale. Fables are there to teach lessons and fairytales like Snow White and The Little Mermaid, when not in the hands of Disney, reveal the exploitation of women and the compromises they make (even if those morals weren’t even intended at the time).

Given the tragedies of the world lately, it wouldn’t be hard to reimagine natural disaster, war, oppression, and the stripping of civil liberties in a fantastic setting. Making these realities as fictional as possible not only softens the blow, but it also allows you the artistic freedom to make your own outcome. Will we have a happily ever after? Or will our rabbit hole be dug so deep that we never get out?

Choosing a fairytale because it was popular, or even choosing one because no one else has thought of it yet, can be dangerous if you’re querying during Trend Season. In terms of catching the industry’s attention, the “what” ends up becoming far less important than the “why.” Sure, agents and editors will want to see something other than Little Red Riding Hood because that’s already been done, but if your Red reveals something new and reveals it in an inventive way, then she will still have a place on the bookshelves.

Will your book be a fantasy or a contemporary one?
One of my favorite recent retellings is Malinda Lo’s Ash (yet to read Huntress, but can’t wait!). She twisted the Cinderella story and made her damsel, well… not a damsel at all. Her story wasn’t set in modern times and it still employed uses of magic, but she managed to make it her own.

Before writing your fairytale, decide what yours will be. Do you need it to be fantasy-based? Do you want to create your own, completely new fairy tale without “retelling” anything? Or do you want to take a classic story and set it in modern, realistic times? There is no right answer here; only the answer that will allow you to tell your story in the best possible way.

If you decide to go the contemporary route, consider the MacGuffin. That is, decide what the original characters wanted (love, acceptance, freedom, or something more tangible like, say, a poison apple). None of these things are pertinent to the plot, but they help drive the plot. Without these things, the characters would have no purpose. Rapunzel wanting to flee the tower is really no different than a disgruntled teenager wanting to graduate from high school. Or a woman in an abusive relationship wanting to run away.

Fairytales are fun and exciting, but boiled down, they are all just metaphors. And metaphors can translate to any genre and to any time period. They just need to be used in the right way. Trends can be overwhelming and scary, and you may feel like it’s hopeless to even try. There is always the right time for the right story, no matter how overloaded the market becomes. Just remember that getting someone to notice that “right story” gets a lot harder, so choose wisely, write well, and get ready to kiss lots and lots of frogs.

Bologna is the New Vampire!

Today officially ends the 2010 Bologna Children’s Book Fair and in case you have not been checking the #BBF10 page on Twitter as often as I have, here are two trends I’ve noticed that I think are worth discussing.
Trend, the 1st – Death to Vampire Romances!
Every year, agents, publishers, and writers try to come up with the new “it” trend that will finally put vampires back in their coffins (at least for a while). It’s true, vampires have been “so five minutes ago” for a couple years now, and yet the industry just can’t shake ’em. However, given the responses from Bologna this year, it looks as if publishers finally have had enough. Once the last Twilight movie is released, I think everyone will take a much-needed breather, and in the meantime, some of contenders as “New Reigning Supernatural Thingy” are werewolves, zombies. angels, clones, and mermaids.
Truthfully, I don’t think anything is ever going to be the “new vampire” because no matter what comes next, vampires will find their way back. They will always be sexy, mysterious, and the most human-like for writers to show ranges of emotion and acceptance into society (or a high school). But I agree that writers and publishers need to give it a rest. Just not eternally. 
Now, you all know I love me some science fiction and fantasy, but personally, I’d love to see more realistic young adult fiction make a comeback. This overwhelming amount of YA fantasy, as huge as it is, is a relatively new concept. YA as its own genre in general is pretty new, and I remember the few books that were available to me as a YA-er had a huge impact on my life. They were about teens like me going through everyday situations at home and at school just like me. The supernatural is fun and can draw heavy parallels to real life, but there’s something about reality that, in my humble opinion, just can’t be beat.
Trend , the 2nd – Middle Grade is the new YA
Something else I was very excited to see come out of Bologna was that a lot of publishers are looking for middle grade fiction. I don’t remember any book that called itself a middle grade when I was ten or twelve. Instead, I just went straight to the “Teen” or “Young Adult” section at my local Borders and called it a day. Looking back, some of those R.L. Stines could have been called MG, but that term just didn’t exist yet. Neither did the word “tween.”
Middle grade is not my favorite genre. Those tween, and slightly younger than tween, years are tricky and mysterious to me, so I tend to stay away. However, I am excited about this potential rise in MG because I think it is a very important genre. There are about 8 bazillion children’s books to choose from and about the same amount of YA. Tween years don’t get as much love, and with nothing to read that speaks to you, what do you read? (The answer: video games.)
Another reason I think MG is so important is that, even more than the YA crowd, the target audience for MG are of more impressionable ages. Young enough to still believe everything the adults tell them, but old enough to think that being around said adults is, like, the least cool thing in the world. Simultaneously independent and dependent, they are pre-pubescent children without the luxury of being young enough to act like a child. 
At twelve, I was an angsty little thing, wearing all black and pretending to be depressed. By fourteen, I was pretty much cured of this. Is it a coincidence that I was cured the very year I was old enough to read books written for me again? Think about it…
The point is, books matter. With each year of teenhood being different from the last, there need to be books written for all possible age groups. Otherwise the terrorists win.

Post-wrap up question: What trend, supernatural or otherwise, would you like to see take over MG & YA lit this year? 

By the way, Hemingway Heroine has a really great Bologna round-up that’s worth checking out too!

The Secret Lives of Titles

Remember when it seemed every single title (fiction and nonfiction) in the bookstore claimed to be “The Secret Life of” something? Or when we were forced to hear about daughters of Gravediggers and Memory Keepers and Heretics and Calligraphers and so on and so on?

Working in publishing, I see a lot of similarities among titles just here at the office. Preparing our rights guides for the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, I noticed the children’s and YA titles usually told some kind of story involving The [noun or verb] Of The [noun]. Who decides on these trends anyway? What makes one type of title catch on over another?

In late summer/early fall of this year, it seemed magicians were staking their claim as the next cool title accessory with the release of The Magicians by Lev Grossman and The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo. I admit that the word “magician” does make a book sound more appealing, but I’m still hoping this trend doesn’t catch on. Trends in general put me off because I am the type of person who will say something like, “If I see one more novel claiming to The [scandalous career or quirky subject matter] Diaries, I’ll scream!” Hence, I will not buy the book based on something resembling a principle.

What would you like to see become a trend? Or, what title do you think will start a trend, whether we like it or not? For 2010, I’m making the prediction that Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue will begin a Going [blank] craze for a while. It’s already spawned the parody, Going Rouge, and if 2008-2009 has taught us anything, it’s these two things: 1) Publishing houses will cling to anything in order to survive, and 2) Sarah Palin cannot be stopped.