When a Trend Finds You

There’s something sort of comforting about writing weird books in an obscure genre.

Of course, I didn’t realize this back when I actually was.

It took me a long time to even figure out what genre I was working in. (I even queried one book as literary fiction for a while based on some horrible advice, found not just once but in several places, that said that all character-driven stories are literary fiction.) For a long time I assumed I would find my home in urban fantasy – after all, it was what I loved to read when I was growing up – until I looked around and realized that not only did I have a decidedly lukewarm reaction to most current urban fantasy, I had never really written one. No, that post-apocalyptic story was never going to be an urban fantasy, no matter how many angels were in it.

Finally I looked at that book I had been querying (which was not The Torturer’s Daughter, by the way; this was a different book), the one that was no more literary fiction than that post-apocalyptic book was urban fantasy, and thought, You know, I might have better luck selling this as science fiction. But it wasn’t science fiction either, not exactly. It was set in a skewed bleak dystopian version of our world, and that sort of thing did technically fall under the umbrella of science fiction, but the plot didn’t rely on any science-fictional elements. Aside from an injectable tracking device, it didn’t even involve any advanced technology. Eventually I threw up my hands and just started calling it a “dystopian novel” in my queries. I looked at my past experiments and future ideas, realized a lot of them fell under the “dystopian” heading, and groaned a little. I was going to have to do this genre dance all over again. Besides, you weren’t supposed to write multiple dystopias. You were supposed to just write one, and it was supposed to be a thinly-veiled political rant about the problems you saw in the real world. I wasn’t doing that. I was just writing stories set in the overtly nightmarish or subtly oppressive worlds that fascinated me.

At some point I realized something that was likely to make the genre dance a lot easier, though. Despite vaguely thinking I should be reading more adult novels, I still loved YA best, and that was where my true fictional home was. It fit not only my story concepts – even the ones with adult main characters worked a lot better when I imagined changing the main characters to teenagers – but my writing style as well. I’m not sure how to quantify it, since there’s such a variety of YA novels, but in some ways the genre has a distinct style, and it’s the style I automatically find myself falling into. This was a reassuring realization to me; there’s a lot more flexibility when it comes to genre if you’re writing under the wider umbrella of YA, so maybe I would have a better chance of selling some of my… strange… hey, why are there so many YA dystopias being published all of a sudden?…

Suddenly my books had gone from weird and uncategorizable to being smack in the middle of the latest trend. I was thrilled – not only did I have tons of new books to read now, it was going to be a lot easier to sell my own. But it also created time pressure. I had to hurry and get out there before YA dystopias stopped being popular – publishing trends only last so long. And now I was going to look to publishers like I was writing to the trend, and authors who write to trends tend to have short careers. A pattern was also emerging in the dystopias being published, and my ideas were squarely on the periphery. What if, having so many to choose from, publishers rejected my books because the settings weren’t strange and exotic enough, or because my characters didn’t solve all the world’s problems, or because I didn’t include a love triangle?

And did I mention the time pressure?

I read something the other day predicting that the dystopian/post-apocalyptic trend will be over by 2014, and I admit, it made me freak out a bit. Two years? How am I supposed to write all the stories in my head in just two years? And post-apocalyptic too? It will take months just to rework the post-apocalyptic series into something that can be written, never mind actually writing the thing. And then what? I’m not going to get any less fascinated with dystopian worlds just because a certain time limit has been reached.

But I can remember other publishing trends. Look at chick lit, for instance. The chick lit explosion is over, and publishers and literary agents will tell you that chick lit is dead. But there are still plenty of chick lit books out there, and plenty of readers devouring them. That doesn’t look like a dead genre to me. Trends become niches. To use a broader example, there was a long period of time when it was nearly impossible to sell a horror novel. (I’m not sure if this is still the case, since I don’t really keep up with the horror genre; horror is one of the few genres I just won’t read.) This didn’t just affect horror writers; it left a lot of readers stranded too, readers who had to hunt through used bookstores to find the kind of books they wanted to read.

And although I always stayed well clear of the horror section, I was combing the shelves for YA novels set in dark worlds long before they were so easy to find. I’m sure I’ll be looking for them long after. I can’t be the only one.

Have you ever watched a publishing trend spring up that was exactly what you like to read or write? Ever had one die before you were done with it? What formerly-popular genres do you wish you could find more of? And what are your thoughts on the future of YA dystopia?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *